Written by Dan Miller
In understanding the history of jazz trumpet, one must look at how certain players influenced following generations. Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge, Roy Eldridge to Dizzy Gillespie, Dizzy Gillespie to Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro to Clifford Brown, Clifford Brown to Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and so on. One man who had a profound influence upon his peers was Freddie Webster.
The aspect of his playing which set him apart from all others was his magnificent tone. He possessed a big, fat, burnished sound that crackled with electricity. Only a handful of recordings of Webster exist, but what is available truly captures his gorgeous tone. Three dates in particular stand out--Sarah Vaughan for Musicraft on May 7, 1946, Frankie Socolow/Bud Powell for Duke on May 2, 1945 and Jimmy Lunceford's Jubilee Broadcasts from the summer of 1943. Freddie's playing on these dates ranges from pretty and expressive to swinging and adventurous, and all with that trademark sound.
One of Webster's most ardent admirers was Miles Davis, who was vastly influenced by him. The following is from Milestones Volume One by Jack Chambers: As often as not, when Davis showed up on "The Street" (52nd Street in New York City), he was with Freddie Webster, a trumpeter with the Benny Carter and Jimmy Lunceford bands, among others. Already twenty-eight, Webster was still waiting for the break that would help publicize his talent, by recording a featured solo or leading a group on 52nd Street. It was a break that never came.
In the meantime, he was not bothered much by personal ambition, satisfied to know that other trumpeters recognized his talent for what it was. Even Dizzy Gillespie said that "Freddie Webster probably had the best sound on trumpet since the trumpet was invented--just alive and full of life." And everyone on The Street knew, as Sadik Hakim put it, that "Miles Davis definitely thought a lot of Freddie Webster and wanted his tone and was influenced by his style." Unfortunately that tone and that style were never documented satisfactorily before Webster died, suddenly and mysteriously, in Chicago in 1947, when he was only thirty.
According to George Hoefer, when Webster was a fixture on the New York scene in 1945 he "frequently played at Minton's. Webster had a singing tone with a beauty that especially appealed to Davis. Musicians still talk about the shows at the Apollo when Webster was playing with the Jimmy Lunceford band. When the band played Stardust, Webster would be featured in a solo played from the balcony." Davis was not the only trumpeter affected by Webster's sound.
Years later, in a blindfold test for Down Beat magazine, Theloniuos Monk identified a record by Gillespie as characterizing the Webster sound. "That was the Freddie Webster sound, you know, that sound of Dizzy's," he told Leonard Feather, later adding: "Well, if that's not Diz, it's someone who plays just like (Webster). Miles did at one time too...Yes, that's the Freddie Webster sound."
Webster's influence on Gillespie has seldom been mentioned, but his influence on Davis often is, although it can never be fully appreciated because of the comparatively small number of recorded solos from Webster. He toured and recorded with some of the biggest stars of the era including Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Lucky Millander, Louis Jordan, John Kirby, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell and Sarah Vaughan. As was the case in the 1930's and 1940's, 78 rpm recording technology limited each recording to a maximum of three minutes. This fact, in conjunction with limited solo space in a big band, did not give Webster the opportunity the be recorded at length (with the notable exception of his tour de force performance of Yesterdays with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra).
If we take Davis literally, probably the best recorded instance of Webster's tone and style is heard in Davis's solo in Billie's Bounce, recorded in November 1945, a solo that Davis says he likes just because he sounds like Webster.
The little that is known about Webster suggests that he was a complex character. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1917, he grew up with the composer-pianist Tadd Dameron, who was born there in the same year. He worked in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest before joining up with the touring bands that would eventually take him to both coasts. Art Pepper, the Los Angeles alto-saxophonist, toured with him in Benny Carter's band in 1942. "Freddie Webster was a nice looking, kind of strange looking, little cat," Pepper says. "I had a strong affection for him. He was a little man who could back up the little man complex. His playing was incredibly beautiful. And he always carried an automatic pistol. He felt that because he was black and because of his size, somebody was going to push him into a corner and he'd need an equalizer." Davis may have responded to Webster's style in more ways than one. Pepper's suggestion of Webster's abrasive personality no less than his beautiful trumpet-playing might well have described the Miles Davis of a few years later.
