Sunday, April 8, 2012

Interview with Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney


June, 1962
Double Play: Carney to Hodges to Ellington
By Don DeMichael

It's hard to keep track of some jazzmen. one week they're with so-and-so's band, the next week with a different group. It seems they change jobs as easily as they change clothes-and sometimes as often. But when a man joins the Ellington band, he usually stays.

Take the two senior members of the band. Harry Carney has been with the band since he was 17, and that was 36 years ago. Johnny Hodges, except from 1951-'55, has been an Ellingtonian since 1928. So strong has been the association of men and band that Hodges' flowing, sensuous alto and Carney's full-blooded baritone are as much a part of the "Ellington sound" as are plunger-muted brass and Duke's piano.

But the Hodges-Carney relationship extends beyond their careers in the Ellington band. Both are from the Boston area, and though Hodges is four years older than Carney, they were boyhood chums.

"Johnny and I lived a few doors apart," Carney said recently. "We used to get together and listen to records. And, of course, I've always been a great admirer of Johnny. I was trying to play alto in the same vein, and I stuck as close to him as he would allow me. It did me an awful lot of good."

Carney, a large man, sat quietly on the edge of a hotel-room bed. Hodges, a small man, sprawled on the bed, watching the flickering picture of a silent television set. He chuckled occasionally. It was difficult to tell if he was amused by the TV show or by Carney's reminiscences of far-away days.

Carney continued: "Hodges was in New York before I came there. He was instrumental in getting me my first job in New York. That was in 1927.

"He was with Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom. They were having what they called a Masquerade Ball Night, an all-day, all-night affair. Instead of the regular two bands playing, there were four bands. Johnny got me a job in one of the relief bands. In the band was a fellow, Henry Saytoe, who had a job coming up in a couple of weeks at the bamboo Inn, and Chinese-American restaurant. I got permission from my folks to stay, and I took that job. I was 17."

Hodges chuckled again.

While Carney was at the Bamboo Inn, Ellington often came in on his nights off to dine and listen to the band. After Carney had been at the restaurant for about three months, the place burned down.

But he evidently had made an impression on Ellington.

"One day I bumped into Duke on the street," Carney said. "He inquired as to what I was doing. I told him I was jobbing around, gigging. That's when he made me the offer to join him. He was taking a band up to New England, which was my stomping ground. I'd been away from home long enough to be homesick, and it didn't take much for him to influence me to go back."

Still and altoist, Carney added baritone saxophone to his doubles during his first week with the band.

"There were quite a few good baritone players in those days," he said. "Sonny Adams. Willie Grant. Joe Garland. Foots Thomas with the Missourians. As a matter of fact, all the bands used baritone if the band was above a certain number of pieces. The average nine- or 10-piece band would have baritone or someone who doubled baritone. I continued with alto, though, to about '32 or maybe later than that."

Hodges, who speaks much the same way he plays, stirred when asked how he joined the band.

"I'd been with Chick Webb," he said, "You see, Duke started Chick, gave Chick his first band. Duke was working at the Kentucky Club, six pieces. Another club opened up on 50th Street and Seventh Ave. I don't remember the name of it. But I wanted a band just like Duke's. So he asked me to have a band, and I didn't want any part of having a band. He asked Chick. (Chick would stand on a corner and sing whole arrangements.) We got together with six pieces and tried to make it sound like Duke. We did pretty good until we had had a fire. During that time fire was common in clubs. We went up to the Savoy for two weeks. Stayed about six months.

"I left and started gigging with a fellow named Luckey Roberts. The bread was good. Thought it would last forever. So I kept gigging and gigging and gigging.

"Meanwhile, Otto Hardwicke [who was playing alto with Ellington] had an accident, went through the windshield of a taxicab. Had his face all cut up, and I had to go to work for him. Duke offered me a job. I still wouldn't take the job, kept putting it off and putting it off. Everybody was trying to talk me into taking it. So I finally took it. And here I am."

Hodges would have it that nothing much happened between then and now. He fails to mention that in those years he became one of the important alto saxophonists, that his manner of playing influenced countless musicians. He will mention in an off-hand manner the small band he led from 1951-'55 ("a little experience of my own, a few knocks, a few headaches").

But Hodges comments freely when the topic of discussion turns to Sidney Bechet (pronounced "Bash-shay" by those who knew the late soprano saxophonist well).

"I went to hear him at a theater in Boston," Hodges said. "My sister knew him very well. Made myself known, had a little soprano under my arm. He asked me to play. I caught the show two, three times to catch as much as I could. I then I started buying records. Him and Louis Armstrong. The Clarence Williams Blue Five.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was when I went to New York and was playing at a little cabaret on 135th St. He came after me. He had a club of his own called Club Bechet on 145th St. He came after me and offered me a job. He would tell me to learn this and learn that. 'The old man won't be here long,' he'd say. I didn't know what he was talking about then, but he would go away and get lost, and I was supposed to play his part. At the same time, I was learning, getting an education.

