Although King Of The Tenors was the title given to Ben Webster’s classic 1953 album, making that type of pronouncement probably provoked an argument, as it would now. But even though Webster was certainly one of the best of the early jazz saxophonists, the title of the album was probably not his idea anyway. In fact, he was usually known as “The Brute” — but more later about that.
Webster was a native of Kansas City, a city with a rich legacy in jazz, and it was there that he began to play professionally around 1930. He spent some time in the Young family band, where he formed a friendship with fellow saxman Lester Young, and both ended up playing for storied Kansas City bandleader Bennie Moten, who also gave Count Basie the opportunity to make his name.
During the rest of the decade, Webster moved from band to band, eventually relocating in New York and gaining experience with everyone from Benny Carter to Cab Callaway. He also performed extended stints in Duke Ellington’s outfit, a practice that continued into the 1940s. Some of his most memorable performances were from those periods, on songs such as “Cotton Tail” and “All Too Soon.”
Webster was always known for his breathy and raspy playing style — with an occasional growl thrown in — and it became known as his “brutal” tone, leading to his nickname, “The Brute”. But he could play soft and sweet too, as on ballads like “Old Folks” or “Chelsea Bridge.” (Video below.)
In the 1950s Webster transitioned effortlessly to the world of modern jazz, and put out some of his best albums, including King Of The Tenors and others that often featured Oscar Peterson on piano. By the 1960s he found a more appreciative audience in Europe, and moved to Copenhagen in 1964, where he lived until his death in 1973. He’s still very fondly remembered in Denmark, and is the subject of a wonderful commemorative website.