The mid-1950s was a difficult period for Ben Webster in New York and he was having a hard time finding gigs. So after the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, when he was booked for a week in Chicago that went really well, he moved to Chicago in December of that year. Here he played for the next half-year with Billie Holiday, among others, at the Trianon Ballroom and Budland (after a legal case forced the club to change its original name, Birdland), accompanied by local rhythm sections. Billie and Ben got along great together, which led to Holiday choosing Webster to play on some recordings that took place in Los Angeles for Norman Granz’ Verve record label in August 1956. Ben had moved to L.A. shortly before, after the situation in Chicago had deteriorated to one similar to the one he had left behind in New York. He remained in Los Angeles for the next year-and-a-half, and even though he didn’t play many club jobs, he still managed to participate in 30 record sessions for Granz – mostly as sideman, but also as bandleader.
The recordings with Billie Holiday took place in 1956 on August 14&18, with five more sessions in the beginning of January 1957. Besides Webster, other participants were trumpet player Harry “Sweets” Edison and pianist Jimmy Rowles. Rowles was one of Ben and Billie’s best friends. The three had known each other since the early 1940s, and they swung together just as well musically as they did privately. In reminiscence, Rowles had this to say: “The Verve sessions usually started around 2:30 in the afternoon. There was always enough to drink and Norman sent out for sandwiches if anyone was hungry. Her voice was a little weak. Billie and I would be working out keys and a basic set of chords so we would have an idea of what was going on. That way we had an idea of what people would be doing. The key we recorded in depended by and large on what she had been up to the night before. If she had been celebrating, you know, her voice would be rougher than normal. We got into some pretty weird keys that way, trying to smooth over the ups and downs of her voice.”
Ben Webster remembers these recordings as well, stating years later that Holiday “was beautiful. She was like you would say, one of the fellows. Beautiful person. All she wanted was friendship. I remember the last thing I did with her and Harry “Sweets” Edison in California. She knew “Sweets” well, she knew me a long time When listening to these recordings, one does sense Billie felt very comfortable in the company of these musicians. The pervading impression is that they were all greatly devoted to her and pitched in to get the best results possible. No one tries to dominate at the expense of the others; they all perform as a cohesive unit. The transition from vocal to instrumental solo happens gently, while all the soloing is done in the spirit and mood set by Billie Holiday.While his contribution on Body and Soul may be Ben’s masterpiece among these recordings, where he seems particularly inspired by Lady Day, all of Webster’s contributions are high-quality. He inserts his obbligatos considerately, never intrusively, always supporting Holiday with his velvet tone and helping her through the song. His solos show restraint as well, with none of his characteristic “growling” at fast tempos. These were not only the last studio recordings Billie Holiday made for Verve – they were also the best.
These recordings can be found on The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959.
Translated from the Danish by Steve S