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Bechet, Sidney

Sidney Bechet

Rock band

For the Record

European Tour

With Duke Ellington

The Dixieland Revival

Selected discography

Selected writings

Sources

Musically educated on the streets and cabarets of New Orleans, clarinetist and alto-saxophonist Sidney Bechet emerged as a major exponent of early jazz. By the time he took up permanent residence in France in the early 1950s, Bechet traveled two continents, playing in settings from New Orleans parades to a command performance for the Royal family at Buckingham Palace. Though he never strayed far from his New Orleans jazz roots, Bechet continued, until his death in 1959, to perform in various musical situations. To the alto-saxophone what Louis Armstrong was to the trumpet, he helped set the standard for his instrument, inspiring even modern jazzmen like John Coltrane to study the New Orleans masters tone and immaculate phrasing.

One of seven children, Sidney Bechet was born on May 14, 1897, in New Orleans. His father, the son of a slave who performed on the citys Congo Square dances, shared a passion for music. A shoe maker and able dancer, Bechets 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

For the Record

Born Sidney Bechet May 14, 1897, in New Orleans, Louisiana; father: Omar Bechet a shoe maker; mother Josephine; married wife in 1951.

Began to study clarinet at age six; played in family-based brass band, the Silver Bells, led by brother Leonard; sat in with Freddie Keppard and took lessons from George Baquet, Big Eye Louis Nelson, and Lorenzo Tio; performed with Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong; later toured the Midwest with Bruce and Bruce Touring Company in 1917; in Chicago joined Lawrence Duhes band and then, as a member of Will Marion Cooks ensemble, and toured Europe; continued to tour Europe with remanent of Cooks band; returned to U.S. in 1921 and performed with Ford Dabney and blues singer Bessie Smith; recorded extensively with Clarence Williams 1923-1925; briefly performed with Duke Ellington in 1924 and in following year toured Europe with Revue Negre joined Noble Sissle and subsequently toured with own band in Germany and Russia; with trumpeter Tommy ladnier formed New Orleans Feet Warmers in 1931; opened Southern tailor Shop; 1934 rejoined Noble Sissle; 1940s appeared at New York at Nicks and Town Hall concerts; 1945 briefly rejoined Armstrong for Jazz Foundation concert in New Orleans and made recordings with Bunk Johnson; appeared at Paris Jazz Festival 1949; moved to France 1951; worked Claude Luters band 1951-1955; toured internationally in 1958 and recorded tapes for postumously published memoir Treat it Gentle.

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 Leonards 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 brothers precocious playing, Leonard eventually invited him to join his family-based brass band which featured four of his brothers. Soon after, he sat-in with trumpeter Freddie Keppard, marched in Manuel Perezs band, and took lessons from clarinetists George Baquet, Louis de Lisle Big Eye Nelson, and Lorenzo Tio.

By age twelve Bechet performed with a number of bands including John Robichauxs Orchestra. Around 1908 he performed with trumpeter Bunk Johnson who introduced him Louis Armstrong. Bechet and Armstrong, along with a drummer, played on the back of a furnituretruck, advertising Saturday night boxing. Composer and band leader, Clarence Williams, in search of band to promote the sale of his sheet music, hired Bechet to accompany him on a tour. Under the presumption the tour was heading north, Bechet and his fellow band members were disappointed when they found themselves in Texas, plugging Williamsnumbers in local dime stores. In Galveston, Bechet and the bands pianist Louis Wade quit and made their way back to New Orleans.

In New Orleans, Bechet continued to build a reputation as one of the citys premiere clarinetists. As Martin Williams pointed out in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, It is important to rememberthat 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 cityto many the best.

In the summer of 1917 Bechet embarked on a Southern and Midwestern tour with the Bruce and Bruce Touring Company. With its last stop in Chicago, Bechet stayed in the city and joined Lawrence Duhes band at the De Luxe Cafe. He then performed with Freddie Keppards 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.

