Ben Webster: The Heart of the Matter

Ben Webster fell under the spell of Coleman Hawkins’ ground-breaking tenor saxophone style early in his career, but eventually discovered himself and largely formed his own style by about 1938. Shortly after this he found a setting as perfect for him as the Count Basie band was for Lester Young – the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from 1940-43. His time with Ellington and especially the exposure to Johnny Hodges further shaped him. Hawkins may have been Webster’s original model, but Hodges and another great alto saxophonist – Ben’s lifelong friend Benny Carter – were his biggest influences. From Carter he learned breath control and to smooth out his phrasing with more legato, from Hodges he learned how to project emotion by using glissandi and imbuing his sound with an endlessly nuanced vibrato. Even the Ellington band couldn’t contain his Promethian temper for long and he left in a huff after an altercation with Duke in 1943. His style evolved somewhat after this in small ways as he and his life changed, but he never really embraced bebop or other aspects of modernism in jazz, his playing remained essentially the same and true to itself.

This individuality was celebrated in the 1950s, when Webster found an ideal outlet in the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic troupes and the attendant record labels (Clef, Norgran, Verve) founded by Norman Granz. His many recordings from that time capture him in a kind of golden middle period and moved critics and listeners alike to belatedly place Webster alongside Hawkins and Young in a triumvirate of classic jazz tenors. By 1960 though, the Granz/Verve forum dried up for Webster and he suddenly faced being a lonely, anachronistic footnote. He was seriously out of step with the young men who were increasingly setting the pace on his horn in those years: Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, later Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. By the early ’60s, his playing seemed badly out of fashion and, finding work scarce and perhaps feeling marginalized in America, he exiled himself to Europe, in search of a fresh start and a new audience for his saxophone musings, never to return home.

But the passing of decades allows the dust of events and trends to settle, can bring the perspective of distance so that we can see things – history, ourselves, art – more clearly. Listening to Webster now, he is perhaps the most timeless of jazz players, he never sounds remotely dated and sweeps aside considerations of style, period, “schools” and genres as the trifles they mostly are. Ben Webster is forever, his playing defies age by being truly beautiful and wholly original – beauty is never irrelevant and originality cannot die. He achieved this singular, poetic beauty by wedding the twin pillars of his colossal playing: his incomparable, magnificent tone and his very direct communication of real emotion.

It’s hard to find words to describe his sound, yet they could fill volumes. The gruff-to-tender tone he produced from his saxophone Betsy was with him all of his life, it was his domain and his palette – majestic, sumptuous, roomy, sensuous, a slab of mahogany wrapped in velvet. At medium tempos, it billowed, furled and swayed like a huge sail in the wind. On ballads it purred, whispered and caressed, sometimes fading to a mere breathy exhalation. On up-tempo songs or slow blues numbers it was the roar and snarl of a provoked lion, his tenor sounding like metal on metal, a Cadillac engine badly in need of an oil change. In a single solo, Webster could start out sounding as light and fluffy as a souffle, move to a medium volume with a vibrato that neighed like a horse, offer some savage parrot squawks or dragon roars, then slither like a boa constrictor back to the souffle again. If, as Zoot Sims once put it, Stan Getz was “a nice bunch of guys”, then Ben Webster was an entire menagerie, his saxophone a vessel of sound along the lines of Noah’s Ark.

Webster’s command of his sound – and his vibrato and dynamics – was absolute and shaped his playing. The sheer luxurious mass of it allowed him to play very simply and slowly; with a sound like this he couldn’t play very fast, nor did he need to. His focus on tone colour allowed him to work in broad strokes and handle big matters. His solos were oratorical, a series of dramatic pronouncements, melodic statements and shapes rather than lines, with large swatches of space and silence left between these. He didn’t generate time so much as he filled it, straddling the rhythm section underneath him, floating on top of their beat like the absurdly tiny hats he wore perched atop his massive head. For this reason, Ben always sounded his best with good pianists and rhythm sections, he needed them to generate momentum and make his pauses sound better. The piano was his first instrument and he played it quite well, later idolizing great pianists like Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Jimmy Rowles (a lifelong friend), Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones and Joe Zawinul.

In certain registers during his more lyrical moods, he could sound uncannily like a string instrument. He tended to play lower on the tenor in the 1940s and sometimes sounded like a cello, albeit one on steroids. In the ’50s he played higher on the horn and especially on ballads could sound for all the world like a viola. It was not only the warm woodiness of the timbre but the vibrato and phrasing, the sustain that resembled bowing. This may have resulted from studying the violin as a child, but whatever the reason, it was a unique feature of his playing.

His rich menu of sound constantly served the conveyance of emotion, which is what his playing is all about. He felt things very deeply – tenderness, rage, nostalgia, joy, yearning, loneliness, absent friends, homesickness – and these feelings were never far from the surface of his music. Though he had perfect pitch, he often played with deliberately blurred or wide intonation – his notes were in tune at the centre, but were often surrounded by an English of moving air, some fur or fuzziness. I pity anyone trying to transcribe one of his solos, because he rarely played a ‘straight’ note, his were often bent or suffused with a whole range of inflection. They were more like sounds than notes – and in these sounds lie his emotional transparency, his openness. His playing acquired the properties of language, of human speech. Other saxophonists offered virtuosity and musical thought, fast, complex lines full of harmonic and rhythmic brinksmanship. They played ideas, whereas Ben seemed to play the shapes of feelings, tone-syllables which talk directly to us. And more than any other saxophonist – with the possible exception of Lester Young – Webster seems to offer us his heart itself, as if to say, “Here it is on a silver platter, take it.”

