Craig Handy
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Craig Handy

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
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"So Jersey, He Deserves His Own Rest Area"

''IT'S old home week. I just lo-o-o-o-ve working in Jersey.''

Joe Piscopo was speaking to no one -- and everyone -- as he opened his most recent stand in the Copa Lounge at the Sands Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. For the next month, Mr. Piscopo will be host to a variety show of sorts here at the Sands, the smallest of the city's casinos. The shows have been (and will be) eclectic and somewhat Jersey-centric -- Danny Aiello, who lives in Saddle River, sang standards one night; Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior on ''The Sopranos,'' was the singing star on opening night, July 23; and New Jersey comics like Gumba Johnny and Big Daddy Graham are scheduled to appear later this month.

But no one is seemingly more Jersey than Mr. Piscopo. For a guy who was a star on ''Saturday Night Live'' and who worked in Hollywood, this comes across as his dream job: Joe Piscopo, M.C. at the Sands.

Search references on him and they are most often about his Jersey-guyness, as if he had no career beyond that. More often than not, those references feel pejorative, equating his New Jerseyness to something unseemly or, at least, unsophisticated.

Yet, really, do they call Letterman ''Indiana Guy,'' or did they smirk at Carson as ''Nebraska Guy,'' even though their home states were way more off the radar than New Jersey?

But Mr. Piscopo merely shrugged at the winks and nudges, and decided to revel, not wallow, in his Garden State stigma.

''When I started doing the 'What exit?' jokes on 'Saturday Night Live,' it was out of a passion for the greatest place in the universe,'' Mr. Piscopo said. ''Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, you think the Jersey connection hurt them?'' Mr. Piscopo was born in Passaic 54 years ago and lived around the northern part of the state for most of the years after that, save for short stays in California and New York and attending Jones College in Florida.

Mr. Piscopo achieved his greatest fame when, at age 29, he was among those chosen to be part of the first major overhaul of the ''Saturday Night Live'' cast in 1980. The original cast members -- John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner -- had left. Most of the new members were busts: forgotten names like Tony Rosato, Mitchell Kriegman, Yvonne Hudson, Charles Rocket and Patrick Weathers. Of that group, only Eddie Murphy and Mr. Piscopo had long runs on the show. In his four years there, Mr. Piscopo served up right-on impressions of Sinatra, Letterman, Dan Rather, Andy Rooney and Jimmy Carter. His signal bits, though, were the shouting laconic sports anchor and Paulie Herman, ''The Jersey Guy.''

''It was strictly out of love,'' Mr. Piscopo said. ''I never thought I represented the state badly. After all, I was, truly, a Jersey guy.''

Even when he made it big, it was still a Jersey thing. Mr. Piscopo's father, also named Joe, was a lawyer and the family mostly lived in Essex County, the younger Joe graduating from West Essex High School in North Caldwell. With his ''Saturday Night Live'' fame, he moved to one of the richest corners of New Jersey, Alpine, persuading Mr. Murphy to join him there in that wealthy enclave by the Palisades.

It was in Alpine that Mr. Piscopo struggled through a bout with thyroid cancer, weathered a nasty divorce from his first wife, Nancy, and met his current wife, Kimberly, who was, for a time, his son Joey's baby sitter.

The Piscopos now live in rural Hunterdon County. Joey is 26 and out of the house, but there are two younger Piscopos: Alexandra, 6, and Michael, 9 months.

''I don't worry about it, there were even older dads than me at the preschool,'' he said, and then the inevitable joke. ''That isn't the problem. It's all these little kids running around nursing homes, bothering their parents.''

Unlike Adam Sandler, Bill Murray and Mr. Murphy, who parlayed their ''Saturday Night Live'' fame into movie stardom, Mr. Piscopo's film career has been a bit abortive, his most prominent roles coming in mid-level 1980's movies like ''Wise Guys'' and ''Johnny Dangerously.'' Still, he continued to work regularly in comedy clubs, in Las Vegas, on Broadway and on the road in shows like ''Grease.'' And he was memorable in Miller Lite and Bally's spa ads.

''In truth, he has always been around and always smiling,'' Mr. Aiello said. ''I met him when he would come perform at the Improv in New York and I was a bouncer. He always said the nicest things to everyone. I don't understand why anyone would make fun of him just for being Jersey.''
Mr. Piscopo was also ridiculed in the 1980's when he pumped up his muscles and became involved with bodybuilding, a reaction, he said, to his cancer.

