playing in the space bebopdBorn in 1909, Ben Webster is considered one of the most influential tenor saxophone players of all time, particularly within the jazz sub-genre of swing.
Known as Frog or The Brute, Webster was lauded for his versatility. His tone was warm and smooth on ballads, but raspy and growling on more upbeat tunes.
Unlike many other jazz saxophonists, Webster began his musical career with formal instruction. He studied violin and piano as a child, which provided him with a valuable technical foundation. He learned the fundamentals of tenor saxophone player from Budd Johnson and joined a Kansas City band shortly after. He became an active member of Kansas City’s thriving jazz scene, playing with the likes of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter and several other jazz greats.
In 1935, Webster joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra and became its a prominent soloist in the group by 1940. It was during his time with this band that he developed his signature style, which he claimed was significantly influenced by band-mate Johnny Hodges.
After departing from Ellington’s orchestra, Webster moved to New York City and played briefly with a number of prominent groups and artists like Jay McShann, John Kirby and Jimmy Witherspoon. Webster collaborated with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson in 1953, beginning an important musical partnership that would last for nearly a decade. He also began touring and recording with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of traveling concerts associated with such names as Nat “King” Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. During this time, he recorded with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, an old acquaintance from his days in Kansas City. Today, the recording is hailed as a classic. Webster also played a set with celebrated pianist Art Tatum in 1956, which would go on to become one of the era’s most significant jazz recordings.
For the next eight years, Webster continued to tour and record with a number of prominent artists before moving to Denmark in 1964. He remained in Europe for the remainder of his life, entering a period of semi-retirement during which he became less active and played only when he wanted to. In 1971, he reunited with Duke Ellington for several shows in Denmark and also collaborated with jazz pianist Earl Hines. Two years later in 1973, Webster passed away in Amsterdam.
Considered a master of blues and swing, Webster would eventually influence artists like Scott Hamilton, Bennie Wallace and Archie Shepp. Today, the royalties that would go to his estate are instead transferred to The Ben Webster Foundation, which was created in 1976 in order to “support the dissemination of jazz in Denmark”. The Foundation established the Ben Webster Prize, which is considered one of jazz’s most prestigious awards.