Harry Carney

Harry Howell Carney (April 1, 1910 – October 8, 1974) was a jazz saxophonist and clarinettist who spent over four decades as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He played a variety of instruments but primarily used the baritone saxophone, being a critical influence on the instrument in jazz.

Harry Carney
From left: Chris Gage, Louie Bellson, Stan "Cuddles" Johnson, Tony Gage, Fraser MacPherson, Harry Carney
Background information
Birth nameHarry Howell Carney
Born(1910-04-01)April 1, 1910
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedOctober 8, 1974(1974-10-08) (aged 64)
New York City
Instrumentsbaritone saxophone, clarinet
Years active1930s–1970s
Associated actsDuke Ellington

Early life

Carney was born on April 1, 1910 in Boston, Massachusetts.[1] In Boston, he grew up close to future bandmate Johnny Hodges.[2] Carney began by playing the piano at age seven, moved to the clarinet at 14, and added the alto saxophone a year later.[1] He first played professionally in clubs in Boston.[1]

Early influences on Carney's playing included Buster Bailey, Sidney Bechet, and Don Murray.[3] Carney also reported that, for his baritone saxophone playing, he "tried to make the upper register sound like Coleman Hawkins and the lower register like Adrian Rollini".[4]

Later life and career

After playing a variety of gigs in New York City at the age of 17, Carney was invited to join the Duke Ellington band for its performances in Boston in 1927.[5][note 1] He soon recorded with Ellington too, with a first session in October that year.[5] Having established himself in the Ellington band, he stayed with it for the rest of his life.[1] The band began a residency at the Cotton Club in New York at the end of the year.[5]

After Ellington added more personnel in 1928, Carney's main instrument became the baritone saxophone.[5] He was a dominant figure on the baritone in jazz, with no serious rivals on the instrument until the advent of bebop in the mid-1940s.[7] Within the overall sound of the Ellington band, Carney's baritone was often employed to play parts of harmonies that were above the obvious low pitching of the instrument; this altered the textures of the band's sound.[8]

In January 1938, Carney was invited to play with Benny Goodman's band at Carnegie Hall.[9] Recordings from this event were released as The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert. Carney also took up the bass clarinet around 1944.[3] He "co-composed "Rockin' in Rhythm" and was usually responsible for executing the bubbling clarinet solo on this tune".[3]

In 1957, Carney was part of a band led by pianist Billy Taylor that recorded the album Taylor Made Jazz.[10]

Carney was the longest serving player in Ellington's orchestra.[3] On occasions when Ellington was absent or wished to make a stage entrance after the band had begun playing the first piece of a performance, Carney would serve as the band's conductor. The Ellington orchestra typically travelled on a tour bus, but Ellington himself did not; he was driven separately by Carney, a "quiet, calm presence".[11]

Ellington wrote many showpiece features for Carney throughout their time together. In 1973 Ellington built the Third Sacred Concert around Carney's baritone saxophone.[12]

After Ellington's 1974 death, Carney said: "Without Duke I have nothing to live for".[5] Carney's final recording may have been under Mercer Ellington's leadership, for the album Continuum.[3] Four months after Ellington's death, Carney also died, on October 8, 1974, in New York.[1]

Influence and legacy

Carney was an early jazz proponent of circular breathing.[12] He was also Hamiet Bluiett's favorite baritone player because he "never saw anybody else stop time" in reference to a concert Bluiett attended where Carney held a note during which all else went silent.[13] Two months after Carney's death, bassist Charles Mingus recorded Sy Johnson's elegy "For Harry Carney"; the track was released on the album Changes Two.[14]


As leader

  • Harry Carney with Strings (Clef, 1954)[1] (reissued by Verve as Moods for Girl and Boy)

As sideman

With Rosemary Clooney

With Duke Ellington

With Ella Fitzgerald

With Benny Goodman

With Jazz at the Philharmonic

With Johnny Hodges

With Billy Taylor

Main sources:[15][16]


  1. The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington states that Carney joined the band in 1926, and rejoined it the following year.[6]


  1. Willard, Patricia (October 4, 2012), Carney, Harry (Howell), Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2227923
  2. Gioia, Ted (2011). The History of Jazz (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-19-539970-7.
  3. "Harry Carney". AllMusic. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  4. Sudhalter, Richard M. (2001). Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945. Oxford University Press. p. 172.
  5. Lorre, Sean. "Carney, Harry". Archived from the original on September 19, 2011.
  6. Spring, Evan (2014). "Duke Ellington Chronology". In Green, Edward (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge University Press. p. xiv. ISBN 978-0-521-88119-7.
  7. Berendt, Joachim-Ernst; Huesmann, Günther (2009). The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century (7th ed.). Lawrence Hill. pp. 339–340. ISBN 978-1-55652-820-0.
  8. Williams, Martin (1993). The Jazz Tradition (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-19-507815-2.
  9. Berish, Andrew (2014). "Survival, Adaptation, and Experimentation: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in the 1930s". In Green, Edward (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge University Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-521-88119-7.
  10. Taylor, Billy (2013). The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor. Indiana University Press. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-253-00917-3.
  11. James, Stephen D.; James, J. Walker (2014). "Conductor of Music and Men: Duke Ellington Through the Eyes of His Nephew". In Green, Edward (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge University Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-521-88119-7.
  12. Cottrell, Stephen (2012). The Saxophone. Yale University Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-300-10041-9.
  13. https://web.archive.org/web/20051023050027/http://www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/bluiett.htm
  14. Santoro, Gene (2000). Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. Oxford University Press. p. 417. ISBN 978-0-19-509733-7.
  15. Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (1992). The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette (1st ed.). Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-015364-4.
  16. Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008). The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (9th ed.). Penguin. ISBN 978-0-141-03401-0.
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