Obituary: Harry Edison
Thursday 29 July 1999
Many millions of people are familiar with Edison's playing without identifying it, for his muted trumpet comments and punctuation of Frank Sinatra's singing on Sinatra's best-selling Capitol albums was a vital factor in their success. Edison's earlier fame as a member of the Count Basie orchestra was eclipsed by his success as a Hollywood studio musician and he was an automatic choice whenever Nelson Riddle recorded.
The details of the beginning of Edison's association with Riddle are involved and unusual. In 1950 Edison was with the Basie band. He had been a member of it since 1938. At the time the band had no work so, as was his habit, Basie parked his sidemen in a hotel, the Woodside in New Jersey, while he went out looking for jobs.
He was away for several weeks and, when the band members heard that Basie was working in Chicago with a septet, they assumed that they had been fired. In the interests of getting properly fed, the Basie men had always tried to strike up friendships with waitresses, cooks and good-time girls. One of the latter had moved to California and told Edison that if he was ever out there he should stay with her. He sold a few belongings, managed to raise the fare to Los Angeles and moved in with the lady. One of her clients was Nelson Riddle. On one of Riddle's visits she told him about Edison. "The famous Harry Edison?" Riddle was very excited and called Frank Sinatra. "Get him down here!" said Sinatra.
Edison was brought to the studio and was placed in the middle of a section of the finest trumpeters in the land. It then emerged that he couldn't read music. Sinatra had the answer. "If you hear a hole, Harry," Sinatra said, "fill it." The system worked brilliantly and Edison started recording at once. In the meantime Sinatra paid to have him taught to read music.
Other orchestra leaders wanted him too, and Edison always had as much work as he wanted. He became comparatively wealthy and had no need to tour, but he did and came to Europe often, largely because he enjoyed working for his friend and agent, the Manchester-based Ernie Garside.
Edison never knew his father. "He was a Hopi Indian," he said:
They were a little-known branch of the Apache tribe. The Hopis never did anything, never won any battles. My dad came into Columbus one day, moved in with my mother, stayed a couple of months and was off. The only time I ever saw him was once or twice when I was about seven. Nobody ever heard of him again.
His mother was similarly careless about recording the year of Edison's birth and nobody knows it for sure. Edison's only comment was that the year most often given in the reference books, 1915, was wrong. It was most likely to have been 1919. Edison recalled:
My uncle was a coalminer and a farmer. I went to live with him in Louisville, Kentucky, and he taught me to play a pump organ that he had. I found an old cornet in the house, and he taught me to play scales on it. I used to listen to records by the old blues singers, and I happened to hear Louis Armstrong backing up Bessie Smith. That was for me! That was where it all started. That was the direction I wanted to go. Louis Armstrong has been my idol ever since.
When he was 11 Edison almost died from typhoid fever. A year later his mother took him back to Columbus, Ohio. "My mother bought me a new horn. I think it took her about five years to pay for it." She bought a tuxedo for him, too, and he joined a local band led by Earl Hood. "You're playing for experience," said Hood and didn't pay him anything. After his mother intervened, Edison was given 35 cents a night. In 1933 he joined the newly formed Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and moved with the band to St Louis where he worked for two years.
A visiting alto player, Tab Smith, heard him, and recommended Edison to Lucky Millinder, who led a top-rank band in New York. Edison joined Millinder and apart from Smith the band included the new trumpet giant Charlie Shavers, the pianist Billy Kyle and the tenor player Don Byas. Millinder was an erratic leader who fired musicians on the slightest whim. "One time he got so excited that he even fired himself," said Edison. Edison was sacked when Millinder decided he wanted Dizzy Gillespie in the band. But Gillespie soon left to join Teddy Hill, and Millinder hired Edison again. Then, he said:
Bobby Moore, who was with Count Basie, took sick. So I joined the Basie band at the end of 1937. Basie's was not an ensemble band. Everybody in it was a soloist. I'd been playing in shows and had played with the tone and quality that had been wanted. I still played like that, often in the lower register, when I joined Basie and that's what made Lester Young start calling me "Sweets". At first I tried to play pretty all the time, and I took a lot of solos on record that Buck Clayton got the credit for. Buck had already built up a name with Basie, but people hadn't heard of me.
The two trumpeters, outstanding and original improvisers, shared the work, and Edison took solos on more than 50 of Basie's records from this period. He said:
I always looked on Basie as a father. When I joined the band he just took a liking to me. I used to listen to him because I had no fatherly advice when I left home. He took me every place in New York and introduced me to Duke, Don Redman, Benny Carter and Chick Webb - to the whole scene. It was a thrill to meet James P. Johnson and all the people I had read about and admired without ever thinking I'd be shaking hands with them.
