Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Carney, Harry (Howell)

When the teenaged Harry Carney came onto the jazz scene in the 1920s, the unwieldy baritone saxophone was little more than a novelty. But within a few years, his masterful tone was so widely imitated that the horn became a fixture of every big band in the country, starting with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, whose reed section he anchored for nearly five decades.

Carney was Ellington's most enduring collaborator; he joined Ellington at seventeen, and stayed by the bandleader's side until his death in 1972. His baritone playing became a distinctive element of the Ellington sound, and his skills as a soloist were featured frequently on Ellington mainstays, such as "Sophisticated Lady," "Caravan" and "Sepia Panorama."

Harry Howell Carney was born in Boston, Massachusetts, April 1st 1910. The Carneys were not a parcticularly musical family: niether his mother nor father played an instrument, although his father was fond of the opera. Harry started his musical journey on piano at age six. Though he took lessons and claims to have practiced religiously, Carney never truly excelled at the piano. Strangely enough, he claims he was particularly lacking in improvisational skills and learning by ear, the two primary skills of the jazz musician, especially in his era.

Young Harry, however, soon found his motivation to excel in music. Frustrated with the piano and noting the extra attention girls seemed to give horn players, Carney picked up the clarinet when he was thirteen. Carney joined a neighborhood band organized by Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order, in order to get his hands on an instrument and to receive lessons for the nominal cost of fifty cents per session. He found himself more at ease on the horn, and after about a year, he also took up the alto saxophone.

Carney grew up just a few doors down from his future colleague in the Ellington sax section, altoist Johnny Hodges. In their early teenage years, Hodges and Carney often got together to listen to each other's record collections. It was through these listening sessions that Carney was first exposed to the players he idolized: Buster Bailey and Don Murray on clarinet, and Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins on saxophone. Carney was learning both instruments quickly, and by age fifteen, he was good enough to play gigs with several local groups after school and on weekends.

By early 1927, Carney had convinced his mother to let him take a "vacation" to New York to try his hand at getting work in a bigger music scene. He traveled down with another saxophonist, Charlie Holmes, and quickly signed on with the relief band at the Savoy Ballroom, followed by a job at the Bamboo Room in a band led by Henry Sapro. The engagement with Sapro lasted three months and ended rather abruptly, when a fire burned the Bamboo Room to the ground.

Duke Ellington was a regular patron of the Bamboo Room at the time, and must have been impressed with Carney's talents. Not long after the fire, the two bumped into each other on Seventh Avenue and Ellington asked Carney to play with his band in Boston. Carney jumped at the chance to return to his hometown playing with Ellington, who was by then already a well-known bandleader.

Carney, or at least his mother, fully expected that the boy would return to his final year of high school after the engagement in Boston. But, as Carney put it in an interview with Stanley Dance, "Duke has always been a fluent talker and he out-talked my mother and got permission for me to stay with the band." Ellington served as Carney's de facto guardian for the saxophonist's first years with the band. Through the years ,the two forged a friendship and a musical connection which lasted longer than virtually any other in the history of jazz.

Nicknamed "Youth" by his bandmates, Carney was part of the expansion of the Ellington group from six pieces to eight when he first joined. Carney originally joined the band as the lead alto saxophonist and doubled on clarinet, only occasionally playing baritone sax.

Carney's first recording session with the Ellington band came on October 6th, 1927. The group cut two sides for the Victor label, "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Washington Wobble" that day, however neither were initially released. Only three weeks later the band was back in the studio and again recorded these two pieces along with "Creole Love Call" and "The Blues I Love to Sing", the latter two featuring singer Adelaide Hall. The October 26th recording of "Black and Tan Fantasy" is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of early Ellington. The recording is held in such regard that has been included in Grammy's Hall of Fame list of jazz singles.

On December 4th, 1927, the Ellington Orchestra opened its first engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem. By this time Ellington was already a national figure but his performances at the Cotton Club and the regular radio broadcasts that came with the engagement skyrocketed the band to national recognition. With growing fame and a steady gig Ellington again added new voices to the band in early 1928. Duke expanded the reed section in particular, bringing in Barney Bigard on clarinet and Carney's old friend from Boston, Johnny Hodges on lead alto. As part of the rearrangement Carney now primarily focused on baritone sax.

Through the end of the 1920s Carney settled into his new role with the Ellington band and refined his baritone sound. To this end, he drew inspiration from bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, who he credited with as the model for his big sound and powerful attack in the lower register of the horn.

As Carney perfected his approach to the baritone, Ellington began to feature Carney's unique and powerful sound in arrangements and solos. By 1930 Carney was a frequent featured soloist on baritone, a rarity at this time. One of the techniques Carney pioneered on the saxophone was circular breathing, which enabled him to hold a note indefinitely, and added to his ability to stand out as a soloist.

As Ellington became one of the leading figures in jazz of the Swing Era, Carney was right there by his side. Carney's unique instrumental voice was a major inspiration for Ellington as a composer and arranger, and his reliability and loyalty led to the two become close friends. By 1949, the two even quit riding the band bus and would drive together to shows whenever possible, preferring the quiet companionship of an old friend to the chaos and unpredictability of traveling with the band.

Carney made records with Ellington sidemen, put out a handful of solo records and even an album of baritone duets with Gerry Mulligan Carney stayed loyal to Ellington through the end, never leaving the band once from the time he joined as a teenager till Duke passed away in May of 1972. "Without Duke, I have nothing to live for," Carney said after the bandleader's death

Carney was often honored in jazz polls. His many honors include five straight years at the top of both the Down Beat and Metronome polls starting in 1944, Esquire Silver Awards in 1945 and 1947, and the Musician's poll in the Encyclopedia Yearbook in 1956. Carney died October 8th, 1974 in New York City, only two years after his long-time friend and leader.

Select Discography

Duke's Men: The Small Groups, Vol. 2 (Columbia/Legacy 48835)

Ken Burns Jazz: Duke Ellington (Columbia/Legacy 61444)

Duke Ellington Presents (Bethlehem 5019)

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Newport 1958 (Mosaic 1014)

Johnny Hodges: Hodge Podge (Epic EK 66972)

Contributor: Sean Lorre