Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bechet, Sidney

“Of all the musicians, Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz," composer Duke Ellington once said of soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. "He represented and executed everything that had to do with the beauty of it all, and everything he played in his whole life was completely original."

Sidney Bechet was one of the pioneering New Orleans musicians who helped create jazz as an art form, then brought it to the world. He was also one its first soloists, and the first to adopt the saxophone as a lead instrument.

Bechet was born May 14, 1897 into a middle-class, “Creole of color,” or French-speaking, mixed-race family in the heart of the city's French Quarter. His father Omar was a shoemaker and an amateur flautist; his four brothers all played musical instruments. His brother Leonard, who became a dentist, played trombone and clarinet. When eight-year-old Sidney wanted to try the clarinet, Leonard gave it to him as a present.

In his poetically – if not always factually - accurate autobiography, Treat It Gentle, Bechet described his musical roots as going back to the spirituals and folk songs sung by his grandfather Omar, who had been a slave.

As Bechet told the story, the great New Orleans cornet player Freddie Keppard and the Manual Perez band was playing in the yard of the Bechet house for his brother Leonard’s birthday party. The early New Orleans clarinet master George Baquet had not yet arrived, but the band heard striking clarinet playing coming from the house.

When band members looked inside, they discovered young Sidney furiously playing along with the band on his brother’s clarinet; in his autobiography he claimed he was only six years old. Bechet biographer John Chilton says this party was for Leonard’s twenty-first birthday in 1907, which would have made Sidney ten years old.

Whatever his age, the boy clearly possessed a musical talent which surpassed his years, and Baquet became his mentor, along with the musically important Tio brothers, Luis and Lorenzo, and the groundbreaking jazz clarinetist Louis “Big Eye” Nelson. As he entered his teens, Sidney was surrounded and encouraged by this all-star cast of Crescent City clarinetists.

Unlike creole musicians of an earlier generation, who favored the repertoire of the Crescent City's polite society, from the start Sidney favored the sounds of the street, and created his own way of playing them. According to Baquet, by the time of their first lesson, the boy had already developed his own fingerings for the clarinet, and while he absorbed everything the elder musician had to say about “embouchure, reeds, mouthpieces, and legato and staccato playing, but any talk about reading music ...and studying harmonies seemed to be quite pointless.”

From 1909 to 1917, young Sidney played with a series of notable New Orleans bands, which included Buddie Petit’s Young Olympians and the Eagle Band, including engagements at cafés in the city's Storyville prostitution district. Like Louis Armstrong and Lonnie Johnson, Bechet soaked up the Crescent City's rich variety of music, from marches, polkas, schottisches and opera, the blues and ragtime.

Bechet, impatient to see the world, left New Orleans in 1914 with a traveling show that included pianist Clarence Williams. Returning to New Orleans, he played with cornet king Joe Oliver, among others. He then left New Orleans for good on another tour, and landed in Chicago in 1917. There he played with Oliver as well as Freddie Keppard, and with the brilliant New Orleans pianist Tony Jackson.

In 1919, he joined Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO), which took off for a European tour, which for Bechet would be decisive in a number of ways. Cook featured Sidney’s “Characteristic Blues” in the SSO concerts as a showcase for his talents. At a London concert in the early autumn of 1919, distinguished Swiss classical conductor Ernest Ansermet heard the SSO and Bechet. In October, he was moved to publish what many consider to be the first serious musical consideration of jazz in print.

"There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso… the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet" Ansermet wrote. His solos "are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected…. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it, it is Sidney Bechet."

Many jazz historians have noted the importance of Ansermet's comments, but what strikes this author is that this Swiss classical conductor grasped the nature and significance of the blues as early as 1919!

Ansermet was not the only classical musician whose ear was caught Bechet’s masterful early playing. In the book Stravinsky – In Pictures and Documents by Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft, we find that the maestro's Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo “were inspired by Sidney Bechet’s Characteristic Blues.”

While in London, Bechet bought a soprano saxophone, which became his main instrument. The SSO began to have problems, and by December 1919 he was playing with a break-off group, the Jazz Kings, which performed around Britain.

