your choice for jazz cds
and today's hottest downloads
Join our mailing list.
When the last of Ben Webster’s close relatives died towards the end of 1964 the tenor saxophonist decided that he had no further ties with the country of his birth. Just before Christmas, 1964 he packed his belongings and headed for Europe. He was never to return to America. He became very much a part of the European jazz scene. He toured the Continent widely, renewed acquaintanceships with old friends in the Duke Ellington band when that orchestra visited Europe, appeared at jazz festivals and had a television film made about his new life in Holland. He made friends wherever he went for he was a man with a warm personality and a very real respect for comradeship.
Big Ben was the epitome of the novelist’s idea of a jazzman. Born in 1909 he worked as pianist in a silent cinema before he took up the alto saxophone. He joined the family band of W.H. Young, father of Lester and Lee, and it was Lester who helped Ben to effect the change from alto to tenor. He was a member of a group of hard-living, hard-drinking musicians which included Fats Waller, a pianist he still idolizes. He liked to tell stories about Fats, not the kind of clever anecdotes which have been polished over the years until they have become well-rehearsed jokes but rather the kind of stories which simply sketch in the background and are honest memories dug up from a deep well of recollections. Typical is the one about the time Ben was sitting at a table outside a restaurant when Waller came riding by in his car. Seeing Ben sitting there the pianist slowed down and Webster hailed his friend; “Hey Fats, I hear you ain’t drinkin’ no more?” Waller smiled. “That’s right Ben, no more than usual.”
For years Webster enjoyed a reputation as a hard man; he even relished the uncomplimentary nicknames bestowed on him. The late Jimmy Blanton dubbed him “Frog”, others called him “Brute”. But Ben never really lived up to the reputation. He may have sounded angry on records he made during the nineteen-forties but he was, indeed, by nature a very gentle man. His friend, Rex Stewart, wrote that he had occasion to go to Ben’s Los Angeles home some years ago. “I was astounded to observe the love and affection with which he regarded his gentle little mother, a former school teacher, and his grandmother. He even combed his grandmother’s hair!”
Since he became domiciled in Europe the gentler side of his personality dominated his playing and when Alan Bates recorded this album in Copenhagen these balland tracks manifest an almost indecent amount of emotion and pure romanticism. No one else in jazz has ever breathed so much feeling into ballads as Ben; he was a man who carried with him a permanent ambiance and atmosphere reminiscent of the early hours of the morning.
On these titles he is supported by a superb rhythm section led by the incomparable and much underrated Kenny Drew, himself an expatriate resident in Copenhagen. Ben fashions beautifully lyrical solos on songs such as I Got It Bad and What’s New, investing each with soft outlines in which the notes merge together like water colours coagulating on wet paper. Even Stardust, the most recorded tune of all time, sounds fresh in his hands.
Like the late Serge Chaloff, Ben can make telling use of a vibrating column of air as the note dies away in the instrument. The fidelity of the recording allows us to hear the final impassioned whisper at the end of Yesterday, for example, and again on What’s New.
But perhaps the greatest single track on this collection and one of the best performances Ben taped in latter years - is the lovely Autumn Leaves which jogs along at thirty bars per minute and is therefore outside the “ballad tempo” class. Here is a perfect example of the conditions being just right for a
major performance. The ideal tempo was picked and Nils Henning’s strong bass line provided the perfect fulcrum to the rhythm section. Music such as this defies description for it is the very essence of jazz.
To some it may seem incongruous that such restful music should come from a man who had a reputation for living life to the full but to me the two things are wholly compatible. Like a lot of musicians Webster would shelter behind a mask of indifference right up until the time he started play, then the fooling stopped and the truth came out. How else can one reconcile the genuine beauty of Webster’s music here with another of Rex Stewart’s stories? “As a joke, Ben once thumped Joe Louis on the button while riding an elevator in the old Brill Building. Few people would have had the temerity to trifle with the champ, but Ben figured he knew him well enough to kid around - Louis was an Ellington fan. However, the Brown Bomber was not amused and returned a tiny jab to Ben’s ribs, doubling him up”.
Ben was indeed larger than life. His music will surely live forever.
‘Autumn Leaves’, 5.17; ‘Close Your Eyes’, 5.01; ‘Easy to Love’, 4.19; ‘I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)’, 5.01; ‘Stardust’, 3.46; ‘There Is No Greater Love’, 4.39; ‘What’s New?’, 4.29; ‘Yesterdays’, 5.48