Ben Webster, Classic jazz Artist
Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973)
Ben Webster was a jazz tenor saxophonist. He is considered one of the three most important “swing tenors” along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Known affectionately as “The Brute” or “Frog”, he had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with growls), yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment. He was indebted to alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who, he said, taught him to play his instrument.
Born: Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, United States, he studied violin in elementary and taught himself piano with the help of his neighbor Pete Johnson, who taught him the blues. In 1927-1928 he played for silent movies in Kansas City and in Amarillo, Texas.
Once Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone, Webster began to focus on that instrument, playing in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young), although he did return to the piano from time to time, even recording on the instrument occasionally. Kansas City at this point was a melting pot from which emerged some of the biggest names in 1930s jazz. Webster joined Bennie Moten’s band in 1932, a grouping which also included Count Basie, Hot Lips and Walter Page. This era was recreated in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.
Webster spent time with quite a few orchestras in the 1930s, including Andy Kirk, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1934, then Benny Carter, Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, and the short-lived Teddy Wilson big band.
Ben Webster played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra for the first time in 1935, and by 1940 was performing with it full-time as the band’s first major tenor soloist. He credited Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s alto soloist, as a major influence on his playing. During the next three years, he played on many recordings, including “Cotton Tail” and “All Too Soon”; his contributions (together with that of bassist Jimmy Blanton) were so important that Ellington’s orchestra during that period was known as the Blanton–Webster band. Webster left the band in 1943 after an angry altercation during which he allegedly cut up one of Ellington’s suits. Another version of Webster’s leaving Ellington came from Clark Terry, a longtime Ellington player, who said that, in a dispute, Webster slapped Ellington, upon which the latter gave him two weeks’ notice.
After leaving Ellington in 1943, Webster worked on 52nd Street in New York City, where he recorded frequently as both a leader and a sideman. During this time he had short periods with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, Bill DeArango, and Sid Catlett, as well as with Jay McShann’s band, which also featured blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon. For a few months in 1948, he returned briefly to Ellington’s orchestra.
In 1953, he recorded King of the Tenors with pianist Oscar Peterson, who would be an important collaborator with Webster throughout the decade in his recordings for the various labels of Norman Granz. Along with Peterson, trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and others, he was touring and recording with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic package. In 1956, he recorded a classic set with pianist Art Tatum, supported by bassist Red Callender and drummer Bill Douglass.
The Coleman Hawkins Encounters; Ben Webster with fellow tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was recorded on December 16, 1957, along with Peterson, Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Alvin Stoller (drums). The Hawkins and Webster recording is a jazz classic, the coming together of two giants of the tenor saxophone, who had first met back in Kansas City.
In the late 1950s, he formed a quintet with Gerry Mulligan and played frequently at a Los Angeles club called Renaissance. It was there that the Webster-Mulligan group backed up blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon on an album recorded live for Hi-Fi Jazz Records. That same year, 1959, the quintet, with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Mel Lewis, also recorded “Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster” for Verve Records (MG V-8343).
Webster generally worked steadily, but in 1965 he moved permanently to Europe, working with other American jazz musicians based there as well as local musicians. He played when he pleased during his last decade. He lived in London for one year, followed by four years in Amsterdam and made his last home in Copenhagen in 1969. Webster appeared as a sax player in a low-rent cabaret club in the 1970 Danish blue film titled Quiet Days in Clichy. In 1971, Webster reunited with Duke Ellington and his orchestra for a couple of shows at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen; he also recorded “live” in France with Earl Hines. He also recorded or performed with Buck Clayton, Bill Coleman and Teddy Wilson.
Webster suffered a cerebral bleed in Amsterdam in September 1973, following a performance at the Twee Spieghels in Leiden, and died on 20 September. His body was cremated in Copenhagen and his ashes were buried in the Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro section of the city.
After Webster’s death, Billy Moore Jr., together with the trustee of Webster’s estate, created the Ben Webster Foundation. Since Webster’s only legal heir, Harley Robinson of Los Angeles, gladly assigned his rights to the foundation, the Ben Webster Foundation was confirmed by the Queen of Denmark’s Seal in 1976. In the Foundation’s trust deed, one of the initial paragraphs reads: “to support the dissemination of jazz in Denmark”. The trust is a beneficial foundation which channels Webster’s annual royalties to musicians in both Denmark and the U.S. An annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded to a young outstanding musician. The prize is not large, but is considered highly prestigious. Over the years, several American musicians have visited Denmark with the help of the Foundation, and concerts, a few recordings, and other jazz-related events have been supported.
Webster’s private collection of jazz recordings and memorabilia is archived in the jazz collections at the University Library of Southern Denmark, Odense.
Ben Webster used the same Saxophone from 1938 until his death in 1973. Ben left instructions that the horn was never to be played again. It is on display in the Jazz Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.
Ben Webster has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen, “Ben Websters Vej”.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Ben Webster among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Biographical information courtesy of Wiki; for more reading see link below.