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Harry Carney: Wikis


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Harry Carney

From left: Chris Gage, Louie Bellson, Stan "Cuddles" Johnson, Tony Gage, Fraser MacPherson, Harry Carney (Photo from the Fred MacPherson estate)
Background information
Born April 1, 1910(1910-04-01)
Origin Boston, Massachusetts
Died October 8, 1974 (aged 64)
Genres Jazz
Occupations Musician
Instruments Baritone saxophone, Bass clarinet
Years active 1930s - 1970s
Associated acts Duke Ellington,

Harry Howell Carney (April 1, 1910 - October 8, 1974) was a swing baritone saxophonist, clarinetist, and bass clarinetist best known for his 45-year tenure in Duke Ellington's band. Carney started off in Ellington's band playing alto, but soon switched to the baritone. His strong, steady saxophone often served as the anchor of Duke's music. He also played clarinet and bass clarinet on occasion.


Early years

Harry Howell Carney was born in 1910 in Boston, Massachusetts. At seventeen he ran off to join Duke Ellington's orchestra starting first on clarinet and eventually moving on to baritone saxophone.

Carney and Duke

Carney was the longest lasting player in Duke Ellington's band. He was always there and on occasions when Ellington was missing he took over as conductor, particularly when Ellington wished to make a stage entrance after the band had begun playing the first piece of a performance. Ellington and Carney were close friends. The majority of their careers they rode together in Carney's car to concerts, allowing Ellington to come up with new ideas. Fictionalised accounts of these road trips are documented in Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful.

Ellington wrote a number of 'show-piece' features for Carney throughout their time together, such as "Frustration" (c1944-45). This was typical of Ellington's ability to exploit the voices of his most treasured soloists by creating works that were tailored specifically to the individual rather than being for a generic baritone saxophonist. In addition, Ellington would sometimes feature Carney's robust renditions of the melodies of such hits as "Sophisticated Lady" and "In a Mellow Tone." In 1973 Ellington built the Third Sacred Concert around Carney's soulful baritone saxophone.[1]

It has to be said, however, that in later years Carney's voice was heard a little less as a soloist than it was in the 1930s. This is perhaps owing to the presence from late 1939 onwards of an additional tenor saxophonist (the most important of these being Ben Webster and later Paul Gonsalves), further increasing the pool of star soloists in the orchestra. It was also in the early 1940s, after this increase to five reed players in the Ellington orchestra, that Carney ceased using the alto saxophone and Johnny Hodges ceased playing the soprano saxophone. Carney's clarinet continued to be deployed in the well-known composition “Rockin' in Rhythm” for which he is also credited as a co-composer. This was one of the 'work-horses' of the Ellington orchestra that remained in the band books throughout its life on the road. After Ellington's 1974 death, Carney said: "This is the worst day of my life. Without Duke I have nothing to live for." Four months later, Carney also died.

Technical Innovations

While not the first baritone saxophonist in jazz, Carney was certainly the first major performer on the instrument, and his sound influenced several generations of musicians. Throughout his career Carney played saxophones by the manufacturer C.G. Conn, and like other jazz musicians was known to offer endorsements of his preferred brand. Photographic evidence suggests that the mouthpieces he used were predominantly those of the Woodwind Company of New York. (His preferred model may have been that company's 'Sparkle-Aire' 5.) The combination of such a large-chambered mouthpiece and the Conn brand of baritone saxophone was certainly a factor in the production of his enormous, rich tone. He may have modelled his Baritone Saxophone tone on that of the (larger) Bass Saxophone.

He was an early jazz proponent of circular breathing. He was also Hamiet Bluiett's favorite Baritone Saxophone player because he "never saw anybody else stop time"[1] in reference to a concert Bluiett attended where Carney held a note during which all else went silent.

Carney made a few recordings as a bandleader, and also recorded with Lionel Hampton.


  • Frankl, Ron (1988). Duke Ellington. New York: Chelsea House. 079100208x.  
  • Bacon, Tony; John Morrish (1998). The Sax & Brass Book. Hong Kong: Miller Freeman.  


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