Jimmy Staple Talks to Harry Carney
Crescendo Magazine April 1966 p. 14 - 15
CARNEY: It's good to see you again, Jimmy, and I must say, in reading CRESCENDO, I'm always happy to get to your column. It's always very informative - as the whole magazine is.
STAPLES: Thanks, Harry. Incidentally, I think I asked you last time - is it a woodwind mouthpiece you've got on the baritone?
CARNEY: Yes - it was used when I got it. It was a B4 opening, and since then
I've had the baffle ground out a bit and the tip opening changed.
STAPLES: How long have you had that mouthpiece, then?
CARNEY: Oh, I purchased it in 1930 out in Los Angeles. It was used then, as I say, so I don't know how old it is now.
STAPLES: Have you ever experimented with other mouthpieces at all, or don't you bother? I mean; I'm always muckinging about with them.
CARNEY: Well, the last time was as recent as last Saturday night in Birmingham. A fellow named Lawton came up just before concert time and said that Charlie Fowlkes had told him to make certain to say hello to me and let me try out a mouthpiece. So I tried two of 'em, and found 'em very good.
STAPLE: Yes, I'm using one of his, a gold-plated one - a 100 actually.
CARNEY: That's the one I liked the best. He had a 100 and then one more open - a 105. But the only thing is: having played the woodwind - which has an extremely large bore – then's a difference. This has a sort of a narrower chamber. But I played it for almost all the second show, and I found you get a good strong tone out of it. It blows rather freely.
STAPLES: Since going on to alto, I've, tried all sorts. But I've got a Selmer alto, and I find I get the best results now with a Selmer mouthpiece - the one that was made for the instrument. There must be something in this.
CARNEY: I find that quite true in trying the Selmer baritone. My mouthpiece wouldn't work at all on it. It has to do with the proper intonation.
STAPLES: How long have you had that Conn of yours now?
CARNEY: Oh, this one I've had about a year.
STAPLES: Oh, it's a new one, is it? But you've played the same make all your life, haven't you?
CARNEY: Yes, since about 1928. So I'm accustomed it. There have been times when I've been tempted to change, because I liked the notion that another make has.
STAPLES: But don't you also believe that a lot of it's what I call 'the man behind the gun', in that you'd probably sound the same on almost any instrument and mouthpiece, to a certain degree.
CARNEY: Well, I think the reason for that is that my approach would be the same on any instrument. I'd be looking for a certain thing.
STAPLES: That's right. I've got all your records at home and, quite frankly, I've tried to model my baritone sound on the one you get. I like the rich, round, resonant sound.
CARNEY: Well, thank you very much.
STAPLES: Some people prefer a sort of Gerry Mulligan sound. Which is excellent - but it's not me, you know.
CARNEY: The thing is: after sitting in from of brass for so long - to me it doesn't make sense if you're blowing an instrument and you can't hear it yourself. I like to hear what's coming out.
STAPLES: You didn't specialise on baritone originally, did you?
CARNEY: No, I starred on clarinet, and I loved that instrument. Then the change to alto gave me the incentive to cure tor that, also. And I found myself listening to alto players, instead or clarinet players. After I joined Ellington and started playing baritone, I decided this was the instrument for me. Because I was small in size - just a kid see - and I wanted to sound like a man! This gruff, raucous sound gave me the feeling I was more masculine.
STAPLES: To get that tremendous sound - did you do breathing exercises when you were younger, or practise long notes?
CARNEY: Well, I was told about diaphragm breathing by my clarinet teacher. However, after getting the baritone, I did practise sustained tones for good breathing. I actually tried to get a sound as big as Adrian Rollini, who was playing bass sax at that time.
STAPLES: Oh, yes, I remember him with Red Nichols and the Five Pennies.
CARNEY: Yes, so I suppose whatever sound I get goes back to that - and also Coleman Hawkins, who was getting a big tone on the tenor.
STAPLES: That's true. Speaking of the clarinet - the last time I saw you, you did a clarinet solo in that old Rockin' In Rhythm arrangement. That was
Barney Bigard's, originally, wasn't it? I always thought he was a fine clarinet player. He had a simple system…
CARNEY: Yes, the Albert system. But he got a great big fat sound out of it - played good ideas.
STAPLES: l've noticed, by the way, that both your band and the Basie band very seldom use clarinets as a team, rather than in solo.
CARNEY: Well, years ago clarinets were used in trio form, in most cases. But, I don't know - the styles seem to have gotten away from employing clarinets that way.
STAPLES: In fact, the only time I've heard you use a clarinet section is that thing you do where the Duke does the commentary. You play bass clarinet with two other clarinets. You know, the one about the girl in the street.
CARNEY: Oh yes - Monologue. Jimmy Hamilton wrote that.
STAPLES: Oh, did he? It sounds very good. Incidentally, Harry, on those older records, made during the war, when you had Otto Hardwicke with you, was he actually on lead alto?
CARNEY: Yes, he played lead alto most of the time. Johnny Hodges played third.
STAPLES: I've got all the 78's at home. On things like Raincheck and Cotton Tail, made round about 1940, that was Hardwicke on lead alto, wasn't it?
CARNEY: Er, let's see - early 40's. Yes, that was more than likely Hardwicke.
STAPLES: And does Hodges play lead now all the time?
CARNEY: No - the book switches. On some things Duke writes first with Hodges in mind. On others he writes with Procope in mind.