Such emotional directness cannot become dated, because feelings are essentially what humans have experienced each and every day, forever. Who among us has not known the longing for lost friends, the joy of Christmas morning as a child, the thrill of first love, the heartbreak of romantic rejection, the self-doubt of failure, the ache of loneliness, the despair of aging? How can these be irrelevant? But while Webster speaks to all of these feelings and more, he doesn’t wallow in them; his playing offers sentiment, but is never sentimental. He stops short of the cloying or mawkish by being utterly sincere and devoid of self-pity, by achieving a kind of beautiful and passionate honesty. It also helped that at any moment he was fully capable of producing a note that could blow you halfway across the room; his playing captures your attention and keeps you on your toes.

Ben Interlude #1. Webster had the habit of sometimes tailing a note off to just a tiny puff of breath, finishing it with a miraculous sotto voce vibrato. It sounded like this – phuff-ffff-ff-fff-ff-ff-ff…f…    He was living in Los Angeles in the late ’50s and work was scarce, but when he did work it was often with a marvelous band – Jimmy Rowles on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, Red Mitchell or Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Frank Butler on drums. They played at a club called The Rennaissance and one night Butler called the young Billy Higgins to sub for him on drums. Higgins, only about eighteen, was both excited and nervous about this chance to work with such a master and wanted to play as considerately as possible for the elder Ben – he decided he would use brushes almost exclusively. The first number was at a slow-medium tempo and Billy was stirring away with his brushes on the snare drum when, halfway through his first chorus, Ben turned around and gruffly barked “Sticks, kid!” out of the side of his mouth. Billy, a little startled, switched to sticks and the ride cymbal.

The same thing happened whenever Ben played on the next couple of numbers, which were a little faster. Finally, Ben called a ballad and Billy figured he’d have to let him play brushes on this one. But no, eight bars into the melody, Ben leaned aside and snarled out “Sticks!” again, Billy couldn’t believe it. When the set was over, he was confused and a little hurt, he thought he’d played quite well. He decided to ask Ben about it and approached him. “Gee, Mr. Webster, don’t you like the way I play brushes?”. Ben answered, “Huh? Naah, it ain’t that, kid. You play just fine. But the shwoo, shwoo, shwoo from your brushes is gettin’ in the way of the foo, foo, ff-foo comin’ out my horn.” 

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I’ll never forget becoming fully aware of Ben’s greatness for the first time. It happened in a car sometime in 1977, though I knew of him before that and had probably heard him a little in passing. Pianist George McFetridge and I worked regularly near the Toronto Airport that year and one night we were riding home in George’s car and he popped in a cassette tape, saying, “This is a long Ben Webster track, it might last all the way home.” (I had no idea at the time what record this was from, but I’ve since come to know it – Ben Webster and Associates, an all-star affair from 1959.) A good-sized band began playing Ellington’s “In A Mellotone” at a perfectly relaxed medium tempo, with at least two tenors and a trumpet playing the melody and Webster answering them with improvised countermelodies. This was followed by a long series of solos, most of them lasting two choruses. Unusually, the bass led off – Ray Brown – brilliant, but a little hard to hear over the car engine. Next was piano and I distinctly remember George saying it was Hank Jones, but it’s actually Jimmy Jones, followed by a slightly diffident guitar chorus by Les Spann. Then came two choruses from a tenor player I didn’t recognize, who used some double-time and other impressive boppish touches. (It’s Budd Johnson, who’s become one of my favourites. He wasn’t supposed to be on this date, but Ben stopped off at a bar on the way to the studio for a drink and saw Budd and immediately asked him to join as a guest on the session. This was entirely typical of Ben and appropriate because they were very old and dear friends. They met sometime in the late ’20s in Amarillo, Texas, where Ben was working as a silent-movie pianist in a local theatre. Ben was interested in learning to play the saxophone and had bought an old tenor and Budd gave him his first lessons and pointers on the horn, so this was payback.) Next I recognized the urgent, buzzing rasp of Roy Eldridge and as he always does, Roy dialed the heat up a couple of notches. I’d scarcely recovered from this when Coleman Hawkins entered in all his thundering and magisterial glory; by now the groove and intensity had reached mythic proportions, but still no Ben Webster. There was a drum interlude from Jo Jones and at last, after either being a cordial host (after you, fellas) or perhaps thinking he’d save the best for last, Big Ben entered the fray.

