Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Webster, Ben (Benjamin Francis)

Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster was known as "The Beautiful” and ”The Brute." Both names fit him well. The beauty of his sound gave ballads a unique touch of tenderness, while his playing in faster tempos was virile and filled with growl. When sober, he was the kindest and gentlest of men, witty and entertaining. When drunk, he could be violent and unpredictable.

Despite this Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, he remains a much-loved musician whose playing has much to offer. He recorded widely both before and after he moved to Europe in 1964. In fact, while he often felt overshadowed by his contemporaries Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, he remains the best-selling tenor saxophonist in jazz, and many of his recordings are still in print.

Webster was born in Kansas City, Missouri on March 27, 1909. In elementary school he studied violin and taught himself piano, inspired by a neighbor, Pete Johnson, who taught him to play the blues. In 1927, he played piano to accompany silent movies in Kansas City, but left town shortly thereafter to tour Oklahoma and Texas with the band led by Brethro Nelson.

In Amarillo, Texas he left Nelson to tour with Dutch Campbell’s group, but he soon left the group to once again play for silent movies. In Amarillo, he met Budd Johnson, who taught him how to make his first sounds on the saxophone, and Webster got so interested that he borrowed an alto saxophone and began to teach himself to play.

In 1930 he left Amarillo with Gene Coy’s Happy Black Aces, and after a few months Coy bought him his first tenor saxophone. ”I couldn’t express myself on alto," Webster reminisced. "The tenor had a bigger sound.”

From that point, Webster’s career leapt forward. He left Coy to join Jap Allen’s band, and then the band led by Blanche Calloway, before he became a member of the band led by Bennie Moten.

It was in Moten's band, some say, that swing was born, and Webster was right there, alongside William "Count" Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, and Hot Lips Page on trumpet. Webster contributed some fine solos on tracks cut in the band’s marathon recording session in Camden, New jersey on December 13, 1932, which include the legendary "Moten Swing."

Shortly after this session, Webster returned to Kansas City, where he was hired by Andy Kirk. In June of 1934, he went to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson’s popular orchestra, leaving his chair in Kirk's band to Lester Young. He then spent several years with several of the era's leading New York-based bands, including the one led by Benny Carter, who was the first to see Webster’s potential as a ballad interpreter, on material such as "Dream Lullaby."

He played with Willie Bryant and Cab Calloway before he rejoined Henderson in July of 1937 for a year. He joined violinist Stuff Smith's band during the summer of 1938, and that autumn joined trumpeter Roy Eldridge's band in New York. During these years, he also participated in some of the era's best small-group recording sessions, including those led by pianist Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, on tracks such as "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."

In April of 1939, he became a member of Wilson’s short-lived big band, and was its most important soloist, but a dream came true when he was offered a permanent job in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. He left Wilson in January of 1940 to play his first job with Ellington in Boston, although he had subbed for Barney Bigard with Duke on two previous occasions, in 1935 and 1936.

Webster stayed with Ellington until early August of 1943, and it was during these years he gained national and international fame. Duke's "Cotton Tail" became his signature tune. Highlights from his years with Duke include "Jack the Bear," "Harlem Air Shaft," and "Sepia Panorama," which in this version captures Webster in top form at a dance date recording from Fargo, North Dakota in 1940.

As a tenor man, Webster started out under the influence of Hawkins, but under the influence of Ellington his style matured and became more his own. In quick tempos his solos contained great rhythmic momentum, a rasping timbre and an almost brutal aggressiveness, while his ballad playing was breathy and sensual, delivered with one of the most beautiful sounds ever captured on a tenor saxophone.

After leaving Ellington, Webster formed his own small groups or played with other small ensembles in New York, such as the one led by John Kirkby in 1944. In late 1948 he joined Ellington for a year, then returned to Kansas City to play with Buster Moten, Bob Wilson and Jay McShann.

From 1952 he divided his time between Los Angeles and New York, playing with his own groups as well as freelancing with a variety of soloists, among them singers like Billie Holiday, who can be heard with Webter on "All or Nothing at All," and Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he recorded "Do Nothing ’Till You Hear From Me," both from 1956. Other singers who favored Webster as a sideman included Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Williams. He toured regularly with Jimmy Witherspoon, and the two can be heard together on "’Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do," recorded live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival in October of 1959.

