Skip to main content
Select Source:

Waters, Benny

Benny Waters

Jazz musician, singer, music arranger

Benny Waters was an indomitable jazz master whose musical career began in early childhood and spanned every decade of the twentieth century. Continuing to perform up to within two months of his death at age 96, he was thought to be the oldest regularly performing musician in the United States. Waters was also one of the last survivors of the generation of jazz musicians active in the 1920s: his contemporaries were Benny Carter, Rosy McHargue, Spiegle Willcox, Lionel Hampton, and Claude "Fiddler" Williams, all of whom were deceased by 2006.

Waters was an accomplished saxophonist, clarinetist, vocalist, and arranger. He played and recorded with many of the jazz greats of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. His interest in carousing often overshadowed his attention to his career, and although it never kept him from playing music, it did limit the renown that might otherwise have been his. His popularity in the United States was further limited by a 40-year sojourn in Europe. Waters embarked on a European tour with a Dixieland band led by Jimmy Archey in 1952, but did not return to the United States until 1992. He was popular in Europe, especially France, where he settled.

Returning to the United States for medical care after a lifetime of refusing it due to his Christian Science faith, Waters underwent cataract surgery in 1992 that left him blind. He was soon back at work, however, maintaining an amazing calendar of performances—averaging about 100 a year—and a new generation of Americans discovered Waters. Playing classic swing, usually on a tenor sax, he continually surprised his audiences. Critics, awed by his longevity, were even more astonished by the strength and vitality of his playing. Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Waters was "a walking compendium of jazz. But there is nothing archaic about his playing or his energy, which offer convincing testimony to the idea that creativity knows no age limits."

Was Among Creators of Jazz

Benjamin Arthur Waters was born on January 23, 1902, in the small crossroads town of Brighton, Maryland. He was the youngest of seven children born to Edward and Frances Waters. The family greatly enjoyed music. Mary Schumacher noted in the Washington Post in 1998 that Frances Waters "couldn't carry a tune but was always belting out some hymn or other. Waters's father, on the other hand, would … sing perfect barbershop harmonies on Sunday mornings while everyone else was in church." Waters discovered his own musical talent very early in life. By his own account, he began to play the pipe organ at the age of three. He soon progressed to piano, and then to reed instruments, which he learned from reading a book. Waters was giving piano recitals at age seven, and had mastered the E-flat clarinet a year later. He was featured in local performances and billed as a child prodigy. During these adolescent years, Waters often performed with a brother who played the trumpet. The two played in a small band and also performed at dances and house parties.

As Michael Bourne noted in Down Beat, "What's remarkable about Waters's musical life is that he was first playing jazz as jazz was being invented. He couldn't learn from books or magazines, records or radio, and the music being played was barely called 'jazz' back then." Waters told Bourne, "I actually didn't hear that much jazz. I was playing what was called jazz…. I'd play religious songs for my mother, and in the gaps and little spaces of a song I'd make a little improvisation. And my mother would say, 'Stop that jazz, Benny!'"

As a teenager, Waters moved to Haverford, Pennsylvania, to live with an aunt. He continued to perform with his brother; they played at venues ranging from dances to classical concerts at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Waters mastered alto, soprano, baritone, and tenor saxophone, and was a regular member of the Charlie Miller dance band from 1918 to 1921. Waters's mother, suffering from a terminal illness, devoted all her resources in the last months of her life to his musical education. At the age of 18 Waters entered the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied theory and arrangement for three years. He was an excellent student and also established a strong reputation as a private tutor. In fact, Waters taught clarinet to Harry Carney, who would go on to play baritone saxophone in Duke Ellington's orchestra for half a century. Waters also played with Johnny Hodges while attending the Conservatory.

During the 1920s Waters formally embarked on a long career as a sideman, working with some of the biggest names of the era. He recorded with Joe "King" Oliver, and, joining Charlie Johnson's Orchestra in Atlantic City in 1926, Waters worked with Jabbo Smith, Sidney DeParis, and Benny Carter. He remained with Johnson's orchestra until 1933, playing mostly at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem. Johnson passed up a golden opportunity in 1927, when the band was offered a position as the house band at the Cotton Club, complete with a regular radio broadcast. Johnson turned the offer down because the wages were too low, and the position was accepted by Duke Ellington, who became famous because of the radio broadcast.