Even then, I was aware of Ben’s combative bravado, and in this competitive arena I expected him to take the gloves off and come out swinging right off the bat, but no, he began with disarming restraint, which I at first mistook for tentativeness. Even holding back like this, his tone was riveting; it went “Vrroooouuuwwwllll” and sounded like the voice of God. In his first chorus he almost toyed with the song’s chords and the beat, playing some very interesting and dissonant harmonic ideas, with unusual and angular shapes, building steam. He uttered some pretty savage roars in his second chorus, but contrasted these with some oblique, sideways murmurings. When he was finished, I was literally blown away by his control and utter mastery, the audaciously original imagination at work here. Whether he was trying to or not (and I rather suspect he was), Ben had effectively used the building excitement of all the wonderful playing preceding him as preamble and cannon fodder, sweeping some very powerful players aside as almost incidental, irrelevant. He didn’t do so with the exertion of force and muscle as I expected, but rather with guile and insinuating subtlety; his playing seemed to imply as much as it directly stated. I was surprised by the almost avant-garde abstraction of his solo, it was almost like cubist painting in its bold manipulation of big shapes and contours, I thought of Ben as being the Picasso of jazz. One thing I knew for sure after this, I had to hear some more of him, and soon.

Fortunately, it was easy to find his records as Verve, following in the footsteps of other labels, began issuing “two-fers” from their vaults around then. I found and bought three of these by Webster from the ’50s. One paired his two LPs with Oscar Peterson, another his two meetings with Coleman Hawkins and a third was called Ballads and mostly featured Ben’s sumptuous playing with strings. These were the records that made me fall in love with his playing and I’ve been smitten ever since. Eventually, I backtracked and digested his classic playing with Ellington’s band, though I didn’t do that entirely until CD reissues were in full swing by the early ’90s.

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I was mostly moved to write this piece on Ben by a strange and surprising discovery in my CD collection this past fall. One day, to borrow Ellington’s phrase, I had a “yen for Ben” and went over to the Webster shelf looking for some of his records to play. I spotted a three-CD set on Definitive called Ben Webster: The Complete Small Group Recordings, 1943-51, which I’d forgotten all about. I vaguely remember buying it and surely I must have listened to it, but it felt like new information to me. So, into the CD player went the three discs and there they stayed, I scarcely listened to anything else for about two weeks. His playing throughout was a revelation, by turns dramatic, lyrical, ghostly, moving, raging and above all, exciting.

This set is invaluable because in one place, it offers the almost forgotten and unknown Ben Webster, filling in the blanks between his time with Ellington, which made his reputation, and his Verve period, which crowned it. In many ways, the mid ’40s were his peak, but for years his records from then were hard to find, because they were mostly 78s and not issued as albums. This set offers five sessions led by Webster, one co-led with Big Sid Catlett and six others with such illustrious leaders as James P. Johnson, Pete Johnson (his old Kansas City buddy and piano teacher), Teddy Wilson, Benny Morton, Cozy Cole and Benny Carter, plus three led by very good but lesser-known musicians – Walter “Foots” Thomas, Al Hall and Bill De Arango. Webster is surrounded by some of the finest players of that time, just the way he liked it. Wonderful trumpeters such as Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Emmett Berry, Idrees Sulieman and believe it or not, Maynard Ferguson. And ace rhythm players – aside from a good deal of his favourite drummer Catlett, J.C. Heard, Cozy Cole and Denzil Best are also here. State of the art bassists such as Hall, Oscar Pettiford, John Simmons, Israel Crosby. And most importantly to Ben, great pianists – aside from Wilson and both Johnsons, these sessions feature such stalwarts as Marlowe Morris, Johnny Guarneri, the prophetic and short-lived Clyde Hart, Jimmy Jones and the early bebop pianists, Al Haig and Argonne Thornton (later Sadik Hakim.) As these names suggest, a lot of this music is classic, mature small group swing and some of the later sessions (especially from 1946) cross into early bebop territory, which didn’t seem to faze Ben at all.

His playing here builds on his wonderful work with Ellington and, while mining the same emotional territory as he would later, is quite different than his work in the ’50s. Whereas Ben’s sound during the Verve years was often velvety and at times ventured up quite high on the tenor into almost a falsetto range, his sound in the ’40s was much heavier, thicker and darker, his vibrato tighter and he spent more time in the middle to lower registers. Despite the deeper, weightier sound, Ben was faster and more mobile on the horn in the ’40s and tended to be more linear, playing longer, serpentine lines phrased very smoothly with a slurring legato. Ironically, though his sound lightened in the ’50s, he generally played simpler and slower then. At any rate, hearing this missing Ben Webster convinced me more than ever that he is unique, one of the most eloquent, profound and imperishable soloists jazz has ever known.

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Conventional jazz wisdom holds that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young formed the two great early models of tenor saxophone and that most players followed one or the other, with Webster definitely being counted among the Hawk followers. This was certainly true early in Ben’s career. One story from the early 1930s has it that Ben was not only trying to sound just like Hawkins, but to dress, act, walk and talk like him too. One day a friend said, “Okay, I’m hearing and seeing Coleman Hawkins, but where is Ben Webster?”. By the late ’30s however, and continuing through his time with Ellington, Webster developed a style original and significant enough that it formed a third stream of tenor playing, between Hawkins and Young. His first great follower was Don Byas. I hear much more of Webster in Byas – in his sound, phrasing and vibrato – than I do Hawkins. Others followed; certainly Lucky Thompson, Lockjaw Davis, Flip Phillips, Benny Golson and especially Paul Gonsalves were Webster men. And Harold Ashby, who was a curator of Ben’s style in much the same way that Paul Quinichette was of Lester Young’s. And later, so-called “avant-garde” players like Archie Shepp, David Murray and Bennie Wallace are deeply indebted to Webster and have acknowledged this. So there is a strong line of influence coming from Webster that is quite distinct from Hawkins, it just took a while for people to catch up to him and recognize it. I think this is because Webster’s playing, though very direct, is also quite abstract; this is the paradox of his style. He deals primarily with sound and emotion and these are both abstract things.

