Ben Webster - King of the Tenors

Mar 27, 2017

My Irish-born grandmother lived by admonitions and apothegms. "There is nothing as virtuous as a man without the price." "Paper never refused ink." "A fool and his money are soon parted." Whenever I contemplate Ben Webster, I keep hearing Nana Reney's brogue intone another humbling rejoinder, "When the wine is in, the wit is out."

Webster, a sensitive man who was known to shed a tear when sober, was known as The Brute when he was in his cups, and in Ben’s case, that was more often than not. It meant he burned bridges, hurt some of those dearest to him, and suffered a career that brought him far less security than an unsullied reputation would have provided. Even Duke Ellington, with whom he rose to fame in the early 40’s, had to let him go; he didn’t fire him per se, he just stopped calling the Webster showcases “Cottontail” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Still, Ben enjoyed periods of stability, and while his recorded output ebbed and flowed, its quality tended toward the uniformly outstanding. As Whitney Balliett said, “Webster is not especially erratic; he simply fluctuates between the excellent and the superb.”

I read Frank Buchman-Moller’s Someone to Watch Over Me: The Life and Music of Ben Webster and Jeroen de Valk’s Ben Webster: His Life and Music in preparation for this week’s golden anniversary feature. Soulmates was co-led by Webster and Joe Zawinul in 1963. By the time I caught up with it in the early-70’s, the meeting between Ben and Joe seemed as anomalous as any I could conceive of in jazz. The Austrian-born pianist had emerged as a progenitor of jazz-rock fusion through his work with Miles Davis and as a co-founder with Wayne Shorter of Weather Report. Webster, by contrast, was a paragon of straight-ahead jazz, a tenor saxophonist renowned for the quality of his sound, one that needed nothing in the way of enhancements to reach what Bill Evans called its “magnificent maturity.” But it turns out that Ben and Joe had a connection that preceded their studio encounter for Riverside Records: in addition to being soulmates, they were also roommates.

Zawinul came to the U.S. in 1959 to attend Berklee and promptly spent a few months touring with Maynard Ferguson. He then worked with Dinah Washington for the better part of two years before joining Cannonball Adderley, with whom he spent the rest of the decade. He first met Ben when the tenor great was working with blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon opposite Adderley’s sextet in San Francisco in 1961. For the preceding 15 years, Webster had roamed between his native Kansas City, Los Angeles, and New York, and when he returned to the Apple in 1963 he took a room in a residential hotel. When he and Zawinul encountered each other at Birdland, the pianist invited him to mind his apartment at 372 Central Park West while he was on tour with Cannonball.

“When I came back,” Zawinul recalled, “He asked if it was all right if he could hang around. For me it was okay because I was traveling quite a bit, and we shared the rent money. He was helpful, you know. I got a lot of practice in with him. Coleman Hawkins was our neighbor. He came over every day, almost…We played, Coleman, Ben, me and a trio [Milt Hinton and Louis Hayes on occasion]. They always had this competition, even though they shared the greatest respect and friendship. Ben was a great ballad player, the best, and we played “Come Sunday” with difficult changes, you know. For instance, I would go down in the elevator with Coleman and he said, ‘Listen, man, write down the changes for me. I’ll come up some time when Ben isn’t there so I can check some of the changes out because I will burn him on that ballad’.”

Zawinul said that Ben gave him advice on everything from clothes to music. “Don’t ever buy anything inexpensive,” he said. “How can you be a great musician if you don’t buy great things?” Hawkins advised, “When you learn a lick every day, you’re gonna be a rich man.” Zawinul eventually asked Ben to move on when he met a woman whom he intended to marry. Ben wondered why he couldn’t stay put. “[Ben] said, ‘Man, I’m so used to this. It’s nice and we play together.’ I said he could take over the apartment and that I’d get another. He didn’t want that either, so the only thing I could do was let him go…He got obnoxious…He got wasted…and he really took it to heart.”

