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Webster, Ben

in full Benjamin Francis Webster

(born March 27, 1909, Kansas City, Mo., U.S.—died Sept. 20, 1973, Amsterdam, Neth.) American jazz musician noted for the beauty of his tenor saxophone tone and for his melodic inventiveness.

Webster began playing the violin in childhood, then played piano accompaniments to silent films; after learning to play tenor saxophone, he joined the family band led by Lester Young's father. During the 1930s he played with several important swing bands in Kansas City and New York, including the Duke Ellington band. His period in the classic 1940–42 Ellington band was his most noted association; thereafter, apart from a return to Ellington in 1948–49, he spent his career as a freelance soloist. He was based in California in the 1950s and in Copenhagen beginning in 1964.

One of the most influential jazz woodwind players, Webster himself was initially influenced by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins; the later influence of Ellington band star Johnny Hodges, an altoist, proved more powerful. Webster featured a rich, breathy tone, with a slow vibrato, that lent weight to his ballad and slow blues soloing; at faster tempos he generated dramatic rhythmic momentum in solos that climaxed in hoarse cries. His finest work included his solos in Ellington's “Cottontail,” “All Too Soon,” and “Blue Serge” as well as his own “Body and Soul.” In later years his playing displayed a greater depth of expressivity, as heard in albums such as Art Tatum–Ben Webster Quartet (1956), Soulville (1957), and Duke's In Bed (1965).

Copyright © 1994-2005 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.