Ben Interlude #2.  (The following story was related to me by the veteran jazz fan Don Brown, and he very kindly gave me permission to use it here. Don had the privilege of hearing Webster many times in person in Toronto, both at clubs and in concert with JATP.)

On a Friday night in May of 1964, Don Brown and his wife went to The Town Tavern to hear Ben Webster. They were seated at the bar directly in front of the bandstand, which was a raised affair up behind the bar at about the level of the bartender’s shoulders. It was flanked by two of the biggest, noisiest cash registers in Toronto, often described as “the stereophonic cash registers.” There was a good Friday night crowd on hand, but as usual, only a few people were paying any attention to the music. Ben was playing his heart out, ably backed by the local trio of Norm Amadio on piano, Bob Price on bass and Archie Alleyne on drums, and Don could sense his growing frustration. Ben had had a few and was teetering dangerously near the edge of the stage, and Don also noticed that, unlike other elite musicians such as Duke Ellington or Coleman Hawkins, Ben was not exactly a fashion plate. He was wearing a baggy, rumpled suit and, in contrast to the narrow, dark ties in vogue then, Ben was sporting one that had to have been eight or nine inches wide and could have served as some country’s flag. Toward the end of his first set, Ben noticed that Don and his wife had been listening to him closely and he leaned precariously over the edge of the stand and asked if he could “play something pretty for the lady.” Don froze. Here was one of his two favourite tenor players (the other being Lester Young) asking him to choose the final tune of the set and his mind went blank for a second and then he blurted out “Cottontail.” Of course Ben had played it hundreds of times and he groaned, “Oh God, not now.” Thinking fast, Don chose something more appropriate, suggesting “Willow Weep For Me.” Ben’s eyes lit up and he gave an appreciative nod, saying “You got it.” He launched into a glorious interpretation of this beautiful old song and suddenly one could hear a pin drop in the club. Even the hookers and their pimps down at the end of the bar stopped their chatter and were hanging on his every note. It was one of those very special moments, an example of the kind of magic spell the thespian of the tenor could weave.

The set over, Ben went as quickly as his feet would carry him toward the club’s entrance, where he’d spotted two longtime friends just coming in. They were Mrs. Anger, the widow of the late Justice Anger of the Supreme Court of Ontario, and her son Ron, who was at the time the president of the Toronto chapter of the Duke Ellington Society. Mr. and Mrs. Anger had been longtime Ellington fans and first heard Ben in Hull, Quebec in 1940 when he appeared there with Ellington shortly after joining the orchestra. Ben was dead set on reaching the Angers and was really moving. Just then a young college student jumped up, pulled a pen and pad from his briefcase, and attempted to ask Ben for his autograph, like a paper coffee cup in the path of the charging Chicago Bears’ defensive line. The massive Webster straight-armed the poor kid, knocking him flat on his back onto a small table, spilling its drinks and cigarette butts all over the couple sitting there. Big Ben never even broke stride and in a couple of seconds had managed to throw his huge arms around the petite Mrs. Anger. As Don puts it, talk about extremes – in an instant they’d seen Webster morph from being the tender balladeer of “Willow” to “The Brute” they’d read about, then just as quickly back into “Gentle Ben”. Both the man and his music were full of contradictions.

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Ben’s Jekyll-and-Hyde volatility was the stuff of legend and turned up both in his playing and in his behaviour. He could be very gentle and sensitive, as he was to his mother Mayme and great-aunt Agnes Johnson, both of whom he often lived with. They spoiled him with their cooking and other attentions, but he also doted on them. One story has it that when the two ladies were older, Ben used to brush their hair at night – 100 strokes each – before they retired to bed. He could become maudlin and sentimental when remembering departed friends – he was very close to both Jimmie Blanton and Sid Catlett, and their early deaths left a hole in his heart. He was known to weep openly when playing pretty ballads he loved, his eyes rolling back in his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. These tears were never far away. Many have told of Ben, remembering past times playing with great musicians, suddenly sobbing, saying, “Man, why don’t I get to play with guys like that anymore?”

But out on the prowl, with a snootful of booze in him, look out…he turned into “The Brute”, willing to take on all comers. Pimps, sailors, rounders, anyone who offered a slight or insult – real or imagined – Ben was all too willing to whale the tar out of them and had the physical prowess for this. If it didn’t reach the point of mayhem, his hostility could still be obnoxious, belligerent, foul-mouthed, unmanageable. The only person who could handle Webster in this state was his old friend Benny Carter. Webster would listen to reason from Carter, whom he admired above everyone else, saying, “There’s a man who can bake a cake as light as a feather and whip any man.” (Carter was famous for his elegance, but was also a deadly street-fighter.)

