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Fuller Up, The Dead Musician Directory
 
   Benny Waters
Natural CausesAug 11, 1998
  Age 96
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OBITUARY 
       
      Benny Waters, 96, Who Played Swanky Jazz for 7 Decades
                By BEN RATLIFF 

                NEW YORK -- Benny Waters, a saxophonist, clarinetist and singer who was the country's 
                oldest touring jazz musician, died Aug. 11 at a hospital in Columbia, Md. He was 96 and had 
                recently moved to Columbia from New York City. 

                Waters, old enough to have taught clarinet to an original member of Duke Ellington's late 1920s 
                band, was an independent operator to the end, appearing as a solo artist with ad hoc bands at clubs 
                and festivals around the world. Performing until late June of this year, he never failed to enjoy himself 
                in public, making jokes in different languages, calling tunes faster than his musicians could remember 
                them, scatting through vocal breaks. 

                Though his tone became fragile in the last few years, his phrasing still had the signature of a man who 
                was a contender in the 1930s; his rounded, swooping alto-saxophone lines and plush vibrato 
                advertised his authenticity as surely as the stylish American diction heard in James Cagney movies. 

                Born in Brighton, Md., near Baltimore, Waters started his musical education at age 5 with organ 
                lessons and soon moved to reed instruments. While in high school, still in the pre-jazz era, he played 
                syncopated music with Charlie Miller's band; in his late teen-age years he attended the Boston 
                Conservatory of Music for three years, where he studied theory and arranging and gave private 
                clarinet lessons. Among his pupils was Harry Carney, who went on to play baritone saxophone with 
                Duke Ellington. 

                Waters relocated to Philadelphia and then Atlantic City, N.J., where in 1926 he joined Charlie 
                Johnson's Paradise Band. Johnson's band, for which Waters was a soloist and arranger, played 
                dramatic, exotic music, often for theatrical revues, on a level with the highest-ranking jazz outfits in 
                Harlem. 

                The band included such other renowned musicians as Jabbo Smith, Benny Carter and Sidney De 
                Paris. It performed regularly at Small's Paradise in Harlem, and recorded for Victor until the late 
                1920s. As Waters told it, the Johnson band may have passed up a crucial opportunity to become 
                more famous than it is now: in 1927, Johnson was offered a long-term residence for his band at the 
                Cotton Club, with a built-in radio broadcasting setup, but turned down the offer because the club's 
                wages were too low. Ellington accepted the engagement and soon thereafter became world-famous. 

                In those days Waters' heavy drinking saddled him with a roguish reputation, which may have 
                hindered his career; a conversion to Christian Science in 1938 tempered his habits. (He finally quit 
                drinking in 1969.) 

                After the dissolution of Johnson's band in 1933, for a time Waters succeeded the premier 
                saxophonist of the day, Coleman Hawkins, in the reed section of Fletcher Henderson's band, and 
                then became a freelancer, spending time through the end of the 1940s playing with Jimmie Lunceford 
                and Hot Lips Page, among others. 

                In 1952, a tour with a Dixieland band led by trombonist Jimmie Archey took Waters to Europe, and 
                he stayed, living and working primarily in Paris until 1991, during which time he published a memoir. 
                When he couldn't get sufficient health insurance coverage for cataract removal, he moved back to the 
                United States to have the operation, which was not successful. 

                In blindness he persevered, averaging 100 dates a year until this year, making a second-floor 
                apartment in Hollis, Queens, his home base. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French 
                Ministry of Culture in 1996, and subsequently wore the medal in all his performances. 

                Of the nine recordings he made in the last two decades, his most recent is "Birdland Birthday -- Live 
                at 95" (Enja), recorded on his 95th birthday at Birdland in Manhattan. 
       

                                          Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company  
       

       

 

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BIOGRAPHY
         Benny Waters 

        (b. 23 January 1902, Brighton, Maryland ) 
         

      A talented multi-instrumentalist, by his mid-teenage years 
      Waters was adept on most of the saxophone family and also 
      played piano and sang. During the '20s he played in various 
      bands, studied formally and taught, numbering Harry Carney 
      among his pupils. In these early years he played with Joe ‘King’ 
      Oliver, Charlie ‘Fess’ Johnson and Clarence Williams, and in the 
      following decade worked in the bands of Fletcher Henderson,  
      Johnson again, and Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page. In the '40s he worked 
      with artists such as Jimmie Lunceford and Claude Hopkins. He  
      led his own band for a while and also worked with some R&B  
      bands. In the early '50s, while touring Europe in Jimmy Archey's 
      traditional band, he decided to settle in France. He continued to 
      tour from this base throughout the '60s and '70s and became a 
      favourite at many UK clubs and festivals, where he appeared  
      frequently into the '80s and '90s. In the early summer of 1991  
      he was featured at London's Barbican Centre in concert with  
      fellow octogenarian Doc Cheatham, the pair making nonsense  
      of their ages. A spirited soloist, favouring the tenor among the  
      several saxophones he plays, Waters possesses a dazzling  
      technique underscored by a fervent feeling for the blues. His  
      enthusiasm, skill and intensity would be creditable in a jazzman 
      of any age; coming from a musician entering his '90s they are 
      little short of miraculous.  
         
MUSIC CENTRAL '96 
 
 
 

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