Harry Carney Talks to Valerie Wilmer

Peter Clayton once advanced the amusing theory that the Ellington band must have a composite Picture of Dorian Gray tucked safely away somewhere. These cats just never seem to age, a fact particularly true of the saxophone section. Starting with the lean and rangy one, Paul Gonsalves never adds an ounce of weight, while the other youngster, the impish Jimmy Hamilton, still tries hard not to laugh while playing the tongue-in-cheek clarinet solos Duke writes for him. Messrs. Hodges and Procope are still the 'enfants terribles' of the orchestra, sitting making cynical comments on anyone in view. The 'good boy' of the section is straw-boss Harry Carney who always leads the men into 'A' Train, and obediently claps his hands and snaps his fingers whenever these extra embellishments are demanded by the leader.

The ever-reliable, consistent, beautiful Harry Carney; he is the one who looks younger with each passing year, and is just about the only big band musician I can think of who is never guilty of 'coasting'. What new things can be said about Harry ? Certainly no further comment is needed on the length of his tenure with Ellington. As far as his importance in jazz is concerned, it is quite probable that without his adoption of the baritone saxophone, such important voices as Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams would never have added their full-throated messages. Before Carney took up the instrument and gave it his own dark velvety sound, the baritone was used only for lending depth to ensemble passages and was just as obscure as the bass member of the family.

In the wrong hands the baritone is still a cumbersome, muddy-sounding horn—even Mulligan went through some pretty ponderous days before achieving facility. Harry Carney turned an ugly duckling into an eloquent swan.

His first instrument was the piano which he started studying "as a kid. But I couldn't do so well. I couldn't play jazz. I could only play the music put in front of me. Then my younger brother sat down and started playing by ear and that put me to shame.

"My next instrument was the clarinet which I played for about a year before I got a saxophone. I convinced my mother I should have one and when I got it, I thought it was the prettiest thing in the world. It was a silver alto with a gold bell and my mother paid $105.00 for it. That seemed like it was all the money in the world and she said I must be crazy. To her it was like me getting a toy and she thought I'd put it down after a while. But I was really serious about music.

"I played alto and clarinet up till when I joined Ellington in 1927. At that time it was a six-piece group with Bubber Miley, Joe Nanton, Freddy Guy, Wellman Braud and Sonny Greer, but it was augmented to an eight-piece by adding me and Rudy Jackson. Rudy was playing clarinet and tenor so both of us were playing clarinet all night long which was pretty much the same sort of thing. I got the idea of trying a baritone to get a different colour and sound, so I took it on the job and it went down so well with the guys and the people I've been stuck with it ever since!

"My mother came down to see us one night and she thought I'd blow my brains out because I was such a skinny kid and the instrument was bigger than me. She said I should quit!

"At that time the baritone was not very popular. Most baritone players doubled—it was usually alto and baritone. The instrument was only used to play parts in an arrangement although a few people like Joe Garland and Walter 'Foots' Thomas played good solos. But my favourite was Adrian Rollini who played bass sax, of course. I used to listen to him on records whenever I could. Still I didn't like the way the other guys were doing with it at that time. Adrian Rollini was playing melodies with such a beautiful tone so I tried to imitate it. In fact I was trying to make the baritone sound like a bass. And also Coleman Hawkins was an influence. I used to try to make it sound like a tenor as well!"

Harry is not a forceful character by any manner of means but since naturally there were no solos written for baritone in the 'twenties, he had to use the instrument for choruses where alto was originally prescribed. "My approach was different on baritone but I suppose the reason I liked it so much was because being such a young kid—I was only seventeen—I thought it had such a big sound and this made me feel like a mature man. I felt grown-up because of the attention it commanded."

Harry is very reluctant to acknowledge his single-handed establishment of the baritone as a solo instrument but grudgingly admits, "I think with me making records with the instrument it might have been an incentive for some guys. We made so many records and I usually had a solo on them. They used to call me 'The Youth' or "The Kid'—this was a nickname given to me by Freddy Guy. They'd say 'Did you hear "The Kid" play that solo on the broadcast?' What made me really feel good was that most of the guys in the band were much older and it was really a challenge to me. You see, I was a little cocky at that time!"

The sound that immediately identifies the Ellington orchestra is the Hodges-led reed section with Carney's powerful voice very prominent. This, apparently was not an entirely Ducal idea, but stems from the personality of the baritone player. "It started from way back. I always wanted to be heard and I think at times I played too loud until it got to be that identifiable sound. I guess Duke realised it too, and started writing good things for the baritone. Before that the parts were relatively simple.

"I've always been happy with Duke's music because he's always doing things. In the beginning at the Cotton Club I'd feel good all day long until I hit the door to go to work. I was never satisfied with what I played and I didn't think I was up to snuff.

"Several times I had offers to go with different bands and one time in 1928 I nearly did leave to go with Leon Abbey to South America. He had been to Europe and had a good band and aside from that I just wanted to go to South America. Of course I'm glad now that I didn't."

Unlike many members of the band Harry never does any writing although he used to do so at one time. "I don't have the patience", he says. He is, however, one of the first men Duke consults about charts during rehearsals. "Of course I offer suggestions and so on. Everybody has their own conception and various ideas are submitted and tried out. That's what gives the band its quality.

"The personnel remained intact for so many years really, the first one we lost was Cootie when he joined Benny Goodman and we all knew it would leave a big hole in the band. In a way, though, it started before that when Arthur Whetsol and Bubber Miley left the band. Everybody thought it would be the beginning of the end. But Duke takes everything in his stride and instead of having a replacement come in and play the same parts in the same style, he'd get another guy, find out what he did best and start writing things for him. In that way the band has progressed and each new man who comes in makes a contribution.

"The band has enjoyed so much popularity that when someone left even the critics would pan anything done by the replacement. Like when Ray Nance joined and took that solo on 'A' Train. Nobody liked it at the time but it has since become a classic. When Louis Bellson and Juan Tizol and Willie Smith joined the band and we did those things like The Hawk Talks and Skin Deep, all the guys liked it and it brought new life to the band. The critics said 'that's not Duke Ellington', but really it kept the band going.

"Another thing. Duke has always used other writers besides people in the band. Dick Vance put several things in the book like Just You, Just Me and Flyin’ Home, and Mary Lou Williams, we still have her arrangement of Blue Skies. That Tootie for Cootie is mostly a Jimmy Hamilton thing and Gerald Wilson did a Perdido for us. Cat bring in things once in a while so you see it keeps it going."

And something—the mysterious Ellington magic, no doubt—has kept Harry Carney going. When the band plays Britain in 1964 his solid, well-groomed figure and his luxuriant sound will still be very much in evidence. Something has also kept him from being affected by the rat-race and the more sordid side of the scene. He is one of the most courteous, considerate and interested musicians in jazz, and his reliability in every sphere is unquestionable. When a little too much 'partying' that this writer also suffered from caused him to be two hours late for a television rehearsal—a practically unheard of faux pas on his part—his comment was, "I wouldn't have minded so much, but they were all so nice about it." But with Harry Carney no-one could be otherwise.

April 1964

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