JJ 04/63: In My Opinion – Harry Carney

Sixty years ago the Ellington baritonist enjoyed a big band bonanza, commenting on Webb, Lunceford, Henderson and more. First published in Jazz Journal April 1963

Harry Carney in 1960. Photo by Ted Bettencourt

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Harry Howell Carney is a long-term member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He joined Duke in 1926 and since that time his richly velvet and compelling style on baritone saxo­phone has been a corner stone of the band’s distinctive tonal quality. Loved by everyone (including his boss) Harry Carney is the perfect example of the genuine, reliable musician – a man who is entirely to be relied upon both by public and brother musicians alike. Harry doesn’t get as much time to listen to records as he would evidently like, so this was a session that was enjoyed immensely by us both. – Sinclair Traill

Liza. Chick Webb-Midnight In Harlem. Ace Of Hearts AH 32
Well, that certainly brings back memories – happy memories too. Chick Webb, he had a tremendous band, the precision was wonderful, the swing of course great, and as for Chick Webb, him well … He laid down a pattern for all big band drummers to follow, he could really drive a band. I remem­ber hearing him play Liza many times on visits to the Savoy Ballroom, it was one of the band’s biggest flagwavers. What a bunch of soloists he had at that time, Taft, Bobby Stark (there was a nice piece of trumpet from him in there), and the very good Sandy Williams on trombone. I saw Sandy a few days before we left to come over here, he came along to a recording session we were doing. I don’t think Sandy plays much these days, a pity, for he was a wonderful player – much better than I expect many people remember these days. He had a real explosive style on the blues, and a very big tone.

I did my first job at the Savoy, alongside Chick Webb. They had a masquerade ball which went on all night and instead of the nominal two bands, Chick Webb and Fess Williams, they put in a relief band. Professor Williams (did you know he is uncle to Charlie Mingus?) took a night off and Johnny Hodges got me the job in the relief band. I have forgotten who else was on the gig, except Charlie Holmes, but I was excited to be at the Savoy – and near frightened to death! It was out of that job that I got my first steady job at the Bamboo Inn. I had a job getting permission from my mother to remain in New York, but she eventually let me and I stayed there in that band until the Bamboo Inn was burnt down. It was whilst I was working there that Duke first heard me – he used to drift over from the Kentucky Club, just to listen to the band. Then one day I met him on the street and he suggested I came and joined him – so that’s how that started. It’s good, isn’t it, that bands like Chick Webb managed to record for posterity?

High-Low. Reuben Phillips-Big Band at the Apollo. Ascot AM 13004
This band of Reuben Phillips, which more or less lives at the Apollo, really drives the show. They always give the audience a big kick, for they are a real foot-tapping band – have a real strong rhythm section, with a tremendous drum­mer. The baritone man I know, Pete Clark, and of course Elmer Crumbley was with Jimmie Lunceford. Bo McCain came over here with us you know. It was 1950 I believe. The band play on the stage these days and Reuben must be one of the best leaders of an accompanying band there is. They accompany all the acts and do the job better than could anyone else. I didn’t know they had made a record, but it was certainly about due.

Hells Bells. Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra. Brunswick LAT 8027
Well, ain’t that funny! I’ve got to come all the way to England to hear records like these. That was wonderful. The Lunceford band had such a distinctive sound, I always did enjoy that band. But I enjoy all big bands, Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, all of them. If I hadn’t joined Duke, who would I liked to have played with? Well, being sensible and wise, I am sure I could have learned something by playing in any of those bands. Jimmie, you know, was a very strict disciplinarian with his band, but he was a very gentle man himself. Quiet, nicely spoken and very gentlemanly. It was because of his discipline that the band played that way; and they did perform consistently well all of the time. This was a band who, figuratively speaking, never had a night off-form – and that is amazing. That was a nice little bit from Willie Smith in there. I tried to see him when we were last out on the Coast, but didn’t manage it. He’s with Harry James, who, believe me, has a terrific band right now.

