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Hardwick, Tobylocked

(31 May 1904–05 August 1970)
  • Barry Kernfeld

Hardwick, Toby (31 May 1904–05 August 1970), jazz alto saxophonist, was born Otto J. Hardwick in Washington, D.C. (His parents’ names and occupations are unknown.) A younger neighbor of Duke Ellington, Hardwick may have worked locally as a string bassist from as early as age fourteen. He attended Dunbar High School. Ellington got Hardwick started on C-melody saxophone around 1920, and his career followed Ellington’s: local jobs, many involving banjoist Elmer Snowden; two attempts to establish themselves in New York, first without Snowden in March 1923 in Wilbur Sweatman’s vaudeville band and again at midyear with Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra at Baron Wilkins’s Exclusive Club; and an engagement at the Hollywood (later the Kentucky) Club, where Snowden’s Washingtonians evolved into Ellington’s orchestra. During the Washingtonians’ years Hardwick concentrated on playing alto saxophone while doubling on violin and string bass.

As a young adult, Hardwick was unreliable, because of heavy drinking and extended romantic affairs. According to Ellington, “Lots of chicks wanted to mother him—so every now and then he’d submit! It meant he was in and out of the band rather unpredictably” (Dance, p. 58). Hardwick acquired his nickname, Toby, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during one such absence. Nonetheless, Hardwick was the one constant element in Ellington’s reed section as the orchestra grew in size in the mid-1920s. His alto saxophone led the band in ensemble passages (although evidently Harry Carney sometimes took this role after first working with the band in the summer of 1926), and Hardwick contributed solos on many of Ellington’s important early recordings, playing in a sweet, pretty manner on “Immigration Blues” (1926) and “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1926 and 1927), and in a jaunty, florid style on “The Creeper” (1926) and “Jubilee Stomp” (1928). Like most professional reed players, he doubled on clarinet and other saxophones: soprano, baritone, and bass; “Birmingham Breakdown” (1927) features solos on alto and baritone saxophones. Several of these titles exist in more than one recorded version, but Hardwick’s contributions do not vary appreciably from one to the next. With Ellington, he composed “Hop Head” and “Down in Our Alley Blues” (1927).

Hardwick nicknamed Joe Nanton “Tricky Sam” (because of his manual dexterity), and later in life Roy Eldridge “Little Jazz” (his physical stature), Ray Nance “Floorshow” (his flair for presentation), and Billy Strayhorn “Swee’ Pea” (after the character in the Popeye comic strip). He loved to have fun, and he was curious about the world. He realized the first ambition throughout his career in music; he undertook the second in 1928. Ellington had no intention of leaving the Cotton Club, so Hardwick quit in the spring of 1928 and left for Europe, where he joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, among others.

Back in the United States the following year, he briefly joined Chick Webb’s big band. According to Hardwick, he led a band full-time for three years (1930–1932), mainly at the Hot Feet Club in Greenwich Village, where Chu Berry, Garvin Bushell, and Fats Waller were among his sidemen. In 1931 at a benefit performance featuring a “battle of the bands,” Hardwick’s ensemble was judged to have defeated Ellington’s. After the demise of the Hot Feet Club, the band continued to perform with James P. Johnson and then Count Basie as Hardwick’s pianist. He then ceased band leading and rejoined Snowden at Smalls’ Paradise in Harlem. Bushell, though, claims that in 1930 the bandleader was Snowden, with Hardwick playing lead alto saxophone, and that the musicians quit the Hot Feet Club as a group that same year. John Hammond recalled Hardwick in Snowden’s band in 1931. Standard sources on Waller, Johnson, and Basie shed no further light on this period. In any event, Hardwick performed in Snowden’s band in the movie short Smash Yo’ Baggage (1932).

In the spring of 1932 he rejoined Ellington. As Barney Bigard explained, “Toby wasn’t an improvising musician, but he played some beautiful things. He was a melody boy. He used to have all the first parts, because Johnny Hodges couldn’t read so well at that time” (Dance, p. 87). By this point, Ellington’s orchestra had many soloists superior to Hardwick, and his importance came in focusing the band’s sound in passages for reeds and for the full ensemble. During the next fourteen years he was a soloist on only a few significant recordings, including the last phrases of “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), which he wrote in collaboration with Ellington and trombonist Lawrence Brown; “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935), at the beginning and again before the first trumpet solo; and “All Too Soon” (1940), in the opening theme intertwining Hardwick’s soprano saxophone and Brown’s muted trombone. In 1945 a recording session by Sonny Greer and the Duke’s Men produced fine versions of “Mood Indigo” and “The Mooche” on which Hardwick figured prominently.

Tired of traveling constantly from one venue to the next, Hardwick left Ellington in May 1946 and retired from music to work on his father’s tobacco farm in southern Maryland. Later he became a hotel shipping clerk. He suffered a long illness, and after the death of his wife, Gladys (details of his marriage are unknown), he died in a nursing home in Washington, D.C.


Stanley Dance interviewed Hardwick and surveyed his career in The World of Duke Ellington (1970), pp. 55–62, which also includes personal stories about Hardwick. Bits of his early career are in Les Muscutt, “Discovering Elmer,” Storyville, Apr.–May 1968, pp. 3–7; Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (1973), pp. 50–51; Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz (1974); Whitney Balliett, “Big Sid,” Improvising: Sixteen Jazz Musicians and Their Art (1977), pp. 139–50, which has Hammond’s comment, repr. in American Musicians: Fifty-six Portraits in Jazz (1986), pp. 179–87; Barney Bigard, With Louis and the Duke: The Autobiography of a Jazz Clarinetist, ed. Barry Martyn (1985); Garvin Bushell, Jazz from the Beginning, as told to Mark Tucker (1988); and Laurie Wright, “Fats” in Fact (1992). Rex Stewart confirms Hardwick’s talent for inventing nicknames in Jazz Masters of the Thirties (1972), p. 103. Dick M. Bakker identifies titles featuring Hardwick’s solos in Duke Ellington on Microgroove, vol. 1: 1923–1936 (1977). Gunther Schuller supplies musical analysis in The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), as does Mark Tucker in Ellington: The Early Years (1991), the most accurate source on early biographical details. Obituaries appear in the Washington Post, 7 Aug. 1970, and the New York Times, 8 Aug. 1970.