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I'm asking this question that sounds a bit stupid to myself because I can't decide whether Ben Webster was more of an improviser or just a successful theme interpreter.
Whenever I go to YT and search for Ben Webster's performances in hope to listen to his improvised solos I for some reason always end up with a bunch of his ballad numbers that go no further than stating the theme.
His two famous contemporaries, Coleman Hawkins and Letser Young are famous for their improvised solos and it's impossible (or rare?) to hear their performance without an improvised solo following the theme. However for Ben Webster it's more like a norm. Am I missing anything?
 

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I'm asking this question that sounds a bit stupid to myself because I can't decide whether Ben Webster was more of an improviser or just a successful theme interpreter.
Whenever I go to YT and search for Ben Webster's performances in hope to listen to his improvised solos I for some reason always end up with a bunch of his ballad numbers that go no further than stating the theme.
His two famous contemporaries, Coleman Hawkins and Letser Young are famous for their improvised solos and it's impossible (or rare?) to hear their performance without an improvised solo following the theme. However for Ben Webster it's more like a norm. Am I missing anything?
Ben Webster was one of the true master interpreters of melodies which is no mean feet. Very few players have ever come close to how he could play a melody.
He was also a fantastic improviser and there are countless recordings that show his artistry. Just listen to him playing the purely improvised blues below (no melody) if you want some evidence of his abilities:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZPw0auWAxQ



Here are just a few other examples to check out:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KxSw95BUMo


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uX7M9SC3PU


...and when you can play a melody like this what more do you need?


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqPheaq4r5I
 

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Based on the clips above, case closed.

His two famous contemporaries, Coleman Hawkins and Letser Young are famous for their improvised solos and it's impossible (or rare?) to hear their performance without an improvised solo following the theme. However for Ben Webster it's more like a norm. Am I missing anything?
I think what you are missing is the fact that the finest improvisors were masters at taking a theme or melody and developing it. Ben Webster was a true master at that, as were Hawkins, Young, and every other jazz great. Anyone can noodle around, abandoning the melody altogether. But thematic improvisation, based on a specific melody or tune, is the most powerful, imo. One thing to keep in mind from a composition standpoint is the fact that entire symphonic works were often composed around one simple theme.
 

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The other thing that really should be mentioned is Ben's distinctive sound. Nowadays, as listeners we have been conditioned to fixate on virtuosity, i.e. playing complex lines with lots of notes. Many players today have excellent technique, but basically sound almost indistinguishable from one another. In contrast, back in the 30's and 40's texture and mood were more prominent, especially in the music of Duke Ellington.

Ben's one of a kind tone was a major influence on such diverse tenor players as Zoot Sims, Lockjaw Davis, Charlie Rouse, Don Menza, Stephen Riley...and many, many others.
 

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Mr Bluenote, of all the names you cited, obviously Baby Ben is the stand out among them, Lockjaw would have not earned his other nickname if Webster himself didn’t approve.
 

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Yep, without the original there would have been no "Baby Ben!"
 

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Probably already enough proof, but most clips posted are of the older (more gentle) Ben. But he could be a very rough player too.

Here is his original solo of Cotton Tail from the great 1940's Ellington band, where he sounds better than in the 1968 recording posted by Pete. Also remember that Ellington would have never hired a tenor player that wasn't a great improviser.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLmfK-dQLtU

Ben did a cutting contest type of recording with Illinois Jacquet in 1954 called 'The Kid and The Brute'. He would have never got the nickname the Brute if he wasn't able to play as an exceptional improviser. Check this clip from that session (Jacquet plays the first solo, Ben starts after 2:20, some great exchanges in the end after 5:15):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlBTWH1gfxg

Here is a nice examples from his later period in Denmark with the Arnved Meyer orchestra. Blue Light has a nice and strong Blues solo just after 0:40:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c80I8PP10U

And if you are not yet convinced, check out the album 'Ben Webster and Friends' from the late 50's, played with Coleman Hawkins and Budd Johnson on tenor and Roy Eldridge on trumpet. One of the best jazz albums ever according to me. Here is a link to the full album, don't forget to check Ben's solo in 'In a Mellow Tone' after 15:30 (for me one of the best solo's he ever played) and his ballad feature 'Time After Time' starting 31:22. But checking the whole album is actually a must, everybody is on top here (including the great Oscar Peterson Rhythm section):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKnS5nw2orI
 

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The other thing that really should be mentioned is Ben's distinctive sound. Nowadays, as listeners we have been conditioned to fixate on virtuosity, i.e. playing complex lines with lots of notes. Many players today have excellent technique, but basically sound almost indistinguishable from one another. In contrast, back in the 30's and 40's texture and mood were more prominent, especially in the music of Duke Ellington.