In 1934 Waters played in the Apollo Theater's house orchestra. The band accompanied a young Ella Fitzgerald in her Apollo debut, when she won an amateur talent contest. Also during the 1930s, Waters replaced saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins in the reed section of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. He described his audition with the famed bandleader: "Fletcher didn't give you much of a chance, and right away he said, 'Forget it! Forget it!'," Waters was quoted as saying in a Scotsman article appearing on the Jazz House website. "That made me mad, and being mad made me sober. I went to the piano, found the chord, and I played the solo perfectly." Waters also played with Oran "Hot Lips" Page and other bandleaders in the 1930s.

Waters freelanced during the 1940s, playing notably with Jimmie Lunceford in 1942. He then headed his own bands, first in New York for two years, and then in California, between 1944 and 1947. Returning to New York, Waters played for a time with Roy Milton, and then joined trombonist Jimmy Archey's Dixieland band in 1949.

For the Record …

Born Benjamin Arthur Waters on January 23, 1902, in Brighton, MD; died on August 11, 1998, in Columbia, MD; son of Edward and Frances Waters; married and divorced twice. Education: Attended New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA, studied theory and arrangement.

Jazz musician, vocalist, arranger; played with Charlie Miller Band, c. 1920–23; played with Charlie Johnson Orchestra, 1926–33; played with house band, Apollo Theater, Harlem, c. 1934; played with Fletcher Henderson, Oran Page, and others, 1930s; played with Jimmie Lunceford, 1942; headed own band in New York City, 1942–43; headed own band in California, 1944–47; joined Jimmy Archey's Dixieland band, 1949–52; freelance musician in Europe, 1952–92; co-founded and toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, 1994–97.

Awards: Ministry of Culture, France, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, 1996.

Found a Home in Paris

Waters traveled to Europe in 1952 while on tour with Archey's band, and decided to stay. He spent the next 40 years as an expatriate, living and working mainly in Paris. Waters had a 15-year stint at La Cigale, a café in the red-light district of Paris. He was a regular performer, jamming with anyone who came to sit in. The list of visiting musicians included Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell. Waters decided to go solo in 1969—at the age of 67—and worked throughout Europe. He played in festivals all over the world, and became a favorite in Britain and Germany. Waters began making annual trips back to the United States in 1979. He published a memoir in 1985, The Key to a Jazzy Life. Paula Span noted in the Washington Post that the book "records a career punctuated with drunken episodes, myriad girlfriends, the occasional brawl, two volatile marriages and divorces." Although he claimed not to have fathered any children, Waters admitted in his memoir that it was a subject open to debate. In 1970, with his health suffering from his excessive abuse of alcohol, Waters quit drinking.

In 1992 Waters was injured in an auto accident in Germany and also underwent surgery to remove cataracts. When he was unable to raise his insurance to cover the operation, he decided to move back to the United States, where Medicare would pay for it. Waters moved into an apartment in Hollis, Queens, a neighborhood that has been home to many jazz musicians over the years. Although the cataract surgery left him blind, Waters hit the road again as soon as his strength returned. He averaged 100 dates a year and attracted a new generation of fans. He continued to practice at least one hour every day, as he always had. Down Beat quoted Waters as saying, "You are never too old to learn. The more you practice, the better you get." Audiences were always surprised that his music was so "modern." "They expect you to play real old-timey," Waters explained to the Washington Post in 1998. "When you don't, then they're knocked out."

Gained Critical Acclaim

Waters finally began to receive acclaim in the United States after four decades abroad, and reviews of his performances were extremely positive. Music Central '96 described him as "a spirited soloist," and said, "Waters possesses a dazzling technique underscored by a fervent feeling for the blues. His enthusiasm, skill and intensity would be creditable in a jazzman of any age." Jazz deejay Alex Leak stated in 1998, "Benny is still fresh after 96 years. He's an icon…. He's history."

In 1995 Waters helped found the venerated Statesmen of Jazz, a performing band of musicians older than 65. The roster included Waters, Claude Williams, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, and Buddy Tate, among others. As its oldest member, Waters was the band's patriarch. He toured throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States as a member of the Statesmen of Jazz.

Waters celebrated his 95th birthday in 1997 with a three-night jazz engagement at Birdland in Manhattan, with a band that featured Mike LeDonne, Howard Alden, Steve Blailock, Ed Locke, and Earl May. The evening's music was recorded and released as a CD titled Birdland Birthday: Live at 95. In a review of the album, John McDonough wrote in Down Beat, "[Waters] plays it straight down the middle with a sympathetic but contemporary rhythm section, and his strong, gritty-on-demand sound in all registers neither asks nor gives any quarter." McDonough continued, "His intonation and control are clear and hard as a rock as he twists notes with a raw lyricism. It's that sound more than his ideas that regularly carr[ies] his solos to a boil on track after track."

