The Troy Street Observer

On June 20, 1927, Harry Carney Joins Duke’s Band

Photo of Harry Carney
Harry Carney in the 1930s

Nineteen twenty-seven was the fourth summer that Charlie Shribman booked Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians on an extended tour of the New England circuit, and it would be the last. The Washingtonians were scheduled for about 35 dates that summer, and the first was on June 20, at Nuttings-on-the-Charles in Waltham. Nuttings, part boat house and part dance hall, was built on pilings over the Charles River at Prospect Street (the pilings are still visible).

This particular night, Duke’s band was in a battle of music with Mal Hallett’s dance band. As Duke told Down Beat in 1962, the Washingtonians were a good band, but “It had to be terrific in those days, because that was when Mal Hallett had a band up in New England and you had to play alongside him. The big dance territories were in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Charlie Shribman put on dances, and they’d have battles of music. All these big bands used to come up from New York, and Mal Hallett would blow them right out over the Charles River. He just played big, fat arrangements of dance music, and most of his guys were legit, but they’d open up with a flag-waver, and that was it!”

In itself, Ellington opening his summer tour at Nuttings is just another gig. More interesting was Duke’s new saxophonist/clarinetist. Harry Carney, 17, had played with Ellington a few times the previous summer, and just a few days before, on June 16, he became a member of the Washingtonians. On the 20th, at Nuttings, Harry Carney played his first engagement as a member of the Ellington band. He would remain for 47 years, three months, and eleven days. Carney was still in the Ellington band, then under Mercer Ellington’s direction, when he died on October 8, 1974. No one had a longer tenure.

Only Carney seemed to remember something else about that first night on June 20. The other band was Mal Hallett’s. Carney told Down Beat in 1952 that at Nuttings, another saxophonist he knew from Roxbury Memorial High School was working his first night with Mal Hallett’s band. That was Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, who had his own long, sterling career in music. I have been unable to corroborate this; evidence seems to indicate Mondello started with Hallett in 1926. Mondello was on the bandstand with Hallett in 1927, and surely he took a moment to wish Harry well with the Duke—just before he set about blowing the Washingtonians right out over the Charles River.

Here’s an early hot Ellington session with Carney on the band, “Jubilee Stomp,” from 1928.

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