European Tour

While performing in Chicago Bechet attracted the attention of Will Marion Cook, a classically trained composer who invited Bechet to join his Southern Syncopated Orchestra. As Bechet recounted in his autobiography Treat It Gentle, Will knew I couldnt read notesand told me, Son, I want you to listen to the band and Ill 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 Cooks orchestra, Bechet toured New York and Europe. In London bought a straight-model soprano saxophone and began to adapt into his repertoire. At Buckingham Palace, he entertained the Prince of Wales with his original composition Characteristic Blues. Taken with the New Orleanians musicianship, Swiss conductor Ernest Amsermet attended a number of Bechets 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 clarinetI 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 disbandment of Cooks Orchestra, Bechet remained in London with a remanent 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 Bechets musical achievements in England, his 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 Heywoods 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.

Bechets 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 Armstrongs brilliance in every way. When the two improvised together, each prodding the other to more daring flights, they usually finished in a dead heat. As Hadlock added, Despite Armstrongs authority and on most of the Clarence Williams dates, it was the more experienced Bechet who initially set the pace and tone of each performance.

With Duke Ellington

Bechets next most musical important association around 1924 when he took a brief job at a white, midtown-cabaret, the Kentucky Club, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Though Ellington held Bechets talent in high regard, he could not tolerate the New Orleanians eccentric habit of bringing a large dog on-stage. Ellington later related, as quoted in American Musicians, When Bechet was blowing, he would say Im going to call Goola this time! Goola was his dog, a big German shepherd. Goola wasnt 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 and 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 was billed, for appearances in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa, as the exemplar of the Talking Saxophone. Afterward, he 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. A product of a tough upbringing, Bechet, as did many African-American performers, carried a pistol for protection. Outside a night cub in the Montmarte he got into a shooting scrape with a man which resulted in the accidental wounding of French woman. Arrested and convicted, he served 11 months in jail and was finally deported.

Rejoining Noble Sissle in New York, Bechet embarked, along with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, on a tour of Europe. Since his earlier meeting of Ladnier in Europe, Bechet became immediately drawn to the fellow Louisianians musicianship. In 1931 Bechet and Ladnier formed a six-piece band, the New Orleans Feetwarmers. Eventually establishing themselves at New Yorks Savoy, they to 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 Bechets 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 up-tempo 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.

The Dixieland Revival

During the 1940s a renewed interest in traditional jazz helped bolster Bechets career. Bechet worked with a trio at Nicks 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.

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 Ryans 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 Luters band provided Bechet with steady work until 1955. Around this time he appeared in a ballet and two films: Serie Noire with Eric Stromhein 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, Bechets 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 Klooks 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 returned to his home outside Paris before undergoing the diagnosed operation. Despite his weakened condition brought on by cancer, Bechet expressed intentions to return to America. Such arrangements, however, ended with his death on his birthday, May 14, 1959. Years later, Duke Ellington, in The Duke Ellington Reader, paid tribute to his former bandmember: 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 was originalI honestly think he was the most unique man ever to be in this music - but dont ever try and compare because when you talk about Bechet you just dont talk about anyone else.

Selected discography

Bechet!, GNP.

Bechet With Clarence Williams, Pearl.

Blackstick (1931-1938), MCA Jazz.

In New York, 1937-1940, JSP.

Jazz at Storyville, Black Lion.

Really the Blues, Living Era.

Summertime, Musical Memories.

The Best of Sidney Bechet, Blue Note.

The Complete Sidney Bechet Vol. 1&2, RCA.

The Legendary Sidney Bechet, RCA/Bluebird.

The Victor Sessions: Master Takes, RCA/Bluebird.

Sidney Bechet - 1924 to 1938, ABC, 1989.

The Jazz Collector Edition Sidney Bechet: Rare Recordings 1947-1953, Laser Light, 1990.

An Introduction to Sidney Bechet: His Best Recordings 1923-1941, The Best of Jazz, 1994.

Selected writings

Bechet, Sidney, Treat It Gentle, 1960.

Sources

Books

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.

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.

The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Williams, Martin, Jazz Masters of New Orleans.

Periodicals

Jazz Journal International, February, 1984.

Additional information for this profile was provided by the liner notes of An Introduction to Sidney Bechet: His Best Recordings 1923-1941, Best of Jazz, 1994, by Graham Colombe and Bechet!, GNP, by Leonard Feather.

