Harry “Sweets” Edison Dies

When Harry “Sweets” Edison stepped forward to take a trumpet solo, jazz fans knew right away who was playing.   Often playing with a mute in his instrument, Edison was known for his smooth, sweet, melodic solos which often included several trademarked phrases, or “riffs.”  

On July 27th [1999] cancer finally silenced his horn. Edison was 83 when he died in his birthplace, Columbus, Ohio.

Like his peers and compatriots, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins, Edison became a jazz musician in the early days of swing and weathered the many shifts and developments of the music without losing his relevancy or his charm as a musician.   Comfortable playing in nearly any jazz context, he got his start with the Count Basie Orchestra in the mid-thirties when he was 18. Basie quickly made him a featured soloist and tenor saxophonist Lester Young, also with Basie then, dubbed him with the “Sweets” moniker. (Young later became known as “Prez.”)

Edison left Basie in 1950, and began heading up his own quintet, which recorded several albums among which Sweets for the Sweet Taste of Love is the best-remembered.   He also toured as a soloist with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic during that period.   Granz liked to bring together musicians from both the swing and bop eras to jam together onstage, and subsequently released a series of albums from these concert tours.

In addition, during the fifties Edison was the musical director for entertainer Josephine Baker. Subsequently he played with many of the surviving big bands, including those of Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle.   He traveled through Europe and South America with Buddy Rich and eventually settled in Los Angeles.

It was there in Los Angeles that he worked as a studio musician with Benny Carter on movie soundtracks, and, through Nelson Riddle, with Frank Sinatra. He played on many of Sinatra’s best albums, including his Songs for Swinging Lovers. (Edison had also accompanied singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday earlier in his career.)

His studio work brought Edison the opportunity to write scores for TV and films, and he was featured in the soundtrack of the Billie Holiday biofilm, Lady Sings The Blues.

Edison’s ability to play “sweetly” brought him steady work, but his interest in jazz was never submerged, and during the same period in the seventies that he was Redd Foxx’s musical director for theatrical dates he also performed with tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Davis did not play “sweet” or polite jazz and Edison could get down and dirty with him when the occasion demanded it.

Over the years Edison picked up honors (Master Musician, in 1991, a National Endowment for the Arts Award) and taught at music seminars at Yale, in the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, but he also continued to work as a musician. Indeed, he was still working in June, having traveled to Europe last spring. He had been scheduled to perform in Long Beach, California, on the weekend following his death.

He is survived by a daughter.

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