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William Christopher Handy
Composer, Cornetist, Trumpeter, Schoolteacher, Editor
W.C. Handy (William Christopher Handy) is best known for “St. Louis Blues” (1913), which became the title of a film based on his life (1958), starring Nat King Cole. Handy taught himself cornet and trumpet over the objections of his preacher father who believed that anything but a hymn was the “devil’s music.” He became a schoolteacher but gave it up for higher paying jobs as a laborer.
In 1896 he joined Mahara’s Minstrels and toured the South with them until 1903. During this time he absorbed the songs and spirituals of southern blacks. He was the first to collect and transcribe these melodies and the people’s singing patterns. His transcriptions established the 12-bar blues pattern with its “bent” notes, perhaps his greatest gift to music, and he eventually edited four blues books.
By 1912 he had settled in Memphis where he wrote a campaign song for a mayoral candidate and sold it to a publishing house as “Memphis Blues.” He received no royalties from its success and so established his own publishing house with Harry Pace in 1913 to market “St. Louis Blues” and other works, including “Beale Street Blues,” which became jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden’s signature song.
Handy, known as “The Father of the Blues,” enjoyed recognition in his lifetime. Not only did he make black music acceptable to white audiences but his songs were incorporated into Broadway shows and Hollywood films and sung by popular singers such as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. Memphis named a park after him, the first jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House (1924) devoted its second half to Handy’s music, and he conducted a concert of black music at Carnegie Hall in 1928 (reprised in 1981). In 1969 he was honored with a U.S postage stamp.
-- Sandra Burlingame
Courtesy of JazzStandards.com
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