Musically educated on the streets and cabarets of New Orleans, clarinetist and alto-saxophonist Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) emerged as a major exponent of early jazz. He was to the alto-saxophone what Louis Armstrong had been to the trumpet. Bechet helped set the standard for his instrument, inspiring jazzmen like John Coltrane to study the New Orleans master's tone and immaculate phrasing.
One of seven children, Sidney Bechet was born on May 14, 1897, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, the son of a slave who performed in the city's Congo Square dances, shared a passion for music. A shoemaker and able dancer, Bechet's father encouraged his children to take up the study of music. As a Creole of color, Bechet grew up within the musical world of New Orleans. Running along parades in "the second line," he watched brass bands play marches and ragtime numbers. Accompanied by his mother Josephine, he attended operas and listened to circus bands. Around age six, Bechet took his older brother Leonard's clarinet and began practicing behind the family home. After she discovered him playing, his mother, instead of punishing him for taking the clarinet, had Bechet play for his older brother. Impressed by his brother's precocious playing, Leonard eventually invited him to join his family-based brass band that featured four of his brothers. Soon after, he sat in with trumpeter Freddie Keppard, marched in Manuel Perez's band, and took lessons from clarinetists George Baquet, Louis de Lisle "Big Eye" Nelson, and Lorenzo Tio.
Introduction to Louis Armstrong
By age twelve Bechet performed with a number of bands including John Robichaux's Orchestra. Around 1908 he performed with trumpeter Bunk Johnson who introduced him to Louis Armstrong. Bechet and Armstrong, along with a drummer, played on the back of a furniture truck, advertising Saturday night boxing. Composer and bandleader, Clarence Williams, in search of a band to promote the sale of his sheet music, hired Bechet to accompany him on a tour. Presuming that the tour was heading north, Bechet and his fellow band members were disappointed when they found themselves in Texas, plugging Williams' numbers in local dime stores. In Galveston, Bechet and the band's pianist Louis Wade quit and made their way back to New Orleans.
Bechet continued to build a reputation as one of the premiere clarinetists in New Orleans. As Martin Williams pointed out in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, "It is important to remember … that Bechet was then not just a kid in the opinion of New Orleans players. While still in his teens, he was acknowledged as one of the best clarinetists in the city—to many the best."
In the summer of 1917 Bechet embarked on a Southern and Midwestern tour with the Bruce and Bruce Touring Company. The group's last stop was Chicago. Bechet remained in the city and joined Lawrence Duhe's band at the De Luxe Cafe. He then performed with Freddie Keppard's band at the Dreamland and occasionally worked with King Oliver at the De Luxe. In 1919 he briefly rejoined Keppard at the Royal Gardens and took a late-hour job at the Pekin Theatre with the band of ragtime pianist, Tony Jackson.
Joined Southern Syncopated Orchestra
While performing in Chicago Bechet attracted the attention of Will Marion Cook, a classically trained composer. Cook invited him to join his Southern Syncopated Orchestra. As Bechet recounted in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, "Will knew I couldn't read notes … and told me, 'Son, I want you to listen to the band and I'll let you know when to rehearse." After informing Cook that he did not need to sit out, Bechet took part in the rehearsal, playing along with the orchestra by ear.
With Cook's orchestra, Bechet toured New York and Europe. In London he bought a straight-model soprano saxophone and began to adapt it into his repertoire. At Buckingham Palace, he entertained the Prince of Wales with his original composition "Characteristic Blues." Taken with Bechet's fine musicianship, Swiss conductor Ernest Amsermet attended a number of his performances. As quoted in Jelly Roll, Jabbo, and Fats, Amsermet stated: "There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinetist who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet … I wish to set down the name of the artist of genius; as for myself I will never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet."
With the disbanding of Cook's Orchestra, Bechet remained in London with a remnant group led by drummer Benny Peyton. This small ensemble appeared at The Embassy Club and the Hammersmith Palais in London and, for a short time in 1920, played in Paris before returning to the Embassy and Palais. Despite Bechet's musical achievements in England, an arrest for allegedly assaulting a prostitute resulted in his deportation to America.
Returning to New York in the fall of 1921, Bechet performed with society orchestra leader Ford Dabney and played in Donald Heywood's production "How Come?" In Washington D.C. he met singer Bessie Smith. During his brief relationship and musical association with the talented and hard-drinking blues woman, Bechet took Smith to Okeh Records and recorded "Sister Kate," a side that was never released.
Recorded with Clarence Williams' Blue Five
Bechet's earliest and most legendary recordings were with Clarence Williams' Blue Five—sessions that spanned a three year period between 1923 and 1925. Among these ground breaking sides, were "Wild Cat Blues," "Kansas City Man," "Texas Moaner Blues," "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind." Joined by his old-time New Orleans musical associate Louis Armstrong, Bechet performed on Williams' legendary composition "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home." Proclaimed by many critics as the best of the Williams' series, the song exhibited the brilliant interaction between Bechet and Armstrong. In Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Richard Hadlock wrote that Bechet "was probably the only jazzman in New York at the time who could match Armstrong's brilliance in every way. When the two improvised together, each prodding the other to more daring flights. As Hadlock added, "Despite Armstrong's authority on most of the Clarence Williams dates, it was the more experienced Bechet who initially set the pace and tone of each performance."
