Jazz history is full of hidden heroes and lost legends, players who made significant, influential or interesting contributions, but who, for one reason or another, didn’t get their due–bad luck, music industry issues, personal problems, and/or early deaths resulting from any combination of the preceding. There’s undoubtedly a certain romantic streak to jazz fans’ interest in such musicians, a forgotten-poet mythology at work, in which the very obscurity of the artist’s legacy provides some of the attraction. Often, however, the attention we now pay is justified; and sometimes, as in the case of Herbie Nichols, the hidden hero eventually comes into the limelight.
Our upcoming Sonny Berman program spotlights a trumpeter who died at the age of 21, leaving behind some scintillating solos and a tragic sense of incompletion. There are other such trumpeters in the history of the music–Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown (both of whom at least managed to record quite frequently and with a contemporary recognition before their respective premature endings), Booker Little, Jack Purvis, and Dupree Bolton are names that immediately come to mind, as well as, of course, a guy by the name of Bix Beiderbecke. One of the more mysterious figures, however, was the subject of a previous Night Lights program, The Man Before Miles: Freddie Webster. Webster, who died in 1947 at the age of 31, “possessed a big, fat, rich sound with a beautiful wide vibrato,” as this online essay by Dan Miller notes, and one of his biggest fans was a young Miles Davis. We managed to run down almost all of his most significant solos, which can be heard in the archived edition of the program. In addition to the Miller essay mentioned above, check out Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the ’40s and Swing to Bop, as well as Cleveland jazz historian and leading Webster authority Joe Mosbrook, who produced an invaluable program about the trumpeter.