June 20, 2024

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Surprisingly, George Handy recorded only two albums as a leader – Handyland, USA: Videos

Posting about Hal McKusick yesterday and re-reading my interviews with him, I was reminded of arranger George Handy. They were good friends and wound up in Los Angeles together in the mid-1940s following an impulsive decision.

The story involves Al Cohn and a u-turn. Hal turned me on to Handy during one of our 2007 conversations, and Handy remains one of the great, forgotten arrangers of the 1950s. [Photo of George Handy by William P. Gottlieb]

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With the rise of the 12-inch LP in the mid-1950s, the demand for arrangers grew as labels needed orchestrators to write precise, inventive scores for mid-size bands. Surprisingly, Handy recorded only two albums as a leader—Handyland, USA in August 1954 and By George! Handy, of Course in April 1955. Both were for RCA’s X label.

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The former album featured fairly straight-up jazz. The latter was awash in modern classical influences, which makes sense, since Handy studied with Aaron Copland and at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Handy cut his teeth in Boyd Raeburn’s experimental big band from 1944 to 1946. After he and Hal wound up in L.A., Handy began to record and write for a range of bands. [Photo above from left, Dave Lambert, John Simmons, Chubby Jackson, George Handy and Dizzy Gillespie in 1947, by William P. Gottlieb]

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Handy is playing piano on Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s Dial recording in L.A. of Diggin’ Diz in February 1946. Then he was back with Raeburn and playing and arranging in Buddy Rich’s 1947 band. He arranged for Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1949. I suspect he was ghostwriting from 1949 to 1954, the year in which he recorded the 12-inch LP Handyland, USA, which let him stretch out.

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But Handy’s masterpiece is By George! a year later. The results exceed Gil Evans during this period. Handy even beat Evans to the punch as an LP leader. Evans wouldn’t lead with sophistication on a 12-inch album until Helen Merrill’s Dream of You in 1956 and his masterpiece in 1957, Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead +19. Evans’s first leadership album, Gil Evans and Ten,would follow later that year. This takes nothing away from Evans, only to point out how remarkable Handy was. [Pictured from bottom, above: arrangers Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, George Handy, Ed Finckel and Eddie Sauter at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]

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Handy’s album By George! is sophisticated and daring for 1955. He brashly combines Copland-esque passages with a natural cinematic jazz touch. It’s easily one of the most dramatic classical-influened jazz orchestra albums of the decade and one of my favorites of any decade. You can listen to it from start to finish without interruption and it never grows dull. Most fascinating, there isn’t a dud among the 12 tracks. [Photo above by William P. Gottlieb]

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The band includes Dick Sherman (tp); Gene Orloff (tp,violin); Frank Rehak (tb); Ray Beckenstein and Dave Schildkraut (as); Tom Mace (ts); Danny Bank (bar); Tony Aless (p); Buddy Jones (b); Osie Johnson (d) and George Handy (arr,cond). As you’ll hear, Danny Bank’s baritone saxophone stands out. [Photo above by William P. Gottlieb]

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After the mid-1950s, Handy moved to the Catskill Mountains north of New York City and played piano at the summer resorts. It’s a shame he wasn’t given a grant in the 1950s to simply arrange for decades to come. At least we have these two albums as examples of what Handy could do and what might have been if there was greater demand for his approach. In some ways, Gil Evans picked up where Handy left off, relaxing Handy’s busy approach to allow for soloists and singers.

George Handy died in 1997.

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