Archive for Ben Webster

Cotton Tail

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on January 16, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy and rather trying day so I’m in need of a bit of a pick-me-up. This will do nicely! It’s the great Duke Ellington band of 1940 playing Cotton Tail. This tune – yet another constructed on the chord changes to George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm – was written by Ben Webster and arranged by Duke Ellington for his orchestra in a characteristically imaginative and inventive way. Webster’s “heavy” tenor saxophone dominates the first half of the track, but the real star of the show (for me) is the superb brass section of the Ellington Orchestra whose tight discipline allows it to punch out a series of complicated riffs with a power and precision that would terrify most classical orchestras. And no wonder! The Ellington band of this era was jam-packed  with talent, including: Rex Stewart (cornet); Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, and Cootie Williams (trumpet); Juan Tizol,  Joe”Tricky Sam” Nanton, and Lawrence Brown (trombones). Listen particularly to the two sequences from 1.33-1.49 and 2.35-2.59, which are just brilliant! Enjoy!

P.S. The drummer is the great Sonny Greer.


Grave Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, History, Jazz, Literature with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2012 by telescoper

It being a lovely day in Copenhagen yesterday I decided to go for a long walk. My destination was the famous Assistens Kirkegård which is in the Nørrebro district of the city. You might think that was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by tree-lined paths. We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by yesterday; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sunbathing between the gravestones.  And of course there were many tourists wandering around, myself included. I found this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Incidentally, I was also surprised to see a number of Jewish burials among the Christian ones. I don’t know if this happens in British graveyards.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there.  The cemetery is extremely large (about 25 hectares), and the maps don’t show the locations of all the famous people laid to rest there, but I did find quite a few.

Here for example is the memorial to one of the most famous Danes of all, Hans Christian Andersen

Going by the number of signposts pointing to it, this must be one of the most popular sites for visitors to the cemetery, along with the grave of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. One can also quite easily locate the memorial which marks the last resting place of Niels Bohr and various other members of his family:

But it’s not only Danes that are buried here. There’s a corner of one plot occupied by a number of famous American Jazz musicians, including pianist Kenny Drew and, most famously of all, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster whose gravestone is rather small, but clearly very well tended, no doubt by a Danish jazz lover:

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate one of the graves I wanted to find, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. I was surprised to find his name was absent from the main index. I know he was cremated and his ashes buried there, and I even found a picture of his memorial on the net, but the cemetery is so large that without further clues I couldn’t find it. I’ll have to go back on a subsequent visit after doing a bit more research.

It’s very interesting that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of disrepair. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

And after about three hours strolling around in the cool shade of the trees in Assistens Kirkegård the thought did cross my mind there still seems to be plenty of room…


Posted in Jazz with tags , on July 21, 2012 by telescoper

Over the Rainbow

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on October 15, 2011 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today, so I’ll just offer a lovely bit of jazz from the late great Ben Webster that I bookmarked for future posting some time in the past. Webster was a big boozy brutish kind of bloke, but he played ballads with a heartwarming tenderness, as you can tell from this performance which also features the vastly underrated British pianist, Stan Tracey, who is still going strong after over 60 years in the business. Enjoy!

Chelsea Bridge

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2009 by telescoper

When the great American songwriter Billy Strayhorn saw the beautifully evocative painting (left) by James McNeill Whistler of one of the bridges over the River Thames, it inspired him to write an equally evocative song to be performed by his longstanding musical collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. The song was written in 1941, but it was only years later that he realized that he had named it after the wrong bridge.


The painting was of Battersea Bridge; but he had named the song  Chelsea Bridge, a much less romantic location. Nevertheless, the tune quickly became a standard, and a feature for the band’s star saxophonist, Ben Webster who carried on playing it after he left Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1943.

By all accounts Ben Webster was a drunken brute of a man but when he played ballads like this he produced music of great warmth and delicacy. In fact, his technique on the tenor sax would probably be called “wrong” by a teacher: he didn’t use his tongue properly on the reed so his notes had to be produced by much more lung power than “normal” players use. Instead of a clean attack, each note is wafted in on a sort of phoohing sound. The breathiness of his tone  is a consequence of this and, although he produced a huge volume which was good for playing in front of a big band like Ellington’s, it also made him unable to play well at faster tempos. His playing on slow ballads, though, was often exquisitely beautiful. Who says everyone has to be a speed merchant?

Ben Webster moved to Copenhagen in 1964 along with several other great Jazz musicians, to escape the racism and consequent lack of opportunity for black artists in  his homeland. He was buried in the part of Copenhagen called Nørrebro when he died in 1973. 

I am a fairly frequent visitor to Copenhagen – I’m going there again in June, in fact – and I did visit his grave once. There’s also a restaurant named after him in the city centre.

Anyway, here he is in in 1964 playing Chelsea Bridge with the marvellous Stan Tracey on piano who featured in a previous post of mine.