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Jazz Great: Captain John Handy

 

I was a bit taken a back by the crowd as I walked into the Historical Society building to listen to a lecture on hometown jazz legend Captain Jack Handy. A man that was also my grandmothers neighbor–she was young but from what she remembers she sang his praises, claimed he was a kind man and had memories of him playing saxophone on his porch late at night.

Though, I wasn’t taken a back for bad reasons. I was actually pleased with the large turn out and anxious to learn a thing or two about the cultural and musical heritage of my city.

Handy, born in 1900, was a rising jazz star in the New Orleans music circuit and all over the world. Although, he was not as famous as his counterpart and compadre Louis Armstrong, he was just as influential.

The lecture wasn’t bad but I felt as if something was lacking. The talk was a biography and seemed to only skim the surface–where I was hoping that the lecture would touch on the struggle black artists in the deep south had to overcome to survive as musicians.

I have made my thoughts known in previous posts on the obstacles that other artists had to cross to get to where they are–so I was hoping for a bit more in the lecture. Instead, it seemed as if the speaker was scared to address any form of race. He claimed that Handy wasn’t as famous because he never went to Chicago a place where “more record labels were”.

However, in actuality Chicago was home to jazz clubs such as The Cotton Club, a club that brought together jazz fans of all races , and Chicago was also a city that was far ahead of the curve when it came to segregation. Black artists could flourish there–it had little to do with the number of labels.

At one point in the lecture there was even a list of reasons as to why John Handy isn’t better known today and “Black Man During Segregation” was even listed! But, yet.. he seemed to skip over that one.

So what is it? Is it the un-comfort of it?

I would be a bit hesitant as well–discussing the racist undertones of a mans biography while in the company of  rich older white people who were very much alive during segregation and during the civil rights movements. People who enjoyed the mans music but still– once upon a time did not consider a man of his race their equal.

The reasons as to why I was upset is because I believe that adversity helped to form jazz and blues music.

I believe that struggle and oppression when forced upon people–causes them to bond together to create something of their own. The improvisational stylings found in jazz are nothing more than an inner voice and rhythm becoming formed externally into something that we call music, that we call art.

So even though I left the lecture feeling unfulfilled, I did leave with even more respect for black artists from that era. John Handy passed away in 1972 and was given the first jazz funeral in Mississippi–500 were expected to show up… 5000 arrived.

That fact alone is astonishing–but even more astonishing knowing the hurdles he crossed to get there.

 

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