John Cohassey

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Bechet, Sidney 1897–1959

Sidney Bechet 18971959

Musician

Toured Europe

Discovered Saxophone

Returned to Europe

Musical Reputation Grew

Selected discography

Selected writings

Sources

Sidney Bechet was known as the master of the saxophone. Though his musical career began with the clarinet, he turned to the saxophone and the rest is history. Bechet played in jazz clubs all over the South in his early days, but became famous in Europe, particularly France. His musical life, however, was not upstaged by his personal life. From failed marriages to run-ins with the law, Bechet truly led the life of a jazz musician.

Bechet was born on May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana to a black Creole family. His father Omar was educated in a private school so he spoke and wrote both Creole Patois and English. His mother Josephine was black, but was referred to as a passeblanc. Bechet grew up in a middle-class family as the youngest of five boys. His father was a maker of fine shoes.

Bechet began playing the clarinet by practicing with his brother Leonards when he thought no one would hear him. He claimed to have been taught by legendary New Orleans musicians George Baquet, Big Eye Louis Nelson, and Lorenzo Tio. Whoever his teachers were, Bechet took to the coronet and the clarinet. By his early teens, he was playing in both childrens bands and with older musicians. At the age of 14, much to his parents chagrin, Bechet began to play music for a living getting home at dawn and talking about getting married as an adult musician would. Finally his parents stipulated that whoever booked the young Bechet had to provide a ride to and directly from the show. He began to travel around as a musician at the age of 16 and went on tour with Clarence Williams throughout the deep South. By 1916 Bechet had played as far away as Chicago.

In 1917 the U.S. Navy closed the famous New Orleans brothel district called Storyville. This act by the government, along with the growing industrialization of big cities across the northern part of the United States and the poor pay down South, caused a dispersal of musicians from the New Orleans area. And Bechet was one of the wanderers.

Toured Europe

Bechet was 21 and playing in Chicago when Will Marion

At a Glance

Born Sidney Bechet, May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, LA; died May 14, 1959 in Paris, France; Son of Omar (a shoemaker) and Josephine Bechet; was married to Elisabeth at time of death; Children: Daniel (by mistress Jaqueline).

Carrer: Began playing in and around New Orleans at the age of 14 with his brothers in the Silver Bell Band; left New Orleans for Chicago in 1916; Toured Europe as a featured soloist with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra; began recording with Clarence Williams in 1923; joined Duke Ellingtons band for a short time in 1924; Opened Club Basha in 1925; Toured Europe 1925-30; Recorded and toured with Noble Sissles orchestra 1931-38; played at Jazz ltd. in Chicago in 1948; Moved to France in 1950; Toured and recorded throughout Europe 1950-58.

Cook, a well-known black composer and band leader, discovered him and took him to New York. By 1919 Bechet had left Cooks orchestra and was playing with Brymms Black Devils. He was persuaded to rejoin the orchestra and tour Europe as part of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra when Cook threatened to sue him for breach of contract. Bechet was the featured soloist and the groups only pure jazz player. Ernest Ansermat, a noted conductor from Switzerland, was in London to conduct the orchestra of the Ballet Russe. James Lincoln Collier reported in his book, The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History that after seeing Bechet, Ansermat said: there is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso 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 this artist of genius, as for myself, I shall never forget itit is Sidney Bechet. Aside from isolated moments performing, the tour did not go smoothly and Cook went home to the United States twice. The tour experienced attendance problems and some of the musicians were going unpaid.

Discovered Saxophone

Bechet stayed in Europe for two years and played in one of the splinter groups from Cooks orchestra led by Benny Payton. The band mainly played in London, Paris, and Brussels. During this period there was a significant development for Bechet as an individual performer and for jazz music in general. Bechet discovered the soprano saxophone. At that time the saxophone was considered more of a novelty instrument and was not taken seriously by accomplished musicians. Despite this drawback, or perhaps because other people did not like to play it, he mastered the straight saxophone quickly and became the instruments first great player. Though he did continue to play the clarinet, Bechet became known almost completely as a saxophone player. He won some notoriety as both an excellent soloist and a pioneer on the saxophone. Bechet also cemented his reputation as being somewhat hot-headed and difficult. In London he had a conflict with a prostitute which landed him in prison and eventually caused him to be expelled from the country on November 3, 1922.

