© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Harry Carney was just seventeen years old when he first came with me in '27. He owned a car and all his own instruments, and already had six thousand dollars in the bank. He started playing with us while on his summer vacation, which, of course, was the time of year when he made all of his money. Through systematic saving, he should be in very good shape now.
A very well-behaved, well-organized young man, he was immediately nicknamed "Youth" by Sonny Greer. He invited us to his home in Boston, where, he claims, Freddy Guy and Duke Ellington conned his beautiful mother, Mrs. Jenny Carney—a lovely lady, and a good cook known for her warm hospitality—into letting him come with us instead of going back to school. He's a little fatter now, but he still looks like his nickname.
Harry has always had a driving passion for driving, but he never lets anybody else but Harry Carney drive his car. As far back as I can remember, he has been driving it, and sometimes, when we're doing one-nighters, the distances between dates have been pretty long. This fact has only seemed to compound his passion, and I love to drive with Harry. He is not the world's greatest speed king, but he observes a very sound system of rules, of dos and don'ts. In other words, he is very careful, not for his own safety, but because, I think, he just doesn't want anything to happen to that car. Up until right now, I don't know of anyone else who has ever driven one of Harry Carney's cars.”
- Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress
“Though the seventeen-year-old Harry Carney had only a sliver of Braud's musical experience, he was to become the longest-lasting piece in the puzzle that was the Ellington Effect. He started playing with the band in June of 1927, and according to Carney, Ellington became a "sort of guardian" to him. Not only did he spend the rest of his life in the band, but Carney and Ellington eventually became the closest of companions. At the time, though, he was teased by his older bandmates, one of whom, Sonny Greer, nicknamed him "Youth." Even then he was, in Ellington's words, "a very well-behaved, well-organized young man," and he took his duties seriously enough to change instruments upon joining the band, having concluded that it would "give more variety" to the clarinet-dominated reed section if he started doubling on baritone saxophone.
Soon the big horn became his primary instrument: "My greatest kick with the instrument, which then seemed so much bigger than me, was that I was able to fill it and make some noise with it. I enjoyed the tone of it and I started to give it some serious study, and I've been carrying it around ever since." Influenced by Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson's Star soloist, and Adrian Rollini, whose bass saxophone graced the small-group records of Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, and Joe Venuti, Carney strived to duplicate Hawkins's facility and Rollini's tone, thereby becoming the first great baritone-sax soloist in jazz. Ellington was fascinated by the massive sound, dark as twice-burnt umber and fine-grained as mahogany, that Carney drew from the cumbersome instrument, and for the next half century it would serve as one of his signature timbres.”
- Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
“Harry Carney was born in Boston in 1910. He was still in his teens when Duke Ellington heard him in New York City and obtained his parents' permission to take him on the road with the band in 1926. By the time he had neared the end of his third decade with the band Carney had been acknowledged by jazz fans all over the world as the first, and for a long time almost the only, great jazz soloist on baritone sax. His rich, virile tone and compellingly individual style gave the Ellington band a unique tonal quality that now has become the sole throwback to the band's original distinctive sounds.”
- Leonard Feather, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz
“The baritone saxophone was Carney's preferred instrument, however, and he was the first (for many years the only) important jazz soloist on that instrument. In later years he made use of the technique of CIRCULAR BREATHING, which allowed him to sustain the flow of sound indefinitely. His distinctive, rich tone was an essential element of the Ellington sound, and his deep and precise voice anchored the reed section and added an unmistakable touch to the orchestra's performances.”
- JOSE HOSIASSON, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
Originally published by the distinguished Jazz author and critic Martin Williams in 1969, Harry Carney would have five more years “at home” before Duke Ellington’s death in 1974. After Ellington's death, Carney said: "This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke I have nothing to live for." Four months later, Carney also died.
This feature about Harry Carney, one of the great colorists in Jazz, is long overdue. You can locate this essay in Martin’s Jazz in Its Time, a compilation of his writings which first appeared in down beat, International Musician, Metronome, Jazz Times, The Saturday Review and High Fidelity.
