NEW YORK -- American popular music depends on entrepreneurs as well as musicians, and William Christopher Handy was a savvy combination of both. The W.C. Handy Foundation marked his 125th birthday -- he was born Nov. 11, 1873 -- with a concert at Alice Tully Hall earlier this week, bringing together singers and musicians who will tour cities associated with Handy from May until November.

Handy was a cornetist in minstrel shows, a brass-band leader and the first composer to publish a blues, "Memphis Blues" in 1912. He soon realized the value of copyrights and started his own publishing company. He was also an early advocate of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (Ascap), the songwriters' organization."He took ragtime and changed it into blues," said pianist Terry Waldo, demonstrating some of the structural innovations Handy put into print. Historians have considered Handy more a businessman than a musician, collecting and consolidating the music he heard around him.

Handy himself described his job as being "to dream and build upon our folk melodies." But whether he was inventing or selecting musical ideas, he had an ear for shapely melodies and archetypal lyrics. His name was attached to songs that have served blues and jazz musicians through nearly a century.

With Frank Owens conducting a big band plus a string section, the overstuffed concert presented Handy's songs as gutsy blues, orchestrated ragtime, spirituals, swing arrangements, jazz ballads, modern pop-soul and briefly as a backup for tap-dancing children. Paul Robeson Jr. narrated Handy's biography between selections; Valerie Simpson announced a scholarship sponsored by Ascap in Handy's name.

The songs could be summed up as heartbreak with a map, juxtaposing confessions of woe with local references. Ruth Brisbane growled "Yellow Dog Blues" in the style of Bessie Smith; M'zuri gave a sultry warmth to the New Orleans bounce of "Chante les Bas"; Freddie Cole let his voice soft-shoe through "St. Louis Blues," neatly understating its desolation. Emme Kemp sang spirituals with restrained dignity and later took over the piano for a boogie-flavored "Atlanta Blues." Genovis Albright, a pianist and singer, treated "Harlem Blues" with modal piano harmonies and ululating improvisations. And Sandra Reeves-Phillips belted "St. Louis Blues" with charismatic fervor, flinging her feather boa across the stage.

The band, which will not tour with the singers, handled the arrangements with the aplomb of first-rate freelancers, particularly when sparked by solos like Al Grey's earthy, urbane, plunger-muted trombone lines or Virgil Jones' jaunty New Orleans-style trumpet.