Saturday, December 4, 2010

BRUTE'S GENTLE SIDE

Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster
Today, Mr. Webster, I found a copy of Jazz Masters of the 30’s by jazz trumpeter Rex Stewart. I purchased the book a few years ago at Street Corner Music, and I just got around to reading it this afternoon. The book is different from other books about noted jazz musicians written by jazz critics, historians, and journalists. However, Jazz Masters of the 30's was Stewart's personal account of his relationship with many jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Sidney Catlett. Stewart revealed things about them only an astute insider would know. Many of the articles in “Jazz Masters of the 30’s” Down Beat magazine published. A fine jazz journalist Stewart proved to be.

As I write this, Mr. Webster, I am listening to an album you made with Coleman Hawkins for Verve Records in 1957 Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. Do you remember that recording? The great Norman Granz produced the album, and he hired an all star rhythm section Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis and Alvin Stolier. You all kicked off the recording with Blues for Yolande and followed up with the ballad It Never Entered My Mind. You and Hawkins took turns seducing the melody. Do any of those details jog your memory? You made a ton of fine albums, so it would be foolish of me to believe you would remember all of them.

Anyway, Stewart also wrote a piece about Hawkins, which I disliked. Stewart implied the saxophonist was aloof and pompous. Stewart recounted this scene where Lester Young and Billie Holiday played a set at a dive in Harlem. Hawkins showed up and cut in. After the set ended, the crowd cheered, and Lady Day told them it was her pleasure to play with the greatest tenor saxophonist of all times Lester Young. The club was so quiet you could hear a fruit fly belch, after Lady Day made that statement.

Mr. Webster, Jazz Masters of the 30’s was a little gossipy. Stewart shared his colleague’s idiosyncrasies. In The Days with Duke, an essay about Duke Ellington. Stewart said Ellington was a clothes horse, and superstitious. If a button was loose on his coat or his blazer, Ellington would immediately discard it. Some members of the orchestra took advantage of Ellington’s superstition. For instance, if Ellington wore a coat they liked, after he took it off, they would deliberately loosen a button, knowing Ellington would give it away. Stewart did not say which members tricked Ellington.

I particularly, enjoyed the account of his relationship with you. In the articled Frog and Me, Stewart exposed your soft side. According to jazz lore, you had a quick temper. I heard you threw a woman out a window. I cannot remember where I read or heard that, but I figured it was a lie. Stewart acknowledged you were temperamental at times. However, you were equally generous, too.

Stewart revealed things about you I bet most people are unaware of. Mr. Webster, did you really save fellow tenor saxophonist Lester Young from drowning? Stewart explained Young was swimming in a river his hamstring cramped. You rescued him. Stewart also detailed how you stopped a woman from committing suicide. Friends down on their luck could rely on you. Stewart wrote you were a pool shark as well, and you avoided cutting contests. You believed they were frivolous. Showing up a rival seemed beneath you.

You were sort of a novelist on the tenor saxophone. I loved the ballads you immortalized Where Are You, When I Fall in Love, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me. You played each ballad at what Wynton Marsalis dubbed grown folk’s tempo. I enjoyed Frog and Me the most because Stewart exposed your gentle side.
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