Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1909, Ben Webster grew up playing violin, piano and saxophone. He settled on the tenor sax in 1930, influenced by idol Coleman Hawkins. After performing professionally throughout the early '30s with famed jazz artists like Fletcher Henderson (he collaborated with Henderson later in the decade, as well), Webster began playing with Duke Ellington. He became Ellington's first full-time leading tenor soloist in 1940. Heavy drinking interrupted Webster's career, but he went on to record with Art Tatum in the '50s. Webster lived and worked in Europe from 1964 until his death in 1973.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 27, 1909, Benjamin Francis Webster was raised by his mother, Mayme, and great aunt, Agnes Johnson. Webster learned to play the violin in grade school and later taught himself the piano. The latter provided work during his teenage years, playing in silent film theaters in both Kansas City and Texas. When he ran out of money, he'd return home.
Introduced to the saxophone in the late 1920s, Webster soon wedded himself to the instrument. Kansas City in the 1930s was an incubator for budding jazz musicians like Count Basie and Lester Young. Amongst this influence, Webster honed his craft with numerous jazz and blues artists, including Fletcher Henderson.
Finding His 'Voice'
By 1940, Ben Webster was a regular in Duke Ellington's orchestra. Initially, Webster's style emulated his idol, Coleman Hawkins, but he soon developed his own sound. Able to play at any tempo, Webster fit in well with the ever-improvising Ellington. The up-tempo tune "Cotton Tail" showcases Webster's interpretative style with its raspy, powerful solos. But it was his work on ballads, with his breathy, sensual vibrato, that set Webster apart from other jazz saxophone soloists.
Webster's performances often portrayed emotional opposites, and so too did his personality, fueled by alcohol. When he was sober, he was kind and gentle, but when he drank, he could be unpredictably violent and mean, earning him the unflattering nickname, "the Brute." His addiction would wreak havoc throughout his career.
Webster played with Ellington for only three years, leaving the band in 1943. Some music historians say that the two had a falling out, others state that Webster preferred more independence and control of his career. Throughout the rest of the 1940s and '50s, Webster led small groups and played with some of the greatest jazz artists of the time, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Frank Sinatra.
Webster Moves to Europe
Despite great reviews of his jazz albums, Webster had difficulty finding steady work in the United States. In 1964, he accepted an offer for a month-long gig in London, England, and he was soon playing in nightclubs throughout Europe, elegantly dressed in a dark suit with a white handkerchief and wearing a small fedora. In 1969, he permanently resided in Copenhagen, Denmark, joining many other black American jazz musicians who had immigrated to Europe.
Though Ben Webster received much acclaim for his musicianship, the demons of addiction never left him. He performed in many venues throughout the 1960s, but oftentimes arrived late and drunk, or failed to show up at all. He gained weight as his health deteriorated, forcing him to walk with a cane.
After playing a gig in Amsterdam, Webster suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on September 20, 1973. His ashes were buried in a modest grave in Copenhagen. His saxophone, "Ol' Betsy," was donated to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, and his private collection of jazz recordings and memorabilia is archived at the University Library of Southern Denmark.
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