© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Look at those two heavyweights!.”
The speaker was Jack Marshall a guitarist who was perhaps best known as a composer-arranger in Hollywood recording circles. He composed TV series themes and wrote the arrangement for Peggy Lee’s big hit Fever which featured drummer Shelly Manne, one of Jack’s closest friends.
The “two heavyweights” in question were drummer Stan Levey and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.
The venue for this two-brute-sighting was The Manne Hole, Shelly’s Hollywood Jazz club, which also happened to serve great soup for lunch. [“Brute was one of Ben’s nicknames.]
Just about every studio musician in the greater Hollywood area - which extended north into the eastern San Fernando Valley to include both Warner Brothers [Burbank] and Universal Studios [North Hollywood] - tried to stop by Shelly’s for lunch during their breaks from recording.
It was our way of “throwing some business his way” as we all knew the kind of stress and sacrifice Shelly went through to keep his club open for 12 years in order to give local Jazz musicians a place to play, including many studio musicians who relished the opportunity to play Jazz whenever it presented itself.
I recorded with Jack as a drummer and/or percussionist on a few occasions and we had just finished a TV commercial that morning when Jack suggested we “go up to Shelly’s for some soup.”
By way of background, I gather that one of Stan Levey’s first gigs as a drummer was working with Ben Webster’s quartet which “Frog” [another of Ben’s nicknames] had formed shortly after leaving Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in the early 1940s. They instantly took a liking to one another and became lifelong friends. Each of them were “big men” and they formed an imposing sight when they stood together.
Now here they were a little over twenty years later talking to Shelly and Rudy Onderwyzer, the manager of The Manne Hole, about Ben’s quartet playing a gig at the club for a long weekend with a local rhythm section to be led by Stan. [If my memory serves me right, not always the case these days, Jimmy Rowles was going to be the pianist.]
Scheduling conflicts at Shelly’s were compounded by the fact that Stan Levey was still traveling often as a member of Peggy Lee’s trio, so the two-big-men-of-Jazz reunion gig never happened and Ben went back to New York and eventually formed the quartet that Stanley Dance described in this essay/interview about Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) which appeared in the May 21, 1964 edition of Downbeat magazine.
“Stride piano, the left hand fast and precise, filled the telephone receiver.
"Yeah. Wait till I turn my waking-up music off."
The sound of James P. Johnson's piano was abruptly diminished.
"You downstairs? Come on up."
One of tenor saxophonist Ben Webster's afternoon musicales was in progress. A tape on which the Lion, the Lamb, James P., Fats Waller and Art Tatum strove mightily together — his waking-up music — was still on the Wollensak [tape recorder], but an album by Tatum was now placed on the phonograph. A facet of that pianist's genius was about to be demonstrated to Duke Ellington's bassist, Ernie Shepard, and drummer Sam Woodyard — who occupied nearby hotel rooms and had come in to discuss the previous night's activities.
Webster had sat in for a set with the Ellington band at its Basin Street East opening, and he was happy about the experience. Chuck Connors' arrival having been delayed that night, Webster had taken Connors' seat in the trombone section and been duly introduced to the audience by Ellington as an expert on claves in cha-cha-cha. When the saxophonist came down front later, Ellington had suggested he play "Cottontail," Webster's best-known recorded performance during his principal stay with Ellington, 1939-'43. The performance ended with a chase between Webster and Ellington's regular tenor saxophonist, Paul Gonsalves. It had been a kick.
"If Duke likes you," Webster said, "you're home free." There were bottles of beer sitting on the windowsill outside, cold and ready to drink, and ale on the dressing table, but the main business this afternoon was music and reminiscence. A tape of a 1940 Ellington performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, N.D., was produced.
"It was so cold there that night," Webster remembered, "we played in our overcoats, and some of the guys kept their gloves on!"
The music coming from the tape had an exciting kind of abandon — the abandon, perhaps, of desperation.
"Sometimes," he added, "when you've traveled all day in the bus, and had no sleep and are dead tired — that's when you get the best playing out of a band. It just happens. And sometimes the opposite."
The material was inspiring. After "The Mooche" came "Ko-Ko," "Pussy Willow"...
"I learned a lot from Rab [Johnny Hodges], but you know what his only advice to me was when I came in the band? 'Learn your parts.'"
The tape continued rolling. "Chatterbox," "Harlem Airshaft," "Jack the Bear," "Rumpus in Richmond," "Sidewalks of New York," "The Flaming Sword," "Never No Lament"...
"That's why Duke leaves his mark on you, forever," Webster said.
"Clarinet Lament," "Slap Happy," "Sepia Panorama," "Rockin' in Rhythm," "Cottontail"...
