a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed April 3, 1997
His virtuoso solo on the 1942 Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra recording of "Yesterdays" is enough to establish Cleveland's Freddie Webster as one of the outstanding trumpeters in jazz history.
More than 40 years after Webster's death, Dizzy Gillespie said Freddie "probably had the best sound of the trumpet since the trumpet was invented, a sound that was alive, just alive and full of life!"
Critic Leonard Feather called Webster "one of the most soulful performers among modern jazz trumpeters." Miles Davis said Webster was the trumpeter he tried to imitate. The legendary Benny Bailey, who also grew up in Cleveland playing trumpet, said it was difficult to tell from Webster's records "just how beautiful his sound was." According to Bailey, Webster "had the most wonderful sound of any trumpet player I've ever heard. It was sheer beauty which no one can ever know unless they heard him play in person."
Bailey told me, "Freddie always had a big vibrato. "But the attack and the way Freddie played chords! Nobody else played like him. He played in a different way from everybody. He didn't play like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or anybody else. He had his own style."
Unfortunately Webster died at the age of 30 in 1947 and did not leave a large number of recordings.
As a teenager who grew up in the mid-1930s in a very religious home on Cleveland’s East 72nd Street near Cedar Avenue, Webster played in the old Central High School band. Veteran Cleveland pianist Chick Chaiken recalled, "Webster was blowing riffs in the marching band." He soon began making a name for himself playing with various Cleveland jazz groups. After high school he formed his own 14-piece band which toured Northern Ohio in 1938 and 1939. He persuaded his friend Tadd Dameron to play piano in the band. Dameron, who later arranged for Dizzy Gillespie, said Webster was the person responsible for starting him on his career in jazz.
A year after high school Webster joined the popular Marion Sears Orchestra playing at Cedar Gardens, a night spot at East 97th and Cedar. Trombonist Bernard Simms said, "I was walking down Cedar Avenue with Freddie, going to rehearsal, and Freddie said all he wanted to do was play trumpet so loud, have a tone so big that the whole world could hear him." Saxophonist Andy Anderson said Webster's tone "was as big as a house. He also had the touch and feeling for the music."
Soon, Webster left Cleveland and began a sometimes difficult-to-trace journey from band to band. His first job on the road was with Earl "Fatha" Hines' popular big band. Another trumpeter from Cleveland, Pee Wee Jackson, persuaded Hines to hire Webster.
In 1941 Webster went to New York where he met Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Benny Harris and others. They frequently got together in Dizzy's apartment or at the Dewey Square Hotel in Harlem and sat for hours, talking and playing. Historian Feather later said these get-togethers were the first steps toward the new form of jazz called bebop.
Later that year Webster rejoined Earl Hines' band which then included Charlie Parker (who was playing tenor then, not alto), Gillespie, Ray Nance, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. This was the legendary Hines band that has been called "The Incubator of Bop." Unfortunately because of a long strike by the musician's union against the recording companies, this orchestra with so much rich young talent never recorded.
But after playing dates with the Hines Orchestra, sidemen Gillespie, Parker, Webster and a few others slipped off to a club in Harlem called Minton's Playhouse where they jammed for hours. Gillespie recalled, "There were always some cats showing up there who couldn't blow at all." One was a tenor player they called "Demon" who tried to dominate the jam sessions. Gillespie called him "The first freedom player – free of harmony, free of rhythm, free of everything!" One night, when Demon was playing chorus after chorus, Teddy Hill, the manager of Minton's, stood in front of the bandstand with his arms folded and yelled, "Demon, get off my bandstand!" Gillespie said, "We began to work out some complex variations on chords and we used them to scare away the no-talent guys."
As they explored those variations, they began to shape what was to become bebop. Miles Davis, in his autobiography, said, "We was all trying to get our masters degrees and PhDs from `Minton's University of Bebop' under the tutelage of Professors Bird and Diz." Parker, Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke, Cleveland's Freddie Webster and guitarist Charlie Christian were among the pioneers of the new form.
Christian, who was playing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra at the time, lugged a guitar amplifier uptown to Harlem for the jam sessions. Sometimes he left it with Hill.
Hill continued to manage Minton's until 1969. In 1976 he moved quietly to Cleveland to live with his daughter Gwendolen Hill Baskett in Warrensville Heights. He died seven months later and was buried in Cleveland’s Highland Park Cemetery. When family members went to New York to collect Hill's possessions, they discovered his apartment had been broken into and ransacked. Among the missing items was Charlie Christian's old and historic guitar amplifier.
Webster, by 1942, was playing and recording with the Lucky Millinder big band. Critic Barry Ulanov reviewed the Millinder band during a battle of the bands with the Jay McShann band at New York's Savoy Ballroom in February of 1942. The McShann band, newly arrived from Kansas City, featured Charlie Parker. But Ulanov devoted more than half of his review to Webster. Ulanov wrote, "Webster is a real find. He plays with a wonderful sense of structure giving all his choruses and half-choruses a discernible beginning, middle and ending. His favorite range is a low register projected with boldness and deepness. He doesn't restrict himself to low notes but makes long scoops from the middle and high registers to the bottom and then sails back up. He plays with an easy technique in perfect taste." Among the solos Webster recorded with Millinder was Bill Doggett's composition "Savoy." Down Beat said Webster "has a colossal tone, big, broad and sure, and is a stand-out in the band."
