HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

12 responses to “HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

  1. Lovely tribute evoking 60s memories of Ben…with Coleman Hawkins at The Little Theatre in NYC, at Birdland, in a group with Milt Jackson and during a brief return to Duke’s orchestra at the Apollo. I thought of him today when playing Gone With The Wind, remembering Ben’s amazing Verve encounter with Art Tatum.

  2. Oh Lord – where to begin?. I guess start with the song. History tells us that ‘Old Folks was introduced by Larry Clinton’s band in 1938, followed by a Mildred Bailey recording. But on my radio it was Robison’s own recording – he a singer/songwriter like Hoagy or Johnny Mercer. It was an era when Hoagy’s ‘Small Fry’ or Bing and Louis’ song ‘Gone Fishin’ could fill the airwaves. Or Hoagy’s ‘Moon Country’.

    In 1939 the War was WW I; we made model Spads, not Spitfires. The Civil War was a living organism – the line in the song, “Can’t remember about Old Folks/did he fight for the Blue or the Gray?” is loaded with a poignance that vanished with WW II.

    When Dick Sudhalter came back from Europe in ’75 he got me on to Robison, espcially ‘Old Folks’, which we even recorded with Max Morath. I started palying it often – and still do.

    Ben. In 1942 my clarinet teacher said “Time for a saxophone” and sold my dad a nice old Conn, all re- laquered. Played my first gig 2 weeks later and never looked back. Immediately encountered Coleman Hawkins — but already had Duke’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’, with the heart-rending eight measure bridge by Ben Webster – the pulse of humanity in his sound. Jimmy Roche, my best friend and another tenor player would sit in my basemement where the Victrola was, lit only by a low wattage red light to simulate something we had vaguely heard about – being stoned – and wore out ‘Chelsea Bridge’. I got bunches of Hawk records, but Ben became my idol – to this day.

    So Jazz Lives comes with this magic video. I don’t think any other player, including Louis, puts his heart on the line the way Ben does. And close up you can see the well worn machinery that does the work. That school of tenor players used the most open mouthppiece and filed it even more open; got #5 reeds and clipped them. Requires enormous physical strength. I tried that once and couldn’t get a sound. But the learning of that is 50+ years behind him; it’s now just an expressive tool. Jazz Lives tells the rest far better than I can – Hodges’ death the day before must have been paralyzing.

    A note on the effect of the death of a pal on a player: recently, after maybe 60 years, I really listened to Hawk’s ‘Body & Soul’ again, required learning for us wannabees in the 40s. And heard something I missed in a sea of worshiping when I was young. Ever so slight boredom. I said this to a hipper colleague, who came back with — “Oh – didn’t you know? His friend Herschel Evans died suddenly the day before the recording…”

  3. Marianne Mangan

    Thank you so much for leading me to this clip on YouTube (which is called “Honoring Our Elders”). It was as exquisite as your summation would lead us to expect, and it is Webster and Wilson we should honor. What talents, and what feeling!
    P.S. I found the X and made the ads vanish.

  4. I don’t associate “Old Folks” with Ben. He recorded it for Mercury in 1951 but didn’t start playing it regularly on gigs until the late 1960s. Most fans would think first of Charlie Parker’s version but there are recordings by Don Byas (Savoy, 1946) and Gene Ammons (Decca,1952) that are very special treatments of the tune.

  5. You’re right, of course, in terms of recordings made by other players, Bob — but whenever Ben picked it up, the discography shows that he performed and recorded it often in the last years of his life. And it’s clear from the video that he had strong emotional ties to the song.

  6. On Ben’s tears: When asked one time why he cried whilst playing he said “Because I play so beautifully, man!”

  7. Dear Joe,

    I’d never heard that one — and at first glance I was shocked by the cheerful ego of the statement. But in a minute I thought, “If Ben’s playing moves me to tears, then shouldn’t he have the same privilege to be bathed in the emotions his own sound produced?” I would grant him that, and more — for the joys he brought us. What’s the source of the comment? Thanks, Michael

  8. Dear Michael,
    I’ve been racking my brain & memory to try and pin-point the source without success so far.
    It is one of those phrases which just stuck in my mind when I read it. When I remember and check I’ll let you know. Regards, Joe.

  9. A corroborating reference: On page 302 of SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME Niels-Henning Orsted Piedersen is quoted as saying “Sometimes Ben would be so touched by his own playing that he cried.”

  10. If anyone had a right to weep at the beauty of his own playing, it would be Ben. Thanks for finding the quote! And Frank Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben is a splendid book. Cheers, Michael

  11. What a lovely video. I love the tears comment…in this case, he cries when he’s not playing, though; maybe he was just moved by the beauty of the whole thing, and thinking of his friends, too. As to Ben’s exasperated shake of the head, you hear Wilson imply the melody right after…that makes me think that maybe Webster himself made a little mistake. As the musical colleague who turned me on to this said, however, this performance is about as perfect as it gets, the epitome of everything that is so wonderful and right about Jazz music and performance. Those little mistakes – and the recovery from them – are as much a part of that perfection as the rest.

  12. Sam Parkins – an addendum to that wonderful “Body and Soul” story: I read in W.O. Smith’s autobiography that the famous “Body and Soul” record was recorded around nine in the morning, and the group had been working until at least two a.m the same day! Smith says that is the reason the background horns don’t sound so good; everyone was a little grumpy as well as tired at having to work so early. If memory serves, Smith says both that the arrangement was worked out on that late night job, and that everyone wanted to do another take; Hawk didn’t, and didn’t! (I have to find the book to be sure of those last two.) Also, he puts to rest the sometime-rumor that Hawk pre-wrote that solo, saying that they had run the arrangement the night before (I just can’t remember if it was also worked out then) and Hawk’s rendition was completely different.

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