Sidney Joseph Bechet (1897-1959) was one of the true fathers of jazz. He was the first to improvise fluently. The first clarinet player to make an impression in Europe. The first jazz player to be criticized by a musical scholar. The first to play a sax with grace. The first to record a multitrack, and as a soloist on several instruments … He was the master of the soprano sax, and at the same time one of the best jazz clarinetists. 50 years after Sidney Bechet’s death, this stellar saxophonist continues to be the unwavering symbol of New Orleans jazz.
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A child prodigy of New Orleans, from an early age Bechet seemed able to quickly master any instrument he put his hand to. (Some of his New Orleans contemporaries remembered Sidney as a hot-shot cornet player as a youngster. By 1941 he was an early experimenter in over-dubbing, Bechet recorded on six instruments. More on this below.) Sidney settled on the clarinet for his primary instrument, and he remained one of the greatest jazz clarinetists throughout his life.
Even though he was young, he was considered such a good clarinetist that he was engaged by the best orchestras in New Orleans. Sidney was His inimitable style and his sense of rhythm on the clarinet made him the pillar of these formations. Master of improvisation long before it was the norm, he played very early alongside the greatest.
Bechet was the consummate self-taught genius, some contend he never knew how to read a single musical note. Nevertheless, he possessed a privileged ear, and an overwhelming musical sense. His music was less about education and more about emotion.
Sidney’s aggressive clarinet playing style and mastery of improvisation, dominated the bands he was in, playing lead parts usually reserved for trumpets. However his clarinet skills were eventually overshadowed by his mastery of the soprano saxophone. Sidney was possibly the first noteworthy jazz saxophonist. Powerful delivery, well devised ideas, and a distinguished wide vibrato were the hallmark of Sidney’s playing.
Chicago and Europe
Sidney experienced playing in traveling bands long before he ever left his home town at the age of 20. In 1917, he left New Orleans for Chicago and from 1919, played in the Syncopated Orchestra of Will Marion Cook, with the Jazz Kings of Louis Mitchell on European tour. Never staying long in one place, he moved between Chicago, New York, and Europe as bases of operation until he finally settled in France.
Back in the USA Sidney Bechet’s first recordings date from 1923. It was the artist and manager Clarence Williams who first took the measure of Bechet’s talent and imagined his possible popular success. Over the following two years Bechet appeared on various Williams’ records. Initially, Bechet mainly accompanied blues musicians. He also participated in the sessions of the legendary Blue Five of Williams with Louis Armstrong whom Bechet had known as growing up in New Orleans. He also exercised his art in the primitive version of Duke Ellington‘s Washingtonians but unfortunately never recorded with them.
From ‘25 through ‘29 Sidney played and lived in Europe, playing in France, Germany, England and Russia. While he was playing in Paris, during a now famous altercation between himself and another musician, pistols were pulled and shots were fired. Three people were injured and Bechet spent a year behind bars.
He was deported upon release from prison and went to Berlin, Germany. He could not stay in France and he would not get a visa for England so he stayed in Berlin till 1931 then joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and returned to America.
Professionally, everything seemed on the ‘up and up.’ Sidney Bechet finally returned to the United States to New York. His timing couldn’t have been worse. America was still in the grip of the great depression and musicians were not able to make a living. Bechet continued to play throughout the 1930s, while trying to make money by opening a tailor shop with the trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. The shop quickly went bankrupt.
Ladnier and Sidney produced some memorable recordings under the name “New Orleans Feetwarmers.” Together in 1938, they produced the hits “Summertime,” a song originally composed in 1934 by George Gershwin, “Black stick,” and “Southern sunset.”
Sidney Bechet became a popular figure in the renaissance of the Dixieland style of the late 1940s, often recording with Mezz Mezzrow. In 1941 Bechet recorded with his friend John Reid (RCA) sessions in re recording, an invention of the master and a first in the history of jazz, he played in turn bass, drums, piano of the clarinet and tenor and recorded both sides of a disc with the song “Sheik of Arabia.” (See Video in bonus section at the bottom of the page)
Nobody is a prophet in his own country
Though Sidney Bechet was part of the jazz scene in the USA for a long time, but fame came far from home. In 1952 when he returned to France, he was warmly embraced by the popular jazz scene. He lived there until his death in 1959. There his most remembered creations emerged (the ballad “Petite Fleur“, for example). There he obtained multiple recognitions and had hit records that would rival contemporary pop stars, even indulging in the luxury of composing ballet pieces! The french started to call him ‘le dieu,’ or ‘the god.’
A Wife, Mistress and Baby
He was married in 1951 to Elizabeth Zigler, a German, and moved to Grigny where he bought a house. Barely a year later 1952, he met Jacqueline Perald, and from this “union” was born Daniel-Sidney who would be Bechet’s only heir. Sidney bought a house in Garches for his son and his mother. Daniel would be very much shared between the two women for the duration of Bechet’s life.
In 1956, while recording some of his biggest hits, one after the other, and with sales and his success skyrocketing, Bechet began experiencing respiratory problems. He made several trips to Saint-Honoré-Les-Bains to seek treatment. It seemed to relieve his symptoms and felt it had cured him. Sidney loved this pretty spa resort and became very close to many there.
But it was not to last, the respiratory problems returned. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and shortly before he passed away in Paris, Sidney dictated one of the most poetic of musical autobiographies, Treat It Gentle. He died in 1959 in Garches, where he was buried. The great jazz musicians of Paris all came out with sad hearts, knowing that a legend had just died.
Bechet was truly one of the original great jazz soloists. He lived a life rich in experiences and rebounded again and again from difficulty. Wherever Sidney went, Chicago, New York, Berlin, Paris, and of course New Orleans, he left behind a “happening scene.” Bechet left behind a multitude of beautiful recordings and compositions.
Sidney was an important influence to many up and coming musicians, like Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophonist who as a teenager studied with Bechet. Sidney is rumored to be the prototype for Pablo, the saxophonist from the novel Steppenwolf. Hermann Hesse almost certainly listened to Bechet playing throughout Europe in the ‘20s.
Here’s a special bonus recording! This is a strange recording of The Sheik Of Araby and is an early example of multi-track recording. Sidney Bechet was at the RCA studios on April 18th, 1941 (before tape) and the engineers fiddled with some early multiple recordings. This is the result. Record an instrument, play the record back while he played another instrument along with the record, ad nauseum – the first ones recorded sounding worse each time another record is made. Clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums, all played by Bechet. If you can hear the drums, you win a cigar.
Band or Session Leader
- New Orleans Feetwarmers
- Mezzrow – Spanier Big
- Mezzrow – Bechet QuintetFour
- Sidney Bechet and his Creole Orchestra
- King Bechet Trio
- Sidney Bechet’s Blue Note Quartet
- Mezzrow – Bechet Septet
- Sidney Bechet and his Orchestra
Moon Over Harlem
Edgar G. Ulmer
L’Inspecteur connaît la musique
Ah, quelle équipe!