Long after they die, artists continue to change: Their stature grows or shrinks, they become loved or neglected, they are judged harshly or warmly. Ben Webster, a great tenor saxophone player, dead since 1973, seems grander today than he did when he walked the Earth. Time somehow intensifies and enlarges his talent. He gets little publicity, yet every time I enter a record store I find Webster CDs that are entirely new to me, most of them products of his last seven years, which he spent in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
They are often dazzling. In his hands, the saxophone emerges as the essential jazz instrument, the one closest to the human voice and the one that found its true vocation only in jazz. Webster, the supreme interpreter of ballads, mastered the art of absorbing a song and making it his own without violating its essence. On these European records, a ballad isn't just a vehicle for his talent, it's an environment he enters and explores. When he plays There Is No Greater Love or Don't Blame Me or My Romance, he loses himself in the song. He's committed to it.
Earlier, in America, he worked with great bands and with brilliant collaborators such as Art Tatum, but the triumph of his European years was the creation of a catalogue of Webster as a soloist. On one CD I find him playing with a group in Finland, and on another he's at the Olympia Stadium in London. If it's 1972 he's in Barcelona. Most often he seems to be in Copenhagen, at the Montmartre Jazzhus or the Metronome Studios. The musicians accompanying him, often wonderful players, don't much influence him. Whatever the company he kept, he remained in those late years firmly himself.
He started his musical life as a teenager, playing piano for silent movies in Amarillo, Tex. He decided to try the saxophone, and when he got a job with Billy Young's touring band he borrowed an instrument and began learning it, practising with Billy's son Lester. So, in adolescence, two of the great figures of the tenor, Webster and Lester Young, were apprentices together.
In the 1930s, Webster played for leaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Cab's sister, whose band gloried in the name Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys. He was an admirable soloist but still heavily influenced by a much more famous player, Coleman Hawkins. Then, in 1940, everything changed for Webster: He joined Duke Ellington's band, as its first tenor soloist, and found both an individual voice and a large reputation.
Garry Giddins wrote in his book Visions of Jazz: "In March 1940, Duke Ellington signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor and entered a state of grace." In the next three years, Ellington poured out a stream of great records, on many of which Webster gave superb performances. His solo on Cotton Tail became so famous that his fans were disappointed when they went to hear the Ellington band and Webster didn't reproduce it note for note.
He had desperately wanted to be in the band, but he was what people now call a high-maintenance employee. Ellington's first biographer, Barry Ulanov, wrote: "Duke knew ... that Ben had a violent temper which exhibited itself on rare occasions, and to go with it a sweetness of disposition which exhibited itself far more often." Alcohol fuelled the temper. Webster was so good that the Ellington band of the early 1940s is now routinely called the Blanton-Webster band, after him and the great bass player, Jimmy Blanton. But Ellington and Webster never got along. As Ellington's son Mercer once said, they couldn't be in a room together for five minutes without getting angry. After three magnificent years, Webster left.
He was a large and occasionally violent man of unusual affections and bizarre impulses. He slept deeply, and had a curious habit of punching anyone who woke him, even his grandmother. In the 1950s, he lived in Los Angeles with his mother and grandmother, the two people in the world closest to him. Jim Hall, the guitarist, once described the routine of picking him up to go to a job. If Webster were asleep, his mother or grandmother would lean over him and say, "Ben, Mr. Hall is here and it's time to go to work." Then they would jump back about two feet to get out of the way. On the other hand, when the name of a dead musician he had loved came up (Tatum, say, or Fats Waller), Webster could be moved to tears. Hall remembered: "He started telling me what Tatum was like -- he loved to talk about the great ones he knew who were gone -- and the next thing I knew, he was crying."
In 1964, jazz had developed in ways Webster found uncongenial, and both his mother and his grandmother were dead. He moved to Europe -- and never returned. The European period was active and creative, and today Denmark remembers him with the Ben Webster Prize, given to an exceptional jazz musician every year, presented by a member of the royal family. There were, of course, vexatious incidents in those years. Webster was not famously reliable. No one was surprised when he somehow booked himself into two jazz festivals on the same day, one in Finland and one in the south of France. Other musicians sometimes show up hours after the appointed time; only Webster sometimes came two or three days late. But when he did appear, which was most of the time, he gave himself entirely to the occasion.
In the 1940s, when I first heard him play long solos at a jazz concert, I imagined there was something wrong with his breathing, maybe even his reed. The notes were too long, too quavery. But, as I came eventually to understand, he was then developing his mature style, what one critic called "vibrating columns of air," the style thousands of listeners around the world have learned to cherish. It's still common for people to think there's something wrong or odd when they first hear him. Later, they often decide that, far from being wrong, this is precisely the way a tenor saxophone should be played.