Bechet’s magnetic performances caused a sensation. Among the aspiring musicians who sought him out as a teacher was Charles Henry Maxwell Knight, a future British spy who was apparently the inspiration for the character “M,” James Bond's in Ian Fleming’s novels.

Bechet also enjoyed the attentions paid to him by women, but he had a violent and unpredictable character. In September of 1922, he was deported from the U.K. after an alleged brawl with women in a London hotel room.

After his forcible return to the United States, he played gigs in New York and Washington with Bessie Smith and others. On June 30, 1923, Bechet made his first recordings with the Clarence Williams Blue Five, which included “Wild Cat Blues.” The “B” side of that 78 was the first Bechet recording of “Kansas City Man Blues,” about which David Perry wrote in Jazz Greats, “Sidney produces a series of astonishing choruses that, despite their unmistakable New Orleans roots, have a melodic inventiveness that anticipates Charlie Parker.”

On the Blue Five recordings, Bechet’s powerful soprano sax playing was a feature, rather than simply an aspect, of the ensemble. It is significant that Bechet took this step over two years before Louis Armstrong’s featured work with his Hot Fives, which have often been hailed as the giant step beyond the traditional New Orleans approach of ensemble playing. “As a creative melodist, he had in essence a soloist’s conception even before Armstrong did,” wrote musicologist Gunther Schuller in his work Early Jazz.

Soon after these first recordings, Bechet and Clarence Williams backed several of the female singers who developed the first stage of recorded blues, including Mamie Smith on her August, 1923 version of “Kansas City Man Blues.”

In late 1924 and early 1925, Bechet and Armstrong joined forces, spurring each other on as they backed singer Alberta Hunter and two others, performing as the “Red Onion Jazz Babies.” “1924-1925 recordings with Louis Armstrong show the two as equals in terms of the art of constructing solos and playing with maximum expressiveness,” wrote Dan Morgenstern in his book Jazz People. Perhaps the best of the tracks is "Early Every Morn" with Hunter.

Also in 1924, Bechet met and coached eighteen-year-old saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who later became a stand-out soloist with Ellington’s best bands and one of the greatest and most influential altoists in jazz. Hodges later credited Bechet for this early musical guidance and inspiration.

In September of 1925, Bechet sailed for Europe as part of “The Black Revue,” which became better known by its French name, “La Revue Negre,” and for its young female star Josephine Baker. The Revue played in Paris and elsewhere in Europe to great success, but disintegrated after Baker left the show.

Bechet then joined a band which toured Russia in 1926, where he was much taken with Russian classical music. In the spring of 1928, Bechet joined a band formed in Paris by Noble Sissle, but later that year Sidney’s volatile temperament got the better of him. One version of the story is that he disagreed with a fellow musician over a wrong chord; whatever the cause, an argument and gunplay ensued. Both musicians were arrested and Bechet spent a year in prison, and was then deported from France.

After prison, he first went to Germany, where he played and appeared briefly in a film, then returned to the U.S. to join a new Noble Sissle band. In 1932, Bechet and New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier formed a band they called the “New Orleans Feetwarmers.”

Besides playing at various clubs and the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, they made a series of recordings, two of which were “Maple Leaf Rag” and “I’ve Found a New Baby.” This music was classic New Orleans style, high-energy, driving ensemble work, with key breaks for Ladnier and Bechet. But the group did not last very long; the deepened Depression and changing music taste diminished their opportunities, and for a time the pair worked together in the dry-cleaning business.

In 1934, Bechet joined and recorded again with another Noble Sissle band. In 1936, the band played on the recording debut of a young, beautiful singer named Lena Horn, and he recorded in April of 1937 with a small group called “Noble Sissle’s Swingsters.”

In February of 1938, Bechet and the group recorded several tunes, including a specialty number by Bechet with a memorable melody and theme: “Viper Mad.” “Viper mad,” in the jazz slang of the day, meant mad for marijuana, and the group makes this a romp of a recording, with vocalist Spencer singing in classic late ‘20s-early ‘30s style and Bechet playing sparkling, soaring soprano sax to great effect.