''You get scared and try to figure out what is going to keep you healthy,'' said Mr. Piscopo, who is now slim, but certainly not gaunt. ''I did it for a few years, but when I stopped, I just stopped. I don't do anything now. I'm a little embarrassed by that, but my big exercise is carrying around - The New York Times by Robert Strauss


Discography

1991 - Split Second Timing - Arabesque
1993 - Introducing Three for All & One - Arabesque
2000 - Reflections in Change - Sirocco Jazz Ltd.
2000 - Flow - Sirocco Jazz Ltd.

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Bio

From the time he arrived in New York at age 23 in 1986, saxophonist Craig Handy was acknowledged as a musician with big, burly tenor sound, sharp wit, and above all, individuality. Over the next few years he would breath life into those accolades through a number of important associations: holding his own on the front line of legendary bebop drummer Roy Haynes’ band, working with South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and weaving sensuous obbligati behind Betty Carter on the kind of tunes most young artist are presumed not to understand.

Handy cites each experience as having a profound impact on his development. “Working with Ibrahim taught me a lot about thematic development,” states the saxophonist. “He lays down simple melodies that build on each other, and listening to his compositions remind me of great architecture.”

Recalling the time he spent with Betty Carter describes her as “a wonderful songstress, great mentor, and nurturer who instills confidence.” And in Haynes he found a master timekeeper who can teach you when to jump and when not to. “He’s like a cat in the jungle,” Handy notes. “He judges very carefully, that moment when he can capture an audience, then at just the right time he pounces!”

Handy has also contributed a Mingus-like brash and confidence tone to the Mingus Dynasty—an association which led to another important connection. "I was playing with Mingus Dynasty at the Bottom Line when I first met Bill Cosby,” Handy recounts. “He came up and introduced himself and said that he was going to call me. I thought 'yeah, right.’”

Cosby did call Handy, and invited him to be the featured artist on the recording of the theme for the “Cosby Show” for the 1989-90 season. Handy would also go on to score, produce and perform the music for the 1994-95 season of “The Cosby Mysteries”. It wasn’t long after the lesson of his New York apprenticeship that Handy made his recording debut as a leader. In 1992 the Arabesque label released “Split Second Timing,” an album named after something Handy heard onstage nightly during his tenure in Art Blakey’s band in 1989. “Blakey used to sasy the music came ‘from the creator to the artist, direct to you the audience with split-second timing,’” recalled Handy.

Two years later in 1994, also for Arabesque, Handy recorded “Introducing Three For All + One.” Featuring the saxophonist primarily in trio with bassist Charles Fambrough and drummer Ralph Peterson, “Three For All” was acclaimed by CD Review as “one of the leanest, meanest groups playing jazz.”

“What’s most dazzling about his second disc is his individuality,” wrote Norman Weinstein for the Boston Phoenix. “Handy soars. He transforms ‘Spinning Wheel’ by Blood, Sweat & Tears into cubist calliope music. He empties the sappy sentimentality out of standards by Gordon Jenkins and Marvin Hamlisch, replacing them with taut passion. Already a technical master in his 20s, he has, unlike many of his generation, decided that what comes after technique is haunting communication.”

Another significant phase in Handy’s career was the work he began in the mid-80’s with Haitian and salsa bands. “Those bands were killing rhythmically,” exclaimed Handy. “The rhythms would loop over each other creating a texture and soundscape that’s very sophisticated and funky. The artists in these bands also paid special attention to phrasing and playing together, and these are elements that are common to good musicianship in any idiom.”

Born in Oakland, California on September 25, 1962, Handy played guitar, trombone, and piano before he fell in love with the saxophone after hearing Dexter Gordon on the radio. “I was captivated by the deepness and the richness, the robustness of Gordon’s tone,” says Handy. “The directness of his ideas also impressed me.”

After participating in the renowned Berkeley High School jazz program—which also produced David Murray, Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, and Joshua Redman—Handy earned the highly competitive Charlie Parker Scholarship award which allowed him to study at North Texas State University. He attended North Texas for two and a half years, majoring in psychology and playing in the school’s prestigious One O’Clock Lab Band.

More recently, Handy appeared on two recordings for the “Chartbusters,” a band comprised of Handy, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and drummer Idris Muhammad. Released in 1995 on the NYC label, the group’s first disc, the critically acclaimed “Chartbusters! Volume 1,” paid homage to the Blue Note records of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. “Mating Cal,” the groups second album which was co-produced by Handy, has been released by Prestige. In the fall of 1996, Handy can be seen on the big screen in the Robert Altman film titled “Kansan City,” portraying a character based on the late Coleman Hawkins. Also in 1996, Handy can be seen touring with one of the most prominent voices in modern jazz—pianist Herbie Hancock.

“Herbie is perfecti