Born on October 10, 1919 in Columbus, OH; died on July 27, 1999 in Columbus, OH; married; one daughter, Helena.

Harry "Sweets" Edison, a smooth and suave trumpeter, was a cohort of orchestra leader Count Basie, a favorite of bandleader Nelson Riddle, and a noted backup artist for the most prominent vocalists of his time. Edison, with his energetic yet reticent blowing style, bridged a genre gap between the early classic jazz sound of Louis Armstrong and modern bebop modes. Edison, who played equally well in both styles, had a special talent for sustaining his trumpet notes and injecting each single tone with expression and soul never heard before or after. The special quality of his trumpet playing earned him the nickname "Sweets" because of the sweetness of the tones. Likewise his ability to control the tone of his trumpet brought him to the forefront as a session musician, playing accompaniments for the most respected vocalists of his time.

Edison was a true pioneer of jazz. An old-time homespun boy, born in Columbus, Ohio, he never knew with certainty even the year of his birth. According to his best knowledge, he was born in 1919, although some sources list the date as early as 1915. Edison knew even less about his own father, a Native American of the Hopi (Apache) tribe and a drifter who stayed only a few weeks with Edison's mother before taking to the road and was rarely heard from afterward. Edison spent his early years with an uncle, who was a coal miner and a farmer, in Louisville, Kentucky. It was Edison's uncle who taught the boy to play the pump organ and to play scales on an old cornet. Edison, who also listened to his uncle's records, was especially inspired by the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

At the age of 12, Edison returned to Ohio to live with his mother, following a bout with typhoid fever that nearly killed him. His mother, pleased with his musical ability, bought him a trumpet and outfitted him with a tuxedo. He joined with a local bandleader, named Earl Hood, who encouraged Edison to play but refused to compensate him initially for the trouble. Eventually Edison managed to wangle 35 cents per night from Hood before moving to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1933 to play with a new group called the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. From there he moved to New York City in 1937 to play with Lucky Millinder's band on the recommendation of a friend who was impressed with Edison's natural ability. Edison lost his job with the high-strung and opportunistic Millinder when a new horn player, named Dizzy Gillespie, joined the band; but Millinder rescinded and rehired Edison when Gillespie quit and left Millinder stranded.

Edison and the Count

In 1938, within months of his arrival in New York, Edison assumed a spot in William "Count" Basie's band as a replacement for Bobby Moore who fell ill. The band performed largely out of Kansas City and traveled extensively. Edison spent 12 years with Basie's unique ensemble in which all of the musicians were treated as soloists and each in turn received an opportunity to bask in the spotlight. During those years with Count Basie, Edison developed the sultry sound of his trademark horn style, spontaneously, while performing with the great masters of jazz: Frank Foster, Thad Jones, and Lester "Prez" Young. Jazz was young, and the dearth of written music for the bands never worried Edison because he never learned to read music in the first place. Neither was Basie worried as he instructed Edison, "[Y]ou sound good ... if you find a note that sounds good ... play the same damn note every night!"

On the road, Edison and Young lived as roommates, and in 1944 the two appeared together, in a film called Jammin' the Blues. It was Young who first took to calling Harry Edison by the nickname of "Sweetie Pie," a commentary on Edison's musical style. According to Edison, the nickname was a tribute to his trumpeting, which Young said was a sound "so sweet it could rot a baby's teeth." The nickname stuck with the trumpeter and in time his colleagues shortened the name to "Sweets."

In all, Edison spent 12 unforgettable years with the Basie orchestra, performing virtually every night, often in dancehalls. They traveled extensively throughout the United States, from the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, to make-shift dance arenas in tobacco warehouses in the Carolinas, frequently with blues diva Billie Holiday as their vocalist. The mood of the times inspired spirited musical battles for dance-floor supremacy between the big bands of the era, and Edison proudly recalled the elan of those days for critic Stanley Crouch. Crouch quoted Edison for Knight-Ridder/Tribune, "If you messed with us, you found your hindquarters on the floor at the end of the night. We didn't play around. We swung, and we kept swinging ... you were in a big natural mess if you came up against us."

