Born Benjamin Arthur Waters on January 23, 1902, in Brighton, MD; died on August 11, 1998, in Columbia, MD; son of Edward and Frances Waters; married and divorced twice. Education: Attended New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA, studied theory and arrangement.

Benny Waters was an indomitable jazz master whose musical career began in early childhood and spanned every decade of the twentieth century. Continuing to perform up to within two months of his death at age 96, he was thought to be the oldest regularly performing musician in the United States. Waters was also one of the last survivors of the generation of jazz musicians active in the 1920s: his contemporaries were Benny Carter, Rosy McHargue, Spiegle Willcox, Lionel Hampton, and Claude "Fiddler" Williams, all of whom were deceased by 2006.

Waters was an accomplished saxophonist, clarinetist, vocalist, and arranger. He played and recorded with many of the jazz greats of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. His interest in carousing often overshadowed his attention to his career, and although it never kept him from playing music, it did limit the renown that might otherwise have been his. His popularity in the United States was further limited by a 40-year sojourn in Europe. Waters embarked on a European tour with a Dixieland band led by Jimmy Archey in 1952, but did not return to the United States until 1992. He was popular in Europe, especially France, where he settled.

Returning to the United States for medical care after a lifetime of refusing it due to his Christian Science faith, Waters underwent cataract surgery in 1992 that left him blind. He was soon back at work, however, maintaining an amazing calendar of performances--averaging about 100 a year--and a new generation of Americans discovered Waters. Playing classic swing, usually on a tenor sax, he continually surprised his audiences. Critics, awed by his longevity, were even more astonished by the strength and vitality of his playing. Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Waters was "a walking compendium of jazz. But there is nothing archaic about his playing or his energy, which offer convincing testimony to the idea that creativity knows no age limits."

Was Among Creators of Jazz

Benjamin Arthur Waters was born on January 23, 1902, in the small crossroads town of Brighton, Maryland. He was the youngest of seven children born to Edward and Frances Waters. The family greatly enjoyed music. Mary Schumacher noted in the Washington Post in 1998 that Frances Waters "couldn't carry a tune but was always belting out some hymn or other. Waters's father, on the other hand, would ... sing perfect barbershop harmonies on Sunday mornings while everyone else was in church." Waters discovered his own musical talent very early in life. By his own account, he began to play the pipe organ at the age of three. He soon progressed to piano, and then to reed instruments, which he learned from reading a book. Waters was giving piano recitals at age seven, and had mastered the E-flat clarinet a year later. He was featured in local performances and billed as a child prodigy. During these adolescent years, Waters often performed with a brother who played the trumpet. The two played in a small band and also performed at dances and house parties.

As Michael Bourne noted in Down Beat, "What's remarkable about Waters's musical life is that he was first playing jazz as jazz was being invented. He couldn't learn from books or magazines, records or radio, and the music being played was barely called 'jazz' back then." Waters told Bourne, "I actually didn't hear that much jazz. I was playing what was called jazz. ... I'd play religious songs for my mother, and in the gaps and little spaces of a song I'd make a little improvisation. And my mother would say, 'Stop that jazz, Benny!'"

As a teenager, Waters moved to Haverford, Pennsylvania, to live with an aunt. He continued to perform with his brother; they played at venues ranging from dances to classical concerts at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Waters mastered alto, soprano, baritone, and tenor saxophone, and was a regular member of the Charlie Miller dance band from 1918 to 1921. Waters's mother, suffering from a terminal illness, devoted all her resources in the last months of her life to his musical education. At the age of 18 Waters entered the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied theory and arrangement for three years. He was an excellent student and also established a strong reputation as a private tutor. In fact, Waters taught clarinet to Harry Carney, who would go on to play baritone saxophone in Duke Ellington's orchestra for half a century. Waters also played with Johnny Hodges while attending the Conservatory.

During the 1920s Waters formally embarked on a long career as a sideman, working with some of the biggest names of the era. He recorded with Joe "King" Oliver, and, joining Charlie Johnson's Orchestra in Atlantic City in 1926, Waters worked with Jabbo Smith, Sidney DeParis, and Benny Carter. He remained with Johnson's orchestra until 1933, playing mostly at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem. Johnson passed up a golden opportunity in 1927, when the band was offered a position as the house band at the Cotton Club, complete with a regular radio broadcast. Johnson turned the offer down because the wages were too low, and the position was accepted by Duke Ellington, who became famous because of the radio broadcast.

In 1934 Waters played in the Apollo Theater's house orchestra. The band accompanied a young Ella Fitzgerald in her Apollo debut, when she won an amateur talent contest. Also during the 1930s, Waters replaced saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins in the reed section of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. He described his audition with the famed bandleader: "Fletcher didn't give you much of a chance, and right away he said, 'Forget it! Forget it!'," Waters was quoted as saying in a Scotsman article appearing on the Jazz House website. "That made me mad, and being mad made me sober. I went to the piano, found the chord, and I played the solo perfectly." Waters also played with Oran "Hot Lips" Page and other bandleaders in the 1930s.

