Why Ben Webster learned the lyrics

A Conversation with Jimmy Heath

At the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival

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Here JazzTimes magazine’s Larry Applebaum sits down for a conversation with with famed tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. They discuss Ben Webster, a mid-20th century saxophonist who made a name for himself playing with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Ben Webster, declares Heath, was “the greatest ballad player on tenor saxophone ever.”

Every time Webster played a love song, he learned the words so that he could “speak” the words on his horn. Not all of his colleagues agreed it to be necessary. But Heath said the advice was helpful to him; knowledge of the ideas behind a song – particularly when the words were written at the same time as the music – helped jazz musicians lend dramatic authenticity to a piece.


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