Monday, August 11, 2014

George Handy by Jeff Sultanof

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jeff Sultanof, is an arranger, composer, saxo­phonist, and music editor. In addition to his original work, among his other, notable achievements are the reconstructing and editing of the scores of Robert Farnon as well as the editing for publication of a number of the scores of Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans.
Jeff also has editions available through Currently he is working on a book for The Scarecrow Press called Big Band Jazz: A Listener's Companion.
Jeff was an occasional contributor to Gene Lees’ Jazzletter until Gene’s passing in 2010. He wrote the following essay on the relatively obscure arranger, composer and pianist George Handy for the May, 1997 edition of Jazzletter. Having been a fan of George’s music for many years, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wrote to Jeff and requested his permission to post his narrative about George to the blog and he very kindly granted it.

The photos that populate Jeff’s piece and the video that you will find at its conclusion were not part of the original publication.

© -  Jeff Sultanof; used with the permission of the author; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"George Handy by Jeffrey Sultanof
May 1997 Jazzletter

2014 Introduction

I am very appreciative of Steven Cerra reminding me that I wrote this essay about one of the great composers of the mid-twentieth century, George Handy. Such musicologists as Ben Bierman have written about Handy, but he remains a figure few big band enthusiasts know.

I have resisted extensive revision of this article, and except for a few words and factual corrections, this article stands as is. The discography has been dropped due to the availability of all of the tracks discussed here; it has been replaced by an afterword.

A special thanks to my late colleague Gene Lees, who gave me the opportunity to write for an American publication, coached me, and helped me to become a better writer.

On April 10, at St. Peter's Church on East 54th Street in New York City, about a hundred and twenty-five people assembled to pay tribute to a man whose name has been forgotten by the jazz world at large. If you are a serious big-band fan, or were a musician working or listening to the latest sounds in 1945-46, George Handy's name will loom in memory. You may love or hate the music he created, but if you’ve heard it, you've never forgotten it.

One of my pleasures is sharing music with people, particularly those who have heard a lot of music and have pretty developed tastes. Big-band fans are a special treat for me. Some of them surprise me by telling me they were "into" the new jazz sounds of the mid-forties before any of their friends. Other will even have happy memories of seeing big bands at the Strand or Paramount theaters. I like to play Boyd Raeburn recordings for them. Most have never heard George Handy's versions of “There's No You,” “Temptation” or “Out of This World,” and these recordings usually have them utterly fascinated. When I played these recordings for musicians during my college days, they lit up in delight at these three-minute gems.

Ray Passman organized the event at St. Peter's. Raeburn vocalist David Allyn assembled the band, which included such musicians as Jerry Dodgion, Dean Pratt, Leo Ball, Loren Schoenberg, Wayne Andre, Ted Nash, Jimmy Madison, Bill Crow, Danny Bank, and, on lead alto, Hal McKusick, who'd come in from Sag Harbor to honor his former roommate's memory. Judy Scott had the unenviable job of singing Handy's tough arrangements — unenviable for the good reason that she and most of the band had never seen this music before, sight-reading it on the spot. George Handy's music is a body of work that I least expect can be sight-read effectively, but the results were well-intentioned and, on the whole, rather good. And those who attended had a wonderful time listening to the reminiscences of Allyn and McKusick. Bill Kirchner delivered a thoughtful appreciation of George, and Handy's widow Elaine thanked us all for coming and honoring George's memory. It was a chaotic but special evening.

The service sent me right back to the original recordings. Once again I reminded myself of the two-year period in which a major American composer expressed himself through a dance-band instrumentation. I had the same feelings when I first heard these recordings twenty-seven years ago, and thought the same thoughts when I was sitting in St. Peter's listening to much of this music played under Allyn's direction. What a human tragedy; what a tragedy for American music.

For George Handy was an original voice when American music needed him the most. He arrived at an important crossroad when some writers for big band were trying to blend classical music and jazz. Certainly this had been attempted before. Milhaud, Copland, Sowerby, Gruenberg, Carpenter, Stravinsky, and other "classical" composers had tried and for the most part given up. But the younger compos­er-arrangers for big bands had extensive backgrounds in concert music study and usually a wider musical vocabulary than those who came before them. Handy was blessed to write for an ensemble that embraced the most modern of big-band musics — several months before Stan Kenton began his Progressive Jazz period — and Handy’s work had a level of maturity that permitted him to express himself fully. Pete Rugolo, Ralph Burns, and Paul Weston all came to hear Raeburn's band and admired Handy tremendously. But the band was too controversial for many listeners, and its recordings received poor distribution. Fortunately, the bulk of Raeburn's library (and the bulk of Handy's lifework) was recorded for radio transcriptions and programs intended for overseas broadcast to servicemen. Since 1972, this music has been easier to hear than it was when it was first performed. And the scores survived, stored for many years in three cardboard boxes in a basement in Long Island. Unusual and at times eccentric, Handy's music still sounds fresh and original.

