Bechet (May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959) was an American jazz
saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer.
He was one of the first important soloists in jazz (beating cornetist and
trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by several months and
later playing duets with Armstrong), and was perhaps the first notable jazz
saxophonist. Forceful delivery, well-constructed improvisations, and a
distinctive, wide vibrato characterized Bechet's playing.
Bechet's erratic temperament hampered his career, however, and not until the
late 1940s did he earn wide acclaim.
Bechet (pronounced BAH-shay by the family, most commonly pronounced
buh-SHAY) was born in New Orleans to a middle-class Creole of Color family.
Sidney's older brother Leonard Bechet (1877-1952) was a part time trombonist
and bandleader. Sidney Bechet quickly learned to play several musical
instruments kept around the house, mostly by teaching himself; he soon
decided to focus on clarinet. At age six, Sidney started playing along with
his brother's band at a family birthday party, debuting his talents to
aclaim. Later in his youth, Bechet studied with such renowned Creole
clarinetists as Lorenzo Tio, 'Big Eye' Louis Nelson Delisle, and George
Baquet. Soon after, Bechet would be found playing in many New Orleans
ensembles, improvising with what was 'acceptable' for jazz at that time
(obbligatos, with scales and arpeggios, and 'variating' the melody). These
ensembles included parade work with Henry Allen's celebrated Brass Band, the
Olympia Orchestra, and John Robichaux's 'genteel' dance orchestra. In
1911-1912, he performed with Bunk Johnson in the Eagle Band of New Orleans,
and in 1913-1914, with King Oliver in the Olympia Band.
Although Bechet spent his childhood and adolescence in New Orleans, from
1914-1917 he was touring and traveling, going as far north as Chicago, and
frequently teaming up with another famous Creole musician, Freddie Keppard.
In the spring of 1919, he traveled to New York, where he joined Will Marion
Cook's Syncopated Orchestra. Soon after, the orchestra journeyed to Europe
where, almost immediately upon arrival, they performed at the Royal
Philharmonic Hall in London. The group was warmly received, and Bechet was
especially popular, attracting attention near and far.
While in London, Bechet discovered the straight soprano saxophone, and
quickly developed a style quite unlike his warm, reedy clarinet tone. His
saxophone sound could be described as 'emotional', 'reckless', and 'large'.
He would often use a very broad vibrato, similar to what was common for some
New Orleans clarinetists at the time.
After being found guilty of assaulting a woman, Bechet was imprisoned in
London from September 13 to 26, 1922. He was subsequently deported back to
the USA, leaving Southampton on November 3 and arriving back in New York on
November 13, 1922.
On July 30, 1923, he began recording some of his earliest surviving studio
work. The session was led by Clarence Williams, a pianist and songwriter,
better known at that time for his music publishing and record producing.
Bechet recorded the 'Wild Cat Blues' and 'Kansas City Man Blues'. 'Wild Cat
Blues' is in a multi-thematic ragtime tradition, with four themes, at
sixteen bars each, and 'Kansas City Man Blues' is a genuine 12-bar blues.
Bechet interpreted and played each uniquely and with outstanding creativity
and innovation for the time.
On September 15, 1925, Bechet and other members of the Revue Negre,
including Josephine Baker, sailed to Europe, arriving at Cherbourg, France
on September 22. The revue opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
on October 2. He then toured Europe with various bands, reaching as far as
Russia in mid-1926. In 1928, he led his own small band at the famous
Bricktop's Club in Montmartre, Paris.
Bechet was jailed in Paris, France, when a female passer-by was wounded
during a shoot-out. After serving jail time, Bechet was deported. The most
common version of the story, as related in Ken Burns' jazz documentary,
reports that the initial shoot-out started when another musician/producer
told Bechet that he was playing the wrong chord. Bechet challenged the man
to a duel; critics assert, however, that Bechet was essentially ambushed by
a rival musician.
After his release, Bechet relocated back to New York. Having arrived right
after the stock market crash, Bechet joined up with Noble Sissle’s orchestra
and traveled around Berlin and Russia. In 1932 he returned to New York City
to lead a band with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. The band performed at The
Savoy, and consisted of six members. He went on to play with Lorenzo Tia,
and also got to know Roy Eldridge, another trumpeter.
