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John Handy Talks With Night Lights: Part 3

Handy talks about his troubled relationship with his first record label, his move back to California in the early 1960s, and the formation of his quintet.

In Part 3 of our interview with saxophonist John Handy, he discusses his troubled relationship with his first record label, his recording of “Alice in Wonderland” with Charles Mingus, why trumpeter Richard Williams didn’t appear on his second album, his move back to California in the early 1960s, his Freedom Band civil-rights project, and the formation of his quintet that would appear at Monterey in 1965:

DBJ: You had some really good players on those Roulette records—trumpeter Richard Williams, who’d also played with Mingus and Gigi Gryce…Don Friedman on piano, Lex Humphries on drums… were you happier with how the second Roulette album (No Coast) turned out?

JH: The only reason I didn’t use Richard on that second record was that he’d done something that really p***ed me off. On our gig at Birdland, my first major gig as a leader—which is a big deal, you know—on his birthday night—he and Don Friedman, the pianist, had the same birthday—well, Richard couldn’t make the gig the next night. You know, this was my first time there, and luckily a trumpet player from here, Mike Downs, who recorded with Philly Joe Jones, was able to make the gig for one night. And I loved Richard, Richard was such a genius of a player, he could do anything…but it put me in such a bad mood, because I depended on him so much—you know, the second horn, and I’d played with him out here (California)—and that’s why I never used another horn player. Because Richard couldn’t—I’ll put it this way, he wasn’t able to make the gig that night and almost didn’t make the rest of the gigs, so…counter to what (critic) John S. Wilson said in New York that I was so overshadowed by him on the first album that I made sure I didn’t use him the second time, it’s not true. I didn’t use him because he was not reliable. And I didn’t use anybody else until I used a violin player.

DBJ: I read that review, and I wondered if that was really the story (behind Williams’ absence from No Coast).

JH: I never even saw that little b*****d, and I really resent people saying things like that that put you in a bad light. They don’t know you, they don’t know what your reasons for—you know, I would never try to—even if Richard had played 10 times much as I, if I used him once I’d certainly—I’d played with him in many places. That was not the only thing we’d ever done before. And we played a number of things with Charles Mingus, but I just wouldn’t hire him again, because, unfortunately…we all knew that Richard was great on the first set! (Laughs) And after that he went downhill. He drank. And he was a wonderful, beautiful person, but he couldn’t control his alcohol.

DBJ: Oh man, that’s really sad.

JH: It hurt, because he finished college when he was 20 years old… I mean, he could read flyspecks, and he understood music, he was very bright, and likeable…oh, something else I meant to tell you about that first recording with Charles that we were talking about earlier. Horace Parlan, who was actually the pianist in the band when we did “Alice in Wonderland” at the Nonagon Art Gallery…he had gotten angry with Charles, and he decided not to show up for the gig. And Richard Wyands, who was from out here, sat in and played that difficult—especially that “Alice in Wonderland,” he sight-read that. He never played with (Mingus) again as far as I know…I believe I recommended him because I knew he was there.

DBJ: “Alice in Wonderland” did sound like it must have been a pretty difficult piece to learn. How many times had you had a chance to practice that before you guys actually recorded it?

JH: That’s the only piece that I ever had conflicts with Charles. I was new in the band, and instead of giving us music he’d hum the damn tunes, or play it on the piano. And you know, I was right out of college, I was used to reading, playing in tune…as a matter of fact, many times they wouldn’t tune to the piano, they’d tune to me. Because our school out here, our bandleader-saxophone-clarinet teacher Ed Kruth was very strong on playing in tune. Anyhow—the piece seemed—I said, “Why don’t you give me the music? I can learn this, I can read it…” Well, he got angry, that was our first and only argument pretty much about music, per se. He finally brought it to me, and it was so difficult to…(laughs) he made every effort to write it in a way that…it was difficult to read, but it wasn’t impossible. I thought it was crazy, making all those crazy (imitates mournful-bray passage) crazy sounds in there; I didn’t really go there to do that. (Laughs)

DBJ: I just wanted to ask you one more question about Roulette. You had a contract to do 10 records for Roulette, and you ended up doing three. What happened to make you leave Roulette?