STAPLES: I see. That's very good, that. Now this may be rather a personal question, but what's the reading standard like in the band? Are they all good readers, actually?
CARNEY: Yes, actually, they are. But, of course, like anything else, if you don't do it consistently enough, there are times when you have to stop and figure out, you know.
STAPLES: Only - I know you've dispelled it - but it used to be an illusion years ago that a lot of American bands were bad readers. But I think this is completely nonsense, personally.
CARNEY: Well, years ago, before arrangements became involved, you'd find that reading wasn't up to par with the jazz musicians. But today musicians are so completely educated; it's not the case now.
STAPLES: The early Ellington bands did a fair proportion of head things, didn't they?
CARNEY: Yes, there were a lot of head arrangements - and we more or less depended upon our ear. Which was very good training also. The chances are, I had a better ear then than I have now. Because I was much more dependent upon it - and upon remembering. Sometimes Duke would just give notes from the piano - you know, do it fast - it might be a whole chorus.
STAPLES: Do you ever wish you were able to do that today?
CARNEY: Well, it was a ball then, so I suppose it would be now. The thing of it is; there's so much satisfaction you get out of a head arrangement, because you have a little more freedom. You can think more when you don't have to concentrate on playing written parts. Another thing; if you've got your head buried in music - even the blowing, you don't get the same feeling. Perhaps you're in a bad position in order to read, and it might not be normal sitting position - or standing position, for that matter. If you're looking down like this - that affects your embouchure. Unless you just do it so much you get accustomed to it.
STAPLES: Something else I find - if you get something busy, the intonation's more liable to suffer than if you've got a slower number. For instance, I rehearse a band of part-time players - we call them semi-pros - and when they've got a simple part, it's fine. Directly they get into an involved key, a few sharps, the intonation goes. They're so busy looking at the notes, they forget to listen.
CARNEY: Yes, that's most important.
STAPLES: And I've discovered this more so, now I've gone on to alto, because playing the lead, you've got to listen like mad all the time. I have to listen to every note I play. Whereas on baritone, you're inclined to rely to an extent on the lead voice.
CARNEY: In playing first alto, you're conscious of the fact that you have a responsible position in the section.
STAPLES: As regards the arrangements you play, are they all done by Ellington and Strayhorn, or do outside people ever do them?
CARNEY: Well, through the years he's had things from Mary Lou Williams Dick Vance. Once in a while Jimmy Hamilton or Cat Anderson will bring in something.
STAPLES: You know the Ellington/Strayhorn team - does Duke write out the melody line and then leave Strayhorn to do the arrangement, or does Ellington still do all the arrangements himself?
CARNEY: No, a lot of times they've gotten their ideas together over the long distance telephone. For instance, if Duke has something coming up, he'll do part of it, and then he might hum over the telephone what he's done, and Strayhorn's very apt. Possibly he'll talk to Strayhorn about what sort of treatment he would like this particular thing to be given. And then Strayhorn might have another idea. There's always a story to whatever Duke is doing.
STAPLES: But, I mean, does he do a lot of the actual arranging?
CARNEY: Oh, sure. He's always writing. He gets an idea, he puts it down, and he gets a bang out of listening to it. Then, after we've played it for a while, there might be an entirely new development of that idea. Like, for instance, La Plus Belle Africaine - this is something' we've just started since we've been on the continent. We had no knowledge of what his intention was when we first played it, but it's commencing to sort of develop.
STAPLES: It's wonderful that this band has stayed on top for all these years. Why do you think this is?
CARNEY: Well, in the first place, it's Duke who's always creating. And it's by dint of hard work.
STAPLES: And, of course, it's a highly individual sound as well. There's plenty of bands I've heard than can do a fair copy of Basie - not as good, obviously. Even our band can. But I very much doubt if we could do a copy of Ellington at all. To my mind, Basie's band could have any saxes there, as long as he's got a good lead alto of the Marshall Royal stamp, and it would sound just the same.
In fact, he has done. But your band - without Hodges and you, those saxes wouldn't sound the same.
CARNEY: Well, Jimmy, you're very kind, and many thanks for the accolades,
but there have been a few bands that have recorded some of Ellington's things, I think they've done a hell of a fine job.
STAPLES: Yes, like Hal McIntyre. He got a remarkable resemblance - but it wasn't the same. I heard a record, and said: 'That sounds like Ellington - but it's not Ellington.'
CARNEY: But there was enough of the sound to let you know right away that he was emulating Ellington.
STAPLES: The Harry James band gets much nearer to the Basie noise than Hal Mclntyre ever got to the Ellington noise.
CARNEY: Yes - that's very true.
STAPLES: And I feel that with your band, most of it is the individual tone colours of the players. All through the years you can hear your baritone booming away on the bottom, with Hodges' alto on the top. And directly Lawrence Brown plays four bars, you know it's him. The band is full of people who have put their stamp on it.
CARNEY: Well, I'm certain that no one's indispensable. But one thing Ellington has always maintained is a high standard of personnel. That was why I wanted to join the band in the first place. Of all of the groups that I'd heard, his was the most outstanding. And he was playing original compositions - things that you wouldn't hear from anybody else but Ellington.
STAPLES: A ﬁnal question, Harry - do you do much practise these days?
CARNEY: Well, there's not much time left. Because most of our work is one nighters - and you know what that takes out of you. It's a sort of a fight to get enough rest to be able to play the job - especially at my age. I don't bounce back as I used to!