Along with the temper and gargantuan drinking, there was also ego and hauteur in Ben, though a lot of it was bluster. I think he felt the frustration of knowing that he was great, but undervalued. He saw himself as regal, expected the royal treatment and felt slighted when it didn’t come. (There’s a famous, funny story about this from Ben’s later days in Europe. He was playing at a function attended by some European royalty and broke all protocol by butting into the official receiving line holding his saxophone, vigorously shaking some startled royal’s hand, saying “Nice to meet ya Prince…. Ben Webster, King of the Tenors!”). Milt Hinton spoke of a time in the mid ’50s when Ben was living with him and his wife Mona and not working much. Hinton was doing a lot of studio work then and always tried to get Ben hired on record dates but to no avail, because Ben insisted on being paid triple-scale for doing sideman’s work.

So Ben’s drinking, ego and volatility made him his own worst enemy. There is a large gap of recording sessions by Ben in small groups between 1947 and 1950. Part of it was the second A. F. of M. recording strike of 1948 and that Webster rejoined Ellington’s band for a while from 1948-49. But mostly between 1949 and 1950, his drinking was really out of control and he became ill, eventually moving back to his hometown of Kansas City to be nursed back to health by his mother and great-aunt. When he recovered, he began working with some obscure local bands in K.C. and later L.A., where he moved in 1951. Soon after that, Norman Granz came to the rescue and Ben made a huge comeback.

Certainly his temper was the reason Ellington fired him. The story I’ve read is that Ben had Ellington’s permission to play piano with the band whenever Duke was busy off the bandstand schmoozing with management or customers, and Ben loved to do this. One night while drunk, he overstayed his welcome at the keyboard, playing very badly and embarrassing everyone. When Duke gave him hell and told him to get up, Ben was so enraged he went to Duke’s dressing room and cut a couple of the maestro’s expensive suits to ribbons with a knife. Duke gave him two week’s notice, making Webster one of the few musicians Ellington ever actually fired. Webster had to have felt shame and regret over this, he loved Ellington and remained devoted to his music for the rest of his life. In some ways, his abrupt departure from the Ellington fold was a tragedy – it was a perfect setting for him and the band provided him with a kind of musical home and family, something he later lacked and craved. The brevity of his stay does serve to concentrate the brilliance of his work with the band though.

There is a growing conviction in some scholarly jazz circles that Ben Webster was in fact gay, closeted and possibly in denial for his whole life. I’m not certain how much of this is based on evidence or testimony and how much is speculation. Outside of his mother and great-aunt, Webster did not have many long-standing relationships with women. In his profile on Webster, the great Whitney Balliett mentions in passing that Webster was married very briefly in the 1940s, but I’ve never heard or read any other mention of this. Certainly Webster never had children or a ‘normal’ family life, apart from that with the two older ladies. It seems that Ben mostly needed women to look after him, rather than provide a romantic outlet. During his stay in Europe, this caregiving role was taken on in Amsterdam by his landlady, a Mrs. Hartlooper, and later in Copenhagen by an elderly nurse named Birgit Nordtorp.

My initial reaction to all this theorizing was one of shock and skepticism. Superficially, it seemed to fly in the face of Webster’s image as a hard-living, brawling tough guy and I’m not overly fond of posthumous psychoanalysis. However, it’s possible that Ben was gay, it stands to reason that there were many more gay jazz musicians back then than we know about. Lots of gay men have been married, and Ben’s ultra-macho persona could have been a means of denial, over-compensation or even a cover to hide something he felt would never be accepted in the hyper-masculine world of jazz in those days. (Billy Strayhorn was the only openly gay man in jazz at the time, but he had the protection and sanctuary of being Ellington’s indispensable right-hand man. Duke set Billy up with everything he needed and the men in the band loved Strayhorn like a brother.)

I have no idea if Ben was gay or not, nor do I care. After all, he’s been dead for over forty years and his sexual orientation was his business, not ours. But if he was indeed gay, it might explain a lot of the mysteries of his tempestuous personality. The frustration, angst and isolation of being closeted all those years, coupled with the racism he regularly met as a black man in America, could well have led to the sudden towering rages, the loneliness and emotional extremes, the quickness to find offense, the desire to break somebody’s face and make them pay for all of this ugliness and pain. Personally, I think Ben was disappointed and angry at a world that was seldom as pretty as the music he played or imagined. I don’t think we’ll ever know, but for whatever reasons, Ben was a complicated and conflicted character. This cost him dearly, but is also part of what makes his music so compelling.

