Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson – Live (1972)!

Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson – Live! Recorded in Hannover, 1972.

1) Poutin 0:00
2) Sunday 8:12
3) I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good 15:30
4) Perdido 23:15
5) Come Sunday 31:21
6) For All We Know 39:01
7) Cottontail 49:43

A great recording of Ben Webster and Oscar Peterson. Good sound and one could hear the two of them knew each other well. Listening him playing it’s hard to believe Webster died nine months later, September 20, 1973. He gave his concerts that year in some Jazzclubs in Holland.

In Dordrecht he seemed tired and stopped his playing telling stories about his experiences in Jazz. It was there I heard him saying “You’re young and you’re are growing. I’m old and I’m going. So have your fun…” A review by Mike Tarrani on Amazon has the headline “Last recording..”

Probably meaning “Official last recording”, because a concert in Leiden on September 6, 1973 is recorded on a cassette-recorder and published as “Last concert”. But the quality of this recording is poor. So I should prefer to recommend the Hannoverconcert as The Official Last Recording.

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Ben Webster

Aside from memories, all that remains of the unique and magisterial tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who died in 1973, in Amsterdam, is his plain gravestone in Copenhagen (“Ben Webster 1909-1973”), where he lived during his last years.

Ol Betsy, the so-christened tenor that he bought in 1938 and used the rest of his life (he left deathbed instructions that Ol Betsy was never to be played again, and it now resides at the Institute of Jazz Studies, at Rutgers); assorted CDs and a new, revivifying Mosaic reissue, “The Complete Verve Johnny Hodges Small Group Sessions 1956-1961,” which includes ninety-five tracks, half of which Webster, then at his peak, sits in on; and Webster’s first biography, “Ben Webster: His Life and Music” (Berkeley Hills), a scattershot but valuable effort by the Dutch writer Jeroen de Valk.

In 1964, Webster, who had never been to Europe, was offered a month-long gig at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. He went, and he never came back, thus joining the dozens of black American jazz musicians who immigrated to Europe in the fifties and sixties.

His life had all but dried up here. In 1963, his mother, Mayme, and his great-aunt Agnes Johnson, both beloved, had died in their nineties. They had reared him in Kansas City, where he was born, and had always taken him in when he needed to go home and retrench. (He was married once, briefly, in the forties.)

And it had become increasingly difficult to find work. (So much so that in the early sixties he appeared at the Metropole, on Seventh Avenue, with a hybrid group that included Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton, J. C. Higginbotham, and Bud Freeman.)

Caught between the Beatles on the right and the jazz avant-garde of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane on the left, Webster had slipped totally out of fashion. There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as “progress,” a practice that sends the musicians who have supposedly been supplanted into the outer darkness.

Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson - Live (1972)! sheet music

When Webster arrived abroad, he discovered almost immediately that he was relished not only in England but in Sweden and Norway and Denmark and Holland, and in due course he settled in Amsterdam, where he was coddled by his landlady, a Mrs. Hartlooper. (Mayme and Agnes Johnson had spoiled Webster so completely that he could not function properly without some sort of loving caretaker.)

In 1969, he moved to Copenhagen, where he was shepherded by a nurse, Birgit Nordtorp. He worked almost steadily, but his drinking, which had begun to accelerate in the forties, was getting in the way.

Like Bob and Ray’s Captain Wolf Larsen, who was an angel when he was sober and kicked his passengers down the galley stairs when he was drunk, Webster, normally as sweet as cream, became so fractious when he was drunk that he had long been known among American musicians as “the Brute.

” The pianist Jimmy Rowles loved Webster, and said after his death, “Benny Carter was the only man he’d listen to when he was like that. . . . Ben used to say of Carter, ‘There’s a man who can bake a cake as light as a feather and whip any man.’ ” Rowles also knew the good Webster. They hung out in the fifties, when they lived and worked on the West Coast, and sometimes they played golf. “We’d tee up,” Rowles said, “and all these fancy types would be waiting their turn, mumbling under their breath about that big black guy who was holding them up.

Ben would have one of his little hats on the back of his head, and he’d stand before the ball, his big front sticking out, and talk to himself: ‘Now, Ben, do it just like when you were in the Masters. Keep your head down, and not too many Wheaties.’ And he’d take a terrific swing—pouf!—and the ball would dribble ten feet. We only saw each other on the tees and greens, but we laughed our way around the whole course.”

For all his idiosyncrasies, Webster was a meticulous musician, and he soon discovered a musical problem in Europe that had never existed at home: many of the best European musicians he played with tended to be amateurish; instead of supporting him, they ended up in his wake.

These problems eventually aggravated his drinking, and he began showing up at concerts and clubs dead drunk, or missing important engagements altogether. Webster had broad shoulders, a fine beaked nose, and imperious flanking bags under his eyes, and he radiated a powerful handsomeness.

