Harry 'Sweets' Edison by Steve Voce

Tune in at 5:00 pm with Jazz Profiles and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Swinging and singing: both describe the unmistakable sound of Harry "Sweets" Edison (1919-1999), one of the most important stylists in the history of jazz trumpet. Sweets plays with a simplicity born of sophisticated artistry. It propelled him to the Count Basie Band, which he joined in 1937, thereafter becoming one of its most frequently featured soloists. "Sweets" has one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in jazz. He single-handedly developed a vocabulary for the Harmon-muted trumpet. This program, produced just before his death, celebrates Edison's spare style that blends subtle humor, impeccable timing, and the sweetly muted tone that gave him his nickname.

Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1915, "Sweets" began playing the trumpet at age 12 . After 1933, he began working with "territory" bands around Cleveland and St. Louis such as Alphonse Trent, Lucky Millender, etc. From 1937 he worked with Count Basie almost continuously until Count broke up the band in 1950. That year saw gigs with Buddy Rich and a tour with Norman Granz' Jazz At The Philharmonic. During this period, he toured with Josephine Baker as her Musical Director.

In 1952, "Sweets" began regular studio work accompanying Frank Sinatra and other singers. On the west coast, he worked with Benny Carter recording film sound tracks and led his own quintet in Hollywood. By late 1958, he was recording regularly as a soloist and working with his group at New York's Birdland. In the 60's , he continued his heavy studio recording schedule as well as regular appearances at jazz festivals (solo and with his own group), with Jazz At The Philharmonic, with the Basie band as guest soloist, and regularly on the Hollywood Palace TV show. He appeared in the Norman Granz film, Jammin' the Blues.

"Sweets" has recorded his own LP's on Verve and Roulette as well as with Count Basie, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, Illinois Jaquet, Buddy DeFranco, Ben Webster, Ruth Brown, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. In the 70's, he toured with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Benny Carter and taught at Yale University for the Duke Ellington Fellowship. In 1983, he toured Europe with the Countsmen.

"Sweets" has one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in jazz. He single-handedly developed a vocabulary for the Harmon-muted trumpet. Along with Bobby Hackett, he is one of the few master trumpet accompanists, for which he found himself in demand for countless recording sessions for singers such as Sinatra, Pearl Bailey, and many, many others.

Harry 'Sweets' Edison by Steve Voce

The sound of Harry Edison's trumpet was, after that of Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most instantly identifiable signature in jazz. It could be recognized after just one note. Edison could play a note, bend it and place it with such impeccable timing that he was never successfully copied. He swung powerfully with a sparse and repetitive simplicity. Although he had been ill for some years, his death in his sleep on Monday night was unexpected. He had been practising his trumpet as usual during the day. 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, where they were able to cook for themselves, while he went out looking for jobs. He was a way 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. Edison decided to go west.

In the interests of getting properly fed, the Basie men had always tried to strike up friendships with waitresses, cooks and good time girls. It was one of the latter who 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 his 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. 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.

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, 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.' 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 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 that time Billie Holiday was the band's vocalist. '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', done for 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 he had a mike that was separate from the rest of the trumpet section. This allowed Edison 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' 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. The 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 program 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 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 anymore. 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 honored as a 'master musician' in 1991 with a National Endowment for the Arts Award at the Kennedy Centre.

Steve Voce

Harry 'Sweets' Edison, trumpeter, bandleader: born Columbus, Ohio, probably on 10 October 1919; died Columbus, Ohio 26 July 1999.