1938 through 1941 marks the greatest period of Bechet’s recorded output. Residing in New York, he played at Nick’s club, and at the encouragement of French jazz critic Hughes Panassié, he made a series of fine recordings with his old partner Tommy Ladnier. Among the best was “Really the Blues,” which lent its name to the memoirs of its composer, clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, with an enchanting, soulful theme, a creatively lovely blending of instrumental lines, and some especially beautiful blues playing by Bechet.

In late 1938, Bechet performed at the “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall produced by John Hammond, and recorded "What A Dream" with baritone saxophonist Ernie Caceres. In June of 1939 he began recording with the new Blue Note jazz label. With a group which included pianist Meade Lux Lewis and called the “Sidney Bechet Quintet,” he recorded one of his most celebrated tracks, a unique and hauntingly beautiful version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

One interesting pairing for Blue Note was in a trio with folk singer Josh White and bassist Wilson Myers, with whom he recorded the 78-rpm album set, Harlem Blues. The set included, among other tracks, "Milk Cow Blues" and "Careless Love," which became a hit record.

"“Bechet’s music — that’s folk," White recalled in a 1950 interview with British journalist Dennis Preston. "Like my own music, it isn’t confined to any one thing. There’s a lot that sounds like Hungarian gypsy in Sidney’s playing.”

As the New Orleans revival gathered steam, Bechet, with various groups and partners, produced a series of outstanding recordings. The first to mention, “Sidney’s Blues,” is not as great as some, but it is notable for the fact that it offers a rare vocal by Bechet himself—a cool, swinging vocal. The second was a reunion recording with Louis Armstrong in May 1940, with first-rate sidemen. Some critics call the results, such as "Coal Cart Blues,disappointing, probably because of sky-high expectations for the reunion of these two masters; but at least in the case of “Perdido Street Blues,” this writer disagrees. While the blending of the instruments may be a bit muddy, both Armstrong and Bechet provide sparkling solo breaks and the piece as a whole has excellent energy, momentum and New Orleans jazz verve.

In June of 1940, Bechet and New Orleans-style band recorded, “Shake It and Break It,” with Bechet mixing it up marvelously with the top trumpeter Sidney de Paris in a rousing, driving tune, supported with some deep drumming by Big Sid Catlett. They also cut “Wild Man Blues,” with fine, beautifully blended, polyphonic ensemble playing on a soulful, sometimes wailing blues that also manages to carry itself in a stately manner.

Three more gems came at a session on September 6, 1940. The first, “Blues in Thirds,” was played with the all star trio of Bechet, Earl Hines on piano, and New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds. With Hines leading off with some rhapsodic piano work, playing and embellishing on the main theme, Bechet matches him with some of the most creative melody lines of his career, with the whole offering a sublime musical experience.

He then recorded two marvelous tracks with the addition of the great cornet player Rex Stewart, best known as a soloist in Ellington bands. The group has a joyous, stylish romp on Fats Waller’s much-loved classic, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” with Bechet playing some of his most compelling lines, Stewart matching him with great muted cornet counterpoint, and with an ending that leaves the listener breathless. “Save It, Pretty Mama” follows with a very catchy and playful main theme and gorgeous ensemble work, both Bechet and Stewart again playing magnificently.

In 1941 came two unique recordings. “Sheik of Araby” was a “one man band” record Bechet played piano, clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax and percussion on the track, one of the first uses of studio overdubbing on a record. "I meant to play all the rhythm instruments, but got all mixed up and grabbed my soprano, then the bass, then the tenor saxophone, and finally finished up with the clarinet,” he said to George Hoefer in the liner notes.

The second unique 1941 recording was not only a success, it was a masterpiece of musical art. His recording of the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” with fine piano support by Willie “the Lion” Smith, was simply stunning, and his brilliant lines, with the emotion and intensity of his intense vibrato on the soprano sax carried the cry and protest about the horror of lynching to the highest level.

In 1943, Bechet played with Billie Holliday at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in New York, and made some V-disc recordings for overseas troops. Chilton relates a comment around this time by clarinetist Johnny Mince, experiencing Bechet at Nick’s music club, which well captures the impact of his playing: “One night I was sitting in with Bobby’s band…. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone getting on the bandstand…. Suddenly, this almighty gust of power took over and swept the whole band along with it. The place shook! I had never met Sidney Bechet before, but as soon as I heard that dramatic sound I knew it was him.”

