Benjamin Francis Webster (Kansas City, Missouri, USA, March 27, 1909 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands, September 20, 1973) was an influential American jazz tenor saxophonist.
Ben Webster, a.k.a. "The Brute" or "Frog", was considered one of the three most important "swing tenors" along with Coleman Hawkins (his main influence) and Lester Young. Known affectionately as "The Brute", he had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with his own distinctive growls), yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment. Stylistically he was also indebted to alto star Johnny Hodges, who, he said, taught him to play his instrument.
Webster learned to play piano and violin at an early age, before learning to play the saxophone. Once Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone, Webster began to play that instrument in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young). Webster spent time with quite a few orchestras in the 1930s (including Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson in 1934, Benny Carter, Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, and the short-lived Teddy Wilson big band).
In 1940 Ben Webster became the first major tenor soloist of Duke Ellington's orchestra. During the next three years he was on many famous recordings, including "Cotton Tail" and "All Too Soon." After three productive years of playing with Ellington, Webster left the band in an angry altercation, during which he cut up one of Ellington's suits. After leaving Ellington in 1943, Webster worked on 52nd Street in New York City; recorded frequently as both a leader and a sideman; had short periods with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and Sid Catlett; and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic during several seasons in the 1950s.
Webster recorded a classic set with pianist Art Tatum and generally worked steadily, but in 1964 he moved permanently to join other American jazz musicians in Copenhagen, Denmark where he played when he pleased during his last decade. Although not all that flexible, Webster could swing with the best, and his tone was a later influence on such diverse players as Archie Shepp, Lew Tabackin, Scott Hamilton, David Murray, and Bennie Wallace. In 1971 Webster reunited with Duke Ellington and his big band for a couple of shows at the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark
Ben Webster died in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in 1973 and was interred in the Assistens Kirkegård in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen.
After Webster's death, Billy Moore Jr. created The Ben Webster Foundation, together with the trustee of Webster's estate. Since Webster's only legal heir, Harley Robinson in 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".
It is a beneficial Foundation, which channels Webster's annual royalties to musicians, both in Denmark and the U.S. An annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded to a young outstanding musician. The prize is not large, but 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 has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen, "Ben Websters Vej" (Ben Webster's Street).
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