Over time it became progressively more difficult for Bechet to find jobs
until eventually he started a tailor shop with Ladnier. During this time
they had visits from various musicians, and played in the back of their
shop. Throughout the 1940s Bechet played in several bands, but his financial
situation did not change until the end of that decade.
By the end of the 1940s Bechet was getting tired of playing in the United
States. His contract with Jazz Limited, a Chicago based record label, was
limiting the events he could perform at, such as the 1948 ‘Festival of
Europe’ in Nice. He also believed that jazz scene in the US had little left
to offer him and was getting stale.
Bechet relocated to France in 1950 after performing as a soloist at the
Paris Jazz Fair. His performance at the fair resulted in a surge in his
popularity in France. Since then, Bechet had little problem finding well
paid work in France. In 1953, he signed a recording contract with French
Vogue, which lasted for the rest of his life. He recorded many hit tunes,
including 'Les Oignons,' 'Promenade aux Champ Elysees,' and the
international hit, 'Petite Fleur.' He also composed a classical ballet score
in the late Romantic style of Tchaikovsky, called 'La Nuit est sorciere'
('The Night Is a Witch'). He married Elisabeth Ziegler in Antibes, France in
1951. Existentialists in France called him 'le dieu'.
Shortly before his death in Paris, Sidney dictated his poetic autobiography,
Treat It Gentle. He died from lung cancer on his sixty-second birthday.
Bechet successfully composed in jazz, pop-tune, and extended concert work
forms. He knew how to read music, but chose not to due to his highly
developed inner ear; he developed his own fingering system and he never
played section parts in a big band or swing-style combo. His recordings
often have been reissued.
Some of the highlights of his career include 1923 sides with Louis Armstrong
in 'Clarence Williams Blue Five'; the 1932, 1940, 1941 'New Orleans
Feetwarmers' sides; a 1938 'Tommy Ladnier Orchestra' session 'Weary Blues',
'Really the Blues'); a hit 1938 recording of 'Summertime'; and various
versions of his own composition, 'Petite Fleur'.
In 1939, Bechet co-led a group with pianist Willie 'The Lion' Smith that
recorded several early versions of what was later called 'Latin Jazz',
adapting traditional Meringue, Rhumba and Haitian songs to the jazz idiom.
Bechet in New York in 1947
On July 28, 1940, Sidney Bechet made a guest appearance on NBC Radio's The
Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street show, playing two of his
show-pieces ('Shake It and Break It' and 'St. Louis Blues') with Henry
Levine's dixieland band. Levine invited Bechet into the RCA Victor recording
studio (on 24th Street in New York City), where Bechet lent his soprano sax
to Levine's traditional arrangement of 'Muskrat Ramble.' On April 18, 1941,
as an early experiment in overdubbing at Victor, Bechet recorded a version
of the pop song 'The Sheik of Araby', playing six different instruments:
clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. A
theretofore unissued master of this recording was included in the 1965 LP
Bechet of New Orleans, issued by RCA Victor as LPV-510. On the liner notes,
George Hoeffer quotes Sidney as follows: 'I started by playing The Sheik on
piano, and played the drums while listening to the piano. 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
In 1944, 1946, and 1953 he recorded and performed in concert with Chicago
Jazz Pianist and Vibraphonist Max Miller, private recordings which are part
of the Max Miller archive and have never been released. These concerts and
recordings are covered completely in John Chilton's great book on Bechet.
Bechet was an important influence on alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who
studied with Bechet as a teenager.
In 1968, Bechet was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
The New York Times music writer Robert Palmer wrote of Bechet that, 'by
combining the 'cry' of the blues players and the finesse of the Creoles into
his 'own way,' Sidney Bechet created a style which moved the emotions even
as it dazzled the mind.'
In 1919, Swiss concert conductor, Ernst Ansermet, wrote one of the earliest
(if not the first) tributes to a jazz musician from
Sidney Bechet's primary instruments were the clarinet and the soprano sax.
His playing style is intense and passionate, and had a wide vibrato. He was
also known to be very proficient with his instruments and a master at
improvisation (both individual and collective). Bechet liked to have his
sound dominate in a performance, and trumpeters found it very difficult to
play alongside him.