© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I want to congratulate Barbara Gardner for the splendid work she's done on articles interviewing jazz vocalists. So far I've read articles about Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams, and all of them were great.
Miss Gardner is a sensitive, engrossing writer, with a beautiful fund of wittiness and charm and humor. I hope in the future, she will continue to write inspiring, warm-hearted articles on vocalists as she has so beautifully done in the past.
Roy E. Lott
St. Louis, Mo.”
- Chords and Discords, January 28, 1965, Down Beat
The following interview appeared in the January 28, 1965 edition of Down Beat and while it does not involve a vocalist, it does involve Barbara’s assured and eloquent way of putting the person she is interviewing at ease which allows for a flowing almost conversational style of interviewing.
It’s always a pleasure to feature Barbara’s work on JazzProfiles most particularly in this case because the editorial staff has wanted to do a piece on Sweets Edison for some time, but couldn’t seem to find a vehicle that would do him justice.
Following Barbara’s interview, you’ll find a video montage that features Harry Edison’s quartet with Arnold Ross on piano, Joe Comfort on bass and Alvin Stoller on drums. The group was formed to work the Tuesday night sessions at The Haig, which for a time, was the busiest Jazz club in Hollywood. The music on the video is from a Pacific Jazz LP entitled ‘Sweets’ at The Haig: The Harry Edison Quartet [PJLP - 4] which was recorded in 1953 on portable Ampex equipment [which accounts for the poor audio quality; you may have to crank up you speakers].
“THE "IN" MAN of the time was the President of the tenor saxophone, Lester Young. He watched and listened to the 21-year-old musician.
"We're going to call you Sweetie-Pie," said the president jokingly to the talented, but young, trumpet player.
In a few months the nickname had been shortened to Sweets, and from that time until now, the given name, Harold Edison, seldom has been heard.
The name Sweets has stuck, as has the purity and clarity of his trumpet tone, unimpaired since the day he joined Young and other leading jazzmen in the Count Basie Band in 1937. The more than 20 years intervening have been marked by a surprisingly even level of acceptance and security. He remained almost without interruption with Basie until the 1950 collapse of the big band. For the-next few years, he toured the country, either as a single or as a star attraction with such performers as bandleader-drummer Buddy Rich and entertainer Josephine Baker.
In 1953 he decided to make a stand on the West Coast. This was a courageous decision, for the West Coast then was riding the crest of the "cool" movement. Modernists and experimentalists were setting the tone, and it was a tribute to Edison's ability as a musician that he, a swing-era trumpeter, was able to survive in this environment.
In fact, he actually prospered and came to enjoy an economically sound footing not easily found in jazz. For the next five years he was the master "soul bearer" of the West Coast. Frank Sinatra never recorded without him. Nelson Riddle's trumpet section swelled with his stinging, swinging horn. The movies Man with the Golden Arm, Pal Joey, Joker Is Wild, House Boat, The Girl Most Likely all boast the steady, lyric trumpet of Sweets Edison on the soundtrack. He was on first call at two of Hollywood's major film studios.
In September, 1958, Edison put the West Coast cushion of financial security and musical acceptance behind him and moved east to resume the unstable, roving life he had led for 15 years — that of a traveling musician.
"I think anybody used to traveling — they get that urge, you know?" he said. "Just want to get on the road — see some of your old friends."
When he formed his own quintet, he found that traveling the nightclub scene was not without change. The first twang of unfamiliarity he heard was in the ever-changing, driving Basie band sound.
"Different band . . .," Edison murmured. "Different band altogether. The band Basie has today is more rehearsed. They don't have the soloists like he had in the old band: Lester Young — the president of the modern style — Hershel Evans, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton — all these guys were the epitome of their profession. There were none greater in those days."
It is interesting that while he makes this statement as unequivocally today as he did in 1958, the personnel of the Basie band has undergone numerous changes in the last six years and more than 75 percent of current Basie-ites have joined the band in the last three years. In singling out individual members, Edison pays special attention to one trumpet player who left the band a few years ago and who has been hailed repeatedly as an Edison disciple.
"I liked Joe Newman with that band," Edison said. "I like him very much. Now, about any influence I might have had on the younger guys. ... I guess Joe Newman plays more like myself than anybody. Of course, we played together for quite some time in Basie's band. He's a good trumpet player. He might use a few things I use, but he's got his own style."
Newman, told of this remark, smiled and shrugged expressively.
