Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Handy Beacon Life Time Achievement Awardee 2009

“John Handy is one of the unsung greats of modern jazz -- as saxophonist, composer/arranger and group leader -- especially for the series of four albums he recorded for Columbia between 1965 and 1968. This Mosaic Select is devoted to the three albums he made for the label that featured violin in the instrumentation -- Recorded Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival, The 2nd John Handy Album and Projections, plus a live Carnegie Hall performance.

“Handy's playing, on alto sax in particular, is a wonder with a beautiful "legit" sound, perfect intonation and articulation, and an extraordinary control of the upper register which he uses quite often in building excitement and intensity in his solos. He utilizes all of these extraordinary attributes in frequent lengthy and compelling acappella solos. His unending flow of fresh ideas seemingly devoid of licks is another striking characteristic of his work” (

On the eve of the SFJAZZ Beacon Award, I had the opportunity to speak to my friend, John Handy. I remember when I first saw him in concert—it was at a gig in MLK Jr. Park in Berkeley. He’d just come off stage where he’d performed with Class and I remember Jon Jang also on the bill. It was at the height of the antiapartheid movement and we were winning. Some friends of mine from Vukani Mawethu Choir invited me to the concert where I met John and Jon. Jon Jang was a friend of the late Fundi whom was the choir director.

I think I knew John was the composer of the hit, Hard Work, a song my dad played a lot around the house, a song I remember humming to like I recall learning the lyrics to Alan Toussaint’s Hit the Road Jack when I was a little girl. But I digress.

John Handy doesn’t consider himself a rock star but he was to me, and over the years he really impressed me with his kindness and encouragement. Even before I was writing about music, he’d always tell me that I should go to concerts because black people were generally the minority in the jazz concert audiences and it was good when young black people—John got a plus when he called me young. I guess I was in my thirties back then (smile).

But I was always so amazed that he always remembered me when I’d run into him at concerts, not all his gigs—such a fine and cultured and famous man. He’d invite me and my friends to sit with him at the club and buy us a drink—he reminded me of James Baldwin, how Baldwin was accessible to his audiences. John even invited us over to his museum/house on Baker Street for tea and conversation one evening after a show where he shared some of his history which is of course the history of this classic American music or jazz.

I was so pleased and happy for him when he called me earlier this week to tell me he was the 2009 SFJAZZ Beacon Award winner. The honor is really on the organization—SFJAZZ, which is finally recognizing this wonderful man, a gem among us, so brilliant we need optical shades (smile), not him.

Sunday’s concert, like many of John’s rare appearances is going to be historic just for the personnel SFJAZZ has assembled for this tribute. I thought at one’s tribute the honoree is serenaded, but in this case John is working—there are four bands, the first three will perform first and the second set will be with a newer ensemble. This afternoon when I called I caught him at a good time, but then John is a talker and his memory is phenomenal, so our hour jaunt along the banks of his memory lane ended up being a stroll down his discography as John shared both old and new stories of the past 61 years of his professional career playing Indian music with the great sarodist/composer Ali Akbar Khan and others, along with his sojourn with the great bassist/composer Charles Mingus and Randy Weston, whom he called one of his favorite bosses.

I open the program with a piece: Three in One on the Columbia label.Visit

Also visit to read the SF Supervisors’ Proclamation August 28, 1999 John Handy Day in the City and County of San Francisco.

Here is a great interview of John:

With the SFJAZZ Beacon Award for lifetime achievement, we honor a member of our community who has played a vital role in preserving jazz traditions and fostering the growth of jazz in the Bay Area. Past recipients include such luminaries as drummer Eddie Marshall, critic Philip Elwood, vocalist Mary Stallings, percussionist Pete Escovedo and pianist Rebecca Mauleón.

More than an apt and deserving recipient of the SFJAZZ Beacon Award, alto saxophone legend John Handy embodies all of the best attributes of the honor. One of the most innovative and visionary altoists in the post-bop era, he has become a magnet for fellow artists looking to explore new creative ground. From his galvanizing work with Charles Mingus in the late ‘50s and his star-making triumph at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival, through his pioneering world music collaborations with the Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and his hit 1976 R&B album Hard Work, Handy has blazed a brilliant trail as an improviser, composer, bandleader and educator. Offering a potent reminder of his enduring influence, just this year the prestigious label Mosaic released a box set of the altoist’s classic quintet recordings. Many of Handy’s past musical partners, from the Bay Area and beyond, will perform in this fitting tribute concert" (

Artist Personnel
John Handy, tenor saxophone, Vikash Maharaj, sarod; Prabhash Maharaj, tabla; Michelle Colucci, tanpurra

John Handy, tenor saxophone; Don Thompson, bass, piano, vibraphone; Terry Clarke drums; Rob Thomas, violin, bass

John Handy, tenor saxophone; Tarika Lewis, violin; Robbie Kwock, trumpet; Don Thompson, piano; Terry Clarke; Jeff Chambers

John Handy, tenor saxophone; Kenny Washington, vocals; Carlos Reyes, violin; Dave Matthews, piano; Jeff Chambers, bass; Dezon Claiborne, drums

Photo credit: Copywright 2009, Wanda Sabir
Healdsburg Jazz Festival 2009


Post a Comment

<< Home