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Benny Waters: 1902-1998
Benny Waters
Saxophone, clarinet, singer

Born: January 23, 1902 in Brighton, Maryland
Died: August 11, 1998 in Columbia, Maryland

The Most Modern Saxophonist Over Ninety

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Waters, Benny Benny Waters lived longer than the entire verifiable history of the music he loved, and enriched the jazz scene with his playing and his colourful, wise-cracking presence for a full eight decades. Even after a cataract operation left him sightless in 1992, Waters continued to play until a few weeks before his death, averaging around 100 engagements a year, and celebrated his 95th birthday with a prestigious three-night residence at Birdland in New York.

A recording of the event was subsequently released on the Munich-based enja label, usually the preserve of more modern stylists. Matthias Winckelmann, the label's owner, recalled that Waters was the first "real American jazz musician" he heard play live as a 16-year old in Frankfurt, but underlined that the record was released on merit rather than nostalgic grounds, which is exactly how Waters would have wanted it. He always remained open to influences beyond the traditional jazz he grew up with, and took delight in being described as "the most modern saxophonist over 90".

He was born Benjamin Waters in Brighton, near Baltimore, into a very musical family. He began playing the pipe organ in church with his mother at the age of three (he claimed that even then he had a propensity for improvisation which would bring a stern rebuke for "jazzing up" sacred music), and later took up the E-flat clarinet in a band led by his brother which played local dances and house parties, before switching to the saxophones.

While he played alto and soprano regularly, he was best known as a tenor player, and built a considerable reputation both as a section player and a soloist. He joined a band led by Charlie Miller in 1918 while still a high school student, his first real professional engagement, then enrolled in the New England Conservatory, where he studied theory and arranging, and gave private clarinet lessons. Among his pupils was Harry Carney, who went on to become a mainstay of the Ellington Orchestra on baritone saxophone.

In 1926, Waters joined Charlie Johnson's Paradise Band as a soloist and arranger. The band included the likes of Jabbo Smith, Benny Carter and Sidney De Paris in its ranks, and were a regular featured attraction at Small's Paradise in Harlem. During his stay with the band, which lasted until 1931, Waters also recorded with the legendary New Orleans cornet player King Oliver, and with Clarence Williams.

He remembered first hearing Louis Armstrong play with the Fletcher Henderson Big Band in Boston, and later joined the band himself for a time in the mid-30s. His recalled the details of his audition to join the Henderson band in New York in typically colourful fashion, following the departure of their principal tenor saxophonist, the great Coleman Hawkins.

"When I first joined Fletcher, he was playing the Savoy Ballroom. I'd been drunk the day before, and when the bass player came around and said that Fletcher wanted me, I didn't want to go. I was dizzy. But he carried me up to the Savoy for a rehearsal. And the first tune was "Out of Nowhere", a Coleman Hawkins solo! I couldn't play it. When I got to the middle, I didn't even know what the chord was.

"Fletcher didn't give you much of a chance, and right away he said 'Forget it! Forget it!' That made me mad, and being mad made me sober. I went to the piano, found the chord, and I played the solo perfectly. Fletcher didn't laugh much, but after we'd played it, he twitched his cheeks a little. And after that, we played it every night!"

He worked with Johnson again in 1936-7, then with trumpeter Hot Lips Page (1938), Claude Hopkins (1940-1), and Jimmy Lunceford (1942). He formed his own band after leaving Lunceford, then joined Roy Milton's rhythm and blues band for a time after the war, before returning to New Orleans-style playing with trombonist Jimmie Archey in 1949. A European tour with Archey in 1952 brought a major development in his life when he decided to stay on, and Paris became his permanent home for the next four decades, until he returned to the USA in 1992.

Waters settled into the Parisian lifestyle, playing a regular gig at La Cigale jazz club until the late 1960s, and touring regularly around the European festival circuit. His muscular, rich-toned, inventive tenor playing, ineradicable swing, ebullient singing and scatting, and his renowned store of multi-lingual jokes made him a popular draw wherever he played, and he was eventually awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Ministry of Culture in 1996.

Despite being left sightless, Waters continued to perform and record throughout the current decade, either in his own right or as a member of a stellar group of veteran jazzmen known as The Statesmen of Jazz, which also featured the likes of Clark Terry (trumpet), Joe Wilder (cornet), Buddy Tate (tenor sax), Al Grey (trombone), Claude 'Fiddler' Williams (violin), Milt Hinton (bass), Jane Jarvis (piano), and Panama Francis (drums), all of whom met the qualifying criterion of being over 65.

Waters was a firm believer in the dictum that "you're never too old to get new ideas. I even learn things from listening to bad musicians and bad concerts -- like how to avoid doing what they did wrong! It's important to keep learning, keep practicing every day, and keep getting new ideas. Age hasn't anything to do with how you play your instrument. No matter how old or young you are when you face an audience, you either play good or you play bad. And your audience will let you know which it is."

His exhuberant presence and resourceful playing shone in any setting, from free-wheeling late-night jam sessions to formal concerts. The saxophonist acknowledged that he always heeded Duke Ellington's most famous admonition.

"Jazz is like life itself. It's always changing. But I'll always be faithful to the great Duke Ellington when he said "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". That's the way I see it, too."

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