Waters gave his last performance in Manhattan in June of 1998. The following month, he moved back to Maryland. On August 11, 1998, Waters died of a heart attack in a hospital in Columbia, Maryland, and was buried in Sandy Spring, Maryland. He had been a living jazz legend, a largely unrecognized but significant contributor to the genre. Waters treated his musicianship as one long learning curve. His legacy is not only that of a great jazz architect, but also that of a man who continued to contribute vitally to the world of music long after others were content to age in obscurity.

Selected discography

The Key to a Jazzy Life, Toulouse, Arts Graphiques, 1985.
Preston Jackson and Benny Waters in Stockholm, Kenneth, 1974.
On the Sunny Side of the Street, JSP, 1981.
When You're Smiling, Hep, 1981.
From Paradise (Small's) to Shangri-La, Muse, 1987.
Memories of the Twenties, Stomp Off, 1990.
(With Statesmen of Jazz), Statesmen of Jazz, Arbor, 1995.
Birdland Birthday: Live at 95, Enja, 1997.
Benny Waters: Freddy Randall Jazz Band, Jazzology, 1998.
Live at the Pawnshop, Opus 3, 1999.

Sources

Books

Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1969.

Periodicals

Down Beat, May 1997, p. 12; May 1998, p. 63; July 1998, p. 44; October, 1998, p. 18.

Guardian (London, England), August 14, 1998, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1991, Calendar, p. 57; December 19, 1997, Calendar, p. 30.

Nashville Scene, September 28, 1998.

New York Times, August 13, 1998.

Time, August 24, 1998, p. 35.

Toronto Star, June 20, 1998, p. M10.

Washington Post, May 16, 1998, p. D1; May 21, 1998, p. M1; August 14, 1998, p. B8.

Online

"Jazz Profiles from NPR: Benny Waters," National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/archive/waters.html (March 10, 2006).

"The Most Modern Saxophonist Over Ninety," Jazz House, http://www.jazzhouse.org/gone/lastpost1.php3?edit=920474131 (March 10, 2006).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Waters, Benny." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Waters, Benny." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/waters-benny

"Waters, Benny." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/waters-benny

Waters, Benny 1902–1998

Benny Waters 19021998

Jazz musician, vocalist, and arranger

At a Glance

Selected writings

Selected discography

Sources

Benny Waters was an indomitable jazz master whose musical career began in early childhood and spanned every decade of the 20th century. Continuing to perform up to within two months of his death, he was considered to be the oldest regularly performing musician in the United States. Waters was also one of a dwindling number of jazz musicians whose recording careers dated back to the inception of jazz in the 1920s. His passing left only five other surviving artists of that era: Benny Carter, Rosey McHargue, Spiegel Willcox, Lionel Hampton, and Claude Fiddler Williams.

Waters was an accomplished saxophonist, clarinetist, vocalist, and arranger. He played and recorded with many of the jazz greats of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. His interest in carousing often overshadowed attention to his career, and although it never kept him from playing music, it did limit the renown that might otherwise have been his. His popularity in the United States was further limited by a 40-year sojourn in Europe. Waters embarked on a European tour with a Dixieland band led by Jimmy Archey in 1952, but did not return to the United States until 1992. He was quite popular in Europe, especially France, where he settled.

Returning to the United States for medical care, Waters underwent cataract surgery in 1992 that left him blind. He was soon back at work, however, maintaining an amazing calendar of performances-averaging about 100 a year-and a new generation of Americans discovered Waters. Playing classic swing, usually on a tenor sax, he continually surprised his audiences. Critics, awed by his longevity, were even more astonished by the strength and vitality of his playing. [Waters] is, wrote Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times in 1997, a walking compendium of jazz. But there is nothing archaic about his playing or his energy, which offer convincing testimony to the idea that creativity knows no age limits.

Benjamin Arthur Waters was born on January 23, 1902, in the small crossroads town of Brighton, Maryland. He was the youngest of seven children born to Edward and Frances Waters. The family greatly enjoyed music. Mary Schumacher noted in the Washington Post in 1998 that Frances Waters couldnt carry a tune but was always belting out some hymn or other. Waterss father, on the other hand, wouldsing perfect

At a Glance

Born Benjamin Arthur Waters January 23, 1902, in Brighton, MD; died August 11, 1998, in Columbia, MD; son of Edward and Frances Waters; married and divorced twice. Education: New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA. Religion: Christian Science.