Early on I put in my notice. There was so little written music that I wasn't accomplishing what I wanted to. I wanted to read well and be a really good musician.
"Well, you sound good," Basie said.
"But I don't know what note to hit," I said.
"Well, if you find a note tonight that sounds good, play the same damn note every night!"
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We used to do like 300 one-nighters a year because we had no place to sit down and play regularly. As more instruments were added the band became more musical and more of an ensemble.
At that time Billie Holiday was the band's vocalist. When the band played at the Fox Theatre in Detroit the management insisted that she put black make-up on because she was too "yellow" to appear with black musicians. "When I came out on stage and saw her, I laughed," said Edison:
It was funny to me, and then she turned
around and called me a motherfucker. She was with us when we played in the lowest places. I can remember places in the Carolinas, in the tobacco regions, and we'd play the tobacco warehouses. And all you could smell would be the tobacco, because it would be hanging in the top of those huge barns, and they would rope areas off for dancing, the dust from the floor and the tobacco smell, well - I don't know how she made it as a woman. She never got tired.
Knowing Billie was like having a friend forever. Because if she liked you, there was nothing in the world she wouldn't give you and nothing anybody could say against you. She was like a man, only feminine, because she came out knowing how to protect herself.
In 1944 Edison and Lester Young had leading roles in Gijon Mili's classic film short Jammin' the Blues, made for the impresario Norman Granz.
When Basie had left the band behind and Edison had moved to California, he was at first reluctant to take on the studio work with Nelson Riddle. He credited Riddle's patience with him for his great success. One of the first Sinatra albums on which he made his presence felt was The Wee Small Hours of the Morning (1955) and Edison and others considered that to be Sinatra's finest. He worked with Sinatra for six years. In the studio Edison had a mike that was separate from the rest of the trumpet section. This allowed him to use his Harmon mute to improvise his solos and obbligatos. He played the same role on recordings by Bing Crosby, Billy Daniels, Nat Cole, Margaret Whiting, Jerry Lewis and Ella Fitzgerald - "I once made an album of 36 songs in three hours with Ella Fitzgerald." He played on many film soundtracks.
His commercial work gave him a permanent prosperity and the studio pension system gave him $800 a week for the rest of his life. He acquired a taste for what he saw as the finer things, and sported a full-length mink coat. He changed his Cadillac every two or three years, although there was seldom much mileage on the clock.
Through all this Edison stuck to his jazz playing. He had his own small band in Los Angeles, and he also toured with Norman Granz's all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic unit. During the Fifties he recorded frequently with Shorty Rogers's Giants.
He also played in the bands led by Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson. Edison's jazz recordings were all of the highest quality and so numerous that it is impossible to list them. One of the finest, though, was with a sextet led by Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges in 1959 that produced the two albums Back To Back and Side By Side. There were frequent guest appearances with the Basie band, and in 1958 Edison returned to New York to form his own quintet. This band was resident at Birdland where it shared the bill with the Basie band.
Edison's band went out on the road and the drummer Elvin Jones recalled driving 800 miles non-stop with the band through rain and hail - with his drums on the roof of the car - to play at a festival in French Lick, Indiana. When they arrived they were greeted with "Where have you been? You were supposed to play yesterday". The singer Joe Williams left Basie's band and Basie arranged for him to join Edison's group. This was a successful partnership until Edison decided to return to California during the Sixties for more studio work. For three years he played on The Hollywood Palace Show, a television programme fronted by Mitchell Ayres. In between a multitude of record dates Edison appeared in television shows with Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Cosby, Glen Campbell, Della Reese and others.
Eventually he reformed the quintet and played long engagements in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He visited Europe annually during the Seventies, with the drummer Louie Bellson's band in 1971 and often with the ex-Basie tenor player Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in later years. His world trips enabled him to visit art galleries and museums, and he spent much of his spare time following this new hobby. He stayed at the home of his agent Ernie Garside during his tours of Britain.
On one occasion Garside, himself a trumpeter and veteran of the Maynard Ferguson band, took Edison's trumpet to bits and cleaned it. It was a mammoth and unpleasant job since this was the first time this had been done since Edison had bought the trumpet years before. "You've ruined my career!" Edison yelled. "I can't play it any more. It feels like a trombone." It was three days before he adjusted to the new state of the horn.
Edison taught music seminars at Yale University and was honoured as a "master musician" in 1991 with a National Endowment for the Arts Award at the Kennedy Centre. Health problems persuaded him to move back to his home town of Columbus a year ago, where his only daughter, Helena, looked after him.
Harry Edison, trumpeter and bandleader: born Columbus, Ohio 10 October 1919; married (one daughter); died Columbus 26 July 1999.
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