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At 90, Bay Area Sax Great John Handy Is Still Composing His Legacy

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an older Black man with a gray beard dressed in a colorful red shirt and a hat smiles in an outdoor portrait with a large tree behind him
Bay Area sax legend John Handy, at the cusp of 90, is sharp as ever. (Andrew Gilbert)

John Handy doesn’t need anyone to stick up for him.

A boxer as a young man, he still looks fit enough on the cusp of his 90th birthday to go a few rounds. But the alto and tenor saxophonist has never been one to blow his own horn, despite a body of work that bounds from one landmark recording to another.

An improviser, composer, bandleader and educator, Handy is a genre-defying musician of the highest order — yet his achievements are arguably underrecognized. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, has yet to bestow upon Handy a Jazz Masters Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for its quintessential art form. He’s not losing any sleep over it, but as he embarks on his 10th decade on Feb. 3, the time seemed ripe to take stock of one of American music’s most original minds.

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Handy has spent almost his entire adult life in the Bay Area — aside from being born and raised in Dallas until the age of 15, as well as a crucial late-1950s stint in New York City, when he contributed to a series of classic modern jazz recordings. Some have chalked up Handy’s lower profile to East Coast chauvinism, and it’s true if he’d stayed in New York he’d probably get name-checked more frequently in discussions about epochal improvisers.

But another factor is that Handy contains multitudes. His compositional concepts and unorthodox instrumentation, his pioneering collaborations with classical Hindustani masters and his 1976 R&B hit “Hard Work” make it impossible to sum up his creative pursuits in a neat package. In other words, he’s a quintessential Bay Area artist who has never paid much heed to prevailing fashions.

A recent visit to the sylvan Oakland Hills house that he shares with his wife Del Handy — the former City College of San Francisco chancellor, among other leadership positions in academia — found Handy looking regal and relaxed, despite some flooding in the garage from recent rains. They’ve been hunkered down since the advent of the pandemic, and Handy hasn’t played in public for several years, though he maintains his night-owl discipline, practicing in the wee hours while sitting in bed.

an older Black woman in a red shirt and an older Black man in a blue shirt and white ball cap smile while sitting on a beige couch; he is holding a saxophone and has his hand affectionately on her leg
Saxophonist John Handy (right) relaxes on the couch with his wife Del Anderson Handy in their home in Oakland in 2008. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

A minor stroke two years ago slowed him down a bit, but he’s steady on his feet and his mind is X-Acto sharp. Recalling a cryptic conversation more than 60 years ago with Thelonious Monk, Handy described in detail the ballet of the encounter as it unfolded within the tight confines of the Five Spot, the storied Bowery jazz club where he was working with piano great Randy Weston. It started with a summons from Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Monk’s boon patron and companion.

“She said, ‘Monk would like to speak to you’ as I’m coming off the bandstand, so I follow him into to kitchen, and Monk was a big man, his hat is almost touching the roof, and he kept walking, never turned around,” Handy recalled. “He kind of looks up, not at me, and says, ‘You play your motherfucking ass off. You think,’ or maybe, ‘You play your motherfucking ass off, you think.’ I’m not sure which one he meant. And then he walked around me and out. I’m still scratching my head.”

It’s entirely possible that Monk meant both versions. The intellectually exacting Handy was playing his ass off and he knew it. It wasn’t long after the chat with Monk that Charles Mingus heard him at the Five Spot sitting in with a band led by saxophonist Frank Foster and trumpeter Thad Jones, stars of the Count Basie Orchestra. The excitable bassist and composer was so moved by Handy’s alto solo on “There Will Never Be Another You” that he ran out of the club hollering “Bird’s back! Bird’s back!” likening the saxophonist to bebop legend Charlie Parker, who’d died about three years earlier. Mingus had a gig coming up at the Five Spot in a couple weeks, and when he’d calmed down a bit he hired Handy at the bar.

a young Black man in a suit plays the saxophone in the foreground while a white man in a dark suit plays the trumpet behind him in a black and white photo from 1987
John Handy (right) performs live on stage with trombone player Jimmy Knepper and the Mingus Dynasty at the BIM Huis in Amsterdam, Netherlands in June 1987. (Frans Schellekens/Redferns via Getty Images)

He didn’t stay with Mingus long, but Handy’s 1959 stint in the bassist’s roiling workshop helped change the course of American music. On the companion Columbia albums Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, he rides Mingus’s febrile emotional current, Holy Roller shouting on “Better Git It in Your Soul,” mourning the departure of beloved tenor saxophonist Lester Young on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and scorning Arkansas’s segregationist governor on “Fables of Faubus.” The Atlantic album Blues and Roots was equally epochal, an earthy, thickly textured nonet project entwining Handy’s bright-toned alto with the sweat-and-sour wail of Jackie McLean’s.

