Friday, 10 April 2009

Beauty and The Brute

Of all the former Ellingtonians, Ben Webster, I suppose, fell furthest from the nest, spending his last years on the continent of Europe, most notably in Denmark.

I have been celebrating Webster’s centenary this month by watching a DVD of priceless performances in that country. Ben Webster in Denmark (on the Emarcy label) comprises three performances recorded between 1965 and 1969 filmed for Danish television.

The absolute jewel of the collection, however, is the inclusion of Big Ben a documentary about the tenor man made in 1971. It is a privileged insight into what is, almost A Day in the Life of... We see Ben in his unprepossessing flat in Copenhagen, a spartan place bar a fridge, a shelf of LPs and a reel-to-reel recorder on which he listens to the playback of his latest studio session with which the documentary begins. We see him getting into a VW camper van to go to a gig. He talks about the making of Cottontail with the Ellington band, his dismay with the Duke when Ellington told the band they were running the number down for a rehearsal but told the engineers they were going for a take. This was the released version despite Ben’s avowed ‘casual’ solo. He talks about Hawk and Pres, about‘scuffling’ (lovely word) with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

The highlight of the video is when Charlie Shavers drops by, a suitcase loaded with what looks suspiciously like vodka. Bizarrely a man who appears to have come to read the meter is also drawn into this impromptu mid-day drinking session, Ben grabbing him a beer from the fridge. The documentary concludes with two numbers from the gig Webster and Shavers play in a rather dingy cellar.

It is a remarkable document of a unique individual and a great artist. Webster clearly lived for his music, purveying that apparently casual artlessness in his playing but which is, actually, hard won. Shavers (who died the same year the documentary was made) is a joy. It is interesting to watch in their gig how he cracks Ben up with his corny turns of phrase on the trumpet, reminiscent of the sort of mischief Armstrong made, the DVD closing with Webster’s evanescent solo on Stardust.

I cannot recommend this DVD enough. It is an access point for the wonder and joy that is jazz and its makers. Watching the crowd in the cellar gone to the music – the women in their leopard skin tights and luminous sweaters, the men with heavy spectacles and billy goat beards is another reminder - if any were needed - that these are times, rendered here in slightly faded Kodacolor, the like of which we shall not see again.

The DVD is already out of print. Used copies – which are beginning to escalate in price – may be found here.

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