Bechet, Sidney (Joseph)
Bechet, Sidney (Joseph)
Bechet, Sidney (Joseph), masterful and innovative jazz clarinetist, soprano saxophonist; b. New Orleans, May 14, 1897; d. Paris, May 14, 1959. A sensational soloist who had an impact on Ellington and Johnny Hodges, among others, he failed to become as well-established in America as he deserved, primarily because he spent so much of his time in Europe, especially France. And, although he was revered in France as an early jazz master, he was more innovative than he has been given credit for: he recorded the first overdubbed one-man band in 1941, recorded on sarrusophone in 1924, wrote for orchestra, and was, if only on soprano, an influential saxophonist before Coleman Hawkins. He also had a volatile personality and often had difficulty getting along with other musicians.
Bechet was the youngest of seven children; one of his four brothers, Leonard (d. 1952), was once a professional trombonist who left music to become a dentist; another brother, Joseph, played guitar. Bechet took up the clarinet when he was six years old and soon sat in with Freddie Keppard and marched with Manuel Perez. Originally self-taught, he later received instruction from Lorenzo Tio, Big Eye Louis Nelson, and George Baquet, and occasionally subbed for Baquet at the 101 Ranch. He played for a while in the Silver Bells Band led by his brother, Leonard, then had regular engagements with leading New Orleans bands: Buddie Petit’s Young Olympians (1909), John Robichaux’s Orch., The Olympia (1910), and The Eagle (1911–12). He also doubled at Fewclothes Cabaret with Bunk Johnson. During these early years Bechet also played cornet regularly for parade work: with Allen’s Band c. 1911, also with Jack Carey’s Band in 1913.
From 1914 until mid-1917 Bechet spent little time in New Orleans (he once estimated it as four months). He left New Orleans in the spring of 1914 with a travelling show (together with pianist Louis Wade and Clarence Williams); Wade and Bechet cut-out in Galveston, Tex., and joined a touring carnival for two months. During his occasional trips to New Orleans, he played mainly at The Claiborne Street Theatre or at St. Catherine’s Hall. During 1916 he also worked with Joe “King” Oliver at Big 25 and at Pete Lala’s, and at this time again did parade work on cornet. He left New Orleans permanently in summer of 1917, acting and playing in The Bruce and Bruce Touring Company through Ga., Ala., Ohio, and Ind. He left in the tour in Chicago late in 1917, joined Lawrence Duhe’s Band at De Lure Cafe, and later played at Dreamland and at the Monoyram Theatre; he also worked occasionally with King Oliver. He played with Freddie Keppard at The De Luxe, doubling with Tony Jackson at The Pekin Cabaret, At about this time Bechet bought his first soprano saxophone (a curved model), but abandoned his efforts to learn it a few weeks later.
Bechet auditioned for Jim Europe’s Band just prior to the leader’s death, and subsequently joined Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orch. in Chicago and journeyed with them to N.Y. He played with Lt. Tim Brymn’s orch. in Coney Island, N.Y. and then rejoined Will Marion Cook for a trip to Europe in June 1919. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet heard him playing his feature “Characteristic Blues” (which Bechet recorded in 1936) and wrote one of the most famous of all early jazz commentaries, “I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it.” In London, Bechet bought his first straight-model soprano sax, and shortly afterwards he was using it for feature numbers. Bechet remained in London with a breakaway unit from the Southern Syncopated Orch.; this small band, led by drummer Benny Peyton, played at The Embassy Club and Hammersmith Palais. Bechet moved to Paris in spring of 1920 for engagements with the Southern Syncopated Orch., then returned for a residency at the Hammersmith Palais with Benny Peyton’s Jazz Kings. However, Bechet had a run-in with the law, and was deported from Great Britain, returning to N.Y. in the fall of 1921. He played with Ford Dabney, then acted and played in Donald Haywood’s How Come? show.
After touring, Bechet quit the show in N.Y. in the spring of 1923, where he began recording numerous sessions with Clarence Williams, and some with Louis Armstrong as well, often accompanying vaudeville singers. He worked with Mamie Smith and various bands, then toured with Jimmy Cooper’s Black and White Revue, then with the Seven Eleven show (spring 1925). Bechet returned to N.Y., and briefly worked with Duke Ellington (who later wrote “After that we forgot all about the sweet stuff”) and with James P. Johnson (temporarily at the Kentucky Club). He led his own New Orleans Creole Jazz Band at the Rhythm Club, then opened his own Club Basha (pronounced Ba-SHAY, like his name) in N.Y.
In September 1925, Bechet left N.Y. with another touring show, the Revue Negre, featuring Josephine Baker (orchestra directed by Claude Hopkins). He left the show in early 1926, and from February until May 1926 toured Russia with a band also featuring Benny Peyton and Frank Withers (trombone). After playing Moscow, the band appeared in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. Bechet returned to Berlin, led his own small band, and then organized a 14-piece orchestra for new edition of Revue Negre. After touring Europe during 1927, the orchestra disbanded in Munich. Bechet again led his own small band, this time in Frankfurt-am-Main. In the summer of 1928, he moved to Paris, and joined Noble Sissle at Les Ambassadeurs Club, doubling on E-flat and contra-bass sax. Later that year, Bechet worked at Chez Florence with The International Five (a nine- piece band). He played briefly with Benny Peyton in January 1929, then was jailed in Paris for 11 months after being involved in a shooting incident. Following his inprisonment, Bechet again moved to Berlin, playing residencies at the Wild West Bar and Haus Vaterland. In 1930, he again toured with the Revue Negre, but then left the show in Amsterdam, and sailed back to N.Y.
In early 1931, Bechet rejoined Noble Sissle, remaining with him about a year. He traveled with Duke Ellington on a New England tour in May 1932, then organized his own New Orleans Feetwarmers with Tommy Ladnier. They opened at the Savoy, N.Y., in September 1932. The group disbanded early in 1933. After some club work, Bechet left full-time music temporarily, and together with Ladnier opened the Southern Tailor Shop in N.Y. However, he was soon back to music- making; he rejoined Noble Sissle in Chicago in 1934, and except for short periods, remained in the band until October 1938. He then played small jobs in N.Y-area clubs, leading various pickup bands.
Throughout World War II, Bechet played regularly at Nick’s, Ryan’s, and various other clubs in N.Y., and also took part in several of Eddie Condon’s N.