Known for his husky, breathy tone and sensitive approach to ballads, Ben Webster was a towering figure in the history of jazz saxophone. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Webster quickly rose to prominence as a pivotal force in the big-band era, going on to become one of the main exponents of the classic jazz tenor saxophone sound.
Webster began his career playing violin and piano, but he found his true calling when he switched to the tenor saxophone. His early career was marked by stints with some of the biggest names in the Kansas City jazz scene, including the bands of Bennie Moten and Andy Kirk. However, his breakthrough came when he joined the legendary Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1940. With Ellington, Webster found a platform for his deep, robust sound, contributing to some of the band’s biggest hits, such as “Cotton Tail” and “All Too Soon.”
Webster’s tenure with Ellington solidified his place in the jazz pantheon, and his robust, gritty sound became a defining characteristic of the Ellington Orchestra’s saxophone section. His style was the perfect counterpoint to the smooth lyricality of fellow band member Johnny Hodges, and together they helped shape the sound of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Following his successful run with Ellington, Webster embarked on a solo career in the 1950s, recording a number of critically acclaimed albums for labels such as Verve and Norgran. His work during this period showcased his versatility as a musician, oscillating between gentle, emotive ballads and rollicking, upbeat numbers. Tracks like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Tenderly” stand as testament to his emotional depth and his masterful command of the tenor saxophone.
Webster’s later career saw him relocating to Europe, like many other jazz musicians of the time, to take advantage of the continent’s more welcoming attitude towards jazz. In Denmark, he continued to record and perform, influencing a generation of European jazz musicians with his soulful sound and passionate playing.
Throughout his career, Webster’s playing was marked by his distinctive breathy tone and his masterful vibrato, which allowed him to infuse each note with a wealth of emotion. His influence extended far beyond his own performances, shaping the way the tenor saxophone was played in jazz for generations to come. Along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Webster is considered one of the big three swing-era tenor saxophonists. His playing influenced countless saxophonists over the decades, including Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Archie Schepp, Eddie ”Lockjaw” Davis, Frank Foster, Sonny Rollins, Flip Phillips, Georgie Auld, John Coltrane, Scott Hamilton, and Branford Marsalis.
Ben Webster was more than just a saxophonist – he was a musical storyteller, using his instrument to express a depth of emotion that continues to resonate with listeners and musicians alike. His legacy as one of the true giants of the tenor saxophone remains undiminished, a testament to his unique talent and his enduring impact on the world of jazz.
Page last updated 7/9/2023.