Monday, September 15, 2008

Flo. . .


Jazz critic and head of the Rutgers Jazz Institute Dan Morgenstern heard Handy perform just once “live” accompanying herself in a jazz club in New York City, “some 35 years ago,” he wrote in 2000. “If anything, she was even better than on Smoky and Intimate. ” It was only then that I learned that Handy was also a pianist.

Singer-pianist-songwriter Dave Frishberg was the first of many of Flo Handy’s friends and musical associates with whom I spoke in piecing together the story of this remarkable woman. He, along with a number of other similarly gifted musicians, was part of a musical colony that, in the 1960s and 1970s thrived in the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania area. And still living there, in fact, are the likes of Phil Woods, pianist John Coates, Urbie Green. Sax giant Al Cohn had moved there in the mid-1960s with his new wife, Flo Handy, who continued to retain her professional last name which she had taken when she married her first husband, arranger-pianist George Handy. (Cohn died in 1988, Flo in ‘96, George Handy the following year.)

It was from Frishberg, over breakfast one morning in L.A. in late 2007, that I also began to learn of a somewhat “secret” musical life of Flo Handy that operated in areas other than those demonstrated on this CD. Here is what he said:

“She told me once that she was studying piano with [famed piano teacher] Sanford Gold. I said, ‘Do you have a piano background? And she said. ’No I never had a lesson before in my life.‘ She played well. She said, ’When I got a job singing I began to teach myself to play the piano so I could accompany myself. ‘

"One club was called The Lost and Found. Some clubs on First Avenue. They were all on the East Side, kind of gangsterish places. I met Al Cohn about the same time he was going with Flo around 1960. [Frishberg would soon become a Cohn sideman.] Anyone Al Cohn married was worth checking out. When I heard her play I was taken aback by the excellence of it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I‘m certain that Sanford wasn’t teaching her scales. He was teaching her keyboard harmony and how to use the piano as a tool. She was such a great natural musician that she picked right up on it. I couldn’t believe how beautifully she played. It was jazz-inflected but it wasn’t merely jazz. [I was told by another friend that Handy had also studied with jazz pianist Dave McKenna.] You could tell that she had a deep talent for composing.”

But it was “composing’ that fell far outside the territory of as jazz, i, e., classical lieder written to frame previously written literature and poetry of such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck. Art songs with titles like Song Cycle for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano. And it was Flo Handy’s classical endeavors that are remembered by most of her close friends, several of whom were even unaware of the existence of Smoky and Intimate until I informed them of it.. All were at pains to stress the excellence of this “other” music of Flo Handy. The general consensus was that Flo had received her training in musical theory strictly at the “knee” of her first husband, the somewhat older George Handy (Boyd Raeburn‘s chief arranger), who she married at age 18 just out of high school in the mid-1940s.

Aside from Frishberg, other friends of Handy’s with whom I spoke included: two younger musicians who both describe Flo in mentor-like terms, singer Katherine Cartwright and jazz pianist Eric Doney; singer Pinky Winters; Phil Woods’ wife Jill; Eddie Caine, former musician with George Handy; and Louise Sims, widow of Zoot. And, in fact, Flo wrote four of the instrumentals heard on the self-titled ’56 album for Riverside. Somewhat curiously, though, there are no songs written by Handy on Smoky and Intimate. But there is one title by Barnes and the great American songwriter Alec Wilder, “Lack-a-Day,” which appears to have been written especially for the album. Along with other originals co-written by Barnes, “Wait With Me Love”; and label owner Richard Carney, “Compromise.” The other nine titles fall into the category of, to one degree or another, standards.

In addition to Smoky and Intimate, there were also a few tracks recorded by Handy for a couple of novelty albums by Creed Taylor and Kenyon Hopkins. And there was also a complete LP recorded with her first husband at a recording studio in the legendary jazz Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter‘s New Jersey home. But the result was later intentionally destroyed by George. And that’s just about it! How could such a fine singer as Flo Handy have ended up so under-recorded? Part of the reason for this appears to have been strictly geographical. Singer Katherine Cartwright told me:

“In the early 1960s Al [Cohn] wanted to move to the Poconos, get out of the city. Up till then Flo had been working all the time solo in New York. She was doing very well. On the upswing. Al was able to dip in and out, do all the things that he could do from the Poconos, but she. . .woman singer, hadn‘t nearly the career that he had, it wasn’t so good for her. Fortunately she did do a few fairly long running solo stints when she moved to the Poconos.“

One of those gigs was a long-running stint she had opening for jazz pianist Eric Doney in the Delaware Water Gap, PA area. It was an act that consisted of Handy singing and playing strictly the verses of songs. She knew them all, would play them, Doney told me, and, as often as not ask, the audience to guess the name of the song.

Describing the music written by Handy, Cartwright said, “It’s great, beautiful music, but a mess to read. Because she didn‘t use key signatures. The music looked very strange. She wrote all the time. She understood harmonically what was going on. But in terms of what it looked like on the page. . .. She was sort of my primary mentor growing up. She was THE Jazz woman. I knew her from the late 60s until her death. I performed a lot of her music.”

On a more personal level, Frishberg told me, “I thought she was very attractive, Like that,” he said, pointing to the cover of the LP. “But not ostentatious . She would never dress up real pretty. She was just a good looking woman. Dressed very plainly. Then they [Cohn and Handy] bought a house out in the Poconos where I also had a place. During the last part of their lives I stayed at their house a few times after I no longer lived there. Al was older than both of us. Compared to my marriages I thought that Al was the luckiest guy in the world. It was a terrific team they had and I appreciated the way they appreciated each other. Two of the most extraordinary human beings in the music world. Absolutely. She performed one day at the piano for me in Pokonos and I couldn’t believe it. My knees buckled. She sounded so great. There are certain females who play piano and sing. Jeri Southern was in that bag, Joyce Collins, certainly Flo was in that bag.”

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