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Hal McKusick on George Handy

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Few big band arrangers were as nervy or as eccentric as George Handy. This was as true of Handy's music as it was of his personality. In the 1940s and 1950s, Handy's big-band writing fearlessly blended classical motifs and modal concepts with swing and 52nd Street bebop. More than 50 years later, the results remain as fresh and as exciting as when they were first penned and recorded. But Handy [pictured] had a wild streak, which saxophonist and bandmate Hal McKusick remembers fondly. More with Hal in a moment.

To the average ear, Handy's arrangements sound impossible to play. Even more miraculous is how hard they swing. Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith were major influences of Handy's, but so were Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Despite being Juilliard trained and studying with Aaron Copland, Handy never lost track of the music's ultimate purpose--to hook listeners' ears and keep their feet moving.

From 1944 to 1946, Handy was with the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra as its pianist, primary composer and arranger, and musical director. There was a six-month break after he quit the band with Hal to relocate to Hollywood and write for Artie Shaw and Paramount Studios. When Hal rejoined Raeburn [pictured] briefly on the West Coast, he convinced the bandleader to take Handy back, and Raeburn did. While a member of the revolutionary Raeburn band, Handy arranged much of the band's major works, including Tonsilectomy, Forgetful and Out of This World.

In early 1946, Handy played piano on a famed Dial Records date with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Lucky Thompson. In October of that year he composed arranged The Bloos for Norman Granz's The Jazz Scene, an album of singles featuring cutting-edge jazz recordings. In 1949 he arranged If Love Is Trouble for Dizzy Gillespie's big band, featuring the vocal of a young Johnny Hartman.

But Handy's two greatest recordings would come five years later: Handyland USA and By George, Handy of Course! in 1954 and 1955, respectively. Both were recorded for RCA, and both are astonishing works if you are a connoisseur of great arranging.

Handy also scored several other great albums in the 1950s: Zoot!, on which Zoot Sims played tenor and alto sax, and Zoot Plays 4 Altos, which featured Zoot Sims overdubbing four harmonized alto sax parts--an enormously complex endeavor that only musicians of Sims' and Handy's caliber could pull off. He also arranged La Rue and Now's the Time for Hal McKusick's Cross Section Saxes in 1958.

Here's Hal's recollections of George Handy:

“George and I left Boyd Raeburn's band in Boston in late 1944. Boyd kept giving Al Cohn's solos to Johnny Bothwell, and we were fed up. So we left and flew to New York. On our way to George's parents' house in Brooklyn by cab, George kept raving about Southern California. When I said I had never been there, he told the cab driver to take us back to LaGuardia Airport. When we got there, we bought tickets, and a few hours later we were flying to L.A. [Pictured above: Hal McKusick]

“This was the way George worked. He was a wild guy in every way, including excesses. When we arrived out there, we shared living space for a short while until work began. We rented Ann Sheridan's house in Coldwater Canyon. It overlooked Harold Arlen's house and was down the street from Ginger Rogers's place. It was a beautiful location.

“One day a young alto player came to visit and overstayed his welcome. He promised to get a job and contribute to our expenses. But after six weeks, our guest still didn't offer any financial help. So George purchased a gigantic firecracker, which we placed under the boarder's bed. He slept late each day, so we set it off at 7 A.M. He left soon after and we never saw him again.

“Once George and I got work, we went our separate ways in Hollywood. Yet we still maintained our friendship and wrote some tunes together that were later recorded with the Raeburn Orchestra.

“It was a hectic time, and we were struggling to make a living. Yet the thought of leaving the music business never entered our minds. George and the pianist who was Igor Stravinsky's assistant would play the two pianos in the living room a couple of nights each week. They improvised for hours. Sadly we didn't think of recording those sessions. We didn't have the means to purchase the right equipment of the day. We just listened and enjoyed.

