Sidney Bechet - Biography

Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet penned an article for the Revue Romande in 1920 which is universally acknowledged as the first serious writing about jazz. “There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso,” he wrote, “...the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet.” Ansermet went on to praise two of this performer’s blues as “equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring novelty...” He continued “I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it. It is Sidney Bechet.” Clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet was one of the first great soloists in jazz, a powerful and influential musician with an instantly recognizable sound characterized by a very wide vibrato and thrilling use of glissandi.

Sidney Bechet was born into a Creole family on May 14, 1897, in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his father ran a shoe shop. The story goes that when Sidney was just nine years old, the self-taught little clarinetist got to blow alongside such local luminaries as trumpeter Freddie Keppard and clarinetist George Baquet at a party held for one of his older brothers. As Bechet later recalled, “That night, I was the richest kid in New Orleans. You couldn’t have bought me for a sky full of new moons.” The youngster so impressed his elders that they were eager to help him along, and so he got lessons from Baquet, classically-trained Luis “Papa” Tio, and the grittier Big Eye Nelson. In an early display of his well-known impatience, he never studied with anyone for long. Nelson later said that Bechet “wouldn’t learn notes, but he was my best scholar. “

Although discouraged by his family from pursuing a musical life, Bechet would not be deterred. Still in short pants, he was sitting in with some of the top bands in town. Around the age of 15, he signed on with the Eagle Band, led by cornetist Bunk Johnson, a “gut-bucket band” as Bechet later called it. All the young man wanted to do was play music, and his restless nature had him working three and four gigs a day. Bechet quickly established his reputation as a master of the clarinet. In a period when the cornet was the lead voice in New Orleans ensembles, it took a powerful sound to compete with them. The ever-combative Bechet developed a personal style that was up to the task. Fellow clarinetist Albert Nicholas said that “When Sidney was playing...around 1914-1916, he outplayed them all.” Bechet also acquired a name as a man not very easy to work with,  “personal mean” as he himself later characterized his attitude.

By 1917, even being the most admired clarinetist in New Orleans was not enough to keep him at home. He’d already made it as far as Texas, during a disastrous tour with a band led by pianist Clarence Williams, and had played around the South with traveling shows and carnivals. Now Chicago beckoned, and he went North to play in bands led by Freddie Keppard and King Oliver. His big break came in 1919 when the composer-conductor, Will Marion Cook, asked him to join his Southern Syncopated Orchestra and perform in England. Cook insisted that musicians in his employ play his orchestrations exactly as written, with the sole exception of Bechet. Each night, Bechet improvised his finale on the “Characteristic Blues” to great applause. It was in London that Ansermet came several times to hear the twenty-one-year old virtuoso, and was moved to write about his experience.

When the Cook organization split up, Bechet stayed on in London. He performed for dances and in clubs with a rotating group of musicians billed as the Jazz Kings. In 1920, Bechet bought a straight soprano saxophone, preferring it to the clarinet for its volume. Dave Gelly, writing in Masters Of Jazz Saxophone, notes that the similarity between clarinets and saxophones is deceptive. “The result of approaching the saxophone as though it were just a big clarinet”  he continues, “is a strangled tone [and]  appalling intonation.” Bechet, by all accounts a natural musician who could play any instrument he picked up, never had such difficulties. He did, however, have some problems with the British authorities after he was involved in an altercation with a prostitute. Following a brief stay at Brixton Prison, Bechet was deported to the US.

Bechet found work in New York in show bands. Reconnecting with pianist, songwriter, and entrepreneur Clarence Williams, Bechet made his first recordings in 1923 with Williams’ Blue Five. Even with the murky sound characteristic of recordings of the period, one listen to “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” suffices to give a sense of Bechet’s powerful sound and command of his instrument. Williams employed him frequently to accompany blues singers, working with Mamie Smith, Sippie Wallace, and Eva Taylor, among others. He also recorded with his New Orleans rival Louis Armstrong, after Armstrong arrived in New York in 1924. The pair  memorably waxed two different versions of “Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home” for rival record labels Gennett and OKeh.  A stint with Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians in 1924 was followed by the opening of his own Harlem club, where he employed a young Johnny Hodges.