Waters freelanced during the 1940s, playing notably with Jimmie Lunceford in 1942. He then headed his own bands, first in New York for two years, and then in California, between 1944 and 1947. Returning to New York, Waters played for a time with Roy Milton, and then joined trombonist Jimmy Archey's Dixieland band in 1949.

Found a Home in Paris

Waters traveled to Europe in 1952 while on tour with Archey's band, and decided to stay. He spent the next 40 years as an expatriate, living and working mainly in Paris. Waters had a 15-year stint at La Cigale, a café in the red-light district of Paris. He was a regular performer, jamming with anyone who came to sit in. The list of visiting musicians included Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell. Waters decided to go solo in 1969---at the age of 67---and worked throughout Europe. He played in festivals all over the world, and became a favorite in Britain and Germany. Waters began making annual trips back to the United States in 1979. He published a memoir in 1985, The Key to a Jazzy Life. Paula Span noted in the Washington Post that the book "records a career punctuated with drunken episodes, myriad girlfriends, the occasional brawl, two volatile marriages and divorces." Although he claimed not to have fathered any children, Waters admitted in his memoir that it was a subject open to debate. In 1970, with his health suffering from his excessive abuse of alcohol, Waters quit drinking.

In 1992 Waters was injured in an auto accident in Germany and also underwent surgery to remove cataracts. When he was unable to raise his insurance to cover the operation, he decided to move back to the United States, where Medicare would pay for it. Waters moved into an apartment in Hollis, Queens, a neighborhood that has been home to many jazz musicians over the years. Although the cataract surgery left him blind, Waters hit the road again as soon as his strength returned. He averaged 100 dates a year and attracted a new generation of fans. He continued to practice at least one hour every day, as he always had. Down Beat quoted Waters as saying, "You are never too old to learn. The more you practice, the better you get." Audiences were always surprised that his music was so "modern." "They expect you to play real old-timey," Waters explained to the Washington Post in 1998. "When you don't, then they're knocked out."

Gained Critical Acclaim

Waters finally began to receive acclaim in the United States after four decades abroad, and reviews of his performances were extremely positive. Music Central '96 described him as "a spirited soloist," and said, "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." Jazz deejay Alex Leak stated in 1998, "Benny is still fresh after 96 years. He's an icon. ... He's history."

In 1995 Waters helped found the venerated Statesmen of Jazz, a performing band of musicians older than 65. The roster included Waters, Claude Williams, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, and Buddy Tate, among others. As its oldest member, Waters was the band's patriarch. He toured throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States as a member of the Statesmen of Jazz.

Waters celebrated his 95th birthday in 1997 with a three-night jazz engagement at Birdland in Manhattan, with a band that featured Mike LeDonne, Howard Alden, Steve Blailock, Ed Locke, and Earl May. The evening's music was recorded and released as a CD titled Birdland Birthday: Live at 95. In a review of the album, John McDonough wrote in Down Beat, "[Waters] plays it straight down the middle with a sympathetic but contemporary rhythm section, and his strong, gritty-on-demand sound in all registers neither asks nor gives any quarter." McDonough continued, "His intonation and control are clear and hard as a rock as he twists notes with a raw lyricism. It's that sound more than his ideas that regularly carr[ies] his solos to a boil on track after track."

Waters gave his last performance in Manhattan in June of 1998. The following month, he moved back to Maryland. On August 11, 1998, Waters died of a heart attack in a hospital in Columbia, Maryland, and was buried in Sandy Spring, Maryland. He had been a living jazz legend, a largely unrecognized but significant contributor to the genre. Waters treated his musicianship as one long learning curve. His legacy is not only that of a great jazz architect, but also that of a man who continued to contribute vitally to the world of music long after others were content to age in obscurity.

by Ellen Dennis French and James M. Manheim

Benny Waters's Career

Jazz musician, vocalist, arranger; played with Charlie Miller Band, c. 1920-23; played with Charlie Johnson Orchestra, 1926-33; played with house band, Apollo Theater, Harlem, c. 1934; played with Fletcher Henderson, Oran Page, and others, 1930s; played with Jimmie Lunceford, 1942; headed own band in New York City, 1942-43; headed own band in California, 1944-47; joined Jimmy Archey's Dixieland band, 1949-52; freelance musician in Europe, 1952-92; co-founded and toured with the Statesmen of Jazz, 1994-97.

Benny Waters's Awards

Ministry of Culture, France, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 14 years ago

Hi, I've met Benny in 1990, in Paris. We talked about "old good times" and i took few pix.... I'll always remember how much humble and smiling he was...and how modern & powerful... RIP, Mister Benny Waters. Sincerely, boz