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Rob McConnell told me this story many years ago. Drink was taken during his narration and my memory of it may have become a little cloudy, so some of the particulars may be off a little. But essentially, this is how I remember it going:

Ben Interlude #3. Between 1963 and ’64, Rob McConnell lived in New York for a time, studying arranging and playing valve trombone in Maynard Ferguson’s band. One night he found himself in a musician’s bar (probably Jim & Andy’s) quite late and Ben Webster was there, out on a toot. Rob had heard Ben in Toronto and loved his playing, so he introduced himself and as soon as Ben heard he was from Toronto, he was all over Rob. “Toronto, you must know my man Bob Price – wow, that B.P. – what a motherfucker! Plays great bass, tells good jokes and he knows how to drink! Good dancer too!” (Apparently, Ben and Bob danced a couple of fox-trots together when in their cups at a party one night in Toronto after a gig, and Ben got a big kick out of it.) So Ben and Rob did some more drinking and talking and Ben became more and more nostalgic about the good times he’d had with Bob and decided he had to call him, right then and there. Rob didn’t think this was such a good idea and said as much; it was now about three in the morning and Bob was then living with his elderly, widowed mother, who was a very nice, genteel lady in somewhat frail health.

Ben was not to be denied however, not in this state. “Don’t give me all that bullshit about it being late, I got to talk to my man B.P.!” Ben found Bob’s number in his book and bellowed over to the bartender, “Give me five dollars’ worth of quarters to make the goddamn payphone go!” He hauled his massive frame up and ambled unsteadily over to the phone booth, somehow squeezing his massive head and shoulders into its narrow confines, with his haunches and spindly legs sticking out at a twenty-degree angle. He started bellowing out instructions to the long distance operator and deposited some quarters into the phone, which began ringing Bob’s number in Toronto. This is what Rob heard from his end:

“Hello, s’that B.P.’s place? Whoozzat? His mutha?…Oh. I know itsh a little late lady, shorry I woke ya up, but thisisss important. I gotta talk to B.P.! Never mind what time it ish, put B.P. on – whaddya mean he’s shleeping – well, wake him up, for Chrissakes! Tell him ish Frog on the line from New York! He’ll wanna talk t’ Frog!” As this was going on, Ben was starting to yawn and get sleepy, his tiny hat cocked back, shoulders leaning further and further in to the booth, his legs now sticking out at a thirty-five-degree angle. He finally convinced Bob’s mother to go and wake Bob up, the poor woman no doubt wondering just who this shrieking Frog character was and wishing her son had stuck to accountancy and never became a musician. As she went off to do Ben’s bidding against her better judgement, Ben started sagging and drooping into the booth, his legs now on a full diagonal. By the time Bob Price came on the line, Ben was out cold, snoring like a bear, his face and hat mashed up against the glass of the booth. Rob went over behind Ben, and heard Bob’s voice coming out of the receiver, “Hello. Hello Ben, are you there? Hello?” Very, very carefully, Rob reached around the sleeping giant and eased the receiver from his hand. “Hi Bob, it’s Rob McConnell. Sorry about that, it wasn’t my idea. I just met Ben and he got to talking about you and Toronto and how much he misses you and he just had to call you and I couldn’t talk him out of it. He’s fast asleep now, right out.” Bob chuckled, “No problem, but be careful when you wake him up. Maybe do a fox-trot with Ben and tell him it’s from me, that’ll cheer him up.” 

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Not long after Don Brown heard him at The Town Tavern, Ben took himself off to play a season at Ronnie Scott’s club in London and stayed, eventually settling in Amsterdam, then moving to Copenhagen in 1969. His days in Europe were mixed. He enjoyed the more leisurely pace of life there and the relative lack of Jim Crow. And he worked quite steadily and found a fresh and enthusiastic audience, Europeans loved his classic playing and relished hearing him live for the first time. But it was also lonely, he missed his American musician friends and rejoiced in periodic visits from people like Jimmy Rowles and Phil Woods. He often found European rhythm sections to be amateurish, lagging behind instead of pushing him as he liked. This was better in Copenhagen though, as he found some good rhythm men there – Kenny Drew, N.H.O.P., Alex Riel and Tootie Heath.

He drank more and more and got bigger and bigger, resembling an inverted pyramid moving about on spinet legs. His health suffered and he needed a cane to walk. His playing became slower and slower and sometimes he was drunk to the point where it unraveled. But mostly his playing remained intact, the beautiful sound, grace and his love of songs never left him. He made some good records in his last years, many of them on Black Lion with the players mentioned above. There’s a hilarious recording from this period of Ben coaching the Danish Radio Big Band at a rehearsal, teaching, willing them to swing by all manner of profane, obscene and vocal urgings. Hearing it is the next best thing to having known him.

Ben died in Copenhagen on September 20, 1973 and is buried there. He decreed on his deathbed that his saxophone Betsy was not to be played after he died and it’s now at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Ben was just 64, but in terms of mileage he lived many more years than that.

                                                       ***

A Dozen Ben Webster Moments Not To Be Missed. It was hard to limit this list to just twelve favourite Webster tracks and another time I might have chosen another twelve, or twenty-four for that matter. The list is entirely subjective and the order is strictly chronological. To save room for more choices, I’ve left out his signature solo on “Cottontail” because it’s so obvious and famous it goes without saying.