In 1923 Bechet made his first recordings with the noted composer and arranger Clarence Williams. He appeared as part of the Clarence Williams Blue Five and overshadowed all the other members of the band, including a young Louis Armstrong. He was a soughtafter session man and played with Bessie Smith (which led to a brief affair). Bechet even joined Duke Ellingtons band for a short time.

Though his tenure with Ellingtons group was limited because of his inability to get along with the other musicians, Bechet had a great influence on the band. In The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History, Ellington had this to say about Bechet: I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside. It was very, very difficult to find anyone who could really keep up with him. Of all musicians Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz. He presented and executed everything that had to do with the beauty of it all and everything he played in his whole life was completely original. He was a truly great man and no one has ever been able to play like him. Bechets lack of discipline and problems being on time got him into trouble with Ellington. One time he brought his german shepard with him to a practice. Ellington was able to overlook much of Bechets personal eccentricities because of his unmatched brilliance on the saxophone, but one time when he disappeared for three days and then told Ellington he was in a cab, his time as a member of Ellingtons band was over. Bechet at this time in his life in the early twenties was considered the best horn player in jazz.

Returned to Europe

In 1925 Bechet opened his own jazz club with a partner called Club Basha, but that relationship was short-lived because the two men got into a dispute over money. By September of 1925, Bechet joined Will Marion Cook latest project, The Black Review, which included a young and unknown Josephine Baker. The orchestra journeyed to Paris, but the company did not last and Bechet formed a splinter group spending two years touring Brussels, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Egypt, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. In 1928 he returned to Paris and joined Noble Sissles Orchestra as a soloist and also found time to write his first composition, The Negro Rhapsody.

Another significant development was that Bechet met a young French girl named Elisabeth and wrote a letter to his brother Leonard informing him that he was going to be married. Unfortunately, before any marriage took place, Bechet had another run-in with the law. According to one account, Bechet was playing in a band with Mike McKendrick and the two started arguing about the way a song should be played. McKendrick pulled a gun and Bechet quickly left, but returned and waited for McKendrick outside of another bar. When the banjo player exited the bar, Bechet ambushed him and began shooting while McKendrick returned fire. Three people were wounded and both men were sent to prison. Bechet spent 11 months in jail. He was supposed to go back to the United States immediately, but he was in the process of divorcing his first wife Norma and believed it would be inconvenient to return just then. Bechet decided to go to Berlin in 1926, but returned to the United States when he got an offer to play with Noble Sissles band.

Musical Reputation Grew

Bechet played in Sissles orchestra throughout the thirties, even going back to France for a short time. During the thirties Bechet performed and recorded with many noted jazz players including Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, and Eddie Condon. But the 1930s were not good times for small jazz bands because of the dominance of big bands and the changing musical tastes during the Depression, so Bechet temporarily retired. He opened a tailor shop in New York, but that was dropped quickly after his first offer to play again pressing pants was not part of Bechets ultimate destiny. He rejoined Sissle in 1934 and traveled and recorded with his band until 1938. Bechet enjoyed a growing reputation towards the latter part of the thirties and also a relatively tranquil personal life traveling with his new wife Marilouise. He left Sissles band without a new gig, but quickly moved back to New York to play regularly at Nicks Tavern until May of 1940. Bechet had been playing with several different bands and recorded with RCA Victor until the company did not renew his contract. Bechet wanted to record George Gershwins Summertime, but had little success with the major labels. Finally a small jazz label called Blue Note agreed to record Bechets version of the classic song. The record became a jazz hit and helped propel Bechet back into the limelight.

During the early part of the Forties, Bechet was busy playing jazz concerts, doing radio programs, and recording for Blue Note. He lived in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Laura and in addition to his performances earned money from royalties. After World War II, Bechet opened a music school where he tutored many young jazz players such as Bob Wilbur. Bechet regularly played with Eddie Condon, Milton Mezz Mezzrow and attempted to start his own band with Bunk Johnson. In 1948 Bechet went to Chicago to play at a club called Jazz Ltd. and spent the winter there. When he returned to Brooklyn for what amounted to a summer vacation his relationship with Laura had ended.