Nonetheless, the two managed to make excellent music together on September 20 and October 14, 1963. The session was equally divided between ballads (“Too Late Now,” “Come Sunday,” “Trav’lin’ Light,” and “Like Someone in Love”) and medium tempo originals by Ben, Joe, and guest Thad Jones. For some unexplained reason, echo was used on the first two ballads, an act that raised the ire of Buchman-Moller, who echoed my sentiments, “Adding synthetic effects to any of Ben’s recordings is vandalism and sacrilege.“

There’s a bonus on Soulmates that makes owning the recording even more rewarding. Keepnews asked fellow Riverside artist Bill Evans, whose lyrical gifts he regarded as comparable to Webster‘s, to write a liner note essay. The pianist devoted nearly a thousand words to singing the praises of Webster’s “simplicity,” and “the ideal and the accomplished fact of jazz…that of a group in harmony.” Evans wrote, “The great emotional scope revealed by a craft couched in simplicity is an accomplishment not easily measured, and those who do not react to anything but the spectacular or complex deserve to miss the deep satisfactions that can be gained from such an honest and mature artist.”

It is peculiar that musicians who have developed to a degree in their craft by very conscious discipline would suddenly abandon this procedure -- unless the truth is that they have thought too little and too late. Freedom of expression does not have to be sought. It is the natural outcome of disciplined work.

He also used the occasion to take aim at the burgeoning avant-garde in jazz. He dismisses “free expression” as something that “exists most perfectly in infants,” whose “irresponsible and disorganized behavior can hardly be called art.” I’ve always assumed he was thinking of his former colleague John Coltrane, or perhaps Trane’s immediate disciples, when he wrote, “It is peculiar that musicians who have developed to a degree in their craft by very conscious discipline would suddenly abandon this procedure—unless the truth is that they have thought too little and too late. Freedom of expression does not have to be sought. It is the natural outcome of disciplined work. I fear that those who seek it as a separate goal must end in an area of feelings so subjective as to be unfit for harmonious group performance and perhaps uninteresting to anyone but the individual performer himself.”

One of Copenhagen's monuments to its adopted son.

As far as Webster was concerned, however, Coltrane was “one of the best around today.” He was often asked about Trane, and invariably spoke supportively about an artist whom he saw as “striving, searching for a way to express himself. If anyone brings about a change, as ‘Bird,’ he’ll do it.” Ben told a reporter in Boston in 1963, “Man, you’ve got to be an individual in jazz…Trane has found it.”

1963 proved to be an altogether momentous year for Webster. His mother Mamye, a schoolteacher, and great aunt Agnes, the women who’d raised him in Kansas City as a spoiled “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and to whom he remained devoted over the years, died within months of each other. Work became scarcer around New York too, so he started making inquiries about a tour of Europe. In November, he went abroad for the first time, sailing for England and playing a successful month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, followed by dates throughout Scandinavia. Webster eventually established a residence for himself in Copenhagen where he became a fixture at Cafe Montmartre; he lived in the Danish capitol until his death in 1973. He remained an honorary Ellingtonian and guested with Duke on his European tours, but he never returned to the States. One of Ben’s final recordings, a Barcelona session with pianist Tete Monteliu, won plaudists as a “bountiful example of late Webster.” and includes a rapturous performance of “How Long Has This Been Going On.”

Here’s Ben with the London rhythm section he worked with at Ronnie Scott’s: Stan Tracey, piano; Ricky Laird, bass; and Jackie Dougan, drums. The Buchman-Moller bio includes a picture that Webster snapped of Ronnie Scott at an entrance to Chelsea Bridge. Billy Strayhorn’s impressionistic ballad, introduced in 1941, will forever be associated with Big Ben.

Ben appeared with Oscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and Tony Inzalaco in Hannover, Germany in 1972, the year before his death. He’d made several essential dates with Peterson in the 50’s, and the pianist was always ready to sublimate his virtuosity for the “simpler” ideals of Webster’s art. Enjoy this hour of great sound, great visuals, and sublime jazz: the bounty of Benjamin Francis Webster at 63.