Few people are fortunate enough to have the description "world's most modern
saxophone player over ninety" applied to them. When the French Cultural
Ministry awarded him the title Chevalier in 1995, that's how they described
Benny Waters. Benny played from the heart and had the saxophone together
Waters was a fantastic player and had inventive genius, he was good
and he had the street sense to be in the right place at an exceedingly large
number of right times. He was, as his agent solemnly remarked, the last person
on earth to record
with Joe "King" Oliver, the cornet player who was the major influence on the
young Louis Armstrong. Waters had taught both Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney,
two of the finest saxophonists in jazz, long before they had become 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
He began his commercial career working in his brother's band at 14
the diminutive E flat clarinet. By 1920 he had moved to Boston where he played
in a band with Johnny Hodges.
Waters stayed in Boston for four or five years. "I had about 55
pupils in Boston. 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 trumpeter Hot Lips Page. He
worked for the Claude Hopkins Orchestra for another three yearsbefore joining
Jimmy Lunceford in 1941. 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
army entertainment unit. But he didn't return, formed another band and worked
in the naval base at San Diego for three years.
He joined Roy Milton's blues band and stayed until 1950 when he left the
band in New York. Visiting friends from the Charlie Johnson band at Jimmy
Ryan's illustrious New York bar he found that Bob Wilber, the 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 mixsture of young and
veteran players, amongst them trumpeter Henry Goodwin, pianist Dick Wellstood,
trombonist Jimmy Archey, bassist Pops Foster and drummer Tommy Benford. The
band toured Europe in 1952 and Waters met an old friend, 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
Waters settled there, and of course was lionised by the French jazz
He's featured in a documentary film Premier Festival Européen De Jazz" . 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.Again...this is another hard to find
item...BUT,worth every effort educationally for any serious student of the
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
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. The saxophonist appeared on national TV three times and played
at two New York jazz clubs during 1997.
Benny made a ten-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 by beginning a three-night booking at New York's
Jazz Standard club. A modern saxophonist
to say the least !
Benny Waters, saxophonist, born Brighton, Maryland, 23 January 1902,
died Columbia, Maryland, 11 August 1998.
P.S-if anyone ever runs across his book ," The Key to a Jazz Life" contact me I 'd love a copy!!