Archive for Chelsea Bridge

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.

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