Longevity, versatility and virtuosity are words that inevitably come to mind when describing Benny Waters, whose career as a clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist, composer and arranger encompassed eight decades, and his playing reflected elements from the entire history of jazz.
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.
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.
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. Waters continued to play until a few weeks before his death, averaging around 100 engagements a year, and celebrated his 95th birthday with a prestigious three-night residence at Birdland in New York. Of the nine recordings he made in the last two decades, his most recent was "Birdland Birthday -- Live at 95" (Enja), recorded on his 95th birthday at Birdland in Manhattan.
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. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Ministry of Culture in 1996, and subsequently wore the medal in all his performances.