“All Too Soon” – Duke Ellington Orchestra – June 22, 1940.  Not only my favourite track of Ben with Ellington, but one of my all-time favourite records, period. Duke’s beautiful melody is played by his lyric trombonist Lawrence Brown, with Toby Hardwick weaving an ethereal countermelody around him, his delicate alto saxophone sounding for all the world like a violin. (I swore it was Ray Nance when I first heard this, but Ray wasn’t in the band yet.) Then there’s a modulation up a half-tone and Ben enters dramatically to blow a fabulous chorus, with muted brass playing some insinuating wah-wahs behind him. Ben weaves in and out of the melody, his sound and delivery perfect, the whole thing takes you to the land of beauty. The wonderful jazz writer Doug Ramsey once wrote a profile of Zoot Sims in which Zoot talked about how much he loved Ben Webster and this track, saying that he could listen to it four or five times in a row, and each time was like hearing it for the first time. Zoot was right.

“Stardust” – Duke Ellington Orchestra – Nov. 7, 1940. This is from the famous recording of Duke’s band playing a dance in Fargo, North Dakota. The band played a lot of Duke’s compositions that night, but, as it was a dance, also played a few standards. Ben is heavily featured throughout and was clearly in rare form that evening. The recording is primitive but really captures his sound in all its stentorian glory. This is Ben all the way on a tune he loved to play and he’s at his most operatic here, delivering a romantic aria of Caruso proportions.

“After You’ve Gone” – James P. Johnson & The Blue Note Jazzmen – Mar. 21, 1944. A perfect track in every way. The tempo is just right, the rhythm section incomparable, especially the fiery little details and flourishes from Johnson and Sid Catlett. The contours and changes of this song are ideally suited to Ben and he delivers two beautifully flowing choruses, complete with some hair-raising breaks. I realize this is sacrilege, but I think Ben outdoes his famous “Cottontail” solo here.

“I Surrender, Dear” – Ben Webster Quartet – March 25, 1944.  “I Surrender, Dear” was Ben’s “Body and Soul”, he recorded it a year before this and again three weeks after this. It’s a brooding, ghostly song with ambivalent shifts between minor and major. This version is by the great quartet Ben co-led with Sid Catlett for a while, and offers a rare glimpse of both his ballad and up-tempo styles in one go. He plays a slow lyrical chorus, then Catlett sets a faster tempo with a drum break and the voice of Odin enters, bellowing.

“Danny Boy” – King of the Tenors – April 21, 1953. This one is exceptional and would make almost everyone’s list. Ben adored the old Irish air and plays it with a lot of heart and reverence, while decorating it with little flourishes and subtle dissonant turns. This is the track that first made me realize how much he could sound like a viola. A gobsmacker.

“Blue Moon” – Music for Loving – Sept. 9, 1955. This track is from a wonderful series of sessions Ben made accompanied by strings largely arranged by Ralph Burns, with either Teddy Wilson or Hank Jones featured on piano. I could have picked any one of many beautiful performances here, but there’s something about the way he plays this song that always gives me major goosebumps, plus my wife Anna loves to dance to this one.

“Blues for Yolande”, “Rosita” –  Coleman Hawkins encounters Ben Webster – Oct. 16, 1957. Okay, I’m cheating here with two-for-one from the same record, so sue me. The main attraction here is the gorgeous sound these old rivals make playing these simple melodies together in harmony – they sound like a foghorn tuned in thirds. “Rosita” is a pretty, gentle beguine in a Spanish mood and “Yolande’ is a rocking, slow-shuffle blues greatly abetted by Oscar Peterson’s barrelhouse piano. Hearing the overwhelming warmth of the saxophone sound here is like basking in the morning sun.

“The Touch of Your Lips” – Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson – Nov. 6, 1959. Not an easy one to pick, but my favourite track from a wonderful record. Ben clearly loves this song, plus there’s a classic Ray Brown solo here. And playing with Ben brought out the best in Oscar Peterson, he reigns in the virtuosity and rarely sounded better.

“Sunday” – Gerry Mulligan meets Ben Webster – Dec. 2, 1959. This was a very happy encounter, musically and otherwise. The saxophone sounds blend together beautifully and Mulligan, a keen student of jazz history, shows Ben a lot of respect here and Webster responds in kind. And the superb rhythm section with Leroy Vinnegar, Mel Lewis and Ben’s old buddy Jimmy Rowles at the helm really helps. Ben’s solo here is very creative, an eloquent overview of all the various elements of his style, yet it hangs together almost thematically.

“Come Sunday”Soulmates – Sep. 20, 1963. The unexpected pairing of Ben with the much younger Joe Zawinul was the result of them sharing an apartment for a while and becoming fast friends, often practicing together. Ellington’s religious song requires a preacher who can deliver a sermon like Mahalia Jackson, who sang it with Duke. Needless to say, Ben delivers.

“The Single Petal Of A Rose” – See You At the Fair – March 11, 1964.  From the last record Webster made in America and the song is one of Ellington’s most beautiful and seldom played ones, from “The Queen’s Suite.” It’s very simple, yet very challenging and I’ve never heard anyone come close to playing it as well as Ben does. He’s breathtaking here and always makes me tear up. This applies equally to Johnny Hodges, but there’s nothing in jazz more exquisite than the sound of Ben Webster playing songs by Ellington or Strayhorn.