But in his last years he gained an enormous amount of weight; his legs gave out and he used a cane, and his playing became halting and even incoherent. Yet he never lost his sweetness. De Valk quotes a young tenor saxophonist, Jesper Thilo:

“He lived alone, and he really liked it when someone came by. I went over to his flat a lot. We’d have a beer or something stronger, and talk about music. . . . I think he wanted the same role for himself that Coleman Hawkins had in New York. He wanted to help me with things he knew a lot about, like tone formation. He taught me a lot about embouchure, about how to develop a good sound.”

Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster were the founding emperors of the jazz tenor saxophone. Hawkins more or less invented the instrument, Young reinvented it tonally and melodically (Hawkins sped through the chords, while Young floated above), and Webster developed an enormous lyrical sound and swinging directness—an easy, embracing quality—that touched you in a way that Hawkins and Young, for all their genius, rarely did.

Webster had rummaged around in Hawkins’s style for most of the thirties. Then, in 1940, he joined Duke Ellington and fell under the sway of the magical Johnny Hodges, who by example taught him about tone and emotion, about how to trap his listeners. When he left Ellington, in 1943, and joined Sid Catlett on Fifty-second Street, he had perfected his huge style.

It came in three speeds. He seemed to breathe rather than play his slow ballads; he’d start phrases with a whispering breath that would grow majestically into a full tone, then gradually melt back into breath—a kind of aural appearing-and-disappearing act. Webster’s ballads were intimate and cajoling, but never sentimental. Everything tightened when he played the blues. The breathiness vanished, and his phrases became short and hard; he preached and badgered.

His ballads insinuated, but his slow blues were in your face. Webster swung irresistibly in medium tempos. His blues moved at a run, and if he played a thirty-two-bar song he would alter the melody discreetly in the first chorus, then elbow the melody aside, replacing it with pure blocks of sound. Fast tempos sometimes got away from him. He’d coast through his first chorus and, either angry or perhaps hungover, start growling, an abrasive sound that would finally end a chorus or two later with a shuddering, out-of-my-way tremolo.

But sometimes this abrasiveness worked, as in Webster’s celebrated roaring solo on Ellington’s “Cotton Tail.” In the late forties, with Webster sailing along, jazz was struck by a cataclysm it still suffers from. Art Tatum and Charlie Parker began flooding the music with sixteenth notes and cascading, glissandolike runs and arpeggios, and they turned jazz into a baroque music.

Webster became one of the last non-rococo players, a champion of quarter notes and whole notes. But the thousand-notes-a-chorus musicians who eventually surrounded him made his rich, wasteless lyricism sound monumental.

For whatever reason, most of Webster’s music on the Mosaic album is blues of various speeds. Many of them are classics, in particular the five blues recorded in April of 1958 with Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Hodges, Billy Strayhorn (whose accompaniment is spiky and rueful), and Sam Woodyard, and the four blues set down by almost the same group several months later. “Not So Dukish” and “Preacher Blues,” done in September of 1958 with an Ellington contingent, takes the blues even further down.

Best of all, though, are the dozen lightsome, loving numbers that Hodges and Webster, the Master and the Disciple, recorded with a rhythm section in 1960, among them “Dual Highway,” “Ifida,” and “I’d Be There”—three instances of the secret language that jazz musicians often speak. Six of the Hodges-Webster duets have never been released before.

Webster, clean and sober, appears in a photograph in de Valk’s biography, and Webster, drunk, appears in a picture in the Mosaic album booklet. The first photo from the biography, taken in 1968 in Amsterdam, shows Webster sitting on a beautiful bike, his left foot resting on the sidewalk. He is gesticulating with his left hand and talking to someone, and he is dressed elegantly in a dark tie, a dark shirt, and a dark suit with a white handkerchief in his breast pocket.

He has one of his smallish fedoras on his head, and his shoes are shined. Both Hodges and Webster appear in the photograph in the album booklet, and it is terrifying. It was taken at a party in Chicago in 1955. Hodges is dressed in a tie and a sweater and a houndstooth jacket. He is holding a drink and gazing calmly to his right.

Webster, at the left, looks wild and unkempt. His left arm is draped heavily around Hodges’ shoulders, his tie is loose, and his shirt is open at the neck. He is looking in the same direction as Hodges, but his mouth is open, his eyes are squinted, and he looks like he is shouting and just about to push Hodges away and flatten the enemy.

The Webster who lived uneasily between these two Websters appears in de Valk’s book, too. In 1971, Webster played a concert in Oslo attended by the Crown Prince of Norway. Afterward, the musicians were introduced to the Prince. Webster, whose stick legs were in poor shape, was the last to make it up to the royal box.

Quoting the trumpet player Keith Smith, de Valk writes, “The other band leaders were through with their formal introductions . . . when the distinct sound of curses and groans grew uncomfortably nearer, echoing up the grand staircase. . . . Ben, having finally completed his ascent, staggered through the door. . . . The aide—almost speechless at the break in decorum—proceeded with his introductions: ‘Your Royal Highness, this is Ben Webster.’

The Crown Prince nodded regally, and the aide continued, ‘Mr. Webster, may I present his Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Norway,’ pointing Ben nervously in the right direction, at which point Ben lunged forward, slapped the Crown Prince on the back, yelling ‘Ben Webster, King of the Tenors—pleased to meet you, Prince!’ “

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