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John Handy Talks With Night Lights: Part 4

Handy discusses why his quintet broke up, his experiences as a jazz educator, and his memories of Monterey and the mid-1960s rock scene.

In the conclusion of our four-part interview with saxophonist John Handy, he discusses why his quintet broke up, playing Bartok with classical pianist Leonid Hambro, a forthcoming Mosaic Records collection of previously-unreleased 1960s recordings, his experiences as a jazz educator, and his memories of Monterey and the mid-1960s rock scene. To hear some of Handy’s music from the 1960s, check out Handy On the Horn in the Night Lights archives.

DBJ: Yeah, well that band has an incredible sound. Ralph Gleason, I know, had heard you at the Both/And in San Francisco and started writing about you, and then you were this big hit at Monterey in ’65. What do you think were the factors that made that appearance such a success for you?

JH: Well, the music was so powerful. That piece in particular (“The Spanish Lady”) but we also did another piece, “If Only We Knew,” another modal-type thing that I’d actually written back in 1956, when I was a student. I wrote it originally for piano and viola. I incorporated it and the band changed the arrangement and gave it more of a rhythmic motif that was not originally—it was more classical when I first wrote it.

DBJ: That Monterey group almost seems to anticipate fusion in some ways—and I’m guessing that Miles Davis must have heard you, either live or on record. Did you ever hear what he thought of that band?

JH: Miles Davis—when we played a number of concerts…this was when he had Wayne and Herbie and those guys, and Trane had Elvin… we didn’t play opposite Trane, we played opposite Miles several times. And I remember when we played across the street from each other, Miles would always be in there, listening to us. He did like the band. He liked the band I had at Birdland, with Richard Williams. He loved Richard Williams! But yes, Miles… I’ll put it this way, someone—we dated the same person, several of the same people, and you know, they’d fish around to ask questions like this, and I was told this by more than one person, that Miles, when he was asked “What do you think about John Handy?” would say (imitates Miles’ hoarse whisper) “He knows what he’s doing…he knows what he’s doing.” (Laughs)

DBJ: (Laughs) That’s a great story. Did the quintet ever play live much outside of the West Coast? Did you ever take that band around the country much?

JH: No. It’s amazing, we played almost all West Coast—California, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland…we only played about four western states, and in 1966 we came within two points of tying the most popular jazz band in the country, Miles (in a Downbeat poll) and we’d never even gone to New York, or Chicago, or any place out of here.

DBJ: Why did you never go to New York or Chicago?

JH: Actually, it was bookings, to an extent. You know, we were working all the time, and I thought about it, but we were so busy working here…and I didn’t really have the management… There were people interested, but there were also—I’m just kind of a strange and different guy, I guess. There were people who wanted to manage us, including the late Monte Kay, who had the Modern Jazz Quartet from its inception…they wanted to do certain things, and you know, I wasn’t going to give 35 to 50 percent of my earnings to anybody. And so, he got us some very interesting gigs out here; we were making a living out here. And I’d lived in New York, I’d played in New York as a headliner, I’d done just about everything that everybody else had done there. A month at the Five Spot, I’d had gigs like that, a month at the Village Gate… you know, that’s about as good as you’re gonna get during those times, right? We were doing festivals, we did Monterey twice, we did, up and down the coast, new festivals… University of California, we played at Stanford. Life was pretty good when you consider we weren’t traveling that much.

DBJ: Why did the Monterey quintet eventually break up?

JH: Mainly—there were some things that went badly in there, where I had some problems with the drummer…he was going through some social things, growing up in another culture and not quite knowing who you are and what you are…but I think it really started with Michael (White) and Jerry Hahn. The real truth is like a lot of groups—jealousy. Jealousy. Jerry Hahn was the first one to leave. Jerry just went berserk one day when we were getting out of our van in Denver, our first time there…He fired himself, I’ll put it that way. And then so did Michael, about a month later… I had to fire each of them on the spot. And Mike lived only a block away from me, and a couple of years later we talked it out and we started again in another band, where I had Mike Nock on the piano playing with us… (laughs) and they stole the band while I was in the hospital, and it became the Fourth Way!