Ben's one of a kind tone was a major influence on such diverse tenor players as Zoot Sims, Lockjaw Davis, Charlie Rouse, Don Menza, Stephen Riley...and many, many others.
So, so true. Back then the sound of an individual was unmistakable. Today the current crop of tenor players seem to be "Berkeleyized" from top to bottom and although they play well, they all sound like they are trying to pass a final exam.
 

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So, so true. Back then the sound of an individual was unmistakable. Today the current crop of tenor players seem to be "Berkeleyized" from top to bottom and although they play well, they all sound like they are trying to pass a final exam.
Yes, when a craft becomes academicized, this is what often happens. Playing can become Derivative. Incredible facility, incredible technical ability...but something is absent.

Ben has always been a fave of mine, again just because his voice is so authentic and signature....

I think what you are missing is the fact that the finest improvisors were masters at taking a theme or melody and developing it. Ben Webster was a true master at that, as were Hawkins, Young, and every other jazz great. Anyone can noodle around, abandoning the melody altogether. But thematic improvisation, based on a specific melody or tune, is the most powerful, imo. One thing to keep in mind from a composition standpoint is the fact that entire symphonic works were often composed around one simple theme.
Great comment.

Ben did a cutting contest type of recording with Illinois Jacquet in 1954 called 'The Kid and The Brute'. He would have never got the nickname the Brute if he wasn't able to play as an exceptional improviser. Check this clip from that session (Jacquet plays the first solo, Ben starts after 2:20, some great exchanges in the end after 5:15)
Great clip, thanks for sharing that one. Used to see Jacquet in NY area quite often when I was a young & stupid lad. This was fun listening to him with Ben !
 

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Discussion Starter #13
He was also a fantastic improviser and there are countless recordings that show his artistry. Just listen to him playing the purely improvised blues below (no melody) if you want some evidence of his abilities:
Yes - I now see it from the suggested examples but I want to stress it that it wasn't easy for me to prove it to myself on my own and I'll repeat why from my original post:
"Whenever I go to YT and search for Ben Webster's performances in hope to listen to his improvised solos I for some reason always end up with a bunch of his ballad numbers that go no further than stating the theme."

On the contrary, quoting myself again:
"Coleman Hawkins and Letser Young are famous for their improvised solos and it's impossible (or rare?) to hear their performance without an improvised solo following the theme."
 

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Just considering what the OP proposed initially led me back to this fantastic version of Chelsea Bridge. Webster’s clear allegiance to Johnny Hodges was a life long pursuit. He fully integrated what Hawkins did for the tenor but loved what Hodges and Carter did for the alto as well.

 

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JayeLID;3786430Great clip said:
Glad you liked it.

Actually Jacquet, who was at his top in this period and could have 'killed' everybody in a battle, stated that he did hold back a lot on this recording out of respect for Ben.

Yes - I now see it from the suggested examples but I want to stress it that it wasn't easy for me to prove it to myself on my own and I'll repeat why from my original post:
"Whenever I go to YT and search for Ben Webster's performances in hope to listen to his improvised solos I for some reason always end up with a bunch of his ballad numbers that go no further than stating the theme."
WinnSie, the YouTube algorithms work in such a way that you get the most popular clips from an artists as next proposal. Since Ben is by the general public known as the sweet ballad player with airy sound you get a lot of that presented if you don't find things on your own. I posted some stuff of the 'Brute' (his nickname) Ben and from that (combined with the sweet ballad stuff) you get a more complete impression of the musician. So always try to search independent of what sites tell you to listen too! It's like with route planners in a car: they all guide the cars over the same roads, sometimes causing traffic jams, while a parallel road could be a better drive at that moment.
 

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Ben was a SAXOPHONE GOD!!! Passion beyond words.

Listen to him on My Romance with Sweets...makes me want to cry.
 