"My greatest kick with the instrument, which then seemed much bigger than me, was that I was able to fill it, and make some noise with it. I enjoyed the tone of it and I started to give it some serious study. I've been carrying it around ever since."
Thus, speaking to Stanley Dance, did Harry Howell Carney describe his first encounter with the baritone sax. Carney is, to most musicians and fans, the archetypal jazz baritone saxophonist, but it happens that he was well established on alto sax and clarinet before he took up the instrument. Actually, people seriously ask him if he invented the larger horn, but he was not the "first" jazz baritone manner the last, to be sure.
Carney's onetime Duke Ellington colleague, the late cornetist Rex Stewart, once said that "as a general rule, when an instrumentalist really makes it big, everybody tries to imitate him. However, Carney's concept is unique, so personalized that no one has been able successfully to copy his style or his famous sonority on the baritone saxophone."
Carney has, Stewart continued, "a range . . . that surpasses credibility, He plays the higher octaves not only in tune but with a tenderness that is sometimes mindful of a cello's sound. Then, when called for, he's able to attack the sonorous bottom of the horn with such vigor and vitality that it is small wonder he has been the anchor man in Ellington's orchestra for these many years." He has also learned a trick or two of breath control that enables him to hold the long tones that Ellington favors.
"There may be a poll he hasn't won," Stewart added, "but I don't know which it could be."
Neither of Carney's parents was particularly musical, but his own music education began in his hometown of Boston, with piano lessons in 1916 when he was six years of age. It did not go well in a sense; while Carney dutifully studied his classics, the neighborhood seemed full of self-taught little prodigies who could pick out popular ditties and the blues, and even ad lib on them, all on their own. To add to all this, his younger brother sat down on the piano bench one day and, with no preparation or study whatever simply started to play—at least, so Harry Carney remembers it.
Nevertheless, Harry kept up his scales and practiced his pieces for annual recitals, he went to school, and he sold Boston newspapers in whatever spare time was left.
Carney's was a musical neighborhood. There was Leonard Withers, a young pianist. There was James "Buster" Tolliver, who played reeds and later became a well-known arranger. There was Johnny Hodges, who moved across the river from Cambridge when Carney was a teenager. By that time, Carney himself had switched to clarinet. His first reasons were not exactly musical. He noticed that at dances, Tolliver played piano the first half and clarinet after intermission, and "he always seemed to be surrounded by the girls when he got through playing the clarinet, and by now I had reached an age when I was conscious of the girls, so . . ."
Tolliver explained that Carney could get clarinet lessons at a nominal fee, with the instrument supplied, if he joined the Knights of Pythias Band. Soon, inspired by Buster Bailey and Don Murray, he was, as he puts it, "alarming the whole neighborhood with my practicing," until someone thought he was good and offered him local jobs. "I was so anxious to prove to everybody I could play," he once explained to Dom Cerulli in Down Beat, "that I'd just open the window and play loud. People used to say I slept with that clarinet. The truth is, I was never without it."
Soon he added alto saxophone, and found it easier to get a better sound on the large instrument. He and Hodges began to practice together. Carney was listening to Sidney Bechet's records by now, and Coleman Hawkins' ("Hawk was actually my idol . . . and he still is").
In the spring of 1927, when he was seventeen, Carney persuaded his mother to let him take a trip to New York with another soon-to-be-well-known alto player from Boston, Charlie Holmes. They went to see Hodges, now with the Chick Webb band at the Savoy, and before long Carney had a job or two himself. One of these, with Henry Sapro at a place called the Bamboo Inn, lasted a while. One man who heard him there was a young pianist-band leader, then on the way up, named Duke Ellington.
These were exciting days for the young instrumentalist. "I couldn't believe it," he told Cerulli. "I could see my favorite musicians every afternoon. Just to have a chance to talk with them meant so much to me. I used to eat at a restaurant at 131st Street. But this is how I ate: I'd order, and then run outside for a bit, then I'd come back in and eat a little, then I'd go outside again. I just didn't want to miss anything."
Then one day on the street, Ellington approached him: a New England tour was coming up, and Otto "Toby" Hardwicke wouldn't be making it. Could Carney come along? He could indeed. The trip, which would include Boston, might even help his homesickness.
