Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 27 March 1909, Kansas City MO; d 20 September 1973, Amsterdam) Tenor sax; the greatest tenor of the Swing Era after Coleman Hawkins, whom he always called 'the old man' though there was little difference in their ages. He began on violin as a child, learned piano from Pete Johnson and played in silent cinemas; he was influenced by the Frankie Trumbauer solo on 'Singin' The Blues', learned a scale from Budd Johnson and soon played in the Young family band alongside Lester. He played with Jap Allen, Blanche Calloway, then Bennie Moten '31; then Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, Teddy Wilson; joined Duke Ellington '40-42: his solos on 'Cotton Tail', 'All Too Soon', many others are classics of controlled yet often furious energy; he played 'Stardust' with Duke at a dance date in Fargo ND '40, never recorded commercially, perhaps in response to Hawkins's hit with 'Body And Soul' '39, but he was no Hawkins acolyte, combining powerful, brusque swing with a breathy sensuality on ballads, straightforward compared to Hawkins's more scientific approach.

He recorded with Big Sid Catlett on Commodore '44, came back to Ellington '48-9 (depite having allegedly cut one of Duke's best suits to ribbons earlier); lived on the West Coast in the '50s to be near his family, toured with JATP. Two-disc The Complete Ben Webster on EmArcy '51-3 was a prize-winning reissue '86; dates with Billie Holiday '56-7 organized by their old friend Jimmy Rowles were the most beautiful of her later sessions (two-CD All Or Nothing At All on Verve); quintet Soulville '57 on Verve had Herb Ellis and Oscar Peterson (CD reissue adds three tracks of Webster playing his silent-cinema-style piano); At The Renaissance '60 on Fantasy OJC had Rowles on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, a laid-back Los Angeles club date with the ice tinkling in the glasses. The Warm Moods '60 with strings was one of the first batch of releases on Frank Sinatra's new Reprise label. He moved to Copenhagen '64 and spent most of his time in Europe.
Among many albums: quartet See You At The Fair '64 on Impulse had Hank Jones or Roger Kellaway on piano; Ben Webster Meets Don Byas '68 on MPS was made in Germany and Did You Call? '72 on Ensayo/Nessa in Spain/USA, both had Tete Montoliu on piano. No Fool, No Fun '70 on Spotlite had a rehearsal with the Denmark Radio Big Band. Two CDs of Live At The Jazzhus '65 made in Copenhagen with Kenny Drew on piano were suberbly remastered on Germany's da music label; Gone With The Wind on Black Lion is similar; three-CD Black Lion Presents compiled There Is No Greater Love (made the same year with the same group) with septet The Jeep Is Jumping '65 and Meets Bill Coleman '67 (made in London). On Verve, many reissues on CD: Ben Webster And Friends '59 (aka And Associates) includes Hawk, Johnson, Roy Eldridge; Meets Gerry Mulligan, Meets Oscar Peterson (trio), The Kid And The Brute with Illinois Jacquet, King Of Tenors with Benny Carter, two-CD compilation The Soul Of Ben Webster compiled that LP with Blues-a-Plenty and Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You; The Verve Years in the Compact Jazz series was a good compilation. Evolution on Topaz compiled the early years; The Horn on Progressive CD reissued '44 tracks on Circle known as Ben And The Boys; Live At Pio's with Junior Mance was on Muse; two vols of Ben And Buck with Buck Clayton were made days apart in Antwerp '67, one on Sackville, one on Storyville.

The AB Fable label in England (go to has issued previously unreleased material from the 1940s by jazz violinists Stuff Smith, Eddie South and Ray Nance; the Nance item includes Webster playing fascinating clarinet.