Ben Webster - tenor sax; Buck Clayton - trumpet; Al Grey - trombone; Sir Charles Thompson - piano; Slam Stewart - bass; Ben Riley - drums
There are few sounds as mellow and immediately identifiable as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster blowing his smoky tones on an alluring ballad. The remarkably expressive saxophonist, one of the "big three" of tenor saxophonists alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, got his start on the instrument in the Young Family Band (which included tenor saxophonist Lester Young) on the vaudeville and carnival circuit. He later made his recording debut with singer Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys (Cab's older sister and one of the first women to lead an all-male orchestra) and in 1932 joined Bennie Moten's Orchestra, which also included a young William Basie on piano in his pre-Count days. Webster subsequently had brief stints with big bands led by Andy Kirk, Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Teddy Wilson before joining the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1935.
For eight years, Webster remained a fixture in Ellington's classic orchestra (which included bassist Jimmy Blanton, trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetists Rex Stewart and Ray Nance, trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton and Lawrence Brown, clarinetist Barney Bigard, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, whom Webster cites as a major influence). During his tenure with Duke's tightly-knit band, which was often referred to as the Blanton-Webster band to distinguish it from other aggregations throughout Ellington's long and illustrious career, Webster was a potent presence in the band, contributing memorable solos to such Ellington staples as "Cotton Tail," "All Too Soon," "I Got it Bad," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and, most famously, the sublime Billy Strayhorn ballad "Chelsea Bridge."
After leaving Ellington's orchestra in 1943, Webster began working as a featured soloist in a number of small group settings on New York's fabled 52nd Street, a strip of nightclubs that served as jazz central in the Big Apple through the '40s and into the '50s. Webster later toured as part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic revue through the 1950s with Oscar Peterson's Trio and former Count Basie trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. In 1956, he recorded a classic set with jazz piano great Art Tatum and the following year participated in the landmark summit meeting, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster, a reunion of the two tenor titans who had met back in the '30s in Kansas City. In 1964, the saxophonist, 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.
At the time of this Newport appearance on Sunday evening, July 5, 1964, Webster was 55 years old and still blowing with brute force on uptempo numbers while affecting uncanny nuance on ballads. For his featured portion of a George Wein-produced jam session, he led an all-star ensemble that included former Basie-ite Buck Clayton on trumpet along with trombonist Al Grey, pianist Sir Charles Thompson, bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Ben Riley. They open with a profoundly moving rendition of the timeless ballad "Stardust," a Hoagy Carmichael tune popularized in 1931 by both Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong and subsequently covered by a whole host of jazz artists. Webster's vocal phrasing here is exquisite -- relaxed, soulful, melodic and brimming with personality. Thompson adds an elegant piano solo to the proceedings before the tenor saxophonist returns to cast his smoky-toned spell, culminating his performance with a compelling cadenza.
On a frisky, uptempo rendition of the Ellington staple "Perdido" (actually written by trombonist Juan Tizol) everybody gets a taste. Trombonist Grey solos first with an animated and earthy plunger solo, then Clayton enters with an exuberantly swinging trumpet solo, taking his time before exuding Armstrong-like personality on the horn. Webster joins in with an aggressively swinging, raspy-toned tenor solo that exudes a honking bar-walking quality which he generally reserved for uptempo romps like this. Sir Charles Thompson follows with a nimble, boppish piano solo and Slam Stewart adds one of his patented solos in which he simultaneously scats along with his bowed lines (a trick he cultivated as a member of the popular Slim & Slam duo from the late '30s and early '40s with guitarist-entertainer Slim Gaillard). They close out this spirited jam with rapid-fire exchanges of fours between Grey, Clayton and Webster and drummer Riley.
Following this appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Webster returned to Europe, first settling in Amsterdam before relocating to Copenhagen in 1969. He died in Amsterdam on September 20, 1973. (Milkowski)