[JPL] Boston Jazz History/Carney & Duke

Jae Sinnett jaejazz at yahoo.com
Sat Sep 2 16:07:44 EDT 2006

Thanks Eric and Tom for this information. Tom, was the 54 session Ben Webster's or Carney's? Or was Ben in the band led by Carney and somehow it ended under Ben's name? It's a little odd that it's not under Harry's name if it was his session. Eric if you have a listing of who played in the "Big Eight" with Harry and a couple song titles that would be great. Thanks, 
  Jae Sinnett 

Tom Reney <tr at wfcr.org> wrote:

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Re: Harry Carney: Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Boston Globe Magazine in 1999 that describes his relationship with Duke, which began when Carney was a 16 year-old. When Ellington died, he said, "This is the worst day of my life. I have nothing to live for." Whitney Balliett put it well when he wrote that Carney "died of bereavement;" he passed on October 8, 1974, four-and-a-half months after Duke's death on May 24, 1974. (Note that Paul Gonsalves died on May 14, ten days before Duke, in London, and he was waked along with Ellington at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in New York City.)

Carney made a couple of dates as a leader, one for Keynote in the mid-1940's, the other for Clef around 1954. You'll find the latter on the Ben Webster two-disc Verve set entitled "Music for Loving." The Carney date features arrangements by Ralph Burns, and it's beautiful.


Back in the mid-1920's, when Ellington was just beginning to gain a foothold in the New York nightclub world, he would spend the summer months playing a circuit of theatres, dance halls, and pavilions throughout Greater Boston. According to Mark Tucker's Early Ellington, his itinerary for 1926 included 24 appearances in the area between July 12 and August 13. The following summer, he played 33 engagements around the Hub, including nine performances at the Charleshurst Ballroom in Salem Willows. Salem was the base of operations for Charlie Shribman, who operated a chain of ballrooms in New England and handled bookings for Ellington and other bands. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington recalled Shribman as a man who "nursed" bands, "would send for them and keep them working...Yet [he] never owned a piece of any band or anybody...I cannot imagine what would have happened to the big bands if it had not been for Charlie Shribman." 

During the summer of 1926, 16-year-old Harry Carney from Cunard Street in Mission Hill played alto and baritone saxophones in the reed section of the Ellington band, spelling Otto Hardwick and making a favorable impression on the leader. Carney had begun piano lessons at age six, but after noticing that one of his boyhood friends, Buster Tolliver, "always seemed to be surrounded by the girls when he got through playing the clarinet," he joined a Knights of Pythias band where he was trained on a variety of instruments, including clarinet. However, "after alarming the whole neighborhood with my practicing...I learned that saxophone was much easier...and because I played it so loudly, after-school jobs started to come in," Carney recalled in The World of Duke Ellington, Stanley Dance's invaluable oral history. 

In April 1927, Ellington offered Carney a permanent job with the band. "I was supposed to have returned to school," he said, "but Duke, always...a fluent talker...out-talked my mother and got permission for me to stay with the band," thus beginning a tenure that would last 47 years. Carney's majestic baritone sax not only anchored the orchestra for nearly half a century, but his sound, which is without equal in jazz, provided Ellington with one of the richest colors in his tonal palette. 

Rex Stewart, the trumpeter and Ellingtonian whose vivid writings on the jazz life were published in the collection Jazz Masters of the Thirties, suggested that Carney's "career with Duke must set a record of some sort for longevity." Stewart also surmised that Carney was "such a likeable human being...since he is the product of a most harmonious household...His parents always extended themselves...every time we played Boston. [His] mother would put on a feast that even now makes my mouth water, especially those codfish cakes, hot rolls, and baked beans...Any member of the group who was ever exposed to the Carney hospitality has never forgotten it."

Little wonder then that Ellington was especially enthused when telling audiences that "Harry Carney has come all the way from Boston, Massachusetts to lead us into 'Jam With Sam'," the tune that served as a roll call of the band's great soloists. During the last two decades of their lives (Carney died within six months of Ellington in 1974), they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles together with Carney at the wheel of his Chrysler Imperial. "He's a great fellow," Carney said of his boss, "and it's not only been an education being with him but also a great pleasure. At times I've been ashamed to take the money!"

And the money was considerable. While Ellington earned large sums from royalties on his many popular songs-- "Mood Indigo," "In A Sentimental Mood," "I'm Just a Lucky So and So," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Satin Doll," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"-- he never got rich, preferring instead to keep his highly paid orchestra, his "sounding board," on tap so he could hear his music as it was being created. 

"Ellington plays the piano," Billy Strayhorn famously observed, "But his real instrument is his band." And rarely in the history of music have composer and performer been so interdependent. Ellington's uniqueness grew out of his interest in the musical personalities he both led and collaborated with. Indeed, he was fond of saying that he had to know how a man played poker before he could write for him. As for the bottom line, he said, "By various twists and turns, we manage to stay in business and make a musical profit. And a musical profit can put you way ahead of a financial loss."

The highest paid of all Ellingtonians was Johnny Hodges, the tight-lipped, glum-faced saxophonist who, in trumpeter Shorty Baker's estimation, produced "a million dollars' worth of melody." Born in Cambridge in 1906 and raised a few blocks from Carney on Hammond Street, Hodges began playing the soprano saxophone at age 12. He met Sidney Bechet when the New Orleans jazz pioneer was playing in a Scolley Square burlesque house in 1924. Bechet dated Hodges' sister while he was in town, and her gutsy younger brother approached the great master and rendered a version of "My Honey's Lovin' Arms" that elicited encouraging words from Bechet. 

Hodges joined Ellington in 1928, and but for a brief period in the early '50's when he fronted his own combo, his boss enjoyed "the privilege of presenting [him] night after night for forty years. I imagine I have been much envied," Ellington reflected when Hodges died in 1970. Throughout his career, Ellington and his writing partner Billy Strayhorn fashioned dozens of ballads and blues to showcase the exquisite sensuality and jesting wit of Hodges, whom Ellington eulogized as a player of "pure artistry...a beautiful giant in his own identity."


Ellington's New England

The Boston Globe Magazine
Sunday, December 26, 1999

by Tom Reney


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