Imagine a sound that conveys love to the listener without a single syllable. Then, look at this man, who — by his physical aspect — might seem an unlikely prophet of such deep feeling.
He is Ben Webster, Ellingtonian, swing star, ballad player supreme. You can find out about him in many ways, and I don’t intend to write his biography here, or even an appreciation. But I will share a small story.
Last night I was on a plane from New Orleans to New York, where I had enjoyed a glorious weekend of friends, music, and food, because of Duke Heitger’s STEAMBOAT STOMP. (Long may it stomp.) Seated next to me was a cheerful woman perhaps in her forties, travelling with her husband and son in the row behind us; I asked if she wanted one of them to switch with me, but she didn’t.)
Planes are claustrophic and air travel is tedious, so in the past decade when I’ve been flying more often than ever before, I’ve drifted into conversations with the stranger sitting next to me. I usually don’t start the conversation, but once it begins it is often surprisingly deep and open. My theory about this is that in the dark confines of the plane, somehow untethered to the earth and all that’s familiar, we feel safe to tell others our secrets. The plane becomes a flying confessional, with no penance and no expectation that the conversation will continue once we land. The woman and I spoke of colleges, of education, of jobs, of modern life — all familiar territory — and then she said her son played the saxophone, currently the alto, but might be switching to tenor.
“OK,” I said, “I have a name for you. [She took out her iPhone and went to the page for notes.] BEN WEBSTER. Ben Webster With Strings. Imagine a huge warm sound. In fact, imagine being in the warm embrace of a huge stuffed bear. That’s what those records sound like.”
[For the jazz-fetishists out there, I do know that Ben’s nickname was FROG and that BEAR was the satiric monicker for Jimmie Blanton, who might have weighed a hundred pounds, but somehow I thought explaining Ben’s sound as the loving embrace of an amphibian might not be so effective.]
This morning, as I awoke from a dream of dear friends and a bowl of shrimp with grits — the food the down-home angels eat — I thought, “I would bet that some people who read JAZZ LIVES have never heard Ben Webster with strings. Inconceivable! Impossible!” So this post is to send Websterian love all around. The original recording (as you will see) was called MUSIC FOR LOVING, and never was a title more apt:
May your happiness increase!