It’s become chapter and verse in jazz liturgy: the Adoration of the Tenor one might call it. It’s the story of three jazz kings—Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster—whose distinct approaches to the tenor saxophone first ushered the instrument to its primary position on the jazz frontline. And the legend lives on; the style each of these pioneers crafted still resonates and weighs heavy on the sound of jazz today.
One hundred years after his birth, Ben Webster remains one of the weightiest of them all. One can still hear the signature elements of his influence: That breathy phrasing. That lilting devotion to melody. That unmistakable tone, so reverberant and roomy. So airy and large.
Not for nothing was one of Webster’s first albums named The Big Tenor. In a heyday that lasted from the late ’30s through the ’60s, his sound was one of the most romantic and instantly familiar in jazz. In his hands, upbeat tunes became giddy, breathless romps and ballads became whispered expressions of intimacy and anticipation. His sound predicted legions of soul-jazz tenor stylists; The Soul of Ben Webster was another early title.
From the late ’50s into the ’60s, Webster maintained a free agent status, recording for a number of labels until 1964 when he relocated in Copenhagen—another American jazzman preferring the relatively racist-free comfort of Denmark. There he lived out the remainder of his days playing when and where he chose.
Culled from albums released by a number of labels during Webster’s last few years as a U.S. resident, Centennial Celebration reveals his musical resilience and enduring popularity with the leading jazz producers of the day.