‘Bean’ the master! For me the end and beginning of all saxophone players. I suppose when I was much younger I tried to imitate Hawk as much as I could on my baritone

Sugar Foot Stomp. Fletcher Henderson-Smack. Ace Of Hearts AH 41
I’d recognise that sound anywhere! The great old Fletcher Henderson band. Rex Stewart, Claude Jones and an old friend of mine playing that low-register clarinet, Harvey Boone. He also played with Duke, you know, back in the early days; a fine player and a very good musician. And then of course there was my idol! He was then and still is, Coleman Hawkins. ‘Bean’ the master! For me the end and beginning of all saxophone players. I suppose when I was much younger I tried to imitate Hawk as much as I could on my baritone. I loved that wonderful tone quality he got; and I tried to emulate it. I only hope I succeeded. It is wonderful the way Hawk has progressed with the times without losing his individuality one bit. I mean he has absorbed so much of what has been going on around him, those modern trends, and yet he is still the one and only Coleman Hawkins – instantly recognisable. And for anyone who plays with him, he is still the man who sets the pace. We recorded with him just recently and it was a great honour to be sitting alongside him once again. I think it will be a fine record. I had played in a session with him once before on a record called Battle of Saxes. I can’t remember the label, but I’d very much like to locate a copy. Tab Smith and Don Byas were also on the date, and I remember it was a very interesting session – 1944 I think.

But to return to that record, that was a great band Fletcher had in those days. Way ahead of the times.

Pretty Ditty. Rex Stewart-Rendezvous with Rex. Felsted FAJ 7001
That was pretty. You know Rex is a fine composer. He’s written so many nice things. I had never heard that one before but it had the Stewart stamp alright. He always gives such delightful treatment to his tunes – tasteful and melodious. And what a lovely tone he gets out of that horn. He can also be very funny you know. I think impish is the word I want. Two people on that record I was glad to hear – Haywood Henry and Everett Barksdale. It’s good to hear records like this, keeps one up to date. I never get a chance to hear these people, Barksdale is always busy rushing from one studio to another, and we are always on the move, so we never meet up. Stanley, as always, has done a fine job with the liner notes here. He is the most punctual man I have ever met. If he is ever one minute late for one of our recording dates, just one minute, the whole band will start in to rib him. But he is usually there before us, and unlike so many other critics, he always stays to the very end. But we (the band I mean) have a lot to thank Stanley for, and you too if I may say so. It is very encouraging to be able to come over here and to know beforehand that someone is really rooting for you. I was a little worried when we opened first here with those new things we had just recorded for Reprise. I thought we should have played more of the old things, but they have gone well this time – the audiences really seemed to like the band. I was particularly happy about Guitar Amour. It wouldn’t go down everywhere, but Ray is so facile on his violin and has such a wonderful style, quite his own and such a wealth of ideas. He gets a big sound that fits with jazz.

Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me. George Wein – Jazz at the Modern
That’s another marvellous trumpet player – a wonderful player! Shorty Baker. Everything he plays is expertly handled and always in perfect taste. He was down to see us off when we left and we were all kind of sad he wasn’t coming along. But he is waiting to follow Jonah Jones into the Embers, with a group of his own. I hope he makes a success. He is such a lyrical player, and that is the right word for Shorty’s playing, lyrical, that he may make a big name in a place like the Embers. For the past year Shorty has been playing with another favourite sax player of mine, Bud Freeman. The impeccable gentleman, with that welcoming smile, Bud Free­man. A great player, who like Hawk has also moved with the times without losing in any way his own individuality. Bud commands respect wherever he plays. The Museum of Modern Art, where this record was made was the place Duke played a piano concert not so long ago. I think he should do more piano playing than he does – solo piano, I mean. He once played a wonderful concert with the Buffalo Symphony, and for me he has always been one of the greatest pianists. Of course he sinks much of his playing behind the band, setting up those rhythmic patterns and keeping the band sort of swinging – he loves doing that. But in recent years he has been playing more solo piano, and watching him I think he gets a big bang out of it.

Incidentally, that was a lovely record. George Wein plays good piano and of course our old friend Tyree Glenn is just wonderful. He’s another funny man, you know.

In A Mellow Tone. Count Basie-Breakfast Dance. Columbia SCX 3294
Basie set the right tempo there didn’t he – just right and swinging. And that opening trombone solo (Henry Coker?), it was one of the best trombone solos I ever remember hearing! The scoring there for the saxophone section was most in­teresting; they kept well together and were most capably led by Marshall Royal. And that Basie swing, that powerhouse swing, was much in evidence. Basie himself was there all the time, with the inescapable Freddie Green and Sonny Payne dropping his bombs right on the spot. When you hear Basie’s band you must always pat your foot – you can’t help it, they’re swinging down all the time.