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Harry Edison: 1915-1999
Harry Edison

Born: October 10, 1915 in Columbus, Ohio
Died: July 27, 1999 in Columbus, Ohio

A Swinging Trumpet Star

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Edison, Harry Harry 'Sweets' Edison was one of the greatest trumpet players of the swing era. He established his reputation as a key member of the Count Basie Band in its halycon years, and went on to make crucial contributions to the classic Frank Sinatra recordings of the 1950s, among countless other achievements.

It was his tenure in the Basie band which really established him as a major voice in the jazz trumpet hierarchy. In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues , Basie recalls Edison taking part in a famous battle of the bands, when the Basie outfit went head to head with Lucky Millinder's band in Baltimore in 1938, a group which included Edison in its trumpet section.

"The Pittsburgh Courier and a few other papers gave us a little edge in that battle too,' Basie recalled. "I'm not going to make any claims, because I just thought it was very close, but we did win one thing from Lucky as a result of that night, and that was Sweets Edison. . . . Sweets is a guy that gets an awful lot of humour in all of his playing. A lot of humour. I mean, it's alive. There's a lot of life to it, and he can swing his butt off, with a mute or not."

Edison had worked with Basie band members Walter Page and Jo Jones in the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, and they became the go-betweens in setting up the trumpeter's arrival in the band. He acquired his lifelong nickname shortly afterward, from that most famous bestower of such epithets, Lester Young. Taken by his warm, sweet-toned trumpet, Young dubbed him 'Sweetie-Pie', which was quickly shortened to the familiar 'Sweets'.

The trumpeter remained with the band from 1938 until 1950, and made short-term returns any time Basie needed a trumpeter. Edison considered it the most important musical association of his life. Basie's riff-based style created a situation tailor-made for great soloists, and Edison made the most of the opportunity, establishing himself as one of the most creative trumpet stars of the era in the process, as well as a superbly sympathetic accompanist.

He was born in Columbus, but spent most of his early childhood in rural Kentucky with relatives of his mother after the departure of his father, a Native American, when he was only six months old. He was encouraged to play music in the south, and acquired an old cornet at the age of 9. Hearing Louis Armstrong play on Bessie Smith's recordings confirmed his love of the instrument, and set him off on a musical career after returning to live with his mother in Ohio.

He played the trumpet in school bands in Columbus, then joined a local band led by Earl Hood. In 1933, he joined the successful Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in Cleveland, and subsequently moved to New York in 1937, where he was recruited by Lucky Millinder. The Basie Band which he joined the following year featured some of the greatest soloists of the swing era, including saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans and his partner in the trumpet section, Buck Clayton. The band also featured Billie Holiday when he first joined, and his playing on her version of 'The Man I Love' served as a template for many future examples of his empathic skills in accompanying singers.

Edison developed a warm, rounded trumpet tone and an individual approach to both melodic and rhythmic phrasing. He was not as reliant as many of his contemporaries on speed or fervour for effect, preferring a more supple and carefully modulated approach, but could fire up excitement with a beautifully judged rhythmic use of something as simple as a repeated single note phrase. He devised a trademark riff launched by eight repeated notes and completed by a serpentine and forever changing descending phrase which became his signature, and one he rarely failed to incorporate somewhere in a tune.

During his time with Basie, Edison was featured on numerous recordings, and also had a leading role in Gjon Mili's famous short film Jammin' The Blues in 1944, still one of the best attempts to capture jazz on celluloid ever made. He finally left Basie in 1950 and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in the studios, a source of employment which would earn him a lucrative living (the late Leonard Feather once reported that the trumpeter was earning $70,000 a year from his studio and television work in the 1950s).

He toured with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic spectaculars, lapping up the jam session ethos of those celebrated concerts, and worked in a number of prestigious big bands, including those led by Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. He was musical director for the dancer Josephine Baker for a time in the early-50s.

His most famous association of the era, however, was with Frank Sinatra. Edison knew Nelson Riddle from his studio work, and Sinatra suggested that the arranger call him for the sessions which produced the singer's In The Wee Small Hours album. Edison later recalled that when he arrived in the studio, Sinatra simply told him that when he heard a hole in the music, he should fill it.

The trumpeter clearly proved satisfactory in the filling department. His wry, economic, beautifully apt interjections and tasteful obbligatos became a crucial element in the sound of the singer's classic Riddle-arranged albums of the mid-50s, including Swing Easy , Songs for Swingin' Lovers and A Swingin' Affair . He was the only black member of the singer's touring band, and later recalled that Sinatra always insisted that he be allowed to stay in the same hotel as the singer when touring the still segregated south.

Edison claimed that the art of accompaniment lay not so much in knowing what to play as knowing when to play, and his sympathetic ability to phrase in complete accord with a singer's breathing patterns was much in demand. He also played with Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, including the latter's Songs for Distingue Lovers album in 1957.

He continued to play jazz throughout the ensuing decades and in many contexts, often touring as a soloist, especially in Europe, where he commanded a large and devoted following. He made many records throughout his career, including a famous duet album with Oscar Peterson for Norman Granz's Verve label. He combined jazz with more television and film work in the 1960s and 1970s, and was prominently featured on the soundtrack for the film version of Billie Holiday's somewhat spurious 'autobiography', Lady Sings The Blues , where he played as beautifully as ever. He became musical director for the comedian Redd Foxx in 1973.

He often led his own bands during those years, including one version with singer Joe Williams, another distinguished ex-Basie alumni who died earlier this year. He worked with saxophonists Jimmy Forrest and Eddie 'Lockjaws' Davis, and made his British debut in a touring band which featured both Davis and Coleman Hawkins in 1964, the first of many such visits.

He had been suffering from cancer for 14 years, but continued to play and tour until shortly before his death in his home town, where he had moved to be near his daughter last year.

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