Webster, Ben(jamin Francis)

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Webster, Ben(jamin Francis)

Webster, Ben(jamin Francis), important and influential jazz tenor saxophonist best known for his stint with Duke Ellington, also pianist, arranger; b. Kansas City, Mo., March 27, 1909; d. Amsterdam, Holland, Sept. 20, 1973. Webster first studied violin, then piano. He attended Wilberforce Coll.; afterwards, he played piano in a silent-movie house and then worked with several local bands. Around 1929, he joined the family band led by W. H. Young (Lester’s father) in Campbell Kirkie, N.Mex. Webster toured with the band for three months and began specializing on the saxophone. He worked with several other bands before joining Bennie Moten from winter 1931-32 until early 1933 (including a visit to N.Y.). In 1933, Webster worked with Andy Kirk at Fairyland Park, Kansas City, and then moved to N.Y. to join Fletcher Henderson in July 1934 (he worked again with Henderson in autumn 1937 in Chicago). Through the 1930s, Webster worked with various leaders, including Benny Carter (autumn 1934), Cab Calloway (spring 1936-summer 1937), Stuff Smith (early 1938), Roy Eldridge (later 1938), and Teddy Wilson’s Big Band (April 1939-January 1940). He joined Duke Ellington in Boston (January 1940); Ben had previously worked with Duke for two brief spells in 1935 and 1936. Webster recorded many celebrated solos while with Ellington, especially on “Cottontail”; also on “All Too Soon” and “Sepia Panorama.” He was said to have been influenced by Hodges’s approach to ballads while in the band. Webster left Duke in 1943. He led his own band on 52nd Street, had a short stay in Sid Catlett’s Band (early 1944), was with Raymond Scott on CBS, and two months with John Kirby (June-July 1944). Webster had a brief spell with Stuff Smith early in 1945, but from October 1944 mostly led his own small groups for various club dates in N.Y. and Chicago. He rejoined Duke Ellington from November 1948 until September 1949, then worked with Jay McShann in Kansas City; he also toured with “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” Webster returned to Kansas City, worked regularly with Bob Wilson’s Band and freelanced. He moved back to N.Y. in late 1952, led his own small groups, did studio work and freelance recordings, then lived for several years in Calif., occasionally returning to N.Y. during the late 1950s to perform. From 1962 he worked mainly in N.Y., until December 1964 when he moved to Europe. He used Holland as a central base for solo tours in Europe, making regular visits to Great Britain. He moved to Copenhagen in the late 1960s.

Saxophonists are still trying to figure out how Webster obtained some of his extraordinarily expressive effects, from a breathy, impassioned style on ballads to a hair-raising, powerful scream on blues and up-tempo numbers. His full-bodied tone, warm vibrato, and bluesy melodies straddled the middle group between Coleman Hawkins’s harmonic explorations and Lester Young’s lyrical journeys; these players were his only equals during the 1930s and 1940s.


He Played It That Way (1943); Alternate and Incomplete Takes (1944); Ben and the Boys (1944); Complete Ben Webster on Emarcy (1951); Soulville (1957); At the Nuway Club (1958); Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (1959); Meets Gerry Mulligan (1959); At the Renaissance (1960); Rare Live Performance (1962); Soulmates (1963); Swingin’ In London (1967); Meets Don Byas (in the Black Forest) (1968); At Work in Europe (1969); Live in Amsterdam (1969); Did You Call (1972); Live in Paris, 1972 (1972); Makin Whoopee (1972); My Man (1973).


Jan Evensmo, Tenor Saxophone of Ben Webster (Hosle, 1978); Peter Langhorn and Thorbjorn Sjogren, Ben: The Music of Ben Webster: A Discography (Copenhagen, 1996).

—John Chilton/Lewis Porter/James Eason

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