For Davis, another great virtue of Webster's playing was its economy. "Freddie didn't play a lot of notes," Davis told Nat Hentoff. "He didn't waste any. I used to try and get his sound. He had a great, big tone, like Billy Butterfield, but without a vibrato. Freddie was my best friend. I wanted to play like him. I used to teach him chords, everything I learned at Juilliard. He didn't have the money to go. And in return, I'd try to get his tone."
The following is from Ira Gitler's Jazz Masters of the Forties: Dexter Gordon recalls that when Webster was with Lunceford on a theater date, "he played the first few notes of his solo toward the wings" for dramatic effect. Dizzy calls his sound "the best I ever heard" and recounts that Freddie once gave him some mechanical help. "One time I had a Blessing mouthpiece. He took it and cut off the end. Not only that, but he made a bigger hole--the back bore. He pulled my coat to that--the shorter mouthpiece. You get to the note quicker."
Webster did not have a swift, multi-note style like Gillespie's, but harmonically and in spirit he was one of the early players in modern jazz. "Freddie was a tremendous trumpet player," Benny Harris has stated. "He had it all, and I think he influenced Miles quite a lot."
Freddie Webster was one of the many important voices in early bebop. Although his recorded output was relatively small, it by no means diminishes his influence. The way Miles spoke about Freddie's tone, is how most felt about it--simply beyond category. In the summer of 1991, I spoke with Art Farmer, and asked him about Freddie. His eyes lit up, and told me, "You must find the radio broadcast of Yesterdays that he made with Lunceford! The arrangement was a complete showcase for his incredible tone and featured him throughout. To this day, it's some of the most phenomenal trumpet playing I've ever heard."
I searched until I found Jimmy Lunceford's Jubilee Broadcasts from the summer of 1943. Farmer's praise and descriptions of this recording couldn't have been more accurate, as this performance is stunning in it's purity and clarity. The 78 rpm record was the format of the time (before the advent of the LP) and due to it's technical limitations, recordings were limited to a maximum of 3 minutes. Webster's recorded output was relatively small, and most of his solos were short. The intros and obbligatos on the Sarah Vaughan and Miss Rhapsody sessions, while brief, are some of his most gorgeous statements. What makes Lunceford's Yesterdays such an incredible work, is that Webster is featured throughout the entire 5 minute 45 second performance. This radio broadcast allows us to get true insight into Webster's mastery. His sound is almost impossible to describe, very different than any of his contemporaries (Dizzy, Roy, Fats, Miles or Maggie). It is broad and fat, brilliant but not bright. His sound envelops the orchestra, equal in intensity--sometimes surpassing it. The only comparison would be to Charlie Shavers, of who Fats Navarro once observed, "He's a real trumpet player." The same statement could be attributed to Webster.
Like many of his fellow musicians, Freddie's involvement with heroin proved to be his undoing. Freddie Webster died in Chicago on April 1, 1947, due to complications stemming from a "hot shot" (where bleach is substituted for heroin unbeknownst to the user). He was barely 31 years old.
We all are familiar with Dizzy, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Red Rodney and Howard McGhee--their brilliance and achievements are obvious. The contributions of stylists like Joe Guy, Little Benny Harris, Sonny Berman, Leonard Hawkins, Bobby Moore, Shorty McConnell, Doug Mettome and Freddie Webster hold a wealth of musical information for the student of jazz trumpet to absorb as well.
In listening to what everyone says about Freddie Webster, one word seems to keep reappearing--beauty. Sound and beauty are essence of music, and the recordings of Freddie Webster convey that message.
This list contains most of Webster's important solos, but doesn't include titles where he only appears in the section.
Photo courtesy of: Ray Levitt
© 2020 Dan Miller