THE TRAGEDY OF TWO TALENTED TRUMPETERS

                                                                                                                         JIM BURNS

                                                                         Sonny Berman                                                                    Freddy Webster

The jazz world of the mid and late-1940s, and especially that focused on the “new music” of bebop, was heavily involved with narcotics. Heroin was particularly used, though other drugs were in wide circulation. There is little point in denying this. It’s well-documented in histories of jazz, in books by and about the musicians, and in the long list of casualties that resulted from the abuse of drugs. Some people might argue that narcotics were an integral element of the music, and that its very nature resulted from its intensity and emphasis on individual expression which inclined musicians to want to exclude the hostile or indifferent outside word. This is debatable, and there are other reasons why drugs seemed attractive to many musicians. The trumpeter Red Rodney, looking back on his own years of involvement with heroin addiction, said “That was our badge. It was the thing that said, ‘We know, you don’t know’. It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club, and for this membership we gave up everything else in the world”.  Woody Herman, who had observed how young drug-taking bop musicians in his band conducted themselves, likened them to Regency Dandies in their desire to be part of an exclusive group.

The post-war period saw a flood of heroin entering New York and other cities as the ending of hostilities meant that goods, including drugs, began to circulate more freely. I’m not intending to write a sociological survey of the years concerned. My interest is in the activities of two talented trumpeters, one white, one black, who died from drugs in 1947.

Sonny Berman was born in 1924 in New Haven, Connecticut. With a flair for the trumpet from an early age he was, by 1940, working with touring bands led by Louis Prima, Sonny Dunham, Tommy Dorsey, Georgie Auld, Harry James, and Benny Goodman. In February 1945 he joined Woody Herman’s band, then at the peak of its popularity. Records like “Sidewalks of Cuba” and “Your Father’s Moustache” were often heard on the radio, and both featured solos by Berman. His tone was clear and his phrasing precise. Jazz writer Leonard Feather described his playing as full of “grace and warmth”. He could also have mentioned that it was often witty, as for example on “Sidewalks of Cuba”, where he opens his solo with a reference to the trumpet showcase, “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”. But let me quote the critic Barry Ulanov on the subject of Berman:

“Those long cadenzas and flattened notes piercing the wildest up-tempo jazz with such lovely poignancy. There was always something poignant about Sonny, no matter what he was playing or saying in his role as Yiddish dialectician or knocking everything down before his determined pratfall”.

There are quite a few Berman contributions to Herman records, and he can also be heard on tracks by the Woodchoppers, a small group from the band. Some of those demonstrated that he could play ballads, as on “Pam”.  There were also examples of the gentle (and poignant) side of Berman’s playing on “Nocturne” by his own group, and “introspection” with a specially-assembled Ralph Burns orchestra. Another side of his soloing can be heard on four longer tracks from a January, 1946 jam session in the New York apartment of jazz fan Jerry Newman’s parents, who happened to be away at the time. The informal atmosphere allowed Berman to stretch out in his solos.

It was a year later, in January 1947, that Berman attended another informal session, this time in trumpet player and arranger Johnny Carisi’s apartment. At some point he injected himself with heroin, or possibly some other narcotic, and had a heart attack which killed him. I don’t know if Berman had been using drugs regularly prior to his death, or whether this was a first occasion. His death brought to an end what had seemed to be a promising career.

Freddy Webster was born in Cleveland in 1917 and worked in local bands in that area. In the 1940s he toured with better-known bands led by Lucky Millinder, Earl Hines, Benny Carter, and Jimmy Lunceford. He can be heard soloing on Lucky Millinder’s 1942 recording of “Savoy”, a tribute to the noted New York ballroom in Harlem where all the black big bands of the day appeared. Barry Ulanov heard him around this time and said:

“Webster is a real find. He plays with a wonderful sense of structure giving all his choruses and half-choruses a discernible beginning, middle and ending. His favourite range is a low register projected with boldness in deepness, He doesn’t restrict himself to low notes but makes long scoops from the middle of high register to the bottom and then sails back up. He plays with an easy technique in perfect taste”.

Webster was in a small group which backed singer Miss Rhapsody (Viola Wells) in 1945 and has a solo on “I Fell For You”. But his most significant contributions as, in Leonard Feather’s words, “one of the most soulful performers among modern jazz trumpeters” can be heard on a 1945 session with tenorman Frank Socolow, and another in 1946 with singer Sarah Vaughan. His work on “September in the Rain” and “Reverse the Changes” with Socolow is indicative of what Ulanov referred to as “low register projected with boldness in deepness”. With Vaughan he has a wonderful solo on “You’re Not The Kind”, where his firm, clear sound, and the almost-stately nature of his phrasing, has the same kind of poignancy that Ulanov ascribed to Sonny Berman. It’s said that Webster had a great musical influence on the young Miles Davis, and it’s certainly true that it can be heard in Davis’s solo on Charlie Parker’s recording of “Billie’s Bounce”.

In early 1947 Webster was in Chicago in a group with saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and at some point died from an overdose of heroin. Or it may not have been an overdose, but a deliberately contaminated dose. The story was that Stitt, for some reason, had fallen out with a drug dealer who then, to punish Stitt, gave him what was known as a “hot shot”, some adulterated heroin which Stitt seemingly passed on to Webster, The facts of the matter were never too clear.

It seems curious that two trumpeters who were both acclaimed by other musicians, and had similar attributes in terms of their handling of both ballads and up-tempo numbers, should die in the same year. They weren’t the only ones to be taken away by heroin addiction. And it’s impossible to know how they would have developed as musicians had they not died. But I think the jazz world was the worse for their passing.


Woody Herman records with Berman can be found on ProperBox 15. Other relevant items including the 1945 jam session and small group recordings, are on Cool & Blue CD 111 and Spotlite CD SPJ 132.

Lucky Millinder’s “Savoy” is on Classics 712.

Webster’s recordings with Miss Rhapsody are on Acrobat ACMCD 4006. Those with Frank Socolow on ProperBox 22, and with Sarah Vaughan on ProperBox 27.

There are various articles and other materials about Berman and Webster on You-Tube which are well-worth referring to.

My article, “The Hipster”, in Bohemians, Beats and Blues People (Penniless Press, 2013) discusses the role of that kind of social attitude in the 1940s. I think the term meant something different then compared to how it is used today.