DBJ: When I first called you you mentioned some sort of forthcoming Mosaic issue with Michael White…

JH: Yeah, there are some of the recordings that we did with Columbia…we did some studio pieces that were not released. And so they’re going to release them, along with some takes on pieces that we’d already recorded before, with different solos and that kind of thing. So they’re doing this after– (laughs) how many years is that, 40?

DBJ: Is it going to be a single CD, or a three-CD set, or–

JH: No, I don’t think there’s enough for more than one, or two, maybe. For instance, we’re doing, not only with Michael White, but I did a Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert with John Hammond in 1967…they’re putting the whole performance together. John Hammond would splice my tapes and never say a thing about it, you know, and I just rode with it. But on the other hand it’s probably good that he didn’t release some of it! (Laughs)

DBJ: You know, all of your Columbia records—The Second John Handy Album, New View, Projections—they reflect a pretty wide musical spectrum. When you look at the arc of your whole career, you’ve gone down a number of different musical paths. What do you think created this open-minded interest that’s led you to compose musical pieces for orchestra, and you’ve played Bartok’s Night Music with classical pianist Leonid Hambro, and you’ve played with people like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan–

JH: Where’d you get all this information? Man, nobody knows all this stuff. That’s amazing! (Laughs) Wow, that’s great. I was very proud of that concert (with Hambro). I have to tell you something—I don’t like to put anybody down, but when people put you down for the wrong reasons, or even the right reasons…John S. Wilson came to the concert that I did with Leonid Hambro. I was in a jazz organization and we sponsored that concert at Huntington College, with Cannonball’s quintet, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and my band. And Don Friedman was there—I think Addison Farmer was the bassist. Anyhow, a member of my band said, “Man, you played better than I ever heard you play!” You know what John S. Wilson said? My playing was “bland.” And you know, I really trust the musicians, and I trust myself…I did play well. “Bland,” I don’t think I’m quite bland in anything….even if I’m not good, I’m not bland. (Laughs)

Anyway, God, I forgot that—Night Music! What happened with that—I’ve forgotten how Leonid and I got together, but I remember him coming to my house and playing this music for me, and he broke—(laughs)—he played so strongly that he broke the pedals on the piano! (Laughs) And he never paid for it! (Laughs) Anyhow, I took a theme, a motif from Bartok’s Night Music, and I wrote it out for the band to play with Leonid Hambro, where we improvised on it…and you know, it wasn’t the world’s most, or greatest discovery of music, but it was viable, it was interesting, it was a collaboration, and we had fun doing it, and the audience enjoyed it too. The musicians did… we were pleased with it, we weren’t embarrassed, as this little b*****d said, who said we were “bland.” (Laughs)

DBJ: It (that concert) seems like part of this whole overall pattern with you, where you really have been pretty open-minded and pretty courageous about exploring a lot of different kinds of music in your career.

JH: You just do it, I guess, because—we moved a lot when I was a kid (laughs) so my exposure to cultures and different people—and I have a curious mind. You know, on The Second John Handy Album, I don’t know if you read this but the piece called “Scheme #1”…well, Joe Webber, a bandmate of mine at San Francisco State—at 21 he was writing symphonies (laughs) and I mean they were great for a young guy…well, Joe called me one morning, at like 7 in the morning, and he said, “John! This is Joe Webber! Did you know that Stravinsky used your piece in a lecture? He thought it was some of the best fixed and improvised music that he’d ever heard!” And you know, of course I was flattered…(laughs) first of all I was a little miffed that I’d gotten a call that early from Joe, who’d called me maybe a couple of times before, but always at the right time of day. But he was excited and of course it excited me, because he’s the kind of guy who would know Stravinsky, and maybe call him at 2 or 4 or 7 in the morning. (Laughs) He was one of a kind, very talented, but I’ve never heard from him since then. By the way, I wrote that piece for a recital that I organized and presented at Carnegie, I think in ’62, and our pianist was Bill Evans. In ’66 we were playing that piece and he was playing opposite us at the Both/And in San Francisco… or maybe it was at the Vanguard, I’m not sure… Anyway, the reaction (to the piece) was not crazy, people weren’t totally enthusiastic, but Bill told me, he said, “Man, I think you guys play the most sensible and musical avant-garde of that style of anybody that I’ve heard.” And I didn’t think about it at the time, but he played the original piece, and maybe he remembered it and I didn’t remember that he was on it. We did it with a quartet with Charlie Persip playing the drums, who just totally tried to ruin the concert, and a friend of mine, a bass player, Julian Yule, who doesn’t live in New York anymore.