Bechet traveled back to France in May of 1949 and was besieged by fans and admirers. His performance at the 1949 Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival in Paris solidified his reputation as a jazz master. He stayed in France for just a short time, but the welcome he received made a large impression on him. In the fall of 1949 he returned to Chicago to play at Jazz Ltd. for another season, but his heart was not in it. He quickly returned to New York and then to France under the threat of legal action because he had broken his contract with the owners of Jazz Ltd. He returned to the United States in November to patch up his legal affairs and then returned to France, this time for good on June 5, 1950. To his surprise Bechet found that he was a national celebrity. He immediately began recording and touring. In 1951 he toured Scandinavia, Belgium, and North Africa. While in Algeria, he met a woman from his past.

He somehow ran into his old fiancé Elisabeth and the two rekindled their romance which ended up with Bechet proposing marriage. On August 17, 1951 the couple were married at the Cannes Town Hall in a ceremony which included doves, a parade, floats, jazz bands, and a twelve-foot model of a saxophone. Bechet stayed home after the honeymoon for just a short time and then toured England and the United States. He played in Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston. He was forced to return to France in December of 1951 because he had developed a stomach ulcer. He was scheduled to have surgery, but the rest improved his condition and the operation was postponed. He resumed recording and playing only a month later in 1952 and continued through 1954.

On April 3, 1954, Bechet got a telegram in Lucerne, Switzerland that he had fathered a son by his mistress Jacqueline Pekaldi back in Paris. Despite his health and his son Daniel, Bechet was back out on the road touring through 1955. By 1956 his record sales in France were comparable with pop music stars. He seemed to have slowed down somewhat in 1957 and 1958, but he still continued to travel all over Europe. He lived in Paris with Jacqueline and their son on the north side of Paris, but he still saw his wife Elisabeth quite often who lived on the south side of the city in a town called Gringy. The idea of divorce was never mentioned.

In 1959 Bechets health took a turn for the worse and it was soon evident that he would have to stop his traveling altogether. He became very sick with cancer and died on May 14, 1959. Bechets highly colorful autobiography, Treat It Gentle, was published in 1960. In it Sidney Bechet described his feelings for music: Thats one of the things that make it why a musicianer, if hes real serious about the music, has to have this place inside himself. Youve got to say that to yourself Ive got the music and I dont give a damn for the rest. Rich or poor, the music is there and thats what Im for.

Selected discography

Clarence Williams Blue Five, Okeh, 1923.

Noble Sissle And His Orchestra, Brunswick, 1931.

New Orleans Feetwarmers, Victor, 1932.

Sidney Bechet with Noble Sissles Swingsters, Decca, 1938.

Sidney Bechet and his Orchestra, Vocalion, 1938.

The Sidney Bechet Quintet, Summertime, Blue Note, 1939.

Jelly Roll Mortons New Orleans Jazzmen, Bluebird, 1939.

New Orleans Feetwarmers, Victor, 1940.

Sidney Bechets Blue Note Jazzmen, Blue Note, 1944.

Mezzrow-Bechet Quintet, King Jazz, 1946.

Sidney Bechet with Bob Wilbur and his Jazz Band, Circle, 1949.

Sidney Bechet-Claude Later and his Orchestra, Vogue, 1949.

Sidney Bechet and the Orchestra of the Dutch Swing College, Decca, 1951.

Jazz at Storyville featuring Sidney Bechet, Storyville, 1953.

Sidney Bechet AEC Les Orchestras De Claude Lauder et Andre Railed, Vogue, 1955.

Sidney Joe Noel, Vogue, 1958.

Selected writings

Treat it Gentle, 1960.

Sources

Books

Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, by Gunther Schuller, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz, by John Chilton, Oxford University Press, 1987.

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larlan, Stockton Press, 1992.

The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History, by James Lincoln Collier, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Michael J. Watkins

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Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet

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."

Books

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

Periodicals Jazz Journal International, February, 1984. □

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Bechet, Sidney

Sidney Bechet (bəshā´), 1897–1959, American jazz musician, b. New Orleans, La. He began his professional career with his brother Leonard's band in 1911. Later he played with many other bands, including that of King Oliver. Although Bechet played clarinet with vigorous elegance, his most remarkable achievement was his approach to the most difficult of the saxophones, the soprano. His style was marked by a trumpetlike attack, a broad, flaring tone, and a rich vibrato. He lived in Europe for the last 20 years of his life.

See his autobiography, Treat It Gentle (1959).

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"Bechet, Sidney." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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