Jazz Profiles from NPR
Benny Waters
Produced by Molly Murphy

Benny Waters  

Longevity, versatility and virtuosity are words that inevitably come to mind when describing Benny Waters. His career as a clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist, composer and arranger encompassed eight decades, and his playing reflected elements from the entire history of jazz.

Hear Benny recall the first time he approached a musical intrument -- an organ his brother kept under lock and key

Benny Waters grew up in Brighton, Maryland, the youngest of seven children. After discovering the aforementioned organ and learning how to play, Benny's mother, who was terminally ill, was so moved by his natural ability that she devoted her remaining energy to getting him a formal education in music.

Waters attended the New England Conservatory of Music, where he gained invaluable training in harmony and composition. After the Conservatory, he joined Charlie Johnson's big band, entering the jazz scene at the height of the "Roaring '20s."

Initially, Waters was influenced by the big tone and fluid harmonic style of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, but he soon developed his own musical voice. He became Charlie Johnson's featured soloist on tenor saxophone, in addition to playing alto sax and clarinet as well as composing and arranging. In 1928, he also recorded with the legendary King Oliver, a founder of the original New Orleans jazz style.

Listen to Benny recall his first impressions upon joining King Oliver's band

Over the next 25 years, Waters played with a number of top big bands, including those of Fletcher Henderson, Hot Lips Page, Claude Hopkins, Jimmie Lunceford and Jimmy Archey. Waters had long been fascinated with the idea of playing in Paris, and left Archey's band after a tour of Europe to immerse himself in the thriving post-war jazz scene in the City of Lights.


Though his playing remained prolific, Waters' career had become so geographically spread out that the media essentially lost track of him. When American jazz musicians such as guitarist Howard Alden (left) did encounter Benny, it was often an awe-inspiring revelation.

Listen to Howard describe the first time he heard Benny play at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in 1981.

Still going strong at 90, Waters returned to the US, moving to New York in 1992. A car accident and a blinding bout with cataracts were not enough to deter him from once again making his mark stateside. Jazz historian Phil Schapp recalls Benny’s ingenuity in adjusting his playing style to new concepts well into his 90s.

Listen to Phil Schapp recall how Benny, well into his 90's, was still adjusting his playing style to incorporate new concepts

Though Waters never received the recognition he deserved in the United States, his outstanding performances in New York did awaken many more musicians and jazz listeners to his truly legendary credentials.

Alden recalls a stunning performance at Birdland in New York in 1997, when, on his 95th birthday, Waters brought the house down with a youthful burst of energy on the bandstand: "[He was] just playing his ass off. Amazing what playing would do to his whole demeanor."


View the Benny Waters show playlist