The job with Ellington was supposed to have been temporary but it became permanent, which means that Carney has been with Ellington for forty-one years now.
There seems to be a minor disagreement among several observers as to whether it was originally Ellington's idea or Carney's that he switch from alto to baritone (perhaps neither of the principals involved will say for sure by now), but Ellington certainly wanted the change and Carney certainly took to it. He acknowledges the influences of Hardwicke and Joe Garland (who played some baritone), but he told Stanley Dance that chiefly he "tried to make the upper register sound like Coleman Hawkins and the lower register like Adrian Rollini," whose bass saxophone he admired.
The first important job the Ellington band had after Carney joined was at the Harlem Cotton Club, and with the club's success and with nightly broadcasts, Ellington's career as a major figure in American music was under way. The subsequent story is one of growth—for Ellington as composer and leader, for his ensembles, and for Harry Carney on the instrument of his final choice. "Fortunately or unfortunately," he explained modestly to Dance, "there's nearly always been a better clarinetist in the band, I left the clarinet up to him."
As anyone who has watched Carney for only a few minutes will conclude, modesty is a key word. "If it is true," Stewart suggested, "that early environment shapes the individual, as I happen to believe, then it becomes clear why Carney developed into such a likable human being, since he is the product of a most harmonious household. I well remember how his parents always extended themselves in making Harry's band-buddies welcome every time we played Boston."
Carney still calls joining Ellington his greatest single achievement. "I was always surprised when fellows left the band," he says. With Ellington, "there was always something going on. I just loved it. He was always experimenting. And I liked his outlook. I liked the way he thought about music. It was right up my alley."
The mutual respect took a somewhat different turn about 1949. Carney, whose hobby up to that time had been photography, indulged his longstanding admiration of cars and bought one. He soon acquired a regular passenger on band hops: his boss. "Duke sleeps occasionally but not as a rule. He's a very good man to have along." Ellington thinks, or he makes notes. "We do very little talking, but if he thinks I'm getting weary, he'll make conversation so that I don't fall asleep."
Being on the road has its good side, "There's one thing about traveling: it always gives you something to look forward to, even if it's no more than going to another town to see people there you know."
Carney remembers those people, and they remember him. Stewart recalled that, "when the mood strikes him, he will get on the phone and spend hours calling all over the country to his friends. He carries several little address books with him, and his friends can expect to hear from Harry some time during the year." And when the orchestra takes an intermission, it is Carney who willingly chats with the people and signs autographs. "I have often watched him snatch his horn from his mouth when he had a two-bar rest to inform someone of the title of the tune the band was playing . . . while other musicians . . . ignore the question."
Carney was once a fan himself, and he obviously remembers how it felt. He also reads the jazz press, American and foreign, with much the same eagerness as he had as a younger man. The young fans often seem more serious in their questions to him than they once did— they ask about reeds and mouthpieces, about breathing. "But I feel jazz has become a part of American culture today. It's a language that is spoken everywhere. And it's not only the music, it's the people who play it."
Carney has been playing it for over four decades as a leading instrumentalist with a leading orchestra, and as is often remarked, he looks almost as young as he did thirty years ago. "I liked the nightlife and the people we'd meet,” he says looking back. "I looked forward to going to work every night. And I still do." (1969)
"In 1954 or '55, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn kd written a piece for Harry Carney and me. I loved doing it with them. I was around the band a lot and around Duke a lot. We traveled together on those shows [Jazz at the Philharmonic] for four or five years. By that time, we were old friends. I had great feelings and respect for him. I loved his approach to music. Duke always introduced me as the world's second-best baritone player, and Harry and I became great friends. We wound up in Japan at the time, and Harry and I hung out in Tokyo for days. What a gentle, smart man he was."
The piece that Ellington and Strayhorn wrote for Mulligan and Carney was "Prima Bara Dubla." It was performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1958 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mulligan as the guest soloist. In the liner notes for the resulting album, Newport 1958, Irving Townsend pointed out that "The highlight of the concert was when the kings of the baritone sax, Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney, stood in the limelight …”
Sanford Josephson, Jeru’s Journey: The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan