One of the ‘Big Three Tenors’, along with the Hawk and The Pres, Ben Webster played with striking rhythmic momentum and had a rasping tone that added so much to both his own records and the numerous jazz greats he accompanied, from Billie and Ella to Duke Ellington and so many more during a career that spanned five decades.
Born Benjamin Francis Webster in Kansas City Missouri on 27 March 1909 Webster took up the saxophone relatively late, aged twenty-one, having at first been a professional pianist after studying at Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private, black liberal arts college in America. He recorded with for Blanche Calloway’s band and Bennie Moten’s band in 1931, at the time it included Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing and Hot Lips Page, as well as working with Andy Kirk’s band that featured the extraordinary, Mary Lou Williams.
August 1935, behind the Apollo Theater in New York City Billie Holiday with left to right, Ben Webster, “shoebrush” (with guitar), Johnny Russell and Roger “Ram” Ramirez (in front).
In 1934 Ben moved to New York where he worked with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra before joining Duke Ellington briefly in 1935 and ’36. Finally in 1940 he became a featured soloist with Ellington’s Famous Orchestra in 1940 and recorded for the first time in February in a band that included Johnny Hodges, who helped Ben Webster develop his style, Harry Carney and Rex Stewart.
Webster left the Ellington band having improved dramatically under Duke’s leadership and began to freelance. He had met Norman Granz back in 1942 and played some jam sessions with among others Lester Young, but appeared in his first JATP tour in the autumn of 1953 with the usual suspects. His first sessions for Granz had been in 1946 as part of Charlie Barnet’s Orchestra for a Clef long-playing record. In 1952 he worked with Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra on a Norgran release that later came out on Verve. His first session as a leader for Norgran was in 1953 and this later became some of what was used on ‘Ben Webster – King of the Tenors’ on Verve in 1957, in includes ‘Tenderly’ which is one of the sublime moments of tenor-saxophoney. He was accompanied on the 1953 session by Oscar Peterson and his quartet and there were a number of other releases where they worked together including ‘Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson and his Trio’ in 1959; two years earlier they recorded the album ‘Soulville’ together. Besides his own recordings he accompanied, Billie Holiday, Harry Sweets Edison, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, as well as making the album, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster’.
Come 1964 and Webster relocated at first to London, then Amsterdam before finally moving to live in Copenhagen, Denmark. He worked in Europe with visiting musicians including Duke Ellington; he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in Amsterdam, in September 1973, following a performance in Leiden, Holland in 1973.