Ben Webster: American saxophonist (1909 - 1973) | Biography
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Ben Webster
American saxophonist

Ben Webster

Ben Webster
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American saxophonist
A.K.A. Benjamin Francis Webster
Was Musician Saxophonist Composer Jazz musician
From United States of America
Field Music
Gender male
Birth 27 March 1909, Kansas City, USA
Death 20 September 1973, Amsterdam, Netherlands (aged 64 years)
Star sign Aries
The details (from wikipedia)


Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. He is considered one of the three most important "swing tenors" along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Known affectionately as "The Brute" or "Frog", he had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with growls), yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment. He was indebted to alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who, he said, taught him to play his instrument.

Early life and career

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, United States, he studied violin in elementary and taught himself piano with the help of his neighbor Pete Johnson, who taught him the blues. In 1927-1928 he played for silent movies in Kansas City and in Amarillo, Texas.

Once Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone, Webster began to focus on that instrument, playing in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young), although he did return to the piano from time to time, even recording on the instrument occasionally.

In his first biography (‘Ben Webster / In A mellow Tone’, Van Gennep/The Netherlands, 1992, published as ‘Ben Webster / His Life and Music’ with Berkeley Hills Books/USA in 2001), author Jeroen de Valk (assisted by Ben’s cousin Harley W. Robinson) traces back his ancestry to his great-great grandmother, a woman from Guinea who reportedly was brought to America as a slave in the early 19th century. Her son managed to escape from slavery. Ben’s father, who worked as a porter on Pullman trains, separated from his mother before his son was born. Ben was raised by his grand-aunt, Agnes Johnson, to whom he referred as his ‘grandmother’. His mother Mayme worked as a school teacher. He had to play the violin as a kid but hated the instrument, as other kids called him ‘sissy with the violin’. He had his first piano lessons by his second cousin, Joyce Cockrell. He changed to the tenor saxophone after hearing Frankie Trumbauer’s solo on the C-Melody saxophone in 'Singing The Blues', but soon Coleman Hawkins became a major influence. Webster was married for a couple of years in the early 40s to Eudora Williams. He never had a family of his own and lived with his mother and grand-aunt off and on until their passing in 1963.

Kansas City was a melting pot from which emerged some of the biggest names in 1930s jazz. Webster joined Bennie Moten's band in 1932, a grouping which also included Count Basie, Hot Lips and Walter Page. This era was recreated in Robert Altman's film Kansas City.

Webster spent time with quite a few orchestras in the 1930s, including Andy Kirk, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1934, then Benny Carter, Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, and the short-lived Teddy Wilson big band.

With Ellington

Ben Webster played with Duke Ellington's orchestra for the first time in 1935, and by 1940 was performing with it full-time as the band's first major tenor soloist. He credited Johnny Hodges, Ellington's alto soloist, as a major influence on his playing. During the next three years, he played on many recordings, including "Cotton Tail" and "All Too Soon"; his contributions (together with that of bassist Jimmy Blanton) were so important that Ellington's orchestra during that period is known as the Blanton–Webster band. Webster left the band in 1943 after an angry altercation during which he allegedly cut up one of Ellington's suits. Another version of Webster's leaving Ellington came from Clark Terry, a longtime Ellington player, who said that, in a dispute, Webster slapped Ellington, upon which the latter gave him two weeks notice.

After Ellington

"Portrait of Ben Webster, Famous Door, New York, N.Y., ca. Oct. 1947".

After leaving Ellington in 1943, Webster worked on 52nd Street in New York City, where he recorded frequently as both a leader and a sideman. During this time he had short periods with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, Bill DeArango, and Sid Catlett, as well as with Jay McShann's band, which also featured blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon. For a few months in 1948, he returned briefly to Ellington's orchestra.

