Benny Waters and Joe Turner: Profiles in Jazz

Benny Waters and Joe Turner (no relation to blues singer Big Joe Turner) were two of the many American jazz artists who found life to be more secure, lucrative, and less ruled by racism in Europe where they were appreciated much more for their talents. Unlike Sidney Bechet, who was well-known in the US before becoming a national hero in France, Waters and Turner were far from household names in the US jazz world before moving overseas, but they worked steadily for decades in parallel if rarely overlapping careers.

Benny Waters was born Jan. 23, 1902, in Brighton, Maryland. When he was three, he began playing organ. After brief periods on the piano and trumpet, he learned the clarinet and tenor-sax starting when he was seven. His brother played trumpet and he worked in his band when he was 14. Waters also performed regularly Charlie Miller’s group in Philadelphia during 1918-21 while he was a teenager. He next attended the New England Conservatory and became a teacher who had 55 pupils during his Boston years. Two of his students in the 1920s were baritonist Harry Carney and altoist Johnny Hodges.

Red Wood Coast

After being based in Boston as a player (appearing on the radio three times a week) and teacher for a few years, Waters moved to New York in 1925. While he played tenor and clarinet in addition to contributing arrangements for Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra during 1926-32, he was not part of the noteworthy band’s recordings until Sept. 1928. Before then, Waters made his recording debut on two numbers as part of a Clarence Williams group that accompanied Sara Martin on Apr. 9, 1927, recorded four numbers with a Williams-led band that included King Oliver in Aug. 1928 (Waters would be the last surviving musician who could say that he recorded with Oliver), was on two numbers by Jackson’s Southern Stompers (a pickup group that included Sidney DeParis, Jimmy Harrison, and Edgar Sampson), and arranged “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” for a King Oliver session.

Benny Waters

Benny Waters, who had a big tone on tenor that was influenced by Coleman Hawkins in addition to being a fluent clarinetist, appeared on two sessions with Charlie Johnson, contributing swinging arrangements of “Walk That Thing” and “The Boy In The Boat.” He also made several other recording dates with Clarence Williams (including accompanying Katherine Henderson) with “Bozo,” “Bimbo,” and “Wildflower Rag” being particularly memorable. But it would take many years for Waters to achieve much fame.

Joe Turner was also from Maryland, being born in Baltimore on Nov. 3, 1907. He started on the piano when he was five, mastered stride piano as a teenager, and was encouraged by Eubie Blake who was based at the time in Baltimore. Turner became a regular fixture in Harlem and New York City throughout the 1920s. In 1928 he joined the short-lived Benny Carter Orchestra, and during 1929-30 he worked in New York with Louis Armstrong. Turner, who was already a masterful stride pianist in the tradition of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, made his recording debut with Armstrong on “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” (Apr. 6, 1930) and four numbers from May 4 including “Dinah” and “Tiger Rag.” But more important in the long run was his association with singer Adelaide Hall. He was one of her two pianists including, for a few months, Art Tatum. Hall became popular in Europe and Turner went overseas several times with her. He is on eight numbers (along with fellow pianist Francis J. Carter) from a London session in 1931. While Turner is in excellent form on a 1935 New York date by Freddy Jenkins and his Harlem Seven, the following year (while touring Europe with Hall) he decided to give the continent a try.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Benny Waters would reach the same decision, but 16 years later. He worked fairly often during the 1930s and ’40s without being known to the general public. Waters was in the band at the Apollo on the night that Ella Fitzgerald won its amateur contest. After not recording at all during 1930-37, he ended that drought in 1938 on two sessions with the short-lived Hot Lips Page big band. Waters spent a few months with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and worked and recorded with the big bands of Claude Hopkins (1940-41) and Jimmie Lunceford (1942-43) although Joe Thomas was the tenor soloist with the latter. Waters led his own unrecorded band at the Red Mill in New York and for several years in San Diego.

With the end of the swing era, sidemen of the big bands often faced the choice of either switching to r&b or Dixieland. Waters did both, working with Roy Milton (including recording “The Hucklebuck”) during 1949-51 and playing on and off with trombonist Jimmy Archey. He visited France with Archey in 1949 and can be heard on radio broadcasts from New York’s Jimmy Ryan’s (playing clarinet and soprano) with the trombonist’s freewheeling group in early-1952. Later that year, Waters was off to Europe in what turned out to be the beginning of a 40-year period based in Paris.

Joe Turner

Meanwhile Joe Turner had become a bit of a world traveler. He worked for a few months with Adelaide Hall in Paris in 1936 and then spent time living and playing in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and back in France. He documented his first piano solos (“Liza” and “Cheek To Cheek”) in Jan. 1936, cut two duets with Hall, and recorded his first vocal in Prague with Jan Sima’s Orchestre Grammokubu. His blues singing on “Joe Turner Blues” from Dec. 2, 1936 was ironically recorded two years before Big Joe Turner made his first recordings. He also recorded a bit with Coleman Hawkins (the tenor was in the middle of his five years in Europe), altoist Andre Ekyan (for two dates that also included Django Reinhardt), and tenor-saxophonist Frank “Big Boy” Goudie. But with the outbreak of World War II, Turner moved quickly and reluctantly back to the US He was drafted but fortunately became a member of Sy Oliver’s army band during 1944-45. A privately recorded session from Oct. 2, 1944 was recently issued on Mosaic’s Don Byas box set and it has Turner playing on a jam session version of “Rose Room”; it is the only recording of Turner in the 1940s. The pianist worked with Rex Stewart in 1946. With the war over, Turner was free to move back to Europe. After a short time in Hungary in 1948, he spent 1949-62 based in Switzerland before moving permanently to Paris

Both Benny Waters and Joe Turner found their European years to be very rewarding ones. They no longer had to be at all concerned with following current musical trends and they were celebrated for playing in their own vintage styles. While Turner primarily performed his brand of stride piano in small intimate settings (often solo), Waters was heard in a larger variety of groups. Essentially a swing player who was flexible enough to play Dixieland and mainstream jazz, Waters became good friends with trumpeter Bill Coleman who played in a similar open-minded style.