“Goin’ Home” – Legends of Jazz, Vol. 5 – 1968. I wish Webster had made a whole album of spirituals…. though, in a way, everything he played was a spiritual. This one is simple, short and sweet, just his lilting sound playing this lovely melody, backed by a big band with strings and a good rhythm section. It’s a nice gift from late in the game.

***

In choosing the above, I was poised many times to write that these songs (and many others) sound as if they were written for Ben, but managed to avoid this repetition. It’s true though, Ben had a poetic, uncanny gift for getting inside the melody of a song and finding its meaning and nuances, letting his expressiveness wash over it so that you’d swear the composer wrote it expressly for him. He could play the blues and sounded wonderful on simple riff-tunes but more than anything else, Ben loved to play good songs with pretty melodies and chords. They were the third great stream in his music, along with sound and feeling. It’s almost as if in his loneliness, having no one to give his heart to, Ben gave his to songs.

Ben Webster’s playing is timeless because it’s so human, so honest and moving, but I think he’s remained one of the most treasured of jazz musicians because above all, his playing tells us that he loves us. It’s a simple but very powerful message. Because, at the end of the day….we all want to be loved.

© 2014 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “Ben Webster: The Heart of the Matter

  1. I first heard Ben when I was in high school and a pal of mine played me one track from King Of The Tenors. It was Danny Boy. I don’t know if Ben had tears in his eyes when he played it but there was sure some in mine when I heard it. It is one piece of music that I never tire of and that never fails to evoke that emotion. It was played straight from the heart.

  2. Until Tonight from the Music for Loving session does it for me everytime. The way
    he states the melody brings on goose bumps, guaranteed. Incidentally Until Tonight was also feature for him with Ellington.
    When Ellington played Copenhagen in 1971, Ben Webster sat in with the band for
    a whole set and played all his old featured numbers including Cotton Tail.
    His reward was 4 kisses from Duke who loved him until the end.

    • Wayne, are you sure about “Until Tonight” as a feature for Ben with Ellington? Looking in my Ellington collection I couldn’t find any version (studio/film/broadcast) other than the Jan.15/41 transcription session, where it was called “Mauve”.

      But, WHUT THE… I took that later Verve strings version off the shelf, and it lists the composer of “Until Tonight” as Victor Young! I’m going to have to look into that — it sounds like the same composition.

      • Okay, according to the Data Base Of Popular Music, there is a 1949 song by Victor Young and Edward Heyman of the same title (Until Tonight). I suppose whoever it was who did the research for the Webster recording on Verve simply took the more-recent copyright information and assigned Ellington’s royalties to Young. Uh-oh… (Shades of Steve’s “Carl Perkins” blog….)

        “http://www.dbopm.com/form/process?query_id=40&string=Until+Tonight&type=1”

  3. Steve….you are killing me.LOL I just couldn’t stop laughing when you got to the story about Bob Price. Good ol Bob. What a prince…

  4. Steve:
    Loved your piece on Ben Webster.
    One small correction in detail: Harry Anger was at the Supreme
    Court of Ontario – not Canada. I met him several times, though not
    in his professional capacity. If I catch your ear in a club some
    evening, I’ll recount a story about a visit with the Anger family to
    Louis Armstrong’s room at the King Eddy late one night.

  5. RE BEN W. Wow! another of the greatest biographys in North American
    musical history. The original Cottontail helped me learn about this music when
    the Victor 78 was recorded maybe 1940. The whole solo is stamped in my mind
    to this day.
    Steve, this article is an enormous contribution to the story of the music,which will
    one day be recognized as the best thing the US ever produced.

  6. Hi Steve,
    You writing here on Webster’s sound and style of playing hits the bull’s eye slap, dap in the middle. I have never written anything better!
    But I wonder, if you ever have written my book on him, “Someone to watch over me. The life and music of Ben Webster.” (University of Michigan Press, 2006). You can here read that Webster was married in 1942 to Eudora Williams (Barney Bigard was the best man at the wedding). Even the marriage broke up some time after, they were never legally divorced. Webster had several girl firends during his life, among them – in the thirties Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday, and after the marriage broke up Doris Webster (they were not married) and in Denmark Birgit Nortorp, who was about 20 years younger than Webster and is still living, and the Swedish singer Marlene Widmark. Webster kept in touch with all of his girlfriends all through his life – except for Holiday – and Doris Webster even came to his funeral in Copenhagen along with her husband.

  7. Hi Steve,
    Really enjoyed your appraisal of Ben Webster.
    Might I suggest “Tangerine” from “Coleman Hawkins encounters Ben Webster”:
    Hawkins takes the first solo, but when Ben comes in there is an audible shift in intensity, from his very first note. What follows is simply a masterclass in rhythmic and tonal subtlety. I once spent hours trying to master the subtleties of this solo and playing it in unison with Ben still sends shivers down my spine!

  8. I greatly enjoyed your superb writing, which captured Ben Webster’s art and personality so well. I knew Ben Webster when I was a teenager in Amsterdam in 1968. His health and personality disorder were declining, but he was playing as well as ever. Among his influences, I would add Harry Carney (this is what he told me) and…Frank Sinatra.

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