A Deep Lesson from Ben Webster
Most of the anecdotes told here are funny. Nothing funny about this one, though. When I told it to my friend and former teacher, the drummer Bob Gullotti, he commented, “That’s deep.” Here's the way I heard it: On the bandstand with Ben Webster one night, a musician called a tune. Ben shook his head.
“You don't know that tune?“ he asked, a little surprised.
“I don't remember the lyrics,” was the reply.
Webster was not going to sing it, of course. But he believed to do a song justice, to play it the way he felt it was meant to be played, he needed to know both the music and the lyrics.
Recently, the subject of my daily “Jazz on the Tube” video was the legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath. In an interview with JazzTimes Magazine’s Larry Applebaum, Heath tells essentially the same anecdote about Ben Webster. Even better, he demonstrates the point. You can see and hear the interview by clicking here. (By the way if you don't know about “Jazz on the Tube,” I urge you to check it out. It's a free service, a daily email delivering you a video of a classic jazz performance.)
Some years ago, I heard the pianist Bill Charlap on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz“ radio show. I was reminded of the Ben Webster lesson when Charlap (whose father, by the way, was Broadway lyricist Moose Charlap) commented that the lyrics of the tune influenced the way he played it.
“Musicians sometimes take a ballad and, just for the fun of it, play it up-tempo,” he said. “I don’t do that.” If the lyrics were meant to be delivered slowly, thoughtfully, he explained, then it would be inappropriate to play the music at a fast tempo. (Think of the lyrics to “Body and Soul,” for instance. Would you sing them fast? Of course not. Then why would you play the music fast?)