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Captain John Handy
Sax Altoist, Clarinetist
Pass Christian’s Little Known Internationally Famous Jazz Great
In April 1970, when the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was then celebrated as a 3-day weekend, events were held mainly in the Municipal Auditorium and at Beauregard Square that fronted the auditorium. Top billing was Mahalia Jackson and Captain Handy. Mahalia soulfully sang “Down by the Riverside,” “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” “Deep as the Sea,” and other gospel standards. Captain John Handy lead his jazz group, “Handy’s Louisiana Shakers” into many of his well known recorded pieces.
Now famous, Ellis Marsalis was just making his first introductions to fans as he played his piano with a group called the “All Stars.” At that time, Friday night performances were held in the Municipal Auditorium; Saturday activities at noon, opened with a street parade lead by the Eureka Brass Band that brought everyone to hear the open air performances in Beauregard Square. Saturday evening performances were with Al Hirt, Duke Ellington and others in the Auditorium. Sundays were staged with impromptu music sessions mixed with Blues, Cajun, and Gospel choirs held in Beauregard Square with food and crafts available.
That was Captain Handy’s last Jazz Fair, he died at age 70 in Pass Christian, just a few days after sitting in with his Pass friends as he played some of his favorite jazz and blues.
The Captain actually had two funeral observances. The first was at New Orleans where his body was taken to the Rhodes Funeral Home on North Claiborne Avenue to be waked for his many City friends. The following day his body was returned to Pass Christian for a second well-attended wake at Goodwill Baptist Church. Handy’s church, St. Paul’s United Methodist was still under repair due to Hurricane Camille damages which occurred just six months before. Handy had described “Camille” as the bluest note he had ever heard.
Harold DeJean, head of the Olympia Brass Band, echoed out, “We come to lay him down right!” The ritual is a tradition for New Orleans old musicians that seldom varies. The band lead the hearse in a somber funereal march to the cemetery, playing hymns all along the way. The lead trumpet rolled out the first notes of “Closer Walk With Thee.” Then they let loose with a sprightly march as they came away from the grave, blaring lively Dixieland tunes. The trumpets aimed heavenward, clarinets playing lower register, and the trombones flamed like burnished gold. The mourners strutted and trucked all along the band route.
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