Born in Kansas City as Benjamin Francis Webster, and originally influenced stylistically by Coleman Hawkins, Webster was one of the most distinctive stylists on tenor saxophone in jazz history. As a mature soloist, with his huge, bullying, sometimes rasping tone in up-tempo performances, and a tender, breathy lyricism on ballads, he could never be mistaken for anyone else.
Webster worked with the orchestras of Bennie Moten and Andy Kirk in the early 1930s, then with Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway, and was a key member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra from 1940 to 1943 and again at the end of the 1940s. He was the first major tenor saxophonist to join Ellington’s band and his style matured during his time with the band. He toured and recorded with George Wein’s Jazz at the Philharmonic package in the 1950s, led small groups and recorded with jazz singers and other leading instrumental jazz stars, including Gerry Mulligan, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. In 1964 he relocated to live in Europe.
Webster’s mercurial personality, especially in later life, was well known. A tender, gentle man at his best, he was a legendary drinker which sometimes resulted in dangerous and unpredictable moods. But his legacy on records is one of the finest contributions to jazz, his unique playing usually full of emotion, power and sensitivity.
Biography by Roger Cotterrell
Les Tomkins interviewed Ben Webster in January 1965, and the saxophonist discussed his early influences and the orchestras he worked with, especially Duke Ellington’s. Joining the Duke was, Webster says, the chance he had been waiting for.
|Interview date||1st January 1965|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit||Gordon Parks|
|Image source URL||https://commons.wikimedia.org/wi...|
Like every other place, I guess, Kansas City was quite a different city when I was a youngster there. They had quite a few clubs, and we had what we used to call jam sessions every night. For instance, if a band came through, the word would spread around that the musicians in the band would like to go out and play a little. So we used to jam all the time. And this was like a school, because you could hear fellows from New York, which is really the chief city for music. We’d play some and listen some. But actually, where I started was listening to records.
I studied on violin in grade school. I liked piano, but I didn’t study on it. I’d left home and gone to Amarillo, Texas, playing piano with a band called Bretho Nelson. I liked Amarillo, so I left the band and stayed there. Shortly after, Budd Johnson and his brother Keg came through with Gene Coy’s Aces. I met them and we started buddying around right away. So one day I just asked Budd, like: “How do you run a scale on that thing?” So he showed me and I just went from there.
It was Lester Young’s daddy who taught me the notes on the horn. He played and taught all the instruments. When he came to Amarillo to pick up a piano player, a boy named Harry Nelson, I went back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with him and his son, Lee—you know, Lester’s brother.
In Albuquerque, we all lived in Lester’s father’s house. That was ‘29, and Lester sounded great then. But he started young. I didn’t start till I was 20. Maybe he wasn’t playing as much then as he was when he joined Basie, but that was quite a time later. He had a lot of fire, though.
I stayed out there about three months and then Gene Coy sent for me. I went back to Amarillo and spent nine months—on alto at first, then tenor—with his band. It was quite an experience, and I learned a bit there.
We were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and there was a young, 12-piece band there—Jap Alien. I joined him and he was from my home town, so we went back to Kansas City from there. I was about ready to go home, by then..
He had some great guys in that band— Booker Pittman, Alton Moore, Joe Keyes, Clyde Hart. And it was a very good band. Clyde Hart, the pianist, did the arranging for the band. He had listened to McKinney’s band, out of Detroit. We had quite a few of their arrangements. They tell me he used to go to the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit every night, take a piece of manuscript paper, and just write them down. Real talented guy—had a terrific ear. Of course, McKinney’s was the top band at that time. He had all the top musicians—Benny Carter, Don Redman, Prince Robinson, Claude Jones. And a clarinet player named Eddie Inge—I think he’s living in Buffalo now. It was a great band.
Then, in ‘31 Blanche Calloway had a band in Philadelphia and some of her sidemen left her. The trumpet player that I’d worked with in Gene Coy’s band, Edgar Battles, sent for five of us—Clyde Hart, Joe Durham, Joe Keyes, Booker Pittman and myself. I stayed with Blanche about nine months, I guess.
Bennie Moten was in New York at the time and I had a chance to join him. But New York was a little fast for me then. I’d only been playing about two years. I decided to come back home to Kansas City, and that’s when I joined Bennie’s band. I didn’t stay long. I left him and joined Andy Kirk in ‘33 and I stayed with him a while.
One great thing about being with Andy Kirk: it was a chance to play with Mary Lou Williams. Mary Lou has been a terrific musician all of her life and she’s kept abreast of the times. We used to practise together, I’d say, four or five times a week. She’d show me different things. I really enjoyed that and I learned so much.
In 1934, Fletcher Henderson sent for me, and I went back to New York. After that, I more or less started living in New York. Along with Ellington and Chick Webb, Fletcher had just about the top band—and the hardest music I’ve ever seen in my life! He had arrangements that were written in every key on the keyboard.
This was really school. This band was so fast. And I got a lot of help from Russell Procope. He would tell me to take my book home and the next day he would come around and help me with these arrangements. Because that music was out of sight. If you were fortunate enough to stay with Fletcher, I don’t imagine you’d have too much trouble in any other band afterwards.
But the height of my ambition was to play with Duke. Barney Bigard took a vacation in 1935 and I had a chance to sit in the band for two or three weeks. And we went out on the road for a little while. Then we made this record, “Truckin’ “, and we did “In A Jam”. As close as I can remember, that’s the same time that they made “Accent On Youth”.
Then Barney came back, so I had to leave, naturally. But I sure hated to leave, because I’d enjoyed that music and hearing these guys play. That was such a great band. Duke has always been ‘way out front. He was then and he still is now—’way out front.
