Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BECHET, Sidney

(b 14 May 1897, New Orleans; d 14 May 1959, Paris, France) Clarinet, soprano sax. With Louis Armstrong and King Oliver one of the greatest of all New Orleans musicians. He may have conceived of himself as a soloist even before Armstrong did, and his lyrical gift allowed him to invent long melodies with ornamentation, a skill similar to that of the greatest European musicians of earlier centuries; but his career was peripatetic and he was out of the country 1925-30 when reputations were being made. He played clarinet from age three and sat in with Freddie Keppard as a child, toured the South songplugging with Clarence Williams 1914-16, played with Oliver '16, went to Chicago, then NYC, where he joined Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra '19 and went with it to Europe. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote, 'I wish to declaim the name of this artist of genius, because for my part, I will never forget it: it is Sidney Bechet ... who is so happy that you like what he does, but does not know how to speak of his art, save to say that he is following his ''own way'' ... perhaps the great road that the whole world will be swept along tomorrow...' (It was the rediscovery of this article many years later that helped spark off the New Orleans revival; see the entry for Jazz.) Bechet bought a straight model soprano in London and thereafter concentrated on that instrument, though he still played clarinet on records. He was deported from England (a fight with a prostitute) and played in Paris till he returned to NYC '21.

He made his first records with Williams; he accompanied singers with Armstrong (Red Onion Jazz Babies, '24); played briefly with Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson at the Kentucky Club '25 and had the same effect as Armstrong on NYC musicians who were not yet playing jazz. He toured with shows and revues, returned to Europe with Josephine Baker and Claude Hopkins '25, left the show and toured Russia '26. He went to Berlin; toured Europe '27; joined Noble Sissle in Paris '28 and was jailed there for eleven months '29 (a shooting incident). He toured New England with Ellington '32; organized the New Orleans Feetwarmers with Tommy Ladnier and first recorded for Victor '32 but ran a tailor shop with Ladnier in '33 at the bottom of the Depression. He played all over the East (in New Orleans with Armstrong '44) but mostly in NYC. He made more than three dozen sides for Bluebird/Victor '32-41 in various groups (as 'Pops King' '38 on four tracks by 'Tommy Ladnier and his Orchestra', including a romping 'Weary Blues' and a gorgeous 'Really The Blues') with drummers from New Orleans veteran Baby Dodds to bopper Kenny Clarke: Bechet often seemed to dominate and was said to be hard to get along with, yet when he played on a Bunk Johnson date for Blue Note in 1945 he allowed Johnson to run his own session: the recorded evidence is that the music always came first (see Johnson's entry). The famous Blue Note dates with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen on Blue Note '39 included 'Blues For Tommy' (Ladnier) and 'Summertime', followed by more Blue Note sessions through '53. Bechet's heavy vibrato was instantly recognizable; he was the only jazzman until Steve Lacy and John Coltrane to concentrate on the soprano, but his lyricism was a profound influence on Johnny Hodges, who played soprano until '40 as well as alto sax. On 'Wild Man Blues' '40 (for Victor) Bechet played solos and breaks in the styles of both Armstrong and Johnny Dodds on their classic recording of '27, yet his mature mastery of New Orleans lyricism included them rather than imitating them. On the next Victor date three months later 'Blues In Thirds' was a stunningly beautiful duet with Earl Hines, Bechet's playing indicating a profound inner tranquillity however volatile a man he may have been; while the same date has him playing in unison harmony with Rex Stewart's cornet on Ellington's 'Stompy Jones' and sounding astonishingly modern: Bechet's complete mastery of the New Orleans style allowed him to transcend it. Tracks made '45 with Mezz Mezzrow on his King Jazz label have been reissued by the Jazzology group (see that entry).

Back in Europe '49 Bechet settled in France, becoming a famous and well-loved entertainer there. There were visits to the USA '49, '51, '53; UK, Argentina, Peru '57; Brussels International Exhibition '58; extended works 'Nouvelles Orleans', 'The Night Is a Witch' were performed late '50s. His autobiography Treat It Gentle was published '60. Recordings in France of his own tunes included 'Les Oignons' '49 (with Claude Luter, clarinet, leader, b 1923; Paris; d 6 October 2006, Poissy), said to have sold a million copies by '55, and 'Petite Fleur' '52 (an international pop hit for British bandleader Chris Barber '59, though Barber did not play on it, giving it over to Monty Sunshine on clarinet). Biography Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz '87 by John Chilton is authoritative.