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Ben Webster's First Concert In Denmark

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Ben Webster

 

Ben Webster didn’t like flying, particularly over large stretches of water like the Atlantic. That’s why he didn’t come to Europe until December 1964 when he was well into his fifties. He began that European tour by playing a number of dates in London including a stint at Ronnie Scott’s. In January 1965, he moved on to Copenhagen. The Danish label, Storyville Records, has recently released a recording of his first concert in that city called, appropriately enough, Ben Webster’s First Concert in Denmark. The concert turned out to have some significance because Webster eventually made his home in Denmark.

Ben Webster was born in 1909 in that crucible of jazz, Kansas City. He learned to play violin, then piano, before finally settling on the saxophone. He played with several big bands before joining Duke Ellington in 1940. His distinctive tone and style of playing – full, breathy and big, sometimes quite harsh – led him to become one of the top tenor saxophonists of his era with a particular penchant for ballads. Whitney Balliett described Webster’s tone on ballads as “soft and enormous … he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore….[he] employs long, serene figures that often… achieve a fluttering, keening quality  - his wide vibrato frequently dissolves into echoing, ghost-like breaths”.

 

Listen to Ben Webster in fine ballad form playing Stardust live with the Duke in 1940.

 

 

 

Webster left Ellington’s band in 1944 after an argument with the Duke and then worked mainly as a freelance player collaborating with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum and Gerry Mulligan. Here he is playing with Mulligan on the Dinah Shore Show in 1962. They play two numbers – Go Home and Who’s Got Rhythm. The set is a good illustration of Webster’s style on up tempo numbers which was very different from his treatment of ballads. A harsh, rasping growl enters into his playing which can be extremely effective and exciting but, it has to be said, is not to everyone’s taste.

 

 

 

And then came his trip to London in 1964. Here he is playing A Night In Tunisia with Ronnie Scott and Stan Tracey at around the time of his visit.

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks later, Ben Webster was playing that first concert in Denmark before going on to dates in other European countries. Niels-Henning Orsted PedersenHe liked Europe so much that he decided to settle there, first in Amsterdam, then in Copenhagen. Copenhagen had become something of a magnet for expat. American jazz musicians. Amongst those who lived there at various times from the fifties onwards were Stan Getz, Oscar Pettiford, Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Ernie Wilkins, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Kenny Drew and Thad Jones. A thriving jazz scene grew up including native Danish players, the most famous of whom was probably bassist, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (NHOP for short).

 

Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen

 

One of the attractions of Copenhagen for black musicians was the lack of discrimination compared to the United States. There was a more relaxed and liberal lifestyle in the city which attracted black and white alike; and a greater respect for jazz and jazz musicians. The expats could also be bigger fish in a smaller pond than in the likes of New York. Pianist Kenny Drew said that “living in Copenhagen, and travelling out from there, I have probably worked in more different contexts than if I had stayed in New York where I might have got musically locked in with a set group of musicians. This way, I have been able to keep my musical antennas in shape, while at the same time I have had more time to study and also get deeper into my own endeavours”.

An attraction for Ben Webster was that he didn’t have to fly back across that big ocean and, indeed, he never went back to the States for the rest of his life. He toured ceaselessly around Europe, able to travel to most places by train or boat. He died whilst on tour in Amsterdam in September 1973 at the age of 64. His body was brought back to Copenhagen, cremated, and his ashes buried in the Assistens Cemetery. A street in southern Copenhagen is named after him, Ben Websters Vej. A Ben Webster Foundation has been established to encourage jazz in Denmark, and an annual Ben Webster Prize is awarded to a young, promising musician. 

And all that began with Ben Webster’s first concert in Denmark on 10th January 1965. The concert took place in the Danish Radio Ben Websters GraveConcert Hall and was broadcast live on Danish radio. Webster was accompanied by a rhythm section which regularly played together as the house band at one of Copenhagen’s main jazz venues, the Café Montmartre. Expat Kenny Drew played piano, Alex Riel was the drummer, and on bass was Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (NHOP) in the early stages of what turned out to be an illustrious international career.

Despite it being a live recording made well over 50 years ago, the sound reproduction on Ben Webster’s First Concert in Denmark is superb. All the musicians are on top form and are driven forward by an appreciative audience. The album begins with a sound check which presumably was not included in the original radio programme. Webster plays a chorus of  Duke Ellington’s In A Mellotone on piano (showing, incidentally, what a fine pianist he was). He then plays a second chorus at a faster tempo so that the producer can work out his timings: the radio programme was due to last one hour. Webster is talking all the time and humming, clearly in complete, confident command.

The programme proper begins with Pennies From Heaven. Webster was sometimes accused in the latter part of his career of “going through the motions” but here, although he uses the minimum of notes, he swings along nicely, clearly trying hard to make the old tune sing and live again. All the musicians are in perfect sync and the whole piece fits together like clockwork.

This is followed by a blistering version of Ellington’s Blues in B-Flat. (The spat with the Duke doesn’t seem to have affected Webster’s regard for him as a composer: three of the six pieces on the album are Ellington tunes). Webster’s improvisations are imaginative and absorbing and he hits a groove, driven on by the other musicians and the live audience. The other musicians take solos with Kenny Drew being particularly impressive. Listen to the track.

 

 

 

The next track sees Webster in ballad mode on the Rodgers and Hart song, My Romance. His playing is spare but heartfelt and affecting, showing just why he was so revered as a master of the ballad. A full, swinging, foot tapping version of In A Mellotone is next up, with the rhythm section in flight again driving Webster along to ever greater heights.

The last full track is Over The Rainbow, another ballad. Webster is quoted in the sleeve notes as once saying, “Remember, there’s only three tempos in jazz: slow, medium and slow”. Well, Over The Rainbow here is taken at a fourth tempo, very slow. Even so, Webster has the knack of playing the tune as if it’s never been played before. The hackneyed tune is shorn of its schmaltz revealing what a beautiful piece of music it really is. 

Here is a video of Ben Webster playing Over The Rainbow live with Stan Tracey on piano.

 

 

 

Despite the preliminary time checking, the concert ran over its allotted time and we only hear a brief snatch of another Ellington tune, Cotton Tail. As the sleeve notes say, “The News had to break in”.

A 54 year old recording of a radio programme might at first glance seem one for only the most dedicated of Ben Webster completists but Ben Webster’s First Concert in Denmark is a fine piece of music making in its own right displaying the saxophonist at the full height of his powers.

For further details, including samples and how to get hold of the album click here.

 

Ben Websters First Concert In Denmark

 

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