Career: Jazz musician, vocalist, arranger; played with Charlie Miller Band, c. 1920-23; played with Charlie Johnson Orchestra, 1926-33; played with house band, Apollo Theater, Harlem, c. 1934; played with Fletcher Henderson, Oran Page, 1930s; played with Jimmie-Lunceford, 1942; headed own band in Red Mill, New York City, 1942-43; headed own band in California, 1944-47; joined Jimmy Archeys Dixieland band, 1949-52; freelance musicianin Europe, 1952-92; co-founded and toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, 1994-97.

Awards: Chevalier, Ministry of Culture, France, 1996.

barbershop harmonies on Sunday mornings while everyone else was in church. Waters discovered his own musical talent very early in life. By his own account, he began to play the pipe organ at the age of three. He soon progressed to piano, and then to reed instruments, which he learned from reading a book. Waters was giving piano recitals at age seven, and had mastered E-flat clarinet one year later. He was featured in local performances, and was billed as a child prodigy. During these adolescent years, Waters often performed with a brother who played the trumpet. The two played in a country band and also performed at dances and house parties.

As Michael Bourne noted in Down Beat in 1997, Whats remarkable about Waterss musical life is that he was first playing jazz as jazz was being invented. He couldnt learn from books or magazines, records or radio, and the music being played was barely called jazz back then. Waters told Bourne, I actually didnt hear that much jazz. I was playing what was called jazz Id play religious songs for my mother, and in the gaps and little spaces of a song Id make a little improvisation. And my mother would say, Stop that jazz, Benny!

As a teenager, Waters moved to Haver ford, Pennsylvania to live with an aunt. However, he continued to perform with his brother. They played at dances and gave classical concerts at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Waters mastered alto, soprano, baritone, and tenor saxophone, and was a regular member of the Charlie Miller dance band from 1918 to 1921. At the age of 18, Waters entered the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied theory and arrangement for three years. He was an excellent student, and also established a strong reputation as a private tutor. In fact, Waters taught clarinet to Harry Carney, who would go on to play baritone saxophone in Duke Ellingtons orchestra for half a century. In addition, Waters played with Johnny Hodges while attending the Conservatory.

During the 1920s, Waters formally embarked on a career as an inveterate sideman, working with some of the biggest names of the era. He recorded with Joe King Oliver, and, joining Charlie Johnsons Orchestra in Atlantic City in 1926, Waters worked with Jabbo Smith, Sidney DeParis, and Benny Carter. He remained with Johnsons orchestra until 1933, playing mostly at Smalls Paradise club in Harlem. Johnson passed up a golden opportunity in 1927, when the band was offered a position as the house band at the Cotton Club, complete with a regular radio broadcast. Johnson turned the offer down because the wages were too low, and the position was accepted by Duke Ellington, who became famous because of the radio broadcast.

In 1934, Waters played in the Apollo Theaters house orchestra. The band accompanied a young Ella Fitzgerald in her Apollo debut, when she won an amateur talent contest. She did real well, Waters remembered for Down Beat in 1997. We would have given Ella the prize ourselves if the band had been judges. Also during the 1930s, Waters replaced saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins in the reed section of Fletcher Hendersons orchestra, and played with Oran Hot Lips Page as well.

Waters freelanced during the 1940s, playing notably with Jimmie Lunceford in 1942. He then headed his own bands, first in New York for two years, and then in California, between 1944 and 1947. Returning to New York, Waters played for a time with Roy Milton, and then joined trombonist Jimmy Archeys Dixieland band in 1949.

Waters traveled to Europe in 1942 while on tour with Archeys band, and decided to stay. He spent the next 40 years as an expatriate, living and working mainly in Paris. Waters had a 15-year stint at La Cigale, a café in the red-light district of Paris. He was a regular performer, and jammed with whomever came to sit in. The list of visiting musicians included Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk, and Bud Powell. Waters decided to go solo in 1969-at the age of 67-and worked throughout Europe. He played in festivals all over the world, and became a favorite in Britain and Germany. Waters began making annual trips back to the United States in 1979. He published a memoir in 1985, The Key to a Jazzy Life. Paula Span noted in the Washington Post that the book records a career punctuated with drunken episodes, myriad girlfriends, the occasional brawl, two volatile marriages and divorces. Although he claimed not to have fathered any children, Waters admitted in his memoir that it was a subject open to debate.