In 1953, he recorded King of the Tenors with pianist Oscar Peterson, who would be an important collaborator with Webster throughout the decade in his recordings for the various labels of Norman Granz. Along with Peterson, trumpeter Harry 'Sweets' Edison and others, he was touring and recording with Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic package. In 1956, he recorded a classic set with pianist Art Tatum, supported by bassist Red Callender and drummer Bill Douglass. Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster with fellow tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was recorded on December 16, 1957, along with Peterson, Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Alvin Stoller (drums). The Hawkins and Webster recording is a jazz classic, the coming together of two giants of the tenor saxophone, who had first met back in Kansas City.

In the late 1950s, he formed a quintet with Gerry Mulligan and played frequently at a Los Angeles club called Renaissance. It was there that the Webster-Mulligan group backed up blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon on an album recorded live for Hi-Fi Jazz Records. That same year, 1959, the quintet, with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Mel Lewis, also recorded "Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster" for Verve Records (MG V-8343).

In Europe

Webster generally worked steadily, but in late 1964 he moved permanently to Europe, working with other American jazz musicians based there as well as local musicians. He played when he pleased during his last decade. He lived in London and several locations in Scandinavia for one year, followed by three years in Amsterdam and made his last home in Copenhagen in 1969. Webster appeared as a sax player in a low-rent cabaret club in the 1970 Danish blue film titled Quiet Days in Clichy. In 1971, Webster reunited with Duke Ellington and his orchestra for a couple of shows at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen; he also recorded "live" in France with Earl Hines. He also recorded or performed with Buck Clayton, Bill Coleman and Teddy Wilson.

Webster suffered a cerebral bleed in Amsterdam in September 1973, following a performance at the Twee Spieghels in Leiden, and died on 20 September. His body was cremated in Copenhagen and his ashes were buried in the Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro section of the city.


After Webster's death, Billy Moore Jr., together with the trustee of Webster's estate, created the Ben Webster Foundation. Since Webster's only legal heir, Harley Robinson of Los Angeles, gladly assigned his rights to the foundation, the Ben Webster Foundation was confirmed by the Queen of Denmark's Seal in 1976. In the Foundation's trust deed, one of the initial paragraphs reads: "to support the dissemination of jazz in Denmark". The trust is a beneficial foundation which channels Webster's annual royalties to musicians in both Denmark and the U.S. An annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded to a young outstanding musician. The prize is not large, but is considered highly prestigious. Over the years, several American musicians have visited Denmark with the help of the Foundation, and concerts, a few recordings, and other jazz-related events have been supported.

Webster's private collection of jazz recordings and memorabilia is archived in the jazz collections at the University Library of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Ben Webster used the same Saxophone from 1938 until his death in 1973. Ben left instructions that the horn was never to be played again. It is on display in the Jazz Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

Ben Webster has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen, "Ben Websters Vej".

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Ben Webster among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.


As leader / co-leader

  • King of the Tenors [AKA The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster] (Norgran, MGN-1001, 1953)
  • 1953: An Exceptional Encounter [live] (The Jazz Factory, 1953) – with Modern Jazz Quartet
  • Music for Loving (Norgran MGN-1018, 1954) AKA Sophisticated Lady (Verve, 1956), and Music With Feeling (Norgran MGN-1039, 1955) – reissued as a 2-CD set: Ben Webster With Strings (Verve 527774, 1995; which also includes as a bonus: Harry Carney With Strings, Clef MGC-640, 1954)
  • The Art Tatum - Ben Webster Quartet (Verve, 1956 [1958]) – with Art Tatum
  • Soulville (Verve, 1957)
  • The Soul of Ben Webster (Verve, 1958)
  • Ben Webster and Associates (Verve, 1959)
  • Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (Verve, 1959)
  • Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (Verve, 1959)
  • Ben Webster at the Renaissance (Contemporary, 1960)
  • The Warm Moods (Reprise, 1961)
  • Wanted to Do One Together (Columbia, 1962) – with Harry Edison
  • Soulmates (Riverside, 1963) – with Joe Zawinul
  • See You at the Fair (Impulse!, 1964)
  • Stormy Weather (Black Lion, 1965) – recorded at The Jazzhus Montmartre, Copenhagen
  • Gone With The Wind (Black Lion, 1965) – recorded at The Jazzhus Montmartre, Copenhagen
  • Meets Bill Coleman (Black Lion, 1967)
  • Big Ben Time (Ben Webster in London 1967) (Philips, 1968)
  • Webster's Dictionary (Philips, 1970)
  • No Fool, No Fun [The Rehearsal Sessions, 1970 with The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra] (Storyville Records STCD 8304, 1999)
  • Ben Webster Plays Ballads [recordings from Danish Radio 1967–1971] (Storyville SLP-4118, 1988)
  • Autumn Leaves (with Georges Arvanitas trio) (Futura Swing 05, 1972)
  • Gentle Ben (with Tete Montoliu Trio) (Ensayo, 1973)
  • My Man: Live at Montmartre 1973 (Steeplechase, 1973)
  • Ballads by Ben Webster (Verve, Recorded 1953-1959, released 1974, 2xLP)