JH: Well, I noticed a lot of the same things happening to other musicians. They were very sloppy in the production, they didn’t give you very much—the money was embarrassing, that they give you…It was more than the musicians’ scale if you were the leader, but side people only made the scale; and they never gave you any accounting of how much was sold, and they did this through the years, and I just couldn’t—I couldn’t…music, no matter how easy it might come or how much work you put into it…you know, I was very diligent about the music, especially those things with them (Roulette). I wrote all of that stuff, I had my own charts done when I was still a student, I worked hard, had good people, we practiced…and you know, for someone to put out a few thousand dollars to not ever—oh yeah, then they wanted to take your music, put it in their publishing companies. And to me it was like, when I got to know what sharecropping was like! That’s what it’s like—you’re always in debt to the boss, or the owner. And that was b.s., it was insulting, demeaning, and I just couldn’t do it. I mean, if I’d been beaten up—and I would’ve fought back to the last breath (laughs)—for people like that, I didn’t respect them, because this was wrong, and it wasn’t just Roulette. It happened at the other companies too. I just simply wouldn’t—they wouldn’t do right, they were cheating, they weren’t coming up with their part of the contract. And I put the music down, the labor, the time, all those years I could not record for them, and I still can’t record for them.

DBJ: Well, I know Roulette in particular was reputed to be a rather shady label. What was going on in the early 1960s that prompted you to leave New York and go back to San Francisco?

JH: Basically to finish school, to get my degree at San Francisco State. I had—another thing went on there, that was just… appalling. Well, I was not a great student in college. By the time I got in college, I wasn’t doing great, but I did more than passing, and I always did something—when I had assignments, especially when it came to the creative part, I got encouragement, because I always did something original, and obviously, it was good. Because of my experience and my knowledge of harmony and theory, I never had to take the preparatory courses; I took an exam for those. I thought I had graduated when I went to New York, and they never sent me my degree, and I kept getting—I even came back, went to summer school, and they still lied to me. They just out-and-out lied to me. So that’s why I came back… That, and the recording situation, I just decided I’d go back to school and they’d have to give me a degree of some kind. So I came back, and I got married a second time, and bought a house. I had this big house, and that just kind of kept me here, and I was doing some wonderful things with musicians and bands of my own out here. I just hung tight until the thing happened with playing at Monterey in ’65. So I got a new contract… and I ran out of the contract with those guys. They could’ve gotten 10 albums from me; if they’d treated me right, I might’ve given them more. And the same thing with Columbia—I didn’t give them but four. They were a lot better, but just by a matter of a few degrees

DBJ: Is that how—you know, one of the articles I read from the mid-1960s alluded to rumors that the mob had been after you in New York, and that that’s why you left. In the article, you totally discounted that; you said “No, I just went back to go to school.” But did those rumors start in part because—Roulette was said to have some gangster affiliations, wasn’t it?

JH: Well, yes, that’s what I was told. Charles even told me that, and it became almost apparent…when I was with him, after we’d played the Nonagon Art Gallery, a week or so after, I was very surprised and flattered that he asked me to go with him to edit that album (Jazz Portraits). And he didn’t have to, I was just another sideman. He took me with him over to New Jersey; I guess that was Rudy van Gelder. By going to that and watching Mingus and him work together, how they edited, how they spliced a lot of things together or took some things out… I was amazed how that could be done, and it seemed fairly simple. That helped me to edit my own album. But as to having been run out of New York, I don’t know anything about that. (Laughs) Nobody told—nobody threatened me, ever. I went in a number of times to see Morris Levy, the owner of Roulette, the president, and he was always a very nice guy; he was never rude. He never said anything threatening to me; he simply didn’t pay me! (Laughs) The rumor, I have no idea where it came from, and I’m not easily terrified. You know, I fight back, I don’t care who it is–

DBJ: You were in a band with Charles Mingus! (Laughs)

JH: Well, it didn’t matter with him, because Charles wouldn’t—we never had any fights, and that’s why, you know–it’s an attitude. Like, everybody can be hurt, I don’t care who they are. (Laughs)

DBJ: I’m just saying you’re obviously pretty fearless if you were in a band with Charles Mingus.

