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Someone to Watch Over Me

The Life and Music of Ben Webster

Frank Büchmann-Møller

Publication Year: 2006

For a half century, Ben Webster, one of the "big three" of swing tenors-along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young-was one of the best-known and most popular saxophonists. Early in his career, Webster worked with many of the greatest orchestras of the time, including those led by Willie Bryant, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk, Bennie Moten, and Teddy Wilson. In 1940 Webster became Duke Ellington's first major tenor soloist, and during the next three years he played on many famous recordings, including "Cotton Tail." Someone to Watch Over Me tells, for the first time, the complete story of Ben Webster's brilliant and troubled career. For this comprehensive study of Webster, author Frank Büchmann-Møller interviewed more than fifty people in the United States and Europe, and he includes numerous translated excerpts from European periodicals and newspapers, none previously available in English. In addition, the author studies every known Webster recording and film, including many private recordings from Webster's home collection not available to the public. Exhaustively researched, this is a much needed and long overdue study of the life and music of one of jazz's most important artists.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Jazz Perspectives

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

I owe the inspiration for this book to two fortuitous incidents. In 1997, the Ben Webster Collection-records, tapes, photos, and other memorabilia- was transferred from the Danish Jazz Centre to the Music Department of the University Library of Southern Denmark, where I work. I had the good fortune to be placed in charge of cataloguing Webster's records...

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pp. ix-xii

I could not have written this book without the help of many people and institutions. I managed to contact many musicians, friends, and others connected with Ben Webster, and it was a constant delight to discover how interested in the project everyone became. Many people went out of their way to help. First of all, I am grateful to Heinz Baumeister for his...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Ben Webster occupies a special place in my heart because the night I first heard him in person was a night of several firsts: It was my first visit to the world-renowned Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, the first time I witnessed an impromptu jam session with professional jazz musicians, and the first-and only-time I was arrested....

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1. Kansas City Childhood (1909-1927)

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pp. 1-10

Kansas City, Missouri-to the jazz aficionado the name rings as romantic and sweet as New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. One imagines jam sessions and small, smoke-filled rooms, where jazz is played till early morning by legendary musicians like Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Count Basie, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Dick Wilson-and Ben Webster...

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2. From Piano to Saxophone (1927-1931)

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pp. 11-17

It's uncertain when the chance arose for Ben to stand on his own two feet, but it was probably in late 1927 or early 1928. A few isolated sources mention him leaving Kansas City with violinist Clarence Love,1 an improbable claim, since Ben never mentioned any connection with Love. But he did often speak of the leader of a territory band named Brethro Nelson from...

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3. From Kansas City to New York (1931-1934)

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pp. 18-29

Blanche Calloway (1902-1978) was a singer, dancer, and bandleader. Her career in show business began in local revues in her hometown, Baltimore. Upon her arrival in New York in 1921, she joined the cast of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's musical Shuffle Along with Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Like her more famous little...

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4. From Smack to Duke (1934-1940)

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pp. 30-56

According to Ben, he was probably chosen to replace Hawkins because at the time he sounded very much like his idol. A few of Henderson's musicians were at the legendary jam session at the Cherry Blossom in December 1933. Basie recalls bassist John Kirby being there, and trombonist Claude Jones was probably there as well. Ben has said that "it was...

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5. Golden Years with Ellington (1940-1943)

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pp. 57-99

Later Ben would clearly remember the occasion when Ellington sent for him, because it meant the fulfillment of his wildest wishes and highest ambition. "Jonesy came over one day to tell me that Ellington wanted to see me," he recalls. "I immediately felt twenty years younger. I was drunk at the time, but the news sobered me up in a second. I went to see Ellington...

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6. From Fifty-second Street to Kansas City (1943-1949)

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pp. 100-133

Music thrived during the war years. In 1943, jazz and other music was played on New York's Fifty-second Street in a number of clubs, usually situated in the cellar of residential buildings. A great many musicians were employed in these clubs, as they all had at least two alternating bands. "Everybody was playing on Fifty-second Street," reminisced Ben....

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7. From Kansas City to Monterey (1949-1959)

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pp. 134-178

Ben was now forty years old, and it may seem strange that he returned to his childhood home at such a mature age, but the employment situation for jazz musicians in New York had been worsening for some time. By 1950, the only jazz club left on Fifty-second Street was Jimmy Ryan's, and it featured mainly traditional jazz. Birdland had opened on December...

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8. Last Years in the United States (1959-1964)

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pp. 179-212

At fifty Ben had become very compact. He was thickset and broad-shouldered, his bearing erect, and although he had gained weight over the years, he was not really overweight. He was of medium height with thin legs that didn't fit in with the rest of his body. He still had immensely strong arms, and enjoyed showing off his strength. "Ben Webster was one...

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9. First Years in Europe (1964-1966)

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pp. 213-236

Ben stepped ashore in Southampton on Monday, November 30, 1964. He was welcomed by tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott and the manager of the club, Pete King. The two men had established the club in 1959, and within a few years it had become London's most important jazz venue. Ronnie Scott's Club, the Blue Note in Paris, and the Jazzhus Montmartre...

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10. The Dutch Years (1966-1969)

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pp. 237-267

Ben's last evening in the Jazzhus Montmartre, Sunday, May 29, was also his last legal working day in Denmark. The following day, Stefansen accompanied him to Copenhagen's Central Station, as they had agreed, and Ben boarded the train to Amsterdam. When he arrived, Don Byas was there to meet him. Byas had come to Europe in 1946 with Don Redman's...

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11. The Last Busy Years in Denmark (1969-1973)

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pp. 268-321

Ben arrived in Copenhagen shortly before April 9, the opening night of his booking at Timme's Club at Nørregade 41. The club had opened on the initiative of the Danish jazz journalist Timme Rosenkrantz in the fall of 1968 in premises formerly housing a nightclub called Adlon. Since 1934, Rosenkrantz had spent many years in New York, arranging recording sessions...

Appendix: Ben Webster on CD, DVD, and VHS

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pp. 323-326


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pp. 327-345


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pp. 347-369

Image Plates

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pp. 385-400

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025985
E-ISBN-10: 0472025988
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472033607
Print-ISBN-10: 0472033603

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 31 B&W photograph section
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Jazz Perspectives