While those albums were recognized as classics upon their release, Handy’s best work was on the lesser known United Artists album Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland, a live session with East Bay-reared pianist Richard Wyands. After playing a set at the Five Spot, Mingus led the quintet down the street to the Nonagon Art Gallery where they tore through a four-tune 45-minute show pairing Handy’s soaring alto in tandem with the huge Texas tenor of Booker Ervin (the only other musician featured on all of Handy’s Mingus albums). Upon finishing they returned to the Five Spot to relieve Sonny Rollins, who was playing the alternating set.

After recording four essential albums with Mingus in one year, Handy headed back to the Bay Area, where he’d started making a name for himself in the early 1950s at the Fillmore afterhours spot Jimbo’s Bop City. There, he shared the bandstand with leading modernists like tenor saxophonists Teddy Edwards, Frank Foster and Dexter Gordon. He was delving into modal improvisation, a stark contrast to the harmonic steeplechase of bebop, at a time when few of his peers understood the concept.

Nearly a decade later, those ideas fully flowered in 1965 when he became a star in his own right his Columbia album Recorded Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which introduced his quintet with violinist Michael White, guitarist Jerry Hahn, and the Canadian rhythm section tandem of bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. Interestingly, Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola first gained renown about 35 years later leading a quintet with the same unusual instrumentation.

Handy went on to pioneer Indo-jazz collaborations in the late 1960s via his concerts with sarod legend Ali Akbar Khan, performances that marked the teenage tabla scion Zakir Hussain’s first stage encounters with a jazz artist. Their partnership was best captured on the 1975 album Karuna Supreme. Handy had spent time with sitar star Ravi Shankar, and he connected the classical North Indian forms with music he grew hearing while attending the Church of God In Christ as a child with his grandmother.

“I could relate it to the stuff I’d been exposed to in the African American church,” Handy said. “At the first rehearsal with Ali Akbar Khan he said ‘Let’s just play,’ and I just understood it. I had met Ravi Shankar. He invited me to a concert in LA and gave me a couple of lessons. I did learn something from it, but I could always play it with my background in the blues.”

There’s definitely some Texas in Handy’s tenor sound, but his career was unmistakenly shaped by Oakland, where he moved with his family at 15; he graduated from McClymonds High School. He went on to study music at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), though those studies were interrupted when he was drafted near the end of the Korean War. Returning to San Francisco in 1960 after his stint in New York, he said he found that his pursuit of a degree was being sabotaged from within.

“I had ‘incompletes’ on my transcript that I had already completed and they never gave me the grade,” Handy said. “This particular guy said in essence ‘You’re too raw.’ I took every took every course they had to get a B.A. and I finally graduated at 30.”

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In a bittersweet twist, Handy ended up teaching the university’s first course on jazz (a result of the 1968 Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front strike). As a longtime member of the faculty, he nurtured several generations of Bay Area jazz musicians, and not just students. When saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh was hired to teach at SF State, Handy became a mentor whose embrace of non-Western musical traditions helped plant seeds that are just coming into fruition at the school now. Modirzadeh talks about Handy’s innovative composing and arranging, and his unparalleled command of his horn, particularly his control in the altisimo range.

But more than anything, he sees Handy as part of a tradition that requires first-hand experience to absorb. “It’s something that really connects him to jazz history, to Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong,” Modirzadeh said. “You had to be there to see these people play. There won’t be a technical book by John Handy describing how he does what he does, that fingering and embouchure. It’s mystical, completely John Handy’s, and we’ll never know how he did it.

“I’ve asked him once or twice, ‘Can I come over and you show me how to do something?’ Very graciously, he’ll say, ‘I’m still working out some things that Charlie Parker did.’”

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