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Discussion Starter #17
...Since Ben is by the general public known as the sweet ballad player with airy sound ...
Yes and I suspect this is not a coincidence.
I respect Ben for what he did best and he's definitely a srtong classic tenor player but something tells me that extended (or not) improvised solos were not his strongest skill. That is he knew how to improvise but judging by his great volume of output as a ballad theme player compared to his improvised output I'd assume he felt himself much more secure doing what he did best.
This is in no way to belittle his role in the Swing Jazz idiom but only to compare his improvisational output to his more well known improvising tenor contemporaries.
 

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I'm asking this question that sounds a bit stupid to myself because I can't decide whether Ben Webster was more of an improviser or just a successful theme interpreter.
Whenever I go to YT and search for Ben Webster's performances in hope to listen to his improvised solos I for some reason always end up with a bunch of his ballad numbers that go no further than stating the theme.
His two famous contemporaries, Coleman Hawkins and Letser Young are famous for their improvised solos and it's impossible (or rare?) to hear their performance without an improvised solo following the theme. However for Ben Webster it's more like a norm. Am I missing anything?
Are you missing something? Well, yes.

As others have mentioned, Webster was known as kind of a beast in his early days, and he loved a good cutting contest. In his later years, he generally preferred slower tempos and he liked to hang around the melody when he soloed, but good lord, he does that so beautifully. Just by coincidence, I happened to have pulled out the vinyl and listened to the record he did with Art Tatum just last night. A stone classic from start to finish, and one that every jazz lover should know:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJifh-S2Hw4
 

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Are you missing something? Well, yes.

As others have mentioned, Webster was known as kind of a beast in his early days, and he loved a good cutting contest. In his later years, he generally preferred slower tempos and he liked to hang around the melody when he soloed, but good lord, he does that so beautifully. Just by coincidence, I happened to have pulled out the vinyl and listened to the record he did with Art Tatum just last night. A stone classic from start to finish, and one that every jazz lover should know:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJifh-S2Hw4
One part of the story is that Ben's excessive drinking made his condition go down in his later years and I think that also played a role in his preference for slower tunes and playing (far) behind the beat (which he did fantastic). He lived for many years here in Amsterdam (in the house of an elder lady called Mrs. Hartloper) and she always kept him away from alcohol and put him on drinking milk one week before a tour started, otherwise he wasn't able to keep up physically.

I have a LP recording of his latest concert in Leiden (NL) and he also played some strong blues and swing stuff at that concert, besides the well known slower tunes. Dutch tenor player Bob Rigter (father of young famous Dutch tenor player Simon) made a small description of that concert on his site, together with pictures made by his wife. Those pictures are the last made of Ben before he died. See this Link:
https://www.bobrigter.com/eng4ben.htm

Thanks for that Art Tatum / Ben Webster link. :) I have that LP, but didn't listen to it for a long time (my record player broke down many years ago). Art Tatum was Ben's favourite musican (with Hodges and Ellington). Ben also played a bit of piano, on one of his Verve recordings you can hear him doing that (he plays a bit stride piano).
 

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One part of the story is that Ben's excessive drinking made his condition go down in his later years and I think that also played a role in his preference for slower tunes and playing (far) behind the beat (which he did fantastic). He lived for many years here in Amsterdam (in the house of an elder lady called Mrs. Hartloper) and she always kept him away from alcohol and put him on drinking milk one week before a tour started, otherwise he wasn't able to keep up physically.

I have a LP recording of his latest concert in Leiden (NL) and he also played some strong blues and swing stuff at that concert, besides the well known slower tunes. Dutch tenor player Bob Rigter (father of young famous Dutch tenor player Simon) made a small description of that concert on his site, together with pictures made by his wife. Those pictures are the last made of Ben before he died. See this Link:
https://www.bobrigter.com/eng4ben.htm

Thanks for that Art Tatum / Ben Webster link. :) I have that LP, but didn't listen to it for a long time (my record player broke down many years ago). Art Tatum was Ben's favourite musican (with Hodges and Ellington). Ben also played a bit of piano, on one of his Verve recordings you can hear him doing that (he plays a bit stride piano).
Thanks for the link and information on Ben's last concert. I am a great fan of his. I met him at Ronnie Scotts back in the sixties in London.
 
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