Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2010: Hank Jones

Ben Webster (1909-73): Music for Loving: Ben Webster with Strings

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Ben Webster’s albums are still among the best in jazz. He was one of jazz’s greatest ballad players, and his well-worn sound on the tenor saxophone only added a sense of melancholy and sorrow to the music he played.

Webster learned the violin as a child and in his teens started performing on the piano, accompanying silent movies. As he embarked on a career as a professional musician, Webster shifted to the tenor sax because he felt it best expressed what he had to say musically. He played with Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, and briefly in the 1930s with Duke Ellington. He eventually rejoined Ellington’s band in 1940 and sat in the saxophone section with one of Ellington’s great soloists, the alto sax player Johnny Hodges. Hodges’s technique and musical elegance had an impact on Webster and helped him develop into one of the star players in the orchestra. “Cotton Tail” and “All Too Soon” were two of the songs that showcased his playing. As an added feature in concert, Ellington sometimes asked him to play the piano. One night, Webster stayed a little too long at the ivories and Ellington expressed displeasure at his grandstanding. Afterward, in protest, Webster cut one of Ellington’s suits to bits. Webster left the orchestra in 1943.

Ben Webster usually wore a fedora that sat rakishly on the back of his head and was his signature. He was a big drinker of medium height with a big chest and wide shoulders. He developed a hard exterior, but those who knew him well say he was an emotionally sensitive man who was often moved to tears, weeping at the mere mention of a deceased friend’s name. Many were fearful of his temper, particularly when he was woken from a deep sleep. Those who toured with him learned to stand back when they woke him up, as he was prone to using his fists.

His refusal to change his sound to suit the times, as well as years of hotel living, touring, and racial prejudice, collectively took their toll on Webster, and in 1964, he moved permanently to Europe. He was based in Copenhagen and played only when it suited him. On his deathbed in Amsterdam in 1973, Webster left instructions that Ol’ Betsy, the tenor saxophone he bought in 1938, was never to be played again. Today it is displayed at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

Of the fifty-odd recordings he made, Music for Loving: Ben Webster with Strings [Verve #3145277742] is one of the most alluring and engaging. It is a double CD, featuring two albums by Webster, Music with Feeling and Music for Loving. (As a bonus, an album by Harry Carney, Ellington’s baritone sax player, Harry Carney with Strings has also been included.) The arrangements and conducting were by Billy Strayhorn and Ralph Burns. The players included Strayhorn, Teddy Wilson, and Hank Jones on piano, George Duvivier and Ray Brown on bass and Louis Bellson and Jo Jones on drums.

It is hard not to feel a surge of inspiration when listening to Music for Loving. Webster was a great improviser, and his breathy, sensual tones make this a very sexy CD. “Willow Weep for Me,” “Blue Moon,” and “Teach Me Tonight” are just a few of the pretty ballads Webster caresses. Like many of the great instrumentalists in jazz, Webster brought a vocal quality to his playing and often memorized the lyrics to the songs he played. On some selections, the place he chose to breathe was the same place singers would choose. Webster’s heartbreaking rendition of “Chelsea Bridge,” a powerful ballad he played with Ellington, still sounds fresh. Despite the passage of time, Music for Loving remains a source of inspiring music.

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