George Hendleman was born in Brooklyn in 1920. His mother was his first piano teacher, and George went on to study at Juilliard and New York University. He also studied privately with Aaron Copland, which, he said, "did neither one of us any good." The standard jazz reference books tell us that he played with Michael Loring in 1938 and Raymond Scott in 1941, and in 1944 he joined Raeburn's organization.

Boyd Raeburn, born October 27, 1913, in Faith, South Dakota, had a downright bizarre career as a bandleader. His original ensemble was a pretty bad mickey-mouse group headquartered in Chicago and toured the Midwest states. In 1939, he changed musical direction and led a swing band, but, like many territory bands, it sounded like a lot of other groups. In 1942, he hired Gerry Valentine and Budd Johnson to write the band's book. June Christy sang with this edition under her original name, Shirley Luster.

By 1944, an almost completely new band was playing in Washington, D.C. This was a fabulous unit, with such musicians as Johnny Bothwell, Earl Swope, Serge Chaloff, Sonny Berman, and Don Lamond. Ed Finckel, George (The Fox) Williams, Milt Kleeb, and Handy (who came aboard in May) wrote wonderful arrangements. Then Handy met singer-comedienne and film star Betty Hutton, who got him a job at Paramount Pictures. The band continued to tour and was clearly rising toward great heights when Finckel left to join Gene Krupa. In desperation, Raeburn called Handy in California. His timing was fortuitous, as Handy had grown to hate writing for motion pictures. He rejoined the band in mid-1945.

Handy's arrangements from 1944 are well-written and already show a unique imagination — try “Who Started Love?” — but his compositions and arrangements during his second period with the band are in a class by themselves. Handy started off straightforwardly enough with such originals as “Tonsillectomy,” “Forgetful,” “Rip Van Winkle,” and “Yerxa,” the titles on the band's first record date with Ben Pollack's Jewell label on October 15, 1945. “Tonsillectomy” is an innocuous swing tune perfect for dancing. “Forgetful” is burdened by a sub-par lyric by Jack Segal; Handy had the misfortune or bad judgment to write several songs with Segal, all with wonderful melodies and less-than-wonderful words. “Forgetful” is the first opportunity we have to sample the direction in which Handy would go. An unusual introduction, at times quite dissonant and loud, goes in and out of tempo, finally leading into an impressionistic background for the vocal by David Allyn. Even the ending is rather strange, with trumpets singing out a mocking ‘nyah-nyah’ figure. Except for Red Norvo's “Smoke Dreams,” this was perhaps the most unusual big-band recording with a vocal up to that time. “Rip Van Winkle” is a cute little song and a great record; if Pollack's label had enjoyed decent distribution, this probably would have been a hit. “Yerxa” is an Ellingtonian Johnny Hodges-style feature for Hal McKusick's alto saxophone, harmoni­cally ambiguous at times (reportedly the melody is based on an exercise McKusick used to play). Attempts to dance to it would have been futile, given that the band goes into double time for two bars.

These records caused quite a stir among musicians when they were originally released. I've heard arrangers say that they were proud possessors of well-worn original copies. Not only were the arrangements terrific, but the band's personnel was strong. Such musicians as Si Zentner, Ray Linn, Britt Woodman, Wilbur Schwartz (Glenn Miller's lead clarinetist), Harry Klee, Lucky Thompson, and Dave Barbour all played with Raeburn during George Handy's tenure with the band.

But Raeburn was having trouble keeping the band working. He subsisted on limited touring, radio transcriptions, and recordings for the U.S. Government.

Because of the Armed Forces Radio Service, many live recordings of all types of music were distributed for re-broadcast to overseas servicemen. In producing a series called One-Night Stand, they preserved sustaining (unsponsored) radio broadcasts of many bands, especially during periods when such ensembles could not make commercial records. Because of two recording bans ordered by American Federation of Musicians head James Caesar Petrillo, the years 1942 through 1944 and ten months of 1948 would be almost entirely a musical blank without these broadcasts.

