CAPTAIN JOHN HANDY— The Genius of Captain John Handy (Upbeat URCD 283).
Playing time: 76 mins. 04 secs.
Perdido; Caldonia* Recorded in New Orleans, Aug. 12, 1965
Personnel: Captain John Handy, alto sax; Alvin Alcorn, trumpet; Hugh Watts,
trombone; David “Fat Man” Williams, piano, vocal *; Placide Adams, string bass;
Chester Jones, drums.
Gettysburg March; I’ll Always Be in Love with You Connecticut, Mar. 23, 1968
Personnel: Captain John Handy, alto sax; George “Kid Sheik” Colar, trumpet; Louis
Nelson, trombone; Bill Sinclair, piano; Dave Duquette, banjo; Chester Zardis, string
bass; Lester Alexis, drums.
Bourbon Street Parade‡ Recorded in Connecticut, June 4, 1970
Blue Skies; Tiger Rag; On the Sunny Side of the Street†; Handy’s Boogie; St Louis
Blues†; Panama Rag; Nagasaki‡; Joe Avery’s Piece; In the Gutter.
Recorded in Newington, Connecticut, May 7, 1970
Personnel: Captain John Handy, alto sax; Punch Miller, trumpet, vocal‡; Homer
Eugene, trombone; Andrew Morgan, tenor sax, clarinet, vocal†; Dick Wellstood, piano;
Sylvester Handy, string bass; Lester Alexis, drums.
Back in the early fifties traditional jazz purists did not have a warm place in their
hearts for the saxophone in a traditional jazz band, despite the presence on occasion of
a sax in classic jazz bands. Although this antipathy may have subsided some, it is still
usually the clarinet that forms the reed in the front line, and occasionally one finds a
clarinet player that doubles on sax. Captain John Handy is not one of the latter. While
he began his career as a clarinetist, he switched to alto sax in 1928 and stayed with that
instrument from then on. (Captain John Handy is not to be confused with John Handy
the modern jazz saxophonist some thirty years his junior. The “Captain”—a non-
military sobriquet whose provenance is explained in Mike Pointon’s album notes—
helps us distinguish between them.)
Handy, born in Pass Christian, Mississippi, moved to New Orleans when he was
around sixteen, becoming a versatile player, comfortable in various styles. He is well
known as a rhythm and blues artist as well as a jazz one, and we get a glimpse of the
former on the first two tracks—especially, perhaps the second, although I would want
to call this group’s style more mainstream jazz than any other. In Perdido Handy
demonstrates his chops by taking 64 measures straight of lead, never repeating
himself. The second track, Caldonia, is that well-known number that seems to
combine swing and blues, giving what some have called a “jump blues” associated
with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, who had the first hit recording of this tune
back in 1945. Sung here by David “Fat Man” Williams, Caldonia is given a respectable
workout, each player getting some space over the shuffle rhythm.
The groups in the other three recording sessions are more traditional jazz
oriented. Most of the musicians are up from New Orleans and we can hear the strong
New Orleans spirit in the various ensembles and solos. Of the two trumpets, I prefer
that of Punch Miller with sure lip and fast fingering and lack of vibrato. That is
not to denigrate Colar’s horn playing, however, on the third and fourth tracks.
Gettysburg March is taken at a fast clip and I’ll Always Be in Love with You begins at a
fairly leisurely tempo but by the end has a fair head of steam going. The rhythm
section seemed unaware or unable to apply the brakes. As I have said elsewhere,
Sammy Penn is not my favorite drummer, being too busy for my liking with constant
cowbell accents, as well as triplets on the snare of increasing crescendo ending in a
crash on the cymbal. But he is the darling of many other auditors. Different strokes
for different folks. Handy’s playing on these tracks is impeccable—brim full of ideas,
sans any honking or squealing or faux pas.
The remaining ten tracks feature a group led by Punch Miller which has an additional
reed—clarinet or tenor sax—played by Andrew Morgan, who also contributes vocals
on a couple tracks. After the introduction—a strong, tight statement of melody played
in unison—on Bourbon Street Parade, we hear some classic parade drumming from
Alexis, every second measure having the syncopation of the emphasis on the last note
on the bass drum. He maintains this syncopation of the bass drum accents throughout
the rest of the tracks with some judicious snare drumming and very sparing use of
other parts of the kit for accents, such as cowbell or toms.
Underscoring the renditions of the tunes in these last tracks is the robust, driving
horn of the Captain. The thrust is felt not only on any solos he takes, such as the
extended, multi-chorus one on Panama Rag or that in Tiger Rag where he inserts a
great quotation from the well-known Stars and Stripes Forever, but also where he is to
be heard propelling the ensembles. He is ably assisted by the other members of the
group, by Miller’s crisp and vibrato-less trumpet on Nagasaki and elsewhere, by the
extremely interesting piano chord riffing with sympathetic—almost hypnotic—bass
and drums behind the front line on Handy’s Boogie.
There is the occasional lapse, however, such as the musically pointless sustained
single note held (thanks to circular breathing) for what seems an eon by Andrew
Morgan; to me, it contributes only to the “gee-whiz factor.” There is also some
uncertainty about keeping steady tempos in some places. None of that, however, can
detract from what is an otherwise very satisfying musical treat, particularly the playing
of Captain John Handy on alto sax. Perhaps had he recorded earlier than his starting to
do so in the 1960s and had he not been content to spend most of his life until then in
New Orleans, he might have been better known and there might have been less
hostility toward the alto sax in traditional jazz in the early years of the “revival.”
There is one caveat re this CD that should be mentioned. All of the tracks on this
compilation were issued previously on the Jazz Crusade label as follows:
JCCD 3008 - Gettysburg March, I’ll Always Be in Love with You, and Bourbon Street
Parade JCCD 3073 - Blue Skies, Tiger Rag, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Handy’s
Boogie, and St Louis Blues JCCD 3074 - Panama Rag, Nagasaki, Joe Avery’s Piece, and
In the GutterJCCD 3092 - Perdido and Caldonia
Having them all together here is convenient, and for those who do not have the Jazz
Crusade CDs obtaining this one will “fill a gap.” One should certainly have some
Captain John Handy recordings in his or her collection of traditional jazz.