"Sonny Greer, and he's swinging!" Webster exclaimed in admiration of the drummer who worked with Ellington from the '20s to the '50s.
"Conga Brava," "Stardust," "Rose of the Rio Grande" and "Boy Meets Horn" preceded the finale, an uproarious version of "St. Louis Blues," on which trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton took over from Webster and carried through to the coda.
"We were drinking buddies," the saxophonist said, and laughed, "but you heard how he tore right in on me there."
After a few jokes, the conversation came back to piano, steered by the host, and the striding hands of yesterday stretched out again on tape and vinyl. Often they belonged to Fats Waller.
All that fun but never a wrong note," Webster remarked. "If only he could have lived until TV!"
Contemporaries were considered and Ralph Sutton commended as "a wonderful cat." Earl Hines, too: "Earl swings his head off."
A memory of the Beetle [stride pianist Stephen Henderson] intervened, the diffident-seeming Beetle who took part in the piano battles uptown and seldom played anything less than an easy, rocking, medium tempo but who triumphed nevertheless. Another memory returned, of the Lamb — Donald Lambert — who came to the battlefield once or twice a year, astounded everyone, and then retired to New Jersey again. From that point, it required little urging to get Webster to tell of his first experience with the Harlem piano school.
"I shall never forget the time when I met Count Basie," he began. "It was while he was in Kansas City with Gonzel White, and he used to stop the show. I always did like Basic, and I always did want to play the piano. He bore with me for a long time, and he told me that in the event I ever got to New York, I was to be sure to find the Lion—Willie Smith. He had already told me that the bosses were James P. Johnson and the Lion, and that then came Duke, Fats and Willie Gant. I don't remember all the names, but there was a gang of great piano players in those days.
"Clyde Hart and I managed to get with Blanche Galloway. Clyde was a friend of mine, a piano player, and Edgar Battle sent for us in Kansas City We played the Pearl Theater in Philly, at 22nd and Ridge, I think it was, and Clyde and I got on the train the first day we had off and came to New York.
"Basie had briefed me. 'Go to the Rhythm Club,' he said, 'and that's where you'll find the Lion. He knows all the piano players and all the good musicians. They hang out there, and the Lion will introduce you right. Naturally, I wanted to hear people like Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins too. Basie had also told us how to approach the Lion so that he would bear with us. Basie said he liked a little taste every now and then, that he loved cigars, and that maybe he would play a little for us.
"So we walked up to the Rhythm Club on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue, and we met the Lion. There was a cigar store right on the corner, and in those days they had great big El Productos, three for a half-dollar.
'"Mr. Lion,' we said, 'would you care to have some cigars?'
"The Lion rounded on us and said, 'Say, you are pretty nice kids. Yes, I'll have a cigar or two.'
So we walked with him to the corner and asked him how many could he smoke.
"'Oh, maybe two.'
"So we bought him half a dozen, and then he smiled and said,' You kids are really nice kids!'
"Then we asked him, 'Would you care for a little drink, Mr. Lion?'
"Then we told him we would like to hear him play, and at that time there was a place right across from the Rhythm Club, and he took us over there, and he got in the mood with his cigar and a little taste in between.
"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to hear a man play like this. Though I had heard James P. Johnson around 1925 in Kansas City, that was a little early, and I think I could understand more of what I was listening to when I got to the Lion.
"He played for us for three or four hours, and we kept buying him a little taste, and he kept saying we were nice kids. I had a beautiful day and I never will forget it."
Until about a year ago, Webster had resided for several years in Los Angeles, taking care of his mother and grandmother, but when they both died within a year's time, he had no family reason to stay in California, and he moved to New York City.
He has brought back to the ingrowing New York scene the good humor and expansive generosity of spirit that have been dwindling for some time among its hard-pressed musicians. Webster is big physically — broad-shouldered and
straight-backed — and he is bigger than the rat race. One is soon aware that music occupies his mind far more than money— music as, above all, a means to enjoyment.
Ellington's wasn't the only band he sat in with during the winter. Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band found it had an impulsive new pianist one night in Bird-land, and at the Metropole on another occasion, Webster took Marty Napoleon's place at the keyboard for a set.
The appearances with his own quartet at the Shalimar, Birdland and the Half Note have proved popular. His material, consisting mostly of the better standards and well-known Ellington numbers, is strong on melodic content. Just as he did 20 years ago, with men like pianists Marlowe Morris and Johnny Guarnieri and drummer Sid Catlett, he likes to open and close a performance with a statement of the theme. Good melody, well phrased, communicates as strongly in the jazz idiom as in any other, and there are distinct advantages from the audience's viewpoint to having the melody established in the mind when following the variations. Webster recognizes this, plus the importance of good tempos.
