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Artist Profile: Tenor Saxophonist Ben Webster

By

Tenor Saxophonist Ben Webster

Saxophonist Ben Webster with Pianist Billy Kyle

© Charles Peterson / Getty Images
Born:

March 27th, 1909 in Kansas City, Missouri

Died:

September 20th, 1973 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The Brute

Ben Webster’s raspy and immense tone distinguished him as one of the most renowned tenor saxophone players of the swing era, and earned him the affectionate nickname, "The Brute." As a featured soloist in big bands, he pounded out buoyant solos over up-tempo stomps. In small groups he took on the role of a vocalist, and sang melancholy ballads through his horn. Simple and sincere, and alternatively aggressive and sensitive, Ben Webster’s playing had a magnetism that remains strong to this day.

Among the big three “swing tenors,” who, in addition to Webster, included Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Ben Webster is perhaps regarded as the least innovative. Hawkins developed a harmonically-rich, angular style of improvisation, and Young developed a cool, stand-offish melodic approach. Webster’s playing, in a way, represented an amalgamation of these two styles, as well as other notable approaches. Despite the fact that he was considered less of an innovator than Hawkins or Young, many of Webster's solos are equally memorable, and some of his recordings are celebrated as being among the best in jazz.

Early Life

Ben Webster was born in Kansas City, Missouri, which was a major hub among touring jazz musicians in the first half of the 20th century. He studied violin in school, and also played piano. He was working as a pianist in Amarillo Texas in 1929 when saxophonist Budd Johnson gave him his first lesson on the saxophone. Webster furthered his study of the saxophone with Willis Handy Young, Lester Young’s father.

Webster moved between Texas, Missouri, and New York over the next few years, playing in bands led by Blanche Calloway, Bennie Moten, Teddy Wilson, and Andy Kirk. He cut his teeth as a featured soloist, and was hired by Fletcher Henderson in 1934. With Henderson, he played some of the most innovative and challenging big band music around at the time.

He moved to New York City, where he met Duke Ellington, whose big band was considered the best at the time. He joined the band in 1935, and soon became one of its star soloists. His recording of “Cotton Tail” is one of the best-known jazz recordings of all time. Playing alongside alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, Webster honed his approach to playing ballads.

After Ellington

In 1943, Ben Webster left Duke Ellington’s band, allegedly after cutting up one of Ellington’s suits after an onstage tiff. Webster spent the next ten years leading his own small groups, and exchanging improvisational ideas with saxophonists like Lester Young and Don Byas.

Webster joined producer and Verve Records founder Norman Granz in 1953 in an all-star touring group called Jazz at the Philharmonic. There he played with pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, with whom he collaborated on 1957’s Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster, and 1959’s Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson.

Webster moved to Europe in 1964, where he settled in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and then Copenhagen, Denmark. There he enjoyed widespread appreciation, and played with many of Europe’s top musicians as well as touring American musicians. He died in Amsterdam in 1973 at age 64. By then he had established himself as one of the most important musicians in jazz history.

Recommended albums featuring Ben Webster:

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