As a sideman

With Count Basie

  • String Along with Basie (Roulette, 1960)

With Buddy Bregman

  • Swinging Kicks (Verve, 1957)

With Benny Carter

  • Jazz Giant (Contemporary, 1958)
  • BBB & Co. (Swingville, 1962) with Barney Bigard

With Harry Edison

  • Sweets (Clef, 1956)
  • Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You (Verve, 1957)

With Duke Ellington

  • Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA, 1940–1942 [rel. 2003])

With Dizzy Gillespie

  • The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (Bluebird, 1937–1949 [rel. 1995])

With Lionel Hampton

  • You Better Know It!!! (Impulse, 1965)

With Coleman Hawkins

  • Rainbow Mist (Delmark, 1944 [1992]) compilation of Apollo recordings
  • Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (Verve, 1957)
  • Coleman Hawkins and Confrères (Verve, 1958)

With Woody Herman

  • Songs for Hip Lovers (Verve, 1957)

With Johnny Hodges

  • The Blues (Norgran, 1952–1954, [rel. 1955])
  • Blues-a-Plenty (Verve, 1958)
  • Not So Dukish (Verve, 1958)

With Richard "Groove" Holmes

  • "Groove" (Pacific Jazz, 1961) – with Les McCann
  • Tell It Like It Tis (Pacific Jazz, 1961 [rel. 1966])

With Illinois Jacquet

  • The Kid and the Brute (Clef, 1955)

With Barney Kessel

  • Let's Cook! (Contemporary, 1957 [rel. 1962])

With Mundell Lowe

  • Porgy & Bess (RCA Camden, 1958)

With Les McCann

  • Les McCann Sings (Pacific Jazz, 1961)

With Carmen McRae

  • Birds of a Feather (Decca, 1958)

With Oliver Nelson

  • More Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1964)

With Buddy Rich

  • The Wailing Buddy Rich (Norgran, 1955)

With Art Tatum

  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight (Pablo, 1956)

With Clark Terry

  • The Happy Horns of Clark Terry (Impulse!, 1964)

With Joe Williams

  • At Newport '63 (RCA Victor, 1963)
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 26 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Who was Ben Webster?
A: Ben Webster was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and one of the most influential figures in jazz during the 1930s and 1940s.
Q: When and where was Ben Webster born?
A: Ben Webster was born on March 27, 1909, in Kansas City, Missouri, United States.
Q: What were some notable achievements of Ben Webster?
A: Ben Webster played with several renowned jazz bands, including Duke Ellington's orchestra, and he recorded numerous albums as a bandleader. He is especially known for his rich and warm tone on the tenor saxophone.
Q: At what age did Ben Webster start playing the saxophone?
A: Ben Webster started playing the saxophone at the age of 15.
Q: When did Ben Webster pass away?
A: Ben Webster passed away on September 20, 1973, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, at the age of 64.
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