"Sweets was a great influence on me musically," Newman admitted. "I listened to him while I was growing up—musically. But now, I just play like myself, I think."
THE TENDENCY to disclaim emulation in music goes perhaps as far back as the tendency to accuse itself. Edison is included. Every leading critic or writer who has attempted to analyze his work has come up with the assertion that in the early days of his career Edison was a Roy Eldridge emulator. Edison has his own thoughts on this:
"I never tried to emulate him. He adapted himself to playing in the high register of his horn — this I never do. I usually play in the bottom register of my horn, which may be poor, but I try."
Eldridge is not listed among his current favorite trumpet players.
"Miles is a good trumpet player," Edison said. "I like him very much. He has a good style — a very relaxed style. I like Dizzy Gillespie, who I think is just — well, he's just marvelous on his horn. And, naturally, Louis Armstrong to me is the daddy of all the trumpet players because if it hadn't been for him, I don't think we'd have known what the trumpet would have been all about."
Edison looks paternally on the younger generation of musicians.
"The younger musicians are not like the older generation, naturally," he said. "Discipline is one thing most of them don't have nowadays. Like anything else—in other areas besides music — the young people don't have that discipline. Even in school, they're not like we used to be. But some people — the worse they act, the more publicity they get. And some others, the better they act, they never get any. So who knows? Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? You never know."
As a successful transitional trumpeter, Edison is sensitive to the various attempts to categorize jazz.
"They keep saying 'mainstream jazz' and 'progressive jazz,' but I think music is music," he declared. "All these names are just new names for music. If it sounds good, and if it is good, then it's just music."
He is not bothered by the various tags and names, and the trend to change the name of the music from jazz to "modern music" or "progressive sounds" has no validity for him.
"I can't find another name for jazz — no more than just good music," he said.
As for his own style, Edison states it simply:
"I like to play on the beat. I like to swing. Anything I play, I like to play at a tempo that's not going to drag people — it's not going to drag myself. I think it should be danceable, and to play something danceable, you have to stomp it off at a dance tempo."
A bit of the subtle Edison wit was discernible in his comment on a critic's remark that he plays occasional cascades of notes.
"Umm . . . 'cascade,' " he mused. "I've never run across that word musically. . . .
But evidently, the writer must have had something in mind. They're always bringing up new words for music, maybe that's a new one. As long as it was favorable, I hope he — whoever wrote it — I hope he enjoyed it."
THE GOOD OL' DAYS bear resplendent memories for Edison, and he still clings tenaciously to thoughts of the period when he was surrounded by undisputed giants of his profession.
"We had more fun then than they do nowadays," he reflected. "Well, it has to do with the taxes. You have to make so much money now to exist. In those days you could make a little money and live like a king. If you made $2 a night, that would last you two or three days. Now, $2 won't even buy you cigarettes for a day."
Did Edison ever actually work for $2 a night? He threw back his head, clapped his hands, and exclaimed:
"Are you kidding? Two dollars a day was big money— that was room rent and food for a week."
While most musicians have preferences in types of music or places to play, Edison regards these preferences only as other whims of the pampered generation.
"If they were playing from 9 to 4," he said, "they would say, 'Certainly would like to get some concerts— get something easy for a change.' Then when they play concerts, they say they are not getting a chance to play. So I just say if you play any place, you're blessed — with so many musicians out of work."
His personal experience with unemployment has been mostly quite brief. He joined forces with singer Joe Williams for a while but then left to drift around New York and points east as a single or a recording artist. Finally, he returned to the West Coast to settle into the same groove he was in before he went east in 1958. He works the studio jobs, some club dates, flits across the country on special assignments for the major labels or studios.
Having spent so much time as a favored musician in an environment conducive to democratic living, Edison has developed a balanced, middle-class attitude toward Jim Crow and its opposite, Crow Jim.
"Well, I really don't like to talk about the race question," he said, his soft, rather gravelly voice dropping. "Because I really don't have any qualms about it at all. I think a person is a person."
Discarding the Crow Jim premise that only Negroes can truly play jazz, he continued:
"God made us all the same — so if one man's got a soul, then why shouldn't another person have one?"
He thought the matter over a second and concluded, "We've [Negroes] had more misery than anybody else, so naturally we play the blues better than anybody.
That's typical race music. That comes from being sad. You have money today — tomorrow you might get put out. That's all in your music."”