Benjamin Francis Webster was born on march 27, 1909 in Kansas City, Missouri and took to music early on. Ben started on violin as a young child and also learned how to play piano from his neighbor Pete Johnson. Once Webster learned how to play some saxophone from Budd Johnson he stuck with the instrument and began playing in the Young Family Band which included Lester Young. Kansas City had a flourishing Jazz scene at the time and in the early 1930s Ben played with Jap Allen and made his first record with Blanche Calloway after. Webster joined Bennie Molton's Orchestra in 1932 which included Count Basie, Oran Page and Walter Page and their recording in '32 remains a classic. After a short time with other bands in the area including Benny Carter's, Willie Bryant's, Cab Calloway's and Teddy Wilson's, Ben joined Duke Ellington's Orchestra in 1935.
Ben Webster became Duke Ellington's first major tenor saxophone soloist by 1940 and cites Johnny Hodges as a major influence on his playing. Webster is on many of Ellington's more memorable recordings including "Cotton Tail" and "All Too Soon". Ben left Duke in 1943 and played in New York City on 52nd Street. During this time Ben played with Raymond Scott, John Kirby, Sid Catlett, Jay McShann and Jimmy Witherspoon and even played again with Ellington's Orchestra for a few months in 1948. Albums from this period worth checking out include 'King of the Tenors' with Oscar Peterson, 'Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster' with Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Alvin Stoller and 'The Album' with Art Tatum. Also in the 1950s Ben toured with Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic with Peterson, Henry Edison and others.
Webster moved to Copenhagen in 1964 to join other American Jazz musicians who had made that migration and played as he pleased in the final decade of his life. In 1971 Ben joined Duke Ellington and his band for a few shows in Tivoli Gardens and recorded an album with Earl Hines in France. Ben passed away in Amsterdam in 1973. Webster leaves a legacy as being known as one of 'Big Three' tenor players of the swing era along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and is remembered as arguably the greatest of the Jazz saxophonists when it comes to playing a ballad. Ben Webster's sound has influenced future generations of saxophone players including Archie Shepp, Lew Tabackin, Scott Hamilton, Bennie Wallace and many more.
"As for listening to other recordings - that's just about all that I do. I listen to everyone. First thing when I wake up, I turn my set on.”
"If you try all different styles that are in vogue, I think you con yourself. Me, I just stick by my guns; I don't want to play out of another man's bag." - Ben Webster