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Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison; Mainstay of Count Basie Band

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Harry “Sweets” Edison, a master of the jazz trumpet who was a mainstay of the Count Basie band, died Tuesday at his daughter’s home in Columbus, Ohio. The cause of death was prostate cancer, which he had been fighting for several years. He was 83.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Edison had that rarest of qualities, an utterly individual style. Although his sound was not especially unique, his articulation, his ability to invest each note with a driving sense of swing, was completely his own. It didn’t matter whether he was playing with Basie, with Frank Sinatra or Oscar Peterson, or on any of his innumerable recording sessions; his solos, stamped with his singular phrasing, always popped out of the mix.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 29, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 29, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 22 Metro Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Harry “Sweets” Edison--The obituary of jazz trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison in Wednesday’s Times contained incomplete funeral information. Edison will be buried Friday at the Glen Rest Memorial Estate in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Visitation will be today at the Schoedinger East Chapel, 5360 E. Livingston Ave., Columbus 43232. Flowers may also be sent to that address.

There were, in fact, a few riffs so closely associated with Edison that jazz fans--and musicians--waited for their appearance whenever he stood up to solo. And he rarely disappointed them, always recasting the brief, familiar melodies--especially his trademark riff, a phrase that usually began with eight repeated notes followed by a slithery descending line--with a new twist.

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Even in his last appearances in Los Angeles, before he relocated to Columbus to live with his daughter after his health declined, Edison still retained his characteristic individuality. Last year, working in a duet with singer Carol Sloane at the Jazz Bakery in May, and with old pal Lionel Hampton at the Ford Amphitheatre, he appeared to have lost a bit of his technique but none of his musical effectiveness. As elegantly poised as ever, and his patter with audiences filled with bits of whimsy, Edison relied primarily on style, manner, his ineffable sense of swing and his familiar licks. In their own way the performances were the jazz equivalents of the line drawings of Picasso’s final years--a complex form of creative expression distilled to its essential elements.

Edison was born in Columbus, the city he returned to again and again throughout his life, but spent his early childhood in Kentucky, where he was introduced to music by an uncle. He began playing trumpet in bands in Columbus after moving back to the city at the age of 12. Six years later he was playing professionally with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in Cleveland and then St. Louis before briefly joining the Lucky Millinder band in New York. Six months later he joined the Basie band, where he stayed as an important soloist and occasional orchestrator until the unit was disbanded in 1950.

During the 1940s, he was also featured in the legendary jazz film “Jammin’ the Blues” from photographer and filmmaker Gjon Mili and jazz impresario Norman Granz. It was during that period that he also got his nickname “Sweets,” from the legendary tenorman Lester Young, to signify the sound coming from his horn.

In the 1950s, he toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic, was musical director for entertainer Josephine Baker, traveled to Europe and South America with Buddy Rich and settled in Los Angeles.

It was then that he started working for Nelson Riddle and his top client, Sinatra. He can be heard on numerous Sinatra albums; “Songs for Swinging Lovers” is just one. It was reported that during recording sessions, Edison was seated away from the trumpet section and had Riddle’s OK to pop in with ad-libs from time to time.

When Sinatra died in 1998, Edison recalled that the singer treated him extremely well.

“He always looked out for me because a lot of times I was the only black guy that traveled with the [Nelson Riddle] band,” Edison told the Denver Post.

When Sinatra went to Texas, he made sure Edison stayed where he stayed and not in the segregated hotels that were usually the case.

“Frank made it explicit that I would stay wherever he stayed. One word from Frank and everything was all right,” Edison said.

The 1950s were a good time for Edison because working with Riddle also meant working with Nat “King” Cole. The late jazz critic Leonard Feather reported that during those years, Edison was making $70,000 a year from his studio and his TV work.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Edison did scores for television shows and films. His work was prominently featured in the soundtrack of “Lady Sings the Blues,” the story of Billie Holiday.

Beginning in 1973, he frequently acted as musical director for Redd Foxx on theater dates, at concerts and in Las Vegas. In the 1970s, he also often teamed up with saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

He also had a successful career of his own as a jazz recording artist. His discography includes a number of fine albums recorded for Granz on his Verve or Pablo labels, including a well-received duo album with pianist Oscar Peterson.

And when musical tastes changed in America in the late 1960s and ‘70s, he often returned to Europe, where he felt his work was accepted.

“I anticipate very much the trips to Europe,” Edison told a Times reporter some years ago. “I know I will be appreciated. They know you; they’ve listened to your old albums. They have more fun than you do. It makes me feel good. It’s gratifying. I tried to be a pioneer, a perfectionist, and they know it. They know your sound. That’s what we all wanted, to be individuals musically. . . . In Europe, they see that.”

Edison worked right up until last month. He traveled to Europe in the spring and was scheduled to perform this Sunday at the Long Beach Jazz Festival.

“I’ve been blessed because I’ve never been out of work, and I’ve used my talent the best I could,” he once told a Times reporter. “The type of musician today making all the big money--well, he can’t be everywhere. I’ll play where he isn’t. The way I feel, someone always is going to hire Sweets.”

He was honored as a master musician with a 1995 National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master Fellowship.

He is survived by his daughter, Helena. Services are scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m. at the Glen Rest Cemetery in Columbus.

Heckman is The Times’ jazz writer and Thurber is a Times staff writer.


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