In addition, AFRS created its own series. The one closest to the heart of many jazz fans was the Jubilee program, where bands led by Benny Carter, Harry James, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Jimmy Mundy performed. The Billy Eckstine band's best performances were recorded for Jubilee.

Raeburn did three shows for the Jubilee series, including one for which Handy conducted his “Jazz Symphony in Four Movements.” The first movement later became the Raeburn theme, “Dalvatore Sally.”

“Dalvatore Sally” was featured on the band's next commercial record date, February 5, 1946. By now, time and tempo changes, dramatic dissonant introductions, and polytonal backgrounds for vocals were hallmarks of his arrangements for the band. Historians have cited the influences of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy. My ears also detect Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Ives, a composer Handy might have heard since the music of this controversial figure was being championed by Bernard Herrmann on radio and John Kirkpatrick in the concert hall. Kirkpatrick gave the first public performance of the “Concord Sonata” for piano, a work that is still challenging listening.

Handy's arrangement of “Temptation” is quite far out; Ginny Powell (Mrs. Raeburn) was the band's female vocalist, and very few singers could have done as well with this setting as she did.

According to David Allyn, the arrangement of “I Only Have Eyes for You” was written the night before the session, so that Allyn would have something to record. If a Handy arrangement could be considered laid back, this is it. But it supports Allyn's voice beautifully.

The bulk of Handy's best work for Raeburn was preserved on non-commercial sources. On Jubilee, such arrangements as “Picnic in the Wintertime,” “There's No You,” and “Memphis in June” were recorded. “Picnic in the Wintertime” is a stunning arrangement that includes quotes from “Jingle Bells” throughout, and the orchestral effects Handy uses warrant close study. As complex as it is, it is not difficult to sing to. “There's No You” quotes from “Clair de Lune” in such a subtle way that the listener might miss it. This is another piece that has so much in it that I hear new things these many years later. “Memphis in June” is a masterpiece. Handy created a subtle, beautiful setting for Ginny Powell that enhances Hoagy Carmichael's rural imagery of an afternoon in the south. Carmichael recorded this song himself on the long-defunct ARA label, but he loved Raeburn's version and obtained a copy of the radio transcription. Also on transcription is Handy's arrangement for Allyn of “Out of This World,” another masterpiece.

Raeburn was well-liked in the business and, reportedly Duke Ellington and Harry James invested money in the band. Had Raeburn had the personality of Stan Kenton, one of the great salesmen in big band history who also led one of the most controversial ensembles in American music, he might have made a success of the band.

By August, when the band was playing at the Club Morocco, there was trouble brewing. According to Dr. Jack McKinney, who wrote a book about the Raeburn band that has never been published, Ginny Powell was not happy with Handy's arrangements and insisted that her husband take a more active role in setting the band's musical direction. Raeburn, caught in the middle, ultimately sided with his wife. Handy quit, and the band's esprit de corps would never be the same.

Handy moved on. He wrote music for Buddy Rich, Bob Chester, Benny Goodman, and Alvino Rey. Few of these arrangements were ever played publicly, though Rey recorded Handy's composition “Stocking Horse” for radio transcription. It later turned up on a Hindsight LP. “Stocking Horse” is another mini-tone poem, beautiful­ly realized. Even though it did not have the dissonance of his Raeburn work, this piece could only have been composed by George Handy. Unfortunately, “Stocking Horse” has six trumpets parts, all equally important, and few bands are equipped to play it.

Handy had another major opportunity when Norman Granz commissioned him to write five minutes of anything he wanted for an album to be titled “The Jazz Scene.” This limited edition album of twelve-inch 78s was an ambitious undertaking for Granz, who did not yet have his own label and could only record musicians who were not contracted to other labels. On October 15, 1946, an orchestra was assembled to record Ralph Burns' “Introspection” and Handy's “The Bloos.” It took five hours to get the performance that was finally released, and even that performance is a little scrappy. But what music! At times satiric, ironic, and yet subtle, this work is another incredible tour de force that must be heard many times to be appreciated. It is the most unusual version of the blues I've ever heard.

But it was not released for three-and-a-half years, and by then Handy's career had lost its momentum. In a sketch by Granz, Handy is quoted as saying that "the only thing (sic) worthwhile in my life is my wife Flo and my boy Mike. The rest stinks, includ­ing the music biz and all connected."

