Harry Whitaker (2)

Guyanese Saxophonist.
b. 1922 - † 1991.

"It was no surprise that Harry Whittaker, born into a musical family on December 13, 1922, would follow the footsteps of his father. He first showed signs of musical greatness when he taught himself to play the harmonica, which was presented to him as a Christmas gift by his mother. He hit the spotlight at the tender age of 14 as a clarinet player in his father’s band. Harry’s father was familiarly known as “Tucky.” However, it was an act of fate that Harry started to play the Alto Sax. The incident occurred one night at a dance when he was playing out with his father’s band. His father had gotten drunk and couldn’t play. The brave Harry felt he could not let his father’s fans down and with the experience gained from playing the clarinet, the gifted young man who bestrode the Guyanese musical world like a colossus, picked up his father’s Sax and entertained the fans. From that day, young Whittaker never looked back. He probably liked the touch, tone and everything else about the Alto Sax that it became his pet instrument and he never swapped it for any other. It was with this instrument that he stamped his authority as he fitted in neatly with the top band,
the Syncopators led first by pianist Ferdinand Eversley, and later by Tom Charles. He also played for a short while with the Washboards, another top band of that era. Harry dominated the music scene, drawing crowds from near and far. He handled his instrument like a true master. In 1956 Harry saw himself in the role of a band Leader for the first time when he put together his first unit. The Caribbean All Stars which featured Clem Thomas on drums, Richard “Janno” Giles on Trumpet, Wally Stewart on tenor sax and “Barber Boy” Cranmore on guitar. The group lasted for a short while but Harry continued to blow his Sax. What can be considered as a major achievement in his life took place in 1964 when freelance drummer Sebastian Broomes put together a unit called the “560 Jazz Quartet” and featured Harry on Alto Sax.

The Quartet performed regularly at Radio Demerara and successfully recorded an album on October 11, 1964. The LP “A Saxful of Harry” became a world seller. It featured some popular tunes which Harry rearranged, giving them the Harry Whittaker magical touch. That only whetted his appetite and he obviously longed for more. So in 1965, the Harry Whittaker All Stars was born. This group under Harry’s expert leadership quickly got down to recording with singers such as Lord Canary (Malcolm Corrica), King Fighter, Lord Inventor (Eddie Hooper), and many others, all of whom Harry arranged music for. He also arranged for Bill Rogers, Guyana’s Shanto King and his work with him will remain a Guyanese classic. Evelyn John also had a touch of the Harry Whittaker magic with the popular “Roll the Stones of Hindrance Away.” The jazz pioneer, whose music reached out to all, was a very versatile musician and this was enhanced by his ability to work with different artists, playing music from the 30s to the 80s, from Jazz to Calypso. In 1969, in Georgetown, the great arranger, composer and pianist Duke Ellington toured Guyana with a star studded orchestra. The Duke’s entourage included such greats as Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Harry Whittaker was included in a Jazz ensemble to entertain these Jazz celerities. His performance was so stunning that they were all impressed and he was offered jobs in the US and Canada. Harry refused. “We all can’t go” he told the Duke. “If we all leave Guyana what’s going to happen?” As a true son of the soil he remained to see the art of jazz music maintain its rightful place in Guyana. Harry continued his dominance over all, playing with the Police Band and with other groups. On May 26, 1976 the National Cultural Centre was declared open with a show called “Span of Times.” This show featured a number of Guyanese creative artists. Around 1978, Jazz which had suffered a decline, was given a boost with the advent of the Harry Whittaker Jazz Sextet, later regarded by the Downbeat Magazine as one of the finest in the Caribbean. This group was frequently commissioned to perform and became a reputed unit, well known for its Sunday afternoon concerts which attracted hundreds of Jazz fans. Jazz, with the presence of Harry, made quite an impact on the local scene. It was responsible for the resurrection of many of the old stalwarts who had gone into the doldrums.

During his career, Harry had some outstanding performances with guitarist Adrian Van Sertima, tenor-saxist Duce Jeffrey, Bassist Rector Shultz, vocalist Billy Wade and drummer Art Broomes. Harry also teamed up with with Tenor saxist Roddy Fraser with whom he played for twelve years, Juke “Wabbler” Canterbury on bass, Ivan Knights on drums, Alton Hall on keyboards and Ricky Richards on vocals. He was also responsible for bringing to light some great young talents, such as Nelta Wyatt and Compton Hodge. Harry Whittaker was very committed to his music and was heavily influenced y the great Charlie Parker. Nevertheless he possessed a style unquestionable his own. In 1963, there was an unofficial friendly competition between Harry and “Count Profitt" of the Washboards, who was regarded as the best of his time. Harry’s supporters sported the slogan “Little Axe cut down big tree,” while Profitt’s fans countered with “Rude Boy Suck Acid Grapes.” That was a day of music, sweet music. Sax against Sax and both men commanded their instrument with such a high degree of professionalism that it was hard to decide the winner. Harry received the nod. Harry Whittaker will be remembered as a musical legend and Jazz pioneer in Guyana. He graced the music scene for over forty years. After a performance at the John F. Kennedy Library, Harry Whittaker took his final bow on July 1, 1985."

From "Guyana Folk & Culture", April 2014, Vol. 4.
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