In the mid-1940s, Bechet continued recording for Blue Note, a highlight of which work was his December 1944 recording of “Blue Horizon,” which captured perhaps the richest clarinet tone of his recording career in a positively beautiful, atmospheric slow blues.

In the spring of 1945, the fine, early New Orleans trumpet player Bunk Johnson, who had recently been rediscovered, played some gigs in New York and Boston with Bechet and made some recordings, including the classic “Basin Street Blues.” There was much enthusiasm for the revival pairing of Sidney and Bunk, but the two disagreed about how to approach the music after a while, and it proved hard to keep Bunk from the drink, so the reunion didn’t last long.

Over the next few years, Bechet continued his prolific recording with both the Blue Note and King Jazz labels, with a series of fine old-style jazz musicians. In February of 1946 he was joined by New Orleans clarinet-player Albert Nicholas, Chicago piano stand-out Art Hodes, and New Orleans bass legend Pops Foster for a fine jazz version of the old blues standard, “Old Stack O’Lee Blues.”

He also played in a series of interesting “Midnight Concerts” at New York’s Town Hall which involved both jazz and blues players, such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim. In 1948, Bechet appeared on an early television program, “Floorshow,” hosted by the enterprising jazz guitarist Eddie Condon.

A major new - and final - chapter in the remarkable saga of Sidney Bechet began in the spring of 1949 when he left for France, initially to play in the International Jazz Festival, to be held at the storied Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris in May. This jazz giant, who had scuffled to find gigs at several points over the previous two decades, got an extraordinary response in the feature concert. Chilton relates writer Kurt Mohr’s review of the occasion: “Pierre Braslavsky, no mean soprano sax-player himself, went into a sprightly warm-up number. And then… there was suddenly an echo, a second soprano poking out from behind the curtain. With a devilish sense of timing the man stepped out, playing furiously and bringing the atmosphere to a climax…. Each of Bechet’s solos was greeted with rapturous applause, and his deliberately spectacular phrases produced screams of ecstasy from the crowd.”

After this appearance, Bechet became a kind of national hero in France, an emblem for the existensialist youths around Saint Germain des Pres in Paris, who called him "le dieu," or "the god." He frequently recorded with French bands in the 1950s, especially the Claude Luter Orchestra. A number of these recordings were very French in character and not always jazz, probably the two best known being “Les Oignons” and “Petite Fleur,” both of which became hugely popular in France.

On May 14, 1959, his 62nd birthday, Sidney Bechet passed on at his home in France, leaving a legacy of musical excellence and impact very rarely equaled and having lived life to the fullest - and then some.

Select Discography

The Legendary Sidney Bechet (RCA/Bluebird CD 6590-2-RB)

This CD includes two 1932 tracks with Ladnier and the Footwarmers, two 1938 tracks with Ladnier (including "Really the Blues," “High Society” from his 1939 Jelly Roll Morton recordings, and various 1940-1941 tracks, including “Sidney’s Blues.” The digital remastering is harsh and shrill, however.

Sidney Bechet – Blues in Thirds (Giants of Jazz CD 53105)

This CD includes most of the great tracks from 1940 and 1941, including nearly all of those mentioned in the entry from this period, from “Perdido Street Blues” through “Strange Fruit.” Good sound.

The Best of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 28891 2 0)

This includes a good selection of the Blue Note tracks, including “Blue Horizon” and “Old Stack O’Lee Blues.”

Sidney Bechet – Greatest Hits (RCA Victor 74321-52063-2)

This CD should be titled, “Greatest Hits of Bechet’s French Period” (1949-1958); it includes “Les Oignons” and “Petite Fleur.”

Select Bibliography

Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle (Da Capo Press, 1978)

John Chilton, Sidney Bechet – The Wizard of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1987)

Dan Morgenstern, Jazz People (Da Capo Press, 1993)

David Perry, Jazz Greats (Phaidon Press, 1996), chapter on Sidney Bechet

Martin Williams, Jazz In Its Time (Oxford University Press, 1989), two-part piece on “Bechet the Prophet”

Contributor: Dean Alger