Webster also toured with producer and Verve Records founder Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic roadshow in the fall of 1953 and 1954. It was Granz who offered Webster a recording contract that gave his career a new lift, with excellent albums that included King of the Tenors in1953, which includes his marvelous ballad playing on "Tenderly."

Other highlights of Webster's work for Verve include Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson from 1959, which includes his unforgettable rendition of another ballad, "In the Wee Small Hours. A fine example of his growling technique can be found on his 1958 recording with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, "You Need To Rock."

In early December of 1957, Webster took part in a CBS television broadcast, The Sound of Jazz,where he was reunited with both Count Basie and Billie Holiday, in one segment, and in another he joined the other other titans of the tenor saxophone in the Swing Era, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. This was the only occasion the three ever recorded together. The brilliance of this combination can be heard on "Fine and Mellow." Young's playing is very moving, while Hawkins brims with self-confidence, and Webster's style is intense and emotional.

In 1958, Webster performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in a tribute to Duke Ellington where his solo performance of "Chelsea Bridge" with Billy Strayhorn, Oscar Pettiford and Sonny Greer was the event's highlight.

Despite this seemingly incessant activity, Webster's star began to wane. By the early 1960s, it became difficult for him to find steady work in New York. When he received an offer to play for a month at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in late 1964, he accepted and sailed for England.

Webster never returned to the United States. In Europe he found plenty of work, and after the successful London gig, he flew to Scandinavia for weeklong residences in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo. He settled in Amsterdam from 1966 to 1969 and then in Copenhagen. He toured frequently, mostly in Northern Europe, playing in clubs or at festivals with local bands or with expatriate and visiting American musicians, such as Benny Carter, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Kenny Drew, Teddy Wilson, Red Mitchell, Charlie Shavers, Carmell Jones, Brew Moore, Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, and Buck Clayton.

While his body declined during his last years, his playing never did. Until the end, Webster played with passion and intensity, and his ballad playing became even more beautiful and tender, simplified almost to the laconic and delivered with weight on every note. He never launched into double-time while playing ballads, as others did, but maintained the song’s feeling throughout while staying in the slow tempo. As he was fond of saying, ”There are only three tempos in jazz: slow, medium, and slow."

Webster was one of the unique jazz musicians whose presence comes through on every recording. Along with Hawkins and Young, he defined the sound of the saxophone during the Swing Era. His ballad playing and sound inspired virtually every saxophonist who followed, including Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Archie Shepp, Eddie ”Lockjaw” Davis, Frank Foster, Sonny Rollins, Flip Phillips, Georgie Auld, John Coltrane, Scott Hamilton, and Branford Marsalis. His rough playing and growling effects were emulated by Charlie Ventura and David Murray, and also became the stock-in-trade of rock and rhythm-and-blues saxophonists, who often combined the use of growl with altissimo notes.

Webster is the subject of two documentaries, Big Ben. Ben Webster In Europe (1967) by Johan van der Keuken, released on DVD by Eforfilms, and The Brute And The Beautiful (1989) by John Jeremy, released on VHS video by Koch Entertainment. A collection of his solos has been edited by John Alexander as Ben Webster´s Greatest transcribed Solos, published by Hal Leonard in 1995. Two biographies have been published on Webster, the first by Jeroen de Valk: Ben Webster. His Life And Music, published by Berkeley Hills Books in 2001, and Someone To Watch Over Me. The Life And Music Of Ben Webster by the second by Frank Büchmann-Møller, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2006.

The Ben Webster Collection, which includes rare private recordings, photos, films, and memorabilia, is held in Odense, Denmark, at the Music Department of the University Library of Southern Denmark.

Select Discography:

as a sideman with Teddy Wilson’s Big Band:

1939 Live!!! (Jazz Unlimited)

with Duke Ellington:

The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA)

As a leader (on Verve, unless otherwise noted):

Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet (1956)

Soulville (1957)

Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (1957)

Ben Webster Meets Gerry Mulligan (1959)

See You At The Fair (1964) (Impulse)

Fine examples of Webster’s playing during his European years can be found in the 8-CD box set Dig Ben! Ben Webster in Europe And Some Last U.S. Sessions (Storyville).

Contributor: Frank Büchmann-Møller