Studio Sessions and Solos

Basie's band dissolved inadvertently in 1950, according to Edison, while the group was in New Jersey and ran out of work for a time. Basie left his musicians in a hotel and set out to find a gig for the orchestra but got sidetracked in Chicago where he ended up working with a different group. Edison, upon learning of Basie's extended side gig, packed his own bags and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he made contact with an old acquaintance, a quick-witted friend who was well acquainted with Nelson Riddle. With a generous recommendation she introduced Edison to the prominent bandleader, and Riddle repeated the recommendation to a popular singer named Frank Sinatra who insisted upon auditioning the trumpeter. Sinatra was gratified--so impressed in fact that he funded music lessons for Edison to learn to read music. Edison accompanied Sinatra regularly for years afterward.

Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s Edison worked as a studio musician and as a soloist, eventually establishing permanent residency in Los Angeles because of the volume of studio work that brought him there repeatedly. He had a beautiful, softly muted horn style, of which Geoff Chapman said in (1998) Toronto Star, "Harry Edison can probably say more with one note than any jazz player alive.... [A]n approach that stresses simplicity, glorious tone, natural potency and an unmatched affinity with the ... mute." Edison's ability to accompany singers without drowning out their voices behind the trumpet was a rare feat; his soft tone distinguished him from the others and kept him in demand as a background musician, especially for female singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Additionally he recorded dozens of albums and performed on television specials. He collaborated on movie soundtracks with Benny Carter, and during the 1950s he toured with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. Edison spent time working behind the scenes as a musical director for the acclaimed Josephine Baker, and he played with an assortment of great bandleaders and orchestras, including Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, and Henry Mancini. In later years, the kindly and understated Edison had little but good things to recall about Basie, Holiday, and his jazz colleagues; and although the Basie orchestra dismantled itself in 1950, Edison and the other members joined the Count in performances on many occasions.

As an octogenarian and in failing health Edison never faltered but continued to perform. He recorded a live album, 's Wonderful, at Club House 33 in Japan, and he toured Europe repeatedly on an annual basis. In 1998, he appeared in Toronto, Ontario at the Montreal Bistro during the JVC Jazz Festival. Additionally, he performed regularly in New York City, even while maintaining his residence in California, and through the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program Edison taught seminars at Yale University.

The Nicest Guy

In 1991, Edison received the National Endowment for the Arts Award of Master Musician, and he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. New York Amsterdam Newscalled him "a celebrated elder statesman" of the jazz world, and his Live in Copenhagenalbum earned a gold disc.

According to some, Edison earned the nickname Sweets in part because of his affinity for women. A proverbial ladies' man, he appreciated women and his fans above all else, never taking either for granted. Modest, but content with his special soft trumpet tones, Edison was very at ease with himself and with others. He never sought accolades and was not competitive by nature. He was a musician above all else, making music for the sake of the music. He was absorbed with playing and performing according to his own personal style, a style that brought him the respect and admiration of fellow colleagues and fans alike. Former Basie trombonist Benny Powell, who came to appreciate Edison as a mentor, maintained that he learned one lesson above all else from the classic trumpeter: "economy of notes."

Edison was dapper and debonair yet sensible and thrifty; he loved life and lived well. Early in 1998, he left California and returned to Columbus to reside with his daughter, Helena, to whom he was known as a devoted father. He died in his sleep on July 27, 1999 in Columbus, Ohio, culminating a 14-year battle against cancer. He was the last surviving member of the Count Basie band from the 1930s.


During an interview with Chapman in the summer of 1998, Edison confided his concern over modern electronic music forms that smothered the spirit of jazz. He bemoaned the synthetic music machines that prevailed in the background of recording sessions and acquiesced his concern for the future of jazz as an art form. He cautioned against lack of innovation among turn-of-the-century jazzmeisters and extolled the virtue of singularity of sound, a jazz player's greatest asset. Edison, according to reports, practiced his horn regularly throughout his lifetime, until the eve of his death.

by Gloria Cooksey

Harry Edison's Career

Earl Hood Band, semi-professional; Jeter Pillars Orchestra, 1933-1937; Lucky Millinder Band, 1937; with William "Count" Basie's Orchestra, 1938-1950; quintet leader and solo artist; screenplay composition, with Benny Carter; as a studio musician accompanied Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald; played with bands/orchestras of Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle; Yale University, Ellington Fellowship (seminar program).

Harry Edison's Awards

National Endowment for the Arts Award, "Master Musician," 1991; Jazz Hall of Fame, 1997.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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