Early in his career, Harry Carney played clarinet, bass clarinet and alto sax. However, shortly after joining Ellington in 1927, he sold Duke on the unwieldy--and then unusual--baritone sax. Carney played the instrument with a massive tone and direct style. He was an excellent, melodic soloist and anchored the sound of the sax section. He played with Ellington continuously until 1974.

Harry Carney was also Duke Ellington's closest confidant. Carney was Ellington's personal driver. Duke felt comfortable sleeping or composing on long trips between jobs if Carney was the driver. Carney was also an important sounding board for Ellington's musical thoughts.

The day Ellington died, Carney is reported to have said, "This is the worst day of my life. I now have nothing to live for." Four months later, Carney died. Jazz writer Whitney Balliet said "Harry Carney died of bereavement."