I was working with Teddy Wilson when I got the call to join the band. Teddy had a very good band and I didn’t like leaving him, because I had a real nice spot, with plenty of solos. I made quite a few records with him. But I explained to him: “This is the chance I’ve been waiting for.”
That was the boss band. I had a wonderful time there. We played a lot of dances, concerts, theatres and so on. And people got to know me better. I’d say those early 40s recordings are among my favourites that I’ve done.
As regards reproducing the original solo from the record—usually I will play the same solo and, if I feel up to it, then I might play a couple extra. Well, I figure that maybe this way someone could recognise it a little better. People look for these things sometimes. No two things are alike, we know, but I try to play it as close as I can to the record.
By this time I had just about developed my own style. There are four guys that I’ve always listened to and admired and have great respect for. I think they’re just about the greatest for what they’re doing. That’s Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges and Hilton Jefferson. Jeff sounds beautiful. The way he treats a note—he plays so pretty.
If I have a kind of an alto approach to the tenor, I guess that’s because I like Johnny, Jeff and Benny so much. I’ve listened to them for so long, you know. I take each guy for what he does.
I wouldn’t want to sound just like somebody else. But I think it’s kind of healthy to listen to these guys, because I consider all four of them bosses. They all have definitely different styles, and you know them as soon as you hear them.
When I left Duke, I went to 52nd Street and had my own group. With a group, you have more of an opportunity to play—and I’ve always liked to play. This gave me a real chance to play just about as much as I’d want to.
New York was really the place to be, with guys around like Hawk, Don Byas, Chu, Pres, Herschel Evans, Ike Quebec. And I heard Charlie Parker for the first time and that was quite a thrill. This guy scared me to death!
I used to live at the Cecil Hotel, which was next door to Minton’s. We used to jam just about every night when we were off. Lester, Don Byas and myself—we would meet there all the time and like, exchange ideas. It wasn’t a battle, or anything. We were all friends.
Most of the guys around then knew where I lived. If someone came in Minton’s and started to play—well, they’d give me a ring, or come up and call me down. Either I’d take my horn down, or I’d go down and listen. Those were good days. Had a lot of fun then.
The younger guys would come around. But in those days, the youngsters weren’t so quick to pull their instrument out. They’d more or less sit on the side and listen. But now, you know, they fly out with their instruments. Well, they’re anxious to learn— that’s what I’d say that is.
For one thing, their basic education is better. Then they have more records of more people to listen to—a wider variety of styles. Like, in comparison to my own youth in Kansas City, this is much easier. You had to wait until someone came through.
In ‘48 I went back to Duke for a short time—about nine or ten months, I’d say. I went home again in ‘50 and just gigged around. There wasn’t too much happening then and the bread was short.
It was in ‘53 and ‘54 that I made the first tour with “Jazz At The Philharmonic”. That was always a ball. Norman Granz has a great understanding of musicians. And Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown are the greatest—they lay such a big, fat background for you. You just automatically play with that.
What I didn’t like too much about JATP was the flying. I will fly, but I don’t particularly care for it. And there you do so much flying. You fly every day there and all of the flights aren’t sweet. You have some pretty rough ones, too. But that’s really the only way you can make it, so you have to do it.
I’ve been back in New York a year and a half now. Before that I was on the West Coast for five years. There’s no comparison between the two. You hear things in New York you don’t hear anywhere else. Unless these guys go out. Quite a few make it out to the Coast. Of course, you can’t stay in New York for ever. You have to move.
In Hollywood I usually worked along with Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. And that’s a boss rhythm section. They lay it down for you. Mostly I worked a place called the Renaissance. A fellow named Ben Shapiro had it. Nice little guy —real great guy to work for.
I was featured on record dates out there, including some for singers—such as Ella, Billie, Peggy Lee, Kay Starr and Carmen McRae. Maybe I was with a big band behind some singers, but I didn’t do studio work. Because the studio guys that play saxophone—they have to play four or five different instruments, like flute, oboe, bassoon. And I’m still trying to learn to play this tenor! That’s a job in itself.
I don’t listen to my own records a lot. Once in a while—to check out my mistakes. Because you can always see a spot or two in the record where you could have done better. So you more or less study this way.
As for listening to other recordings— that’s just about all that I do. I listen to everyone. First thing when I wake up, I turn my set on. I sent to California for it and I keep it with me in New York. I have some friends keeping it for me now.
Of the younger players, I think Harold Ashby has a good future. I like Coltrane a lot. Also Yusef Lateef. The freedom idea appeals to me. Ornette Coleman I didn’t get a chance to hear much. And I like to hear a guy maybe three or four different times before I try to pass judgment. By listening one time you might think you heard something that you didn’t hear.
I listen to records by Duke and Tatum mostly, all the time. They’re always refreshing, you know.
A musician I like very much is ‘Sweets’ Edison. Working with him was always a ball. We’ve been friends for years. But we never worked clubs together—just recordings. I liked that one we did for Columbia. I had two originals on there, and Sweets had one. Hank Jones was on piano, George Duvivier was on bass, and Clarence Johnson, I think the name was, was on drums. He was playing drums with Sweets at the time. A wonderful rhythm section. With guys like this, you just go in the studio, talk the layout over, and then go ahead and make it.
Paul Gonsalves plays very good. I’ve always loved the way Paul plays. But that’s his own style he’s playing. I wouldn’t say that Paul inherited anything from me. He has his own bag—a big one.
Yes, I would say that, I approach ballads and up tempos in a different manner. And I do it, mostly, for a change of pace. You wouldn’t want to play ballads all night. Anything gets monotonous. And you wouldn’t want to play blasting numbers all night, either. So I try to mix it up.
I like to play things that people understand, or maybe tunes that they could recognise. And so—I play for the people, just as much as for myself. Because, as I say, I still like to play.
Copyright © 2001, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved