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MJF67, Sept. 27-29, 2024

If Only We Knew! John Handy’s Iconic Monterey Moment

When saxophonist John Handy rolled into the eighth annual Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, he already knew his new quintet would appear on the Saturday afternoon program in the slot preceding his former employer, Charles Mingus. No stranger to Monterey, Handy had appeared with Mingus at MJF7 the year before, when he replaced the late Eric Dolphy in the band after Dolphy’s tragic and untimely death in Berlin less than three months earlier.

Handy already had worked with Mingus in the late 1950s, when he made significant contributions to the bassist’s seminal albums Mingus Ah Um, Blues and Roots and Mingus Dynasty – including the masterful mournful and bittersweet tenor saxophone solo on the eulogy to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” perhaps Mingus’ most famous song from his most famous album.



In 1958, Mingus had unwittingly embarrassed Handy in front of Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot in New York City after Mingus first heard Handy play and yelled out to Newk: “Sonny! Bird‘s back!” Of course, Bird had never left the building in everybody’s minds – now his approach could only be channeled. Handy had “arrived” in New York but not for long – after recording with Mingus, Handy returned to San Francisco in the early 1960s to get his degree from San Francisco State and lay low.

The Texas-born but Oakland-based saxophonist had already been on the Bay Area jazz scene as a young player for many years and had released several albums as a leader. For Monterey, he brought an exciting new configuration which featured alto, violin and guitar, with a piano-less rhythm section. Their new open-ended modal material blended avant-garde, bop, dissonance, Indo-jazz directions with loping and propulsive time signatures, signaling a new idea of “world music” in the cross-pollination of jazz. The quintet played two long songs – “If Only We Knew” and “Spanish Lady” – to an electrified and ecstatic crowd. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Handy and Monterey Jazz.


What Handy didn’t know was that legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond would offer him a recording contract as soon as he walked offstage. The resulting acclaimed album, Recorded Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival was released in 1966 and garnered two Grammy nominations. Since that fateful day, Handy’s legendary status as an artist has extended through his career as an important Bay Area visionary, educator, musicologist, and world music pioneer with performances that span the globe. Now 90 years old, Handy returns to Monterey for his sixth appearance, this time as a special guest with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra along with Lakecia Benjamin on Sunday afternoon at 12:30pm on the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the Arena. Welcome back, John!

[caption id="attachment_2607" align="aligncenter" width="525"] L: The Saturday afternoon lineup at the eighth Monterey Jazz Festival, 1965.
R: John Handy in the MJF Arena, 1965.[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_2608" align="aligncenter" width="525"] L: John Handy, Louis Bellson and Jimmy Lyons on the Arena Stage at the 35th Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992. This closing show on Sunday night was an All-Star Jam Session and was the final presentation by Jimmy Lyons as MJF General Manager.
R: John Handy at the 48th Monterey Jazz Festival in 2005, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his groundbreaking quintet’s appearance at the festival.[/caption]