Thursday, April 01, 2010

Harry Carney at 100

Harry Howell Carney was born on April 1, 1910 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Earlier, I had written about how Benny Goodman inspired me to take up the clarinet. Not too long afterwards, my musical horizons expanded to include the great Duke Ellington. There were a lot of unique sounds in the band, but the one that stood out most for me was the deep baritone saxophone sound of Harry Carney.

Carney was an integral part of the Ellington sound, not only as a tonal foundation, but also as a nearly constant presence. He joined the band at age 16 in 1926 and was there until 1974. He was heavily featured, and even when he wasn’t, you knew he was there. One musician has remarked that Ellington had two sax sections – Harry Carney and the other guys.

Last year, I blogged about La Plus Belle Africaine. This version features Victor Gaskin - bass, Russell Procope –clarinet, Rufus Jones –drums, and the birthday boy.

When our high school jazz band needed a baritone sax player, I jumped at the opportunity. (At the time, the instrument and I were about the same size, so it should have been carrying me instead of vice versa.) I played it up until I graduated from college in 1981 .

Harry Carney was one of the first jazz musicians to use circular breathing. Rahsaan Roland Kirk learned it from him and it became one of his trademark concepts. (In a sense, Carney taught me circular breathing, too. The night Ellington died, they showed a video of him holding a long note in a concert performance of Sophisticated Lady. Until I had a visual image of what was going on, I couldn’t get the concept down.) This isn’t the same performance I saw back then, but it is of about the same vintage.

I never got a chance to see Ellington in person and was crushed when he passed away in May of 1974. When I heard that his son Mercer was continuing the band, I consoled myself with the thought that I could see Harry Carney. I’ll never forget one of my bandmates telling me that “that saxophone player you like” died; it was less than 5 months after Ellington. I guess he didn’t think I believe him, so he presented me with the newspaper clipping.
Happy 100th Birthday to Harry Carney!