Stylistically, he illustrates the evolutionary process always at work within the music.
The jazz audience was probably first made aware of him in 1932 on the several explosive records that indicated the musical ferment in Kansas City—those made by Bennie Moten with Basie, trumpeter Oran (Hot Lips) Page, trombonist Eddie Durham and reed man Eddie Barefield, in addition to Webster — "Moten Swing," "Lafayette," etc.
In his subsequent recordings, there was uninterrupted development, but up until the time he joined Ellington, listeners generally recognized the influence of Coleman Hawkins rather than the personality of Ben Webster. Yet, as Hughes Panassie perceptively noted, "The grace of his melodic line makes one think of Benny Carter." In fact, it is Carter whom Webster names first among saxophonists—then Hawkins, then Johnny Hodges ("the most feeling") and then Hilton Jefferson ("the prettiest").
Established stylistically in 1940, Webster himself became an important influence. Prominent among those to acknowledge it was Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis, at one time known as Little Ben.
When Paul Gonsalves took the tenor chair with Ellington, his ability to play solos in Webster's style profoundly surprised the leader, but in the 14 years that have followed, Gonsalves' musical personality has developed on strongly individual lines, a fact evident when he and his early mentor played "Cottontail" at Basin Street East. It was even more evident in a jam session at Count Basie's bar in Harlem, when Webster, Gonsalves and fellow tenor man Harold Ashby were together on the stand. Ashby is a close friend of Webster's who proudly proclaims his friend's influence, but all three were individually and instantly identifiable by tone and phrasing.
"He's improved so much he scares me," Webster said of Ashby's playing, using his most admiring epithet.
Gonsalves, too, he esteems highly. One of the records often played on his phonograph is "I've Just Seen Her," from Ellington's All American album, a Gonsalves performance that never fails to impress saxophone players.
At Webster's musicale, Gonsalves reminisced about the first time he heard Tatum. He had gone to a club with Webster, Basie and trumpeter Harry Edison to hear Tatum, but the master didn't feel like playing that night. So Webster sat down at the piano and played awhile. Then Edison played, and finally Basie. With that, Tatum decided to play—"Get Happy" at a very fast tempo. What astonished him, Webster said, was the way Tatum's left hand took care of business while the right reached for a drink.
Perhaps this anecdote passed through Webster's mind at the jam session at Basie's club. He called "Get Happy" They took off, lightning fast, and Gonsalves went into a furious and fantastically devised solo.
"Paul's getting so hot," Webster exclaimed with mock alarm, "I don't think I should have called this tune!"
Another afternoon visitor was tenorist Budd Johnson, who had first shown Webster the scale on saxophone and how to play "Singin' the Blues." Webster had been taught violin, but had not liked the instrument. There were two pianos in the Webster house, his mother's and his cousin's ("I ruined my cousin's piano playing blues"), and when he should have been practicing violin, he was usually busy on one or the other of them. Pete Johnson, who lived across the street, taught him how to play the blues.
"If you lay the violin down a week, you're in trouble," Webster said, "but you can lay a horn down a year and be OK." So when he switched to piano, it was the end of the violin phase.
He was playing piano in a silent-movie house in Amarillo, Texas, when Gene Coy's band came to town, and he met Budd Johnson and his brother, trombonist Keg. The saxophone fascinated Webster, and in 1929, when he was 20, he heard that the Young family band needed another saxophone player; he went to see Lester's father.
"I can't read," he said.
Mr. Young was amused.
"I haven't got a horn," he added.
Mr. Young was then even more amused, but he provided Webster with an alto saxophone and taught him to read.
"Lester's father mostly played trumpet, but he could play anything, and, what's more, he was a master teacher," Webster recalled.
Lester played tenor, and Webster insists he was playing wonderfully even then. Lee Young and his sister, Irma, were also members of the band and played saxophones at that time, too.
The group went to Albuquerque, N.M., for some months, and it was there that Webster, a strong swimmer, helped save the lives of both Lester and Lee. Lester got into difficulties in the Rio Grande and was carried away, tumbling over and over in the water until Webster and guitarist Ted Brinson rescued him. On another occasion, Lee stepped off the bank into a deep sand hole, and Webster managed to haul him out.
"Lee dived right in again," Webster remembered, "but Lester didn't want to think about swimming for a long time after that."
Some months later, after Budd and Keg Johnson had left it, Webster got a call to join Gene Coy's band ("about nine or 10 pieces") in which Harold Coleman was playing tenor. That was really the beginning of the professional career as a saxophonist that brought him, experienced and mature, into New York City, 1964.
“I think I’m playing better than ever right now,” he said. Then he repeated, “I think.”