When it comes to Columbus musicians, with the possible exception of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, there is no more towering figure than Harry “Sweets” Edison. And yet his name is not very well known in his hometown and he’s often not mentioned among the all-time great trumpeters. Some might debate what his legacy should be. Maybe we should put more weight on iconoclasts and flashy players. Although Sweets led bands and recorded albums under his name, he’s primarily known for his tone and tastefulness as a sideman with the likes of Count Basie and Sinatra. He wasn’t flashy, but don’t underestimate the importance of great accompanists. And Edison was the best. But he was also a terrific bandleader and in 1956 he released Sweets, the first album credited solely to Edison.
Clef Records - MG C-717
Produced by Norman Granz and released on his Clef label, the Sweets sessions included six of Edison’s compositions. The band included close friend and longtime collaborator Ben Webster on saxophone. The legendary Barney Kessel, who appeared with Edison in the acclaimed Gjon Mili short Jammin’ The Blues, handled guitar. The album was well-received in both contemporary and retrospective reviews. “The horns are definitions of jazz maturity - each has his own authoritative sound; each has conception that is logical, personal, and thoroughly heated by emotional drive. Sweets is superb. An essential LP” wrote Nat Hentoff in Down Beat’s glowing five-star review.
More recently, All Music’s Matt Collar wrote “Sweets is one of the quintessential Edison albums showcasing the former Count Basie bandmember at the height of his abilities, the album is a veritable "how-to" book of swing. In fact, leadoff track "Hollering at the Watkins'' finds Edison building one of his trademark perfect solos in which each chorus gains more energy as the trumpeter seems to grab hold of the band.”
“If this isn’t a best seller, there ain’t no justice,” wrote Billboard in 1957. Well… I’m not so sure it was, unfortunately. When it was reissued in the UK, it was credited to both Edison and Ben Webster as Walkin’ With Sweets. Liam Keating's liner notes focus almost exclusively on Webster's playing. Sweets was finally issued on CD with the original cover art in 2005.
Look at a list of legendary jazz musicians and you might not always see Sweets’ name, but you’ll see the musicians he played with. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Josephine Baker, Oscar Peterson, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, etc. Yep, he played with ‘em all. While he may sometimes get overlooked because of his humility and economic style, that list tells you all you need to know. The fact that every one of those artists respected Edison’s musicianship says it all. He was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1992.
Like many jazz musicians, Sweets was appreciated more in Europe than he was at home. If jazz was appreciated in this country the way it should be, he’d have a statue in Columbus. “I anticipate very much the trips to Europe,” Edison told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”
Still, he never thought of leaving America as many other jazz musicians did. By the time the Sweets album was recorded in 1956, Edison had been a working musician for over 20 years and his career had taken him to Los Angeles where he worked primarily as a studio musician and for TV and film. He wasn’t just a sideman. He’d received co-billing on albums with Buddy Rich and Lester Young. But on September 4, 1956, he’d go into a Los Angeles studio and record the first session credited solely under his name. I won’t get into how he got the Sweets nickname. There are a million stories out there and it doesn’t matter. If you had a nickname, you were highly respected.
But it all started for Sweets in Columbus. There is some confusion as to where Harry Edward Edison was born in 1915. Virtually all sources list Columbus, but the man himself stated he was born in Beaver Dam Kentucky. His parents separated when he was just six months old and he moved to Columbus with his mom. His mom remained in Columbus for the rest of her life. Although Edison gained his initial love of music from his uncle after moving to Louisville when he was 5, he returned to Columbus at age 12. Wherever his birthplace was, and despite leaving town for gigs when he was about 18, he always considered Columbus home. His mother bought him his first trumpet in Columbus and it was here that Edison began his professional career while still in high school with Earl Hood.
Earl Hood’s sax player, Paul Tyler, lived next door to Edison and his mom. Tyler heard Edison practicing and convinced Hood to give him a chance. Edison would play with Hood and other Columbus bands before eventually joining the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra when they came through Columbus and moved to Cleveland with them in 1933. After a few years based in Cleveland, he’d move to St. Louis with the band. How he got from St Louis to New York in 1937 is a crazy enough story that you have to hear it in Sweets’ words.
“At that time the (Ellington) big band used to come through St. Louis all the time, they were taking (all the musicians). Later on, they got Harold Baker, Shorty Baker. He went with Don Redman first, then he went with Ellington. That’s the way I got to New York, really. It was really funny how I got to New York because Lucky Millinder sent for Hal Baker and a tenor saxophone player from Cleveland named Harold Arnold. But Lucky didn’t know that Harold Baker had already gone to Don Redman’s band, so Harold, the tenor player, said, ‘I got two tickets to New York, man, why don’t you come on and go to New York, man?’ I said, ‘He sent for Harold Baker, it’s not right to do that, to take somebody else’s assumed name.’ So, Harold Arnold, he was a funny guy, he drank a lot of juice, so he said, ‘Well, Lucky Millinder won’t know the difference, we all look alike.” So, he said, ‘This is your chance to get to New York, man, come on and take this ticket.’ So I took the ticket, I got a bag packed and told Jeter-Pillars I was leaving, going to New York. So, I took the ticket and took a train and went to New York. Lucky was amazed to see me because he had sent for Harold Baker.”
Although Lucky reluctantly accepted him into the band, Edison got fired after only six months. But by the beginning of 1938, he’d joined Count Basie’s band. On February 16, 1938, he recorded his first sides with the Basie Orchestra, “Sent For You Yesterday,” “Every Tub,” “Now Will You Be Good” and “Swinging The Blues” in New York. Edison would end up playing with Basie for 12 years - touring extensively, picking up the nickname Sweets, playing with everyone, padding the resume. But by 1950, big bands were no longer the thing and Basie just couldn’t make it work anymore.
Edison wasn’t out of work for long. He had a place in Harlem near the Apollo and would get gigs when people like Coleman Hawkins would come by while Edison was sitting on his stoop. Eventually, he got a call from Norman Granz to tour with Jazz At The Philharmonic. He had no intentions of moving to California, but by the early ‘60s, that’s where the work took him. And he did quite well, working with Nelson Riddle, Sinatra, and so on. As someone who had often played with Billie Holliday, Edison added authenticity to Diana Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues.
Edison ended up getting prostate cancer in the ’80s, but he continued performing. Eventually, his health began to decline and he moved back to Columbus to live with his daughter Helena in December 1998. He kept playing. He toured Europe in the spring, but cancer caught up to him and he passed on July 27, 1999, with a gig at the Long Beach Jazz Festival still on the books. His modest grave marker can be found at Glen Rest Memorial Estate in Reynoldsburg. Maybe one day he’ll have a statue.
A4 Studio Call
B2 Opus 711
B4 K.M. Blues
Bass – Joe Mondragon
Drums – Alvin Stoller
Guitar – Barney Kessel
Piano – Jimmy Rowles
Tenor Saxophone – Ben Webster
Trumpet – Harry "Sweets" Edison
Cover Photo – Herman Leonard
Supervised By – Norman Granz
Recorded September 4, 1956 in Los Angeles