In 1970, with his health suffering from his excessive taste for alcohol, Waters quit drinking. I never did get so drunk that I couldnt play, he pointed out to Span. He added, If a guy is down, tired and sleepy and hes got to do a show, its possible a couple of drinksU spry him up. But then you lose control.

In 1992, Waters was injured in an auto accident in Germany and also underwent surgery to remove cataracts. When he was unable to raise his insurance to cover the operation, he decided to move back to the United States, where Medicare would pay for it. Waters moved into an apartment in Hollis, Queens, a neighborhood that has been home to many jazz musicians over the years. Although the cataract surgery left him blind, Waters hit the road again as soon as his strength returned. He averaged 100 dates a year and attracted a new generation of fans. He continued to practice at least one hour every day, as he always had. In 1998, Down Beat quoted Waters as saying, You are never too old to learn. The more you practice, the better you get. Audiences were always surprised that his music was so modern. They expect you to play real old-timey, Waters explained to the Washington Post in 1998. When you dont, then theyre knocked out.

Waters finally began to receive acclaim in the United States after four decades abroad. Reviews of his performances were extremely positive. Music Central 96 described him as a spirited soloist, and said, Waters possesses a dazzling technique underscored by a fervent feeling for the blues. His enthusiasm, skill and intensity would be creditable in a jazzman of any age. Jazz deejay Alex Leak stated in 1998, Benny is still fresh after 96 years. Hes an icon. Hes history.

In 1995 Waters helped found the venerated Statesmen of Jazz, a performing band of musicians older than 65. The roster included Waters, Claude Williams, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, and Buddy Tate, among others. As its oldest member, Waters was the bands patriarch. He toured throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States as a member of the Statesmen of Jazz.

Waters celebrated his 95th birthday with an evening of jazz at Birdland in Manhattan, with a band that featured Mike LeDonne, Howard Alden, Steve Blailock, Ed Locke, and Earl May. The evenings music was recorded and released as a CD entitled Birdland Birthday: Live at 95. In a 1998 review of the album, John McDonough wrote in Down Beat, He [Waters] plays it straight down the middle with a sympathetic but contemporary rhythm section, and his strong, gritty-on-demand sound in all registers neither asks nor gives any quarter. McDonough continued, His intonation and control are clear and hard as a rock as he twists notes with a raw lyricism. Its that sound more than his ideas that regularly carr[ies] his solos to a boil on track after track.

Waters gave his last performance in Manhattan in June of 1998. The following month, he moved back to Maryland. On August 11, 1998, Waters died of a heart attack in a hospital in Columbia, Maryland and was buried in Sandy Spring, Maryland. He had been a living jazz legend, a largely unrecognized but significant contributor to the genre. Waters treated his musicianship as one long learning curve. His legacy is not only as a great jazz architect, but as a man who continued to contribute vitally to the world of music long after others were content to age in obscurity. Waters played because of his enduring love for jazz.

Selected writings

The Key to a Jazzy Life, Toulouse, Arts Graphiques, 1985.

Selected discography

Preston Jackson and Benny Waters in Stockholm, Kenneth, 1974.

On the Sunny Side of the Street, JSP, 1981.

When Youre Smiling, Hep, 1981.

From Paradise (Smalls) to Shangri-La, Muse, 1987.

Memories of the Twenties, Stomp Off, 1990.

(with Statesmen of Jazz), Statesmen of Jazz, Arbor, 1995.

Birdland Birthday: Live at 95, Enja, 1997.

Benny Waters: Freddy Randall Jazz Band, Jazzology, 1998.

Live at the Pawnshop, Opus 3, 1999.

Sources

Books

Feather, Leonard. The Encyclopedia of Jazz. New York: Bonanza Books, 1969.

Whos Who Among African Americans, 12th Edition. Edited by Ashyia N. Henderson and Shirelle Phelps. Detroit, Gale, 1999.

Periodicals

Down Beat, May 1997, p. 12; May 1998, p.63; July 1998, p.44; October, 1998, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1991, Calendar, p.57; December 19, 1997, Calendar, p.30.

Nashville Scene, September 28, 1998.

New York Times, August 13, 1998.

Time, August 24, 1998, p.35.

Washington Post, May 16, 1998, p. Dl; May 21, 1998, p. Ml; August 14, 1998, p.B8.

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Hot Jazz Management Production at http://www.2.los.com/[]hotjazz/waters.hm; and http://elvispelvis.com/bennywaters.htm

Ellen Dennis French

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Waters, Benny 1902–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Waters, Benny 1902–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/waters-benny-1902-1998

"Waters, Benny 1902–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/waters-benny-1902-1998