By the fall of 1925, though, Bechet’s wanderlust was once again irresistible. He left for Paris to play with a band led by pianist Claude Hopkins, in a revue featuring Josephine Baker. When he left the show in 1926, he once again took to the road, touring Russia for three months. There he met trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, who would become his pal and bandmate. His tours of Europe were cut short by a stay in jail for the better part of a year following an episode of violence in Paris involving other musicians. He was expelled from France in 1929.

Bechet moved back and forth from the Continent to the States during the Thirties. He worked with Noble Sissle’s band, then formed the New Orleans Feetwarmers with Ladnier in 1932. At one point, he and Ladnier ran a tailor shop in a brief attempt at staying off the road. In 1938, the pair made an historic appearance at John Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing concert in a quintet with pianist James P. Johnson plus the Count Basie bass and drum team of Walter Page and Jo Jones. By now, though, Bechet’s style of jazz was out of date. John Sebastian, reviewing the concert for New Masses, described the group as giving “aural picture to the early New Orleans jazz era.” Still, Bechet managed to keep making records, and his 1939 version of "Summertime" with Meade "Lux" Lewis on piano and Teddy Bunn on guitar for Blue Note was an unlikely hit. That same year, Bechet joined Jelly Roll Morton for a Victor recording date.

The following year, 1940, was important for Bechet’s music. There were a couple of dates with Armstrong, as well as some excellent recordings with cornetist Muggsy Spanier as the "Bechet-Spanier Big Four," made for the H.R.S. label, re-issued along with other Forties material on Up A Lazy River (1999 Good Time Jazz). Although Ladnier had died in April 1939, Bechet revived the Feetwarmers as a studio-only group that included cornetist Rex Stewart and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. Helped by the New Orleans revival of the Forties, Bechet kept working and touring with a continually varying cast of players including clarinetists Pee Wee Russell and Mezz Mezzrow, pianists Jess Stacy and Willie “The Lion” Smith, guitarist and scene-maker Eddie Condon, trumpeter Max Kaminsky and many others. Bechet also experimented with overdubbing in 1941 for Victor. In an unprecedented display of virtuosity as Sidney Bechet’s One Man Band, he recorded “The Sheik of Araby” and “Blues of Bechet” using clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones, piano, bass, and drums.

In the mid-Forties, Bechet had the idea of starting a music school. As the story goes, his publicity was limited to hanging up a sign outside his door. With some help, he did attract at least one student who paid close attention, Bob Wilber, who recorded with his idol in 1947. He also maintained the Bechet style, forming his Bechet Legacy ensemble in 1981.

In 1949, Bechet returned to France for the first time in 20 years, as the opening act for the Paris International Festival de Jazz. The unpleasantness of the late Twenties forgotten, Bechet received a tumultuous reception. Buoyed by the reaction and convinced that living among French speakers was a fulfillment of his destiny, Bechet moved to France in 1951, where he was treated as a star. There were a few trips back to the States, including a 1953 tour where he was recorded at Boston’s Storyville Club and the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, but most of his work in the Fifties was done in Europe. Occasionally he would get to play with American jazzmen, but most often he was a star soloist with European orchestras, notably that of clarinetist Claude Luter. He also recorded standards with modernists Martial Solal on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums for the French label ,Vogue. An all-star session with trumpeter Buck Clayton, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and a rhythm section of pianist George Wein, bassist Arvell Shaw, and drummer Kansas Fields, recorded at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 (also for Vogue) is among Bechet’s last recordings.

Bechet died on his 62nd birthday, on May 14, 1959. He had been living in Antibes, where a bust of his head overlooks a city square named in his honor. A fine jazz composer as well as a masterful performer, Bechet’s tunes include “What A Dream,” “Buddy Bolden Stomp,” “Song of the Medina,” and his enduring “Petite Fleur.” Bechet was also the co-author of an “as-told-to” autobiography, the occasionally fanciful Treat It Gentle. Many of his recordings are available on compact disc. There’s an excellent 3-CD compilation that includes material recorded for Columbia and related labels between 1923 and 1947 (2006 Mosaic Select).

As one of the best soloists to appear on the New Orleans scene, Bechet exerted a powerful influence on musicians when he came north. Although regarded as one of the key individuals in the development of jazz and one of the music’s early innovators, his bristly personality and need to star in every ensemble precluded stardom on the model of Armstrong or Ellington. The musicians, though, knew his worth. Let’s leave the last word for the Duke who called Bechet “the foundation. His things were all soul. From the inside.”

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