DBJ: I wanted to ask you about another kind of music, rock ‘n roll, which was provoking a lot of reaction in the 1960s jazz world. Some musicians were really, you know, kind of angry about it and railing against it, and others were trying to incorporate it into their sound. What was your take on it?

JH: We were in the heart of it, right here (in San Francisco). Our band, that same band with Michael White and all, we were the first headliners at Fillmore West, the Bill Graham rock ‘n roll headquarters. But we didn’t play…Bill Graham and I got in an argument and we didn’t play that night. But the poster still exists, with the John Handy Quintet as the headliner, and it’s for sale. We had done three benefits for him—he was helping, it was a fundraiser for a mime troop here. Well, we played opposite almost all of those guys…as a matter of fact, many times they played second to us. You know, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Janis Joplin lived about half a block from me. People like that, Jefferson Airplane…these guys came up, Santana, listening to us, the ones who ventured out to hear jazz. We played opposite them, and to be honest, we always took the crowd, because even young people who were there to listen to rock ‘n roll, when we played “The Spanish Lady”… in Orange County we played with the Lovin’ Spoonful, who had a hit record out, and they came in so cocky one night… we (the Handy group) had been on this gig for five weeks, and they didn’t even say hello. I’ve never seen such amateurs, such bigshots, and they weren’t…They came in with a whole entourage, and the bass player had played there before with someone else, and he was OK…Jim somebody…but the rest of them were just, you know, basically damn near amateurs, and didn’t even say hello or acknowledge us. So we went on first, they were the stars, and we played for all these blond, suntanned kids…we were right on the beach, the ocean, the Golden Bear at Huntington Beach…we brought the first black kids from Watts out there, not long after the (1965) riots. As a matter of fact they wanted us to play a command performance in Watts, and I said, “Man, we can’t go to Watts…our band is three-fifths white!” He (the promoter) said, “Man, you guys don’t have to worry about that…the guys who are raising all the hell are policing the place.” So we went, and it was wonderful.

But anyway, the Lovin’ Spoonful, those young people who were there, when we played we looked around and the crowd was like, “What?” And when we finished they were standing on the tables, they went crazy. And Lovin’ Spoonful went on—you know, they weren’t experienced, and they hadn’t played many gigs, obviously. And they couldn’t get their music together, and they almost got booed. Anyway, we played opposite a lot of those (rock ‘n roll) groups, and most of those guys were very nice, we liked them, and that rock ‘n roll crowd—this is what John Hammond realized, why Bill Graham wanted to put us in the Fillmore, that we had the crowd before they did. We were the musicians. And we could play something like “The Spanish Lady,” and they’d stop dancing and sit down and meditate on the floor. I’m telling you, man, it was phenomenal. Given the chance to be exposed, the rock ‘n rollers were… I got to know Steve Miller in a gentleman’s organization here, he was around here then, and he talks about those times when he was just a kid…I knew a bunch of them (rock n’ roll musicians), the Charlatans and some of the groups that didn’t make it, and some of the guys who had even been my students…some got in there and did very well, and some did nothing. And again, unfortunately a lot of drugs got in their way, you know.

DBJ: Talking about students, you were a very early advocate for jazz education. You started teaching early, and in a 1960 Metronome article you’re already talking about how important you think it is that jazz eventually be taught at the university level. And you spent a long time teaching at San Francisco State…What did or does a typical John Handy jazz class consist of?