Bechet's next most important association occurred around 1924 when he took a brief job at a white, midtown-cabaret, the Kentucky Club, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Though Ellington held Bechet's talent in high regard, he could not tolerate his eccentric habit of bringing a large dog on-stage. As quoted in American Musicians, Ellington later related, "When Bechet was blowing, he would say 'I'm going to call Goola this time!' Goola was his dog, a big German shepherd. Goola wasn't always there, but he was calling him anyway with a kind of throaty growl."
Bechet soon left Ellington and opened a restaurant on Lenox Avenue, the Club Basha—a name derived from his nickname Bash. The restaurant proved a short-lived venture. Before long he took to the road once more with Claude Hopkins and Josephine Baker, in the 1925 production "Revue Negre." When the tour broke up in Berlin the next year, Bechet traveled to Russia where he made appearances in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. He was billed as the exemplar of the "Talking Saxophone." Afterward, Bechet returned to Berlin and organized a new production of "Revue Negre" which toured Europe in 1927. Moving to Paris in the summer of 1928, he joined bandleader Noble Sissle at the Les Ambassadors Club. Being a product of a tough upbringing, Bechet carried a pistol for protection. Outside a nightclub he got into a dispute with a man which resulted in the accidental wounding of a French woman. Arrested and convicted, he served eleven months in jail and was finally deported.
Rejoining Noble Sissle in New York, Bechet embarked on a tour of Europe, along with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. Since his earlier meeting with Ladnier in Europe, Bechet became drawn to his musicianship. In 1931 Bechet and Ladnier formed a six-piece band, the New Orleans Feetwarmers. Eventually establishing themselves at New York's Savoy, they initiated a long and musically creative collaboration. "That was the best band," recalled Bechet in Profiles in Jazz, "people liked it and we were all musicianers who understood what jazz really meant." As jazz writer Graham Colombe' observed, in the liner notes for An Introduction to Sidney Bechet, "Tommy Ladnier was Bechet's most important sideman of the thirties and they recorded together in 1932 some of the most boisterous and jubilant music of the decade." Among their excellent uptempo numbers were "Shag," "Sweetie Dear," and "Blackstick." With few musical jobs, Bechet and Ladnier soon open the Southern Tailor Shop, a combination repair and cleaners operation which doubled as a musicians hangout.
During the 1940s a renewed interest in traditional jazz helped bolster Bechet's career. He worked with a trio at Nick's in Greenwich Village and, through the connections of banjo/guitarist Eddie Condon, appeared at New York Town Hall concerts. Organized by Nesuhi Ertegun, he played at an all-star concert in Washington D.C., with such talents as trombonist Vic Dickerson and pianist Art Hodes. In 1945 he was briefly reunited with Louis Armstrong at the Jazz Foundation Concert in New Orleans, and soon after he made several sides for the Blue Note label with another famous New Orleans trumpeter, Bunk Johnson.
Moved to France
By 1949 Bechet responded to offers by European promoters, and left for France to appear at the Paris Jazz Festival. After the festival he returned to America and played a short stint at Jimmy Ryan's in New York. In 1951 Bechet took up permanent residence in France and became an international celebrity, earning enough income to buy a small estate outside Paris. The relaxed racial atmosphere and artistic recognition he received in France was a welcome break from long years of traveling and economic hardship in America. His musical association with French musician Claude Luter's band provided Bechet with steady work until 1955. Around this time he appeared in a ballet and two films: Se'rie Noire with Eric Stroheim and Blues featuring Vivane Romance.
Bechet remained busy in the recording studio as well. In 1953 he signed his last contract with the French Vogue label. Despite the varying criticism of the Vogue sides, Bechet's musicianship remained in fine form. Unlike many of the musicians of his era, he was not opposed to perform with Be bop-inspired jazzmen. His Vogue sides with modernist drummer Kenny Clarke yielded several notable recordings such as "Klook's Blues."
In 1958 Bechet experienced stomach pains while playing a job in Boston, and was taken to Boston General Hospital. More trustful of the French, he waited to return to his home outside Paris before undergoing surgery. Despite his weakened condition brought on by cancer, Bechet expressed intentions to return to America. Before he was able to complete these arrangements, Bechet died on his birthday, May 14, 1959. Years later, Duke Ellington, in The Duke Ellington Reader, paid tribute to his former band member: "Of all the musicians, Bechet was to me the very epitome of jazz. He represented and executed everything that had to do with the beauty of it all, and everything he played in his whole life was original … I honestly think he was the most unique man ever to be in this music—but don't ever try and compare because when you talk about Bechet you just don't talk about anyone else."
Baillet, Whitney, American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Baillet, Whitney, Jelly Roll, Jabbo, and Fats: 19 Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Bechet, Sidney, Treat it Gentle, 1960.
The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the 20s, Da Capo Press, 1972.
Horricks, Raymond, Profiles in Jazz: From Sidney Bechet to John Coltrane, Transition Pub., 1991.
Williams, Martin, Jazz Masters of New Orleans.
Periodicals Jazz Journal International, February, 1984.