Whether featured on tenor, clarinet, soprano or alto, or even taking an occasional vocal, Waters never declined, even with the passing of many years. He worked in a sextet with Coleman, played in many short-lived pickup groups with talented European players, recorded with the Dixie Stompers in Brussels during 1956-57, and led a nonet in 1960 called “Benny Waters and the Latin Jazz Band” that was actually a Dixieland/swing group. Among his most interesting recordings are a set with blues singer-pianist Memphis Slim (1962), jamming with organist Eddy Louiss (1967), performing with trumpeter Keith Smith’s Chosen Five (1978), co-leading an album with trombonist Roy Williams that includes baritonist Joe Temperley (1980), a hot session with trumpeter Freddy Randall (1982), revisiting the repertoire of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra with Keith Nichols Jazz Kings (a classic 1988 album put out by Stomp Off), and guesting on a recording by Adelaide Hall (1989). While Waters had never had an opportunity to lead his own recording session while in the US prior to his departure, he led at least 22 albums during his European years. Those recordings took place in France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and even New Jersey (From Paradise to Shangri-La which was recorded during a rare visit to the US in 1987). A very consistent player, Waters turned 90 in 1992 and, musically at least, he was still in his prime.


Since Waters and Turner both settled in Paris, one would think that they would have worked together regularly. But only two recordings have been released that find them in the same group. On May 13, 1965, they were part of the Buck Clayton All-Stars which was documented on a radio broadcast. Three songs feature Big Joe Turner on vocals, the only time that the two Joe Turners recorded together. The 1969 album Great Traditionalists In Europe also has Waters and the pianist (who this time is the Joe Turner who takes a vocal on “Stormy Monday Blues”) playing together in a septet with Albert Nicholas and other expatriates.

As with Waters, Joe Turner did not have any recording sessions of his own during his early years in the US But in Europe starting in 1950, Turner was documented, most frequently as an unaccompanied soloist, and also occasionally in duets and trios plus on sessions led by Albert Nicholas, Cat Anderson, and Buck Clayton. Turner was well-known in France, playing regularly at La Calvados when he was not touring the continent. In contrast, he was largely forgotten in the US where, during the rare times when his name came up, he was invariably confused with Big Joe Turner. During 1973-78, Turner made a few visits to the United States, recording Another Epoch/Stride Piano (Pablo) and King Of Stride (Chiaroscuro). By then he was gaining some recognition as the last of the surviving early stride pianists. He spent his last years back in Paris, recording his final album in 1983 although he stayed active until the end. Joe Turner passed away on July 21, 1990 at the age of 82.

Benny Waters, who was five years older than Turner, survived a bit longer. Suffering from cataracts, he moved back to the United States in 1992 when he was 90 to have surgery but unfortunately it left him blind. Despite that handicap, Waters stayed quite active during his last years. He mostly stuck to playing alto (which was lighter and easier to travel with than his tenor), hinting at Tab Smith and also playing it clear in some of his phrases that he had heard of John Coltrane. He recorded regularly in both the US and Europe, played around 100 dates a year, and in 1993 was a founding member of The Statesmen Of Jazz, a group in which each member was at least 65. The all-star band included Clark Terry, Buddy Tate, Milt Hinton and violinist Claude Williams, toured Europe, Japan and the US, and recorded an album released by Arbors.


One of the final living links to 1920s jazz, Benny Waters (who had his autobiography The Key To A Jazz Life published in 1995) displayed a remarkable amount of energy during his last years. He recorded Birdland Birthday Live At 95 (Enja) during the week of his 95th birthday. At the time he was the oldest active jazz musician. His final recording, from Feb. 1997, teamed him with 92-year old trumpeter Doc Cheatham who was also making his last session. They both sound ageless during an album led by drummer Trevor Richards that also includes trombonist Dan Barrett.

Typically, Benny Waters celebrated his 96th birthday by playing at the Jazz Standard in New York. He never retired and continued gigging until June 1998. He passed away at the age of 96 on August 11, 1998.

While often overlooked in the United States (but not Europe) during their lifetimes, the many rewarding recordings of Benny Waters and Joe Turner are ripe for discovery by today’s jazz listeners.


Scott Yanow

Since 1975 Scott Yanow has been a regular reviewer of albums in many jazz styles. He has written for many jazz and arts magazines, including JazzTimes, Jazziz, Down Beat, Cadence, CODA, and the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, and was the jazz editor for Record Review. He has written an in-depth biography on Dizzy Gillespie for He has authored 11 books on jazz, over 900 liner notes for CDs and over 20,000 reviews of jazz recordings.

Yanow was a contributor to and co-editor of the third edition of the All Music Guide to Jazz. He continues to write for Downbeat, Jazziz, the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, the Jazz Rag, the New York City Jazz Record and other publications.

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