Like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Benjamin Francis Webster, the third member of the classic tenor triumvirate, spent part of his musical apprenticeship in the ranks of the Fletcher Henderson band. A product of Kansas City, where he was born of February 27th, 1909, Webster came to New York in 1932 with the Bennie Moten band. He followed his stint with Henderson by spells with Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway and Stuff Smith, and then in 1935, began an association with Duke Ellington which continued, on and off, for more than ten years. Webster, the pre-eminent disciple of Coleman Hawkins, has that hallmark that distinguishes the great jazz performers from the simply good – an instantly recognizable style. While adopting the searing blowtorch approach of Hawkins on up-tempo numbers, Webster plays ballads in a highly distinctive way, attenuating the note values and following the sustained notes with a tremolo “wake” of exhalation. It’s a patented websterian flourish. Just as Lester Young made his principal mark with Basie, Webster established his reputation in the Duke Ellington orchestra, earning particular acclaim for his solos on the 1940 recordings of “Cottontail” and “All Too Soon”. Webster had an uninterrupted spell with Ellington between 1939 and 1943 and returned for a few months in 948. In between he freelanced around Kansas City in the fifties, toured with JATP and recorded prolifically for Verve with Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Hodges and Art Farmer, among others. After a period of relative inactivity in the early sixties, he moved to Europe in 1965, settling first in Holland, then in Denmark. He worked in clubs and played concerts around Europe and in 1968 made a memorable date with Don Byas for the MPS label. He died in Amsterdam on September 20, 1973. Described by Barry Ulanov as one of “the warmest and most sensitive of performers”. He will be best remembered as a genuine romantic and a most outstanding interpreter of ballads.
Photo: from album cover Come Sunday
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