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Ben Webster

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  • Born: Kansas City, MO
  • Died: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Years Active: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s

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Biography All Music GuideWikipedia

All Music Guide:

Ben Webster was considered one of the "big three" of swing tenors along with Coleman Hawkins (his main influence) and Lester Young. He had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with his own distinctive growls) yet on ballads he would turn into a pussy cat and play with warmth and sentiment. After violin lessons as a child, Webster learned how to play rudimentary piano (his neighbor Pete Johnson taught him to play blues). But after Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone, Webster played sax in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young). He had stints with Jap Allen and Blanche Calloway (making his recording debut with the latter) before joining Bennie Moten's Orchestra in time to be one of the stars on a classic session in 1932. Webster spent time with quite a few orchestras in the 1930s (including Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson in 1934, Benny Carter, Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, and the short-lived Teddy Wilson big band).

In 1940 (after short stints in 1935 and 1936), Ben Webster became Duke Ellington's first major tenor soloist. During the next three years he was on many famous recordings, including "Cotton Tail" (which in addition to his memorable solo had a saxophone ensemble arranged by Webster) and "All Too Soon." After leaving Ellington in 1943 (he would return for a time in 1948-1949), Webster worked on 52nd Street; recorded frequently as both a leader and a sideman; had short periods with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and Sid Catlett; and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic during several seasons in the 1950s. Although his sound was considered out-of-style by that decade, Webster's work on ballads became quite popular and Norman Granz recorded him on many memorable sessions. Webster recorded a classic set with Art Tatum and generally worked steadily, but in 1964 he moved permanently to Copenhagen where he played when he pleased during his last decade. Although not all that flexible, Webster could swing with the best and his tone was a later influence on such diverse players as Archie Shepp, Lew Tabackin, Scott Hamilton, and Bennie Wallace.

Wikipedia:

For other people named Ben Webster, see Ben Webster (disambiguation).

Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973), a.k.a. "The Brute" or "Frog", was an influential American jazz tenor saxophonist. Webster, born in Kansas City, Missouri, is considered one of the three most important "swing tenors" along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Known affectionately as "The Brute", he had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with his own distinctive growls), yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment. Stylistically he was indebted to alto star Johnny Hodges, who, he said, taught him to play his instrument.

^ liner notes by Billy James taken from the 1962 recording Ben and "Sweets" CBS 460613

Early life and career[edit]

Webster learned to play piano and violin at an early age, before learning to play the saxophone, although he did return to the piano from time to time, even recording on the instrument occasionally. Once Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone, Webster began to play that instrument in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young). Kansas City at this point was a melting pot from which emerged some of the biggest names in 1930s jazz, and Webster joined Bennie Moten's legendary 1932 band that included Count Basie, Oran "Hot Lips" Page and Walter Page. This era has been 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.

With Ellington[edit]

Playing with Duke Ellington's orchestra for the first time in 1935, by 1940 Ben Webster had become its 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 was on many famous recordings, including "Cotton Tail" and "All Too Soon"; his contribution (together with that of bassist Jimmy Blanton) was so important that Ellington's orchestra during that period is 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.. In an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger in 2003, trumpeter Clark Terry claimed that Webster left Ellington because he slapped Duke, and was subsequently given his two-weeks notice.

After Ellington[edit]

After leaving Ellington in 1943, Webster worked on 52nd Street in New York City; recorded frequently as both a leader and a sideman; had short periods with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and Sid Catlett, as well as with Jay McShann's band, which also featured blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon. In 1948 he returned briefly to the Ellington orchestra for a few months.

In 1953 he recorded King of the Tenors with pianist Oscar Peterson, who would be an important collaborator for Webster throughout the decade. Along with Peterson, trumpeter Harry 'Sweets' Edison and others he was by now touring and recording with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic organisation. 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 1956 he recorded a classic set with pianist Art Tatum, supported by bassist Red Callender and drummer Bill Douglass.

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. <Bob Porter, "Portraits in Blue," broadcast August 2, 2014 on WBGO radio.ref>

The final decade, in Europe[edit]

Webster generally worked steadily but in 1964 he moved permanently to join other American jazz musicians in Europe, where 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 big band for a couple of shows at the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark and he recorded "live" in France with Earl Hines. He also recorded or performed with Buck Clayton, Bill Coleman and Teddy Wilson.

^ LP issued as Hines's Tune in France with Don Byas, Roy Eldridge, Stuff Smith, Kenny Clarke & Jimmy Woode

Death[edit]

Webster suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Amsterdam, North Holland, in September 1973, following a performance at the Twee Spieghels in Leiden, and died on the 20th. His body was cremated in Copenhagen and his ashes were buried in the Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro section of the city. Although not all that flexible or modern, remaining rooted in the blues and swing-era ballads, Webster could swing with the best and his tone was a later influence on such diverse players as Archie Shepp, Lew Tabackin, Scott Hamilton, David Murray, and Bennie Wallace.

Legacy[edit]

After Webster's death, Billy Moore Jr. created the Ben Webster Foundation, together with the trustee of Webster's estate. Since Webster's only legal heir, Harley Robinson in 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".

It is a beneficial foundation, which channels Webster's annual royalties to musicians, both in Denmark and the U.S. An annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded to a young outstanding musician. The prize is not large, but 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 has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen, "Ben Websters Vej".

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