JH: Well, that would take a long time because… (laughs) I basically taught a historical survey of jazz, the beginnings, like most people would, but I think in a lot more detail, because I even knew people like Pops Foster, who was one of the first guys to popularize bass solos. And he used to come by my house without calling me, during that time. I knew those people, I knew Turk Murphy, and I’d even played with some of them, played a bit of that music too. So I knew a lot of that firsthand, as well as bebop…I’d played big bands, and so I could tell them not only that, I could demonstrate it. And I was lucky enough, I had Mingus’ sextet in my class to demonstrate some of his things…Monk was in my classroom with the quartet…Sun Ra with a 14-piece band…(laughs) I had some guys come in who were so far out that they even called the security on us. They didn’t hurt anything, but they were so crazy that one of my students thought they were going to tear up the place! (Laughs) I had the students writing blues charts, blues choruses, and they loved it, some of them were very creative. And a little later we had Black Studies, where I went more into African music and music from other parts of the globe, and showing the kinship and how it corresponded with things we know and techniques that we use in the music. So I really enjoyed it for most of the time…I stayed much longer than I should’ve, but I didn’t know when to quit. (Laughs)

DBJ: I know Monterey was obviously one high point for you in your career, but what, from the vantage point of 2008, have been some other high points for you?

JH: Oh, playing my first concerto with the San Francisco Symphony was a triumph, about as high as Monterey for me, because Arthur Fiedler gave me a real hard time, even racially, and he had to eat his words…It turned out that we broke all attendance records in the Symphony’s 25-year history (at that point). And it prompted him to say later that year—around 1970—somebody asked him who his favorite saxophonist player was, and he said, “John Handy.” (Laughs) That was in Time Magazine, by the way, November issue. And I’ve written one, another concerto, that was done in June three years ago, premiered here…and I played a lot with the people from India, with Ali Akbar Khan and recorded with Ravi Shankar…as a matter of fact I might be going to New York City with Zakir Hussain, the great Indian drummer, tabla player, whose father played with Ravi Shankar for many years before he passed.

DBJ: This might be a bit of an off-the-wall question, but can you tell me the background behind that hat you wore on the cover of the Monterey album?

JH: It’s called a tea cozy. I won ten dollars from Freddie Redd—he challenged me to wear it on stage, and I was just kind of doing it as a joke, because I’d already won the ten dollars. Somebody gave it to me in Vancouver when we’d been up there, and I came to rehearsal, walked into the rehearsal room at my house with this hat on, and everybody started laughing, and Freddie said, “I’ll bet you won’t wear that tonight”…we had a regular gig at the Both/And and he said, “I’ll bet you ten dollars you won’t wear it.” So I did, and then I kind of got used to it…I did it too many times, but I got used to it, and I forgot to take it off for a couple of years.

DBJ: What’s your remembrance of that night at Monterey? Could you tell pretty much right away that you’d done something special that night?

JH: Not right away. One of the reasons why—it was afternoon, so you could see the audience and all…but the band was a working band, we were working six nights a week, so we did that music every night. And what’s amazing is these guys—we were on an emotional level and a creative level close to what Trane and those guys were doing, and people knew it. We just got into the music and you didn’t think about it. Denny Zeitlin went on first, with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli. They had been in my band in ’64, when Mike White had just come into the band. They could have come and played that music just as well. And they went on and played so well, Denny’s music, that I was just thinking, “What the hell are we gonna do after these guys?” And it’s unfortunate that they didn’t get more credit. But yes, we went on, and we just—we all did what we do. And we supported each other, and each time I hear that record—which is not often, sometimes I go five or ten years without hearing that music—I think, “Good Lord, I didn’t know Jerry was doing that, I didn’t know so-and-so played like that… I kind of remember my playing…but one thing I remember—I got a little miffed because Jerry Hahn missed a cue. He went to the coda before he was supposed to…(laughs) I got a little mad at him, but he’d had an accident and broken his nose, and I think he was kind of dizzy from the accident (laughs), so I forgave him. (Laughs)

DBJ: John, I want to thank you so much for all of your time. You’ve been extraordinarily generous with it…

JH: David, you’re welcome. It’s been fun; I really appreciate the questions, and you’ve prompted me to start rattling here, and I don’t know when to stop. Thanks very much for thinking about me.

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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