Obituary: Benny Waters

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FEW PEOPLE are fortunate enough to have the description "world's most modern saxophone player over 90" applied to them. When the French Ministry of Culture awarded Benny Waters the title Chevalier in 1995, that's how they described him. Only Benny Carter, who came up on the rails when he hit 90 in August last year, usurped him.

Waters was never a great player and certainly had none of Carter's inventive genius, but he was good and he had the gumption to be in the right place at an exceedingly large number of right times. He was the last person on earth to record with Joe "King" Oliver, the cornet player who was the major influence on the young Louis Armstrong; Oliver's last recording was in 1931. Waters also taught both Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, two of the finest saxophonists in jazz, long before they became the stars of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And he was in the band at the Apollo Theatre in New York when Ella Fitzgerald sang in public for the first time.

He began his commercial career at 14, working in his brother's band, on the diminutive E flat clarinet. By 1920 he had moved to Boston where he played in a band with Johnny Hodges, of whom he said, "I would class Hodges as a natural, like Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet." Waters stayed in Boston for four or five years. "I had about 55 pupils in Boston. I was doing radio work three times a week and getting paid for it, one of the first negroes to do commercial radio. I had Harry Carney as a pupil for a long time."

In 1925 he left Boston and his pupils, to join the star-studded Charlie Johnson band that was playing in Atlantic City. "I was with Johnson from 1925 to 1932. I was there when all the boys were coming in - Sidney de Paris, Jimmy Harrison and of course Benny Carter." During the Thirties Waters played in the seminal band led by Fletcher Henderson and for three years with bands led by the trumpeter Hot Lips Page. He worked for the Claude Hopkins Orchestra for another three years before joining Jimmy Lunceford in 1941. Then he formed his own band and played with it in New York for three years.

Waters went to California to visit his wife who was working there in an army entertainment unit, and didn't return. Instead he formed another band and worked in the naval base at San Diego for three years.

Then he joined Roy Milton's blues band and stayed until 1950. Visiting old friends from the Charlie Johnson band at Jimmy Ryan's illustrious New York bar he found that Bob Wilber, the band leader, was due to go into the army. His job was offered to Waters and again he stayed for the apparently mandatory three years. The band included a mixture of young and veteran players, amongst them the trumpeter Henry Goodwin, the pianist Dick Wellstood, the trombonist Jimmy Archey, the bassist Pops Foster and the drummer Tommy Benford.

The band toured Europe in 1952 and Waters met an old friend, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, in Zurich. He immediately joined Coleman's band. The band toured Switzerland, Germany and France, breaking up in Paris the inevitable three years later.

Waters settled there, lionised by French jazz fans. He featured in a documentary film Premier Festival Europeen de Jazz (1954) with Coleman, Mezz Mezzrow, Humphrey Lyttelton and Beryl Bryden. He worked in the club La Cigale throughout the Sixties and toured Europe relentlessly throughout the Seventies and Eighties. He also made short visits to play in New York during this time. His autobiography, The Key to a Jazz Life, was published in 1985. Waters stayed in France until 1992 when he returned to the United States.

He continued to work and tour with a band called the Statesmen of Jazz that included the 90-year-old violinist Claude Williams and jazz stars less well- stricken in years in Clark Terry, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Milt Hinton and Panama Francis. Waters appeared on national television three times and played at two New York jazz clubs during 1997. He also made a 10-week tour of Paris and Germany and in September, with the Statesmen of Jazz, made his first tour of Japan. He celebrated his 96th birthday earlier this year at the beginning of a three-night booking at the Jazz Standard club in New York.

Benjamin Waters, saxophonist: born Brighton, Maryland 23 January 1902; married; died Columbia, Maryland 11 August 1998.

Comments