Someone To Watch Over Me: The Life and Music of Ben Webster
Ben Webster always knew the right people. He grew up opposite boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson in Kansas City, met Mary Lou Williams as a teenager and went to college with Horace Henderson, Fletcher’s brother. He didn’t pick up the saxophone until he was 20 and working as a pianist, but within months he was living with Lester Young’s family in Albuquerque, playing jobs with the family band and practicing alongside young Prez.
Webster’s life, both charmed and troubled, is chronicled in this fascinating and highly readable new biography. “Frog,” as friends knew him, was both a gentle man who wept when playing ballads and a violent drunk who once threw a prostitute out a window and later stabbed a fellow musician during a recording session. He had a remarkable career, working early on with the seminal KC bands of Bennie Moten and Andy Kirk before relocating to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Teddy Wilson and—for nearly four peak years—Duke Ellington.
Though he did not significantly alter his style after the Swing Era, Webster appeared with Jazz at the Philharmonic and created many classic small-group recordings. He relocated to Europe when work in the States dried up and lived the last years of his life as exiled jazz royalty in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Büchmann-Møller, head of the university archive in Denmark that holds the Ben Webster Collection, has produced two books about Lester Young. His new effort is well written and researched. The musical discussion is not particularly enlightening, but the anecdotes and details—like the story of Webster sucker-punching Joe Louis and the description of his horn, a 1936 Selmer he called “Betsy”—make this a compelling read that will likely remain the definitive life of the tenor giant.