"They used to have midnight shows at the Lafayette Theater every Friday. All the clubs used to put on their shows free. Fantastic. We put on our show, and that's how I got to be known, through him. We played "I Found A New Baby" in duet form. So I was a big guy from then on, playing a duet with Bechet.

"That was way before Carney. I was 17. I used to come to New York and stay a week and run back. I'd take a job in a dancing school that would pay about $40 a week and only draw $8 or $10, just enough to go home. Day before payday, I'd go home, and we'd sit down and compare notes. Me, him [Carney], and Charlie Holmes [a saxophonist prominent in the late '20s and '30s, especially during his stay with the Luis Russell Band when it was fronted by Louis Armstrong]. Go back next week and do the same thing."

Carney, too, came under Bechet's influence.

"It was through Johnny that I became Bechet-conscious," he said. "That was before I left Boston. After I got with Duke, I heard so many fabulous stories about Bechet. Finally I met him and found he was a wonderful guy, very humorous, dry."

But it was Hodges who absorbed Bechet into his playing. For example, Hodges' alto solo on his small-band recording of "Dream Blues," made in 1939 and reissued last years on an Epic LP, if played at 45 rpm instead of 33-1/33 sounds like Bechet's soprano.

"I had quite a few of his riffs," Hodges said, smiling. "Quite a few of his pets. My pets too. Used to nurse him."

Hodges turned to Carney, the conversation about Ellington small-unit recordings seemingly having reminded him of something.

"You know those test records they used to give us?" he asked Carney. "I got all those. 'Jeep's Blues.' You remember when you, me, and Cootie were getting it together?"

Carney nodded.

"I got all those," Hodges said. "They'd do four or five takes and keep one or two. And one or two of what they didn't use would be better than what they put out."

The mention of trumpeter Cootie Williams, who was a mainstay of the Ellington band from 1929 to 1940 when he left to go with Benny Goodman, brought to mind the Ellington band of the late '30 and early '40s, considered by many to be the golden era of the band.

But Carney would have none of this the-1940-band-was-the-best-band.

"A lot of people come up and start talking about the 1940 band and say, 'Gee, that was the band.' For the most part, they've stopped going where the band's playing. Then they come out one night and say, 'Oh, this band is nothing like the band of 1940.' And they actually haven't heard enough or absorbed enough of the current band's playing to say that. In 1940 there was something that did something to them, and that's all they remember."

Carney's point was well taken. Ellington, through both his music and the band, has evolved. For example, the band's library has several arrangements of Ellington tunes that have become standard.

"Take 'It Don't Mean A Thing,'" Hodges said. "I used to play the verse. You never heard the verse, didcha? That's the original. Then Ivie Anderson came in, and there was another arrangement. Then they had one for Ben Webster. And one for the brass section. Had one for Ray Nance. Then another one for Ray Nance, a different one."

"Rosemary Clooney did one," Carney added.

"We got all those," Hodges said. "We got a million of 'em. And they're all in the book."

"The book is jammed," Carney said. "We just carry them all over the country."

"And don't even mention the arrangements for 'Caravan,'" Hodges sputtered.

Nor is the library numbered, which, to say the least, makes finding a seldom-played arrangement difficult.

"He's very unpredictable," Carney said, referring to Ellington. "If someone comes up and asks for something, he'll have everyone digging through the book looking for it. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't."

In addition to carrying a large library filled with yesterday, the band carries a spirit and tradition that began the day before yesterday. Spirit and tradition are strong.

One of these traditions, an Ellington sound, is the plunger-growl trumpet, a tradition that started with Bubber Miley, was inherited by Cootie Williams, and continues, to a great extent, in the playing of Ray Nance.

"If Duke finds an individual who can do it," Carney commented, "he gives him the work to do. It must be gratifying to a player to know he plays enough to satisfy the Duke in this particular style.

"I can say the same thing about Russell Procope playing clarinet. When he plays clarinet, he plays Barney so well."

Commenting on the spirit of the band, Carney said, "There're a lot of nights when everybody can't feel well all the time. But if the band gets something going, the spirit just comes up."

The tradition of the band members adding to, making suggestions about, arrangements is well known. It also is indicative of the band's spirit.

"For instance," Carney began, "when you got into a recording studio, you might have an arrangement all made, yet it'll probably be changed. Guys come up with ideas of injecting something. That still goes on."

"Everybody pitches in-all the time," Hodges interjected. "Somebody might have ideas to make it a little better."

Spirit. Tradition. Both are contagious. Both are magnets, drawing new blood into the band but blood that is Ellington blood. For the band has always been made up of musicians best described as "Ellington people." When they leave the band, if they ever do, that special sheen of Ellington usually remains. It is made up, in part, of suavity, urbanity, self-confidence. It is something no other band imparts to its members. It is a unique attractive-force.

Perhaps Carney said it best: "You still hear musicians say the height of their ambition is to play in the Ellington band."

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