JH: Well, actually—fear makes me angry. If I’m frightened, I do get angry, because I don’t want to be in that, and the only way to get out of it most of the time is to let people know that there’s a price to pay if they become violent. I’ve never had any trouble; I’ve been able to walk away from everything. I’ve never looked for anything, but I feel that they don’t want to either. (Laughs)

DBJ: I wanted to ask you, John, about something you did out in California in the early 1960s, called the Freedom Band. It was a nine-piece band, I guess that you had, and I think the tune on New View called “Tears of Ole Miss” kind of grew out of it. Can you tell me a little bit about that band?

JH: Yeah, as a matter of fact that was a band I organized to raise funds for the civil-rights movement in the years ’64, ’65, right in there… it was about a nine or ten-piece group, usually three saxophones, a couple of trumpets, and trombone and piano and rhythm section. Eddie Henderson (trumpeter) was in that band at one point! Eddie told me that it was his first gig. And he wasn’t a kid; he was young, 23 or so, but he was married and had a couple of kids. The Freedom Band, there were times, depending on the personnel, when it was a very good band. But you know, we lived in California, and especially then there was no coverage… we did have a couple of guys who came out and listened, but there was never any writeup. It would’ve been fine, had it happened, but we did what we did. We raised money, and then we started to be hired for the fact that the band was very good. That was my first time writing, in a jazz setting, for more than five pieces, so that helped my writing. We also had a vocalist, Heather Evans…it was a very good band. I still have that book, and I’m thinking about doing some gigs with it. Maybe recording it some day, you know.

DBJ: That’d be cool. I’m going to jump ahead a bit and ask about Monterey. I know you’d known violinist Michael White since high school, but how did he end up joining your group around 1964?

JH: Yeah, in high school days we were sitting next to each other in the boys’ choir. When I moved here, I came right in the midst of the semester, and Michael was a tenor and I was a baritone singer. I didn’t see him again till I was out of the Army, 23 or so. I came over to San Francisco from Oakland for a jam session, and there he was, playing violin. I ran into him again a few years later—I can’t even recall how we ended up meeting again—but immediately I got him to join my group. And we were doing “The Spanish Lady.” I had played it the first time, written it in Canada, and we were playing it, and at that time Charlie Haden was here, Charlie was in the band, and we had a guitar player, and a year later we did the Monterey thing. Freddie Redd, the pianist from New York; he was out here, and I had a gig in Vancouver and took those guys, Freddie and Michael, and we went up there and ended up with the bassist and drummer, Terry Clarke and Don Thompson. They couldn’t believe how those guys could play and how the band sounded. So that’s how I started that band.

DBJ: The instrumentation of that group was so unusual—you eventually replaced Freddie Redd with a guitarist, Jerry Hahn. How did that sound come about? Was that kind of something that you’d heard in your head, or was it partly just circumstances, or–

JH: It was kind of happenstance, because—I keep forgetting this, but there was a guy in my band who was from Canada who played guitar…he actually was in the band playing guitar before Freddie Redd, before Jerry Hahn. And we didn’t record, but we started playing that piece with him in it. And then Freddie Redd played piano, and that gave it a different texture. And I liked the way Freddie sounded. But Freddie kept doing some stupid stuff. After I brought the bassist and drummer, Terry Clarke and Don Thompson, down from Vancouver, he (Redd) was the first person in my band to ever get fired. He started playing solos right on top of any of us—if we played on the head, he was okay, but when I played he would play solos on it, Michael White… so I had to fire his a**. And that’s how Jerry Hahn was here. And Jerry had been in the Freedom Band, and I knew how he played, but I didn’t know he could play the Spanish thing. I knew he could play the blues, and we got together, I showed him what I wanted, and he sounded better than anybody else who’d played on it.

(To be continued.)

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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