Ben Webster Biography

Benjamin Francis Webster, 27 March 1909, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, d. 20 September 1973, Amsterdam, Netherlands. After studying violin and piano, and beginning his professional career on the latter instrument, Webster took up the tenor saxophone around 1930. He quickly became adept on this instrument; within a year he was playing with Bennie Moten and later worked with Andy Kirk and Fletcher Henderson. In the mid-30s he also played briefly with numerous bands mostly in and around New York, including spells with Duke Ellington. In 1940 he became a permanent member of the Ellington band, where he soon became one of its most popular and imitated soloists. Although he was with the band for only three years, he had enormous influence upon it, both through his presence, which galvanized his section-mates, and by his legacy. Thereafter, any new tenor saxophonist felt obliged to play like Webster until they were established enough to exert their own personalities. After leaving Ellington, he led a small group for club and record sessions and also played with several small groups led by artists such as Stuff Smith and Henry ‘Red’ Allen. In the late 40s he rejoined Ellington for a short stay, then played with Jazz At The Philharmonic. From the 50s and on throughout the rest of his life, he worked mostly as a single, touring extensively, especially to Europe and Scandinavia where he attained great popularity. He was briefly resident in Holland before moving to Denmark, where he lived for the rest of his life.

He recorded prolifically during his sojourn in Europe, sometimes with just a local rhythm section, occasionally with other leading American jazz musicians, among them Bill Coleman and Don Byas. Like so many tenor players of his generation, Webster’s early style bore some of the hallmarks of Coleman Hawkins; but by the time of his arrival in the Ellington band in 1940, and his first important recording with them, ‘Cottontail’, he was very much his own man. His distinctive playing style, characterized by a breathy sound and emotional vibrato, became in its turn the measure of many of his successors. A consummate performer at any tempo, Webster’s fast blues were powerful and exciting displays of the extrovert side of his nature, yet he was at his best with slow, languorous ballads, which he played with deeply introspective feeling and an often astonishing sensuality. This dichotomy in his playing style was reflected in his personality, which those who worked with him have described as veering between a Dr. Jekyll-like warmth and a Mr Hyde-ish ferocity. One of the acknowledged masters of the tenor saxophone, Webster made innumerable records, few of them below the highest of standards. As the years passed, he favoured ballads over the flag-wavers that had marked his younger days. From his early work with Ellington, through the small group sides of the 40s, a remarkable set of ballad duets with Hawkins, to his late work in Europe, Webster’s recorded legacy is irrefutable evidence that he was a true giant of jazz.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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