In April 1942 Webster joined his friend Pee Wee Jackson in the Jimmie Lunceford band which had gained great national popularity after almost starving in Cleveland a decade earlier. When he heard Webster for the first time with Lunceford, critic George Simon wrote in Metronome magazine, "There is a brilliant young trumpeter named Freddie Webster playing with the Lunceford Orchestra at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem."
When the Lunceford band, with Webster and Jackson in the trumpet section, came to Cleveland to play for a dance at Ferguson's Ballroom, a group of young musicians from Central High School went to hear them. Drummer Chink McKinney remembered, "All the kids from school were there, down in the front, listening, and every time Webster and Pee Wee Jackson stood up, we cheered our old Cleveland heroes. They did the most beautiful job I ever heard in my life."
Benny Bailey, who was eight years younger than Webster, said, "I was fortunate enough to hear him play. He came home once when he lived in New York and he gathered me and a couple other trumpet players over at Richard "Big Foot" Kennedy's house. We couldn't play in the house because we didn't want to disturb the neighbors. So we went into the bathroom. Freddie took his horn out and just played, with no piano, nothing. He just played melodies. Man, it was really something!
While traveling with Lunceford, Webster met a young, aspiring trumpeter named Miles Davis in St. Louis. They became close friends. Davis later said, "My real main man during those first days was Freddie Webster. He had a big, singing sound, a big warm, mellow sound. I used to try to play like him."
Bailey told me, "Freddie practically taught Miles. I know that because Miles told me that. In fact, there's a solo on a very early Charlie Parker record ("Billie's Bounce") in which Miles played Freddie's solo, note for note!"
A few months later, Webster took his big trumpet sound to the band of Benny Carter who had gone to Ohio's Wilberforce University. Singing with the Carter band at the time was Billie Holiday.
In 1944 Webster returned to New York and took part in the first recording session of the Billy Eckstine All-Star Band for the DeLuxe record label.
When Gillespie formed his first big band in 1945 with Parker and drummer Max Roach, he chose Webster to play in the trumpet section. Years later (on the compact disc Max + Diz) Gillespie remembered Webster's playing at the McKinley Theatre. "Oh, man, we played this arrangement. I made an arrangement on `I Should Care.' I had the solo and I gave the solo to Freddie. I never played that solo no more. The arrangement was out of the band after he left!"
In July of 1945 Webster recorded his own composition, "Reverse The Charges," and "The Man I Love," with a quintet led by tenor saxist Frankie Socolow.
Early in 1946 the 29 year old Webster came home to Cleveland and played with a Cleveland band led by Johnnie Powell. The band included a number of younger musicians who had graduated from Cleveland's Central High School. Among them were 19 year old saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith and a 22 year old trombonist named William "Shep" Shepherd. Smith recalled the band rehearsed at Benny Miller's Music School at East 105th and Superior. The band made one record for Paramount Records of Cleveland, "Perdido," featuring a trumpet solo by Webster, and "Cedar Avenue Blues," with a vocal by Gene Jordan. Smith wrote "Cedar Avenue Blues" and arranged both sides.
While playing with the Powell band in Cleveland, Webster continued to play some gigs around the country, including a short stint with Norman Grantz' Jazz At The Philharmonic.
In July 1946 he joined his old high school friend from Cleveland, Tadd Dameron, who had formed an orchestra to record his composition "If You Could See Me Now" with 22 year old singer Sarah Vaughan.
In 1947 Webster was about to join the Count Basie Orchestra. When Basie asked him what his price was, Webster said, "After you've paid the rest of those guys, you and I split 50-50!" Webster never played with the Basie band.
In April of 1947 Webster went to Chicago to perform with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. Before he left, Willie Smith, who as a hobby hand painted neckties, painted one for Webster. It depicted a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which Webster smoked, and smoke swirling around a trumpet. Smith said Webster took the hand painted tie with him to Chicago. Smith never saw that tie again.
Webster died at the age of 30 in Stitt's room at the Strode Hotel in Chicago. Officially he died of a heart attack. But Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography that Webster died of an overdose of heroin that was intended for Stitt. According to Davis, Stitt had been "beating everybody out of money to support his habit and somebody arranged to give him some bad heroin." Davis wrote, "Sonny gave it to Freddie who shot it and died."
It was the end of a brief but spectacular career.
Decades later, Benny Bailey listened to that 1942 Webster recording of "Yesterdays" with me and exclaimed, "That was something! That distinctive vibrato! Those glitches. You have to have perfect control. This was his strong point. I still do a lot of those things without thinking about it, subconsciously."
There is little doubt that trumpeter Freddie Webster was one of the most influential performers in jazz in the 1940s and one of the most important jazz artists from Cleveland. But because of his early death and relatively few solo recordings, the Cleveland trumpeter is hardly known even by many ardent jazz fans.
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Copyright 1997 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).