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Drummer awarded first John Handy scholarship

June 20, 2008

Michael Spencer has traveled the world as a musician and become a fixture in the Bay Area jazz scene during his 20-year music career, playing with many accomplished musicians. But when the drummer auditioned for John Handy and a handful of SF State jazz faculty for a scholarship in Handy's name, Spencer felt his palms start to sweat before rolling through a series of swing, blues and Latin rhythms.

A black and white photo of saxophonist John Handy.
John Handy

"It felt funny that I was auditioning in front of people I have played with," Spencer said. "It was kind of strange at this point in my life, but I got real nervous."

A few weeks later, the 38-year-old Spencer learned he would receive the first John Handy Scholarship for Jazz Studies, named after Handy, an SF State alum and one of the most innovative saxophonists in post-World War II jazz.

The scholarship, started by Handy and his wife Del, helps students coming to SF State who plan to pursue a career in music. "We wanted to help people who are interested in, and dedicated to, doing something worthwhile with music in their careers," Handy said.

After he stopped touring, Spencer worked in the Berkeley Unified School District for six years, teaching drumming and math enrichment programs at Malcolm X Elementary while continuing to play gigs in the Bay Area.

Despite his experience, Spencer said he still has plenty to learn. "I'm a seasoned musician, but I can learn a lot more," he said. "There's a lot of theory I have to tackle, and I'm not the greatest music reader, but I'm looking forward to becoming a well-rounded drummer."

He credited Professor of Jazz Studies Dee Spencer (no relation) with encouraging him to return to school. Michael Spencer also said the deaths of two close friends made the decision to come to SF State more clear for him.

"I realized life is short," Michael Spencer said. "I've worked with kids and look forward to joining the teaching profession at some point and giving back what I've received. Going to SF State gives me the best opportunity to do that."

Dee Spencer said Michael Spencer will be an asset on campus because of what his experience and talent will bring to the classroom -- not to mention what he would bring to SF State's many ensembles.

"He's just extremely talented and able to perform in a variety of styles and settings," Dee Spencer said. "He has an innate ability to know the right accompaniment for any kind of situation. That's rare. He thinks very musically."

--Michael Bruntz



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