An introduction to the music of Harry Carney

Category: Jazz Saxophone | Date posted: 3 June 2014

Author: William Upton

So far in our series of introductions to the music of some of the great – and sometimes obscure – jazz saxophonists the baritone has been conspicuous only for its absence. In 100 years of jazz history there have only been a handful of famous baritone saxophonists (and that’s including Lisa Simpson). This is partly because, as John Surman puts it, the instrument ‘has all the agility of a double-decker bus in a fallow field’, partly because its low register means that it can struggle to cut through during solos, but mostly because few people want to have to lug it around.

Of the top baritone soloists few have had any kind of wider impact on jazz, and over the next few weeks I'm going to talk about the music of three of the most influential proponents of this unwieldy but wonderful instrument: Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan and John Surman.

Harry Carney was born in 1910 and remains one of jazz’s great stylists regardless of instrument. His fame is due entirely to his work with Duke Ellington, whose band he joined in 1926 and played with for the next 45 years. Ellington’s relationship with his musicians is one of the great examples of reciprocity in music; he wrote to get the most from their unique talents (and indeed to avoid their individual shortcomings) and they in return brought his music to life with such colour and affinity that their instrumental sounds and his compositional voice became all but indistinguishable.

In ensemble work Carney’s glowing lower register and his incredible sense of time became both motor and anchor for Ellington’s band, as can be heard throughout ‘Just a Sittin’ and a Rockin’’ and ‘Jump for Joy’. At other times Ellington put Carney’s vocal higher register to wonderfully impressionistic use in either the upper intervals of accompanying chords or as a solo voice, as in ‘Frustration’ and ‘Slap Happy’.

Carney joined Ellington’s band as second alto and one (possibly apocryphal) story is that he took up the baritone because he saw an opportunity to usurp Otto Hardwick – who wasn’t a distinctive soloist – from the baritone chair. Certainly on ‘Birmingham Breakdown’ from 1926 you can hear that Hardwick’s facility, tone and creativity on the hard-to-master instrument are not on a par with Carney’s.

Carney became Ellington’s longest serving band member and his closest friend. The two drove to gigs together rather than sit on the band’s bus, and after Ellington died Carney said, “This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke I have nothing to live for”. Four months later he died.

Next week we look at baritone saxophone legened Gerry Mulligan.


About William Upton

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) cassgb.org. Tel: 01642 769 558

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