We know nothing of Handy until in the mid-1950s he made two albums for an RCA subsidiary called label X, which later became Vik. “Handyland U.S.A.” is a pretty straightforward small-group date which seems to have been recorded in a hurry.  For “Handy, by George” Handy wrote for a ten-piece ensemble. The music is fascinating, clearly the work of a gifted composer. Ultimately, it did not matter. When RCA killed the Vik label in 1957, it deleted the entire catalogue.

Handy wrote some wonderful music and played piano for Zoot Sims on albums for ABC-Paramount and Riverside, but by 1960 he was a forgotten man. He continued to write, primarily for the New York Saxophone Quartet.

But nothing that was heard widely. Judy Scott told me that she asked Handy to write arrangements for her when she performed in the Catskill Mountains. Somehow the Borscht Belt and Handy make a strange pairing, but George lived most of his later years near Monticello, New York, with his second wife, Elaine Lewis. One of his last pieces was an adaptation for big band of a movement of one of his saxophone quartets, which he called “Worry? No. Waltz!.” It was played at the concert of the Raeburn band's music by the Mike Crotty band at the Smithsonian Institution in 1980. A proposed New York concert of Raeburn music by Crotty's ensemble never happened.

There is a strange footnote to all this. In 1980, a man named Bill Schremp marketed many of the Raeburn scores. He placed an ad for these in the musicians' union newspaper. When I saw this ad, I bought copies of all the arrange­ments listed and made my own scores from the parts.

Seeing that this large order came from Warner Bros., where I was then music editor, Schremp called me and was surprised to find he was talking to a twenty-six-year-old big-band arranger/historian who knew the Raeburn recordings intimately. Schremp had high hopes for his publishing company, because he believed there was a market for this music for high school and college stage bands. I was skeptical. Raeburn’s was hardly a ‘name’ band, and this music needed extensive rehearsal if bands were to play it at all.

Like Raeburn, Bill pressed on, believing that the incredible wealth of music he was making available would make his venture a success. He subsequently added works from the Elliot Lawrence, Sauter-Finegan, and Ray McKinley libraries to his catalog. For the first time, important pieces by Johnny Mandel, Tiny Kahn, Gerry Mulligan, Eddie Sauter, and Ed Finckel were available, as well as the work of younger talents such as Mike Crotty and Bill Kirchner, whom Schremp raved about. The band directors in the main could not have cared less. Schremp's sales were poor indeed, and his company did not last long. An ironic postscript to all of this came from a conversation with Raeburn’s son, Bruce Boyd, now affiliated with Tulane University. Bruce told me Schremp never had any rights to distribute this music, and Bruce never knew about it until after Schremp’s company went out of business. Bruce still has the Raeburn library.

I doubt that there will ever be a large audience for the music of George Handy, just as there is a select audience for that of one of his contemporaries, Robert Graettinger. But there is no question that Handy's music will continue to stir the imagination of anyone who makes its acquaintance. He was a unique voice in a cookie-cutter field. In my own case, his music showed one way that disparate musical styles could co-exist when many still believe that they could not. His music will continue to inspire arrangers of tomorrow, those at least who seek it out and give it a chance.

In that sense, it was not in vain.

Afterword - 2014

Back in 1997, I included a discography, which is now unnecessary. MP3s are now available for most if not all of the performances discussed in this article. CDs are still available as well.

Except for a handful of pieces, most of Handy’s work for Raeburn exists as original parts as played by the musicians. I have written out scores of these compositions and arrangements, and they will hopefully be published sometime soon by Jazz Lines Publications. “The Bloos” was published by Margun Music, and is now available from Music Sales.

A loose end. Handy and Jack Segal wrote a song called “If Love Is Trouble” that was recorded by Johnny Hartman with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. For years it was assumed that Handy wrote the arrangement, even though it is not in his style. It is now generally acknowledged that Jimmy Mundy is the arranger of this recording.

Happy listening!!!

— Jeff Sultanof"

1 comment:

  1. I was one of the few people who actually studied with George Handy in the 1970's. When he died and then his wife died the NY state was going to throw out all of his belongings. Myself and Dan Morgenstern saved all of his music and was sent to the Jazz Institute in New Jersey. Many people come to view and study George's Music at the Jazz institute. I was very happy to help save George's music.
    Tom Dwyer


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