April 1, 1910 – October 8, 1974

Harry Carney was a long tenured featured soloist in Duke Ellington’s band and the first baritone saxophone soloist in jazz. Carney joined Duke Ellington’s Orchestra when he was 17 in 1927 and remained for over 46 years, passing away in 1974 a few months after Ellington.

Born April 1910, Boston, Massachusetts, Carney began his professional musical career at the age of 13, playing clarinet and later the alto and baritone saxophone in Boston bands. Among his childhood friends were Johnny Hodges and Charlie Holmes, with whom he visited New York in 1927. Carney played at the Savoy Ballroom with Fess Williams before joining Duke Ellington, who was about to play in the young musician’s home town, when this engagement was over Carney left for a tour with Ellington, who had taken on the role of guardian.

The job with Ellington lasted until Duke’s death 47 years later. Shortly after joining Ellington, Carney was persuaded to play alto saxophone but soon gravitated to the baritone, an instrument he proceeded to make his own. Carney’s rich sonority became an essential element in Ellington’s tonal palette and for decades listeners gloried in the full-throated lower register which, in a band brimming with individualists, had a character all its own. Nevertheless, despite his virtuosity on the baritone, Carney would take up the clarinet on frequent occasions to show he was truly a master of the reed instruments. Carney played the instrument with a massive tone and direct style. He was an excellent, melodic soloist and anchored the sound of the sax section.

Carney’s relationship with Ellington transcended that of musician and leader; he was Ellington’s confidante and for decades he drove the Duke from gig to gig. The closeness of their relationship was underlined by Carney when he said: ‘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.’ After Ellington’s death, at the end of May 1974, Carney said, ‘Without Duke I have nothing to live for.’ He died a little over four months later. -All About Jazz

Read a great interview with Harry Carney from Downbeat Magazine.

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