Most Americans over 30 know Craig Handy-not by name, but by sound. His was the tenor saxophone that, riding a Junior Walker groove, blew the opening theme of NBC’s The Cosby Show in its sixth and seventh seasons (1989-’91). More than two decades later, he still remembers the thrill of seeing his name on network TV. “That was before they were doing these micro-credits,” Handy says. “My name was on there for a full second; I think that was the biggest gas for me.” His playing, not so much: “I always thought that my playing there wasn’t really representative of what I could do, and I felt like it wasn’t really as good a performance as I could have, and should have, given.”
Handy holds himself to high standards, and they’ve served him well in his 52 years. The Oakland, Calif., native has led a busy and accomplished career since his 1986 debut in New York, working with the likes of Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater. He also spent nearly 20 years in the official Mingus repertory ensembles: Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra. The new self-titled album by his band 2nd Line Smith is only Handy’s fifth album as a leader, but its fusion of New Orleans second-line music and organ jazz (“Smith” refers to Jimmy) has garnered significant acclaim-not least from the project’s sidemen. “Every one of us is hoping this band will be successful enough that we can make it our top gig,” says guitarist Matt Chertkoff. “That’s how much we love what Craig has us doing.”
Handy began his musical journey as an 8-year-old in Oakland, trying his hand first at piano, then guitar and trombone. At 11, some music on the radio changed his life. “I heard Dexter Gordon and I thought, ‘Man, that’s what I wanna do. That sound,'” he recalls. It was his springboard into studying the tenor sax tradition. Handy didn’t start on Gordon’s ax, though; he started on alto, the instrument of famed Duke Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges, as he was about to learn.
“We had a really good band director [at Berkeley High School] named Phil Harding, and he had the junior high and the primary school as well,” says Handy. “He was amazing. His hero was Duke Ellington, and he would basically play recordings of the Ellington Orchestra in our class and tell everyone in the sections, ‘That’s the sound you’re supposed to be making on your instrument. When you go home, listen to that and copy that sound.’ So he instilled this in the kids when they were 7 or 8 years old, and by the time they got to high school the band was better than most of the bands I went through in college.”
College was the University of North Texas (then North Texas State), where Handy, by then working tenor, played in the storied One O’Clock Lab Band. He also met classmate and trumpeter David Weiss, with whom he quickly became friends. “There weren’t many likeminded people there, at least not likeminded to me,” says Weiss. “We ended up putting a band together and playing around Dallas. Craig could always play; he could play anything.” A couple of years after graduating, Weiss and Handy relocated to New York.
In the city, Handy began freelancing and met alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, forming a band that played on the street. His big break, though, came in January of 1987. Handy had gone home to California for the holidays and stayed to escape the New York winter, when he got a call from saxophonist Ralph Moore. “Ralph says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Staying warm.’ And he said, ‘Roy Haynes is looking for you. He needs a tenor player and I told him you’re the guy. Get back to New York.’ So the next day I’m on a plane.” Handy joined the drummer’s band for a performance on Long Island, which was attended by Charles Mingus’ widow, Sue. She hired him to play tenor in Mingus Dynasty and, before long, the entire portfolio of Mingus bands. Handy soon joined Abdullah Ibrahim’s group as well. “So I got saddled up with three gigs right away, and that was it,” he says. “I was off and running.”Originally Published