“When I was asked to rejoin Raeburn in San Francisco in mid-1945, Boyd needed a pianist. I suggested Handy. But Boyd felt he was unreliable. When I explained that George was writing amazing music, inspired by Stravinsky and others, Boyd, with more prompting, asked me to talk to George and offer him the piano chair and to share orchestration assignments with Johnny Mandel. So George came up to San Francisco and started a whole new approach to writing for a dance-jazz orchestra. [Pictured from bottom: Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, George Handy, Ed Finckel and Eddie Sauter; Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1947]

“When we were in San Francisco, the Palace Hotel didn't like the fact that we had a broadcast there each night at around dinnertime. We played straight out for the radio audience, which rattled the staff and guests. To up the ante, Mandel and Handy dyed their hair green, which scared the staff and patrons. But the two of them didn't care. The band's vocalist David Allyn practiced singing in an abandoned tomb in the graveyard. He liked the sound there.

“When we followed Basie into the Oakland Ballroom across the bay, George had a nervous breakdown while we were playing and was sent by his father, a doctor, to a rehab clinic in Connecticut.

“Later, in L.A., Handy wrote an incomplete arrangement on Over the Rainbow for a record session, promising to bring in the remainder during the date. He showed up at the studio, and when he was asked where the completed score was, he pointed to his head. A film studio arranger was rushed to the spot and finalized the orchestration. But you could hear the difference.

“George had a strong, unstoppable personality. He influenced many people in good and bad ways. In general, he was very generous. He was a super bright guy and wanted to have fun at any cost.

“George's arrangements were the first I had heard or played that had heavy modern classical influences and were created to swing, too. His pieces were a challenge and beautiful when played correctly. There were many flowing lines against lines and interesting harmonies and good voicing.

“George's emphasis was on sound, not leaning toward any particular section of the orchestra. His music had a heavy modern classical influence, and he always challenged himself to move ahead in music. He was a terrific classical pianist and could play for hours, creating his own interesting sounds. George also loved Count Basie yet never wrote that kind of chart.

“In spite of his unique classical-jazz direction, he eventually moved to swinging compositions. Speaking of Zoot, Zoot once told me, “If I had sat one seat to the left in an early L.A. band, my name would have been Voot." In our teenage bands, we had names placed on the front of our music stands. If you were lucky, it showed your real name.

“George was innovative in every way, and he could have been one of the most important composers. He had enormous lyric ability, he was a great poet, he could paint he was a terrific athlete--and sadly he was enormously self-destructive.

“George also was a great prankster. One night in San Francisco, unbeknownst to Boyd, he had the band stand up and sing Orphan Annie in the middle of a dance number. Then we sat down and went on as of nothing had taken place. On another occasion, he alerted everyone to take the downbeat from his nose, at the piano, instead of from Boyd. So we came in together an instant after Boyd's downbeat. That was George."

JazzWax tracks: You'll find many of George Handy's tracks for the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra on Boyd Raeburn: Jewells and Boyd Meets Stravinsky. The CDs are here and here. Or you'll find them as downloads at iTunes.

Handy's piano can be heard on Diggin' Diz, from Charlie Parker: The Dial Masters at iTunes. Handy's arrangement of If Love Is Trouble for Dizzy Gillespie's big band can be found on Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. It's also at iTunes.

Handy's greatest recordings, Handyland USA and By George, Handy of Course! are available for about $22 each. Handyland USA is here, and By George, Handy of Course! is on a CD called George Handy: Pensive here.

JazzWax Radio: This Sunday at 10 pm (EST), you can catch me on the radio through your computer anywhere in the world for two hours. JazzWax with Marc Myers will air on JAZZ.FM91 in Toronto, Canada. I'll be spinning rare tracks from my collection and sharing intimate and personal stories from the jazz legends I've interviewed.

What to do: On Sunday at 10 pm, just go to www.Jazz.fm and click on “listen live." Or just come back here to JazzWax and click on the big “JazzWax Radio" button that now appears atop the right-hand margin for instant access.

Dig you then!


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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