Monday, February 14, 2011

Ben At His Best: Ben Websters last years in Holland

Ben at his Best: BEN WEBSTER's Last Years in Holland
Ben voor joe outkeet you want to eat - manger? Five o'clock - half six? Zo leet? ( Ben, do you want to eat before you leave? Manger? 5 O'clock? Half past five? So late? )(Mrs. Hartlooper in Big Ben)
Hans Koert

Ben Op Zijn Best - Ben Websters laatste jaren (Nederlands) - Ben At His Best: Ben Websters last years in Holland ( English) - Ben Webster's laatste optreden in de Twee Spieghels: Een eerbetoon ( Nederlands) Ben Webster's Final Concert at the Twee Spieghels: A Tribute ( English)

During the last half of the Twentieth century several US jazzmen lived in Europe, where they could play their music without being discriminated because of their race. In the US the segregation of races made it difficult for black people to play for a white audience. Some well known musicians had moved to Europe (The Netherlands) where Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster.

Ben Webster in Copenhagen: f.l.t.r.: Alex Riel drums - Kenny Drew piano - Ben Webster tenor sax and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen bass. 1965 (photo courtesy: Jan Persson).

Ben Webster, born in Kansas City, March 1909 decided to move in the 1960s to Copenhagen and later Amsterdam after a long career in the bands of Bennie Moten, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Although he played a lot of gigs in the early 1960s at the US east coast, the audiences seemed to skip the concerts, maybe because he was often to drunk to play or forgot his appointments. He got the opportunity to play in Europe in December 1964 for a gig of a month at the Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, where he played with Stan Tracey, Rick Laird and Jackie Dougan. On the 20th of December 1964 he was guest at the well known jazz program Jazz 625. Enjoy one of the tunes he played during that half hour program entitled Perdido, with Ronnie Scott on tenor, the host of the jazz club, as a special guest.

Ben Webster liked being in Europe - he like the relaxed atmosphere and, most of all, he was treated like a star. Label of the so-called Albert Heijn record: Ben Op Zijn Best (Hans Koert collection)

When the gig at Ronnie Scott's had finished, he didn't return to The States, but accepted gigs in England, Sweden, Norway and finally found a "home" in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he found a regular gig in clubs like the Jazzhus Montmartre with the Kenny Drew Trio, featuring Kenny Drew at the piano, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Alex Riel on drums. But his habits of drinking too much, played tricks on him in Denmark too and he forgot gigs or ruined performances due to excessive drinking, like at the Berliner Jazztage, October 1965. In May 1966 he decided to move to Amsterdam, a place he'd never visited before and where his friend Don Byas lived, who had married a Dutch wife. Don liked living in Amsterdam, so Ben decided to move too and start a new life.

Liner notes at the Ben Op Zijn Best album: Michiel De Ruyter, a well known Dutch jazz journalist makes it easy for the target group: the shopping housewife: Dit is een ouderwetse plaat met gezellige jazz. Gewoon alles van je 1-2-3-4 in de maat .......... (= This is a oldfashioned record with some cozy jazz. 1-2-3-4: Just four in a beat (photo in negative. Click on the image to enlarge).( Hans Koert collectie)

He found a home at the house of Mrs. Hartlooper, a widow who lived in the Waalstraat in Amsterdam. This episode of Ben's life was recorded in a great 1967 documentary by the famous Dutch filmmaker Johan Van Der Keuken, entitled Big Ben. It shows Ben, pampered by Mrs. Hartlooper, ( She's like a mother to me, Ben says in the film), who doesn't speak the language ( Ben voor joe outkeet you want to eat - manger? Five o'clock - half six? Zo leet? ( = Ben, do you want to eat before you leave? Manger? 5 o'clock? half past five? Isn't that too late? ). Ben plays his music ( Fats Waller on a simple electric gramophone player), makes his home movies, visits the Amsterdam Zoo ( Artis) and plays his games of billiards in the café around the corner. A great film which shows an old lonely man, reminiscing the good old days ....... You should try to see this documentary.
Ben Webster ( 1909-1973)
In 1968 Ben Webster was scheduled to play at the Hammerveld Jazz Festival in Roermond, a city in the south eastern part of The Netherlands as one of the major attractions of the festival. Ben Webster was booked and his concert was giving a billing. A senior official from the Dutch Ministry of Justice contacted the organisation, that Ben didn't had a permit to play, so he wasn't allowed to gave a concert at the festival. What to
do? It was impossible to cancel Ben's concert, so the organisation decided to let Ben play. The police officer, who had to make a report, was cooperative. Ben played with the Cees Slinger Trio featuring Cees Slinger at the piano, John Engels drums and Jacques Schols bass. The US clarinet player Tony Scott joined in for some tunes.
As soon as Ben started to play his first notes, the police officer started to search for the chairman of the festival, who was "hidden" somewhere at the festival. When he finally found him, it took a long times before the report was made ........ and in the mean times Ben had finished the concert, including some extra tunes. The organisation of the Hammerfeld Jazz Festival was fined for a few hundred Dutch guilders, but the festival had his Webster concert as announced.

Ben Op Zijn Best, recorded the 5th of Augustus 1970, known as the "Albert Heijn record". ( Hans Koert collection)

In August 1970 Ben Webster joined a recording session at the Sound Push studios in Laren in the centre of The Netherlands, with some of Holland’s best jazz musicians, like Ray Kaart on trumpet, Herman Schoonderwalt on alto saxophone, Rudy Brink on tenor, Cees Slinger at the piano, Rob Langereis on double bass and John Engels on drums. In 1970 Albert Heijn, a well known Dutch chain of supermarkets, wanted to make a record to sell in its shops. There was only a small budget reserved to make the record, so the tunes for the records should be all public domain tunes, like Ida Sweet as Apple Cider, Deep River and Nobody's Knows the Trouble I've Seen. The record was sold at Albert Heijn supermarkets for Dfl 4.95. It was sold out within a few weeks.

A few month later the record was reissued in Paris as Ben At His Best ( RCA 741.060 ) without the permission or knowledge of one of the musicians. Ben was furious and was very suspicious too. He believed that the Dutch musicians sold the rights of the record without his permission, but they didn't. It gave a lot of trouble and finally the misunderstanding was accommodated, although Ben and the musicians never became close friends again.

A Tv-performance by Ben Webster (Net 2)( PZC 3rd of Augustus 1968) (Source: krantenbank Zeeland) (photo in negative)

On the 6th of September 1973 Ben Webster gave a concert in Leiden in the Twee Spieghels, a concert that should have been forgotten very soon ( Ben had drunk a lot and didn't play well), if it hadn't been Ben's last concert. This concert was recorded on a small cassette tape recorder and issued on a 2LP. More about Ben's last concert in: Ben Webster's Last Concert at the Twee Spieghels: A Tribute.

Hans Koert

Ben Webster lived the last years of his life in Amsterdam, pampered by his landlady Mrs. Hartlooper, who didn't speak his language and communicated in broken English: Is lekker the keek …. En de kaffee .. Lekker water …. (= You like the cake? And the coffee? Nice fresh water?). She's like a mother to me, Ben says in the Johan Van Der Keuken film "Big Ben". Living in an Amsterdam apartment, playing his music ( Fats Waller's stride on a noisy LP), making home movies, visiting the Amsterdam Zoo, playing his billiards and a gig now and then, this documentary fascinates.

This week the Keep Swinging blog celebrates its 5th anniversary and will publish more about Ben Webster's last concert in one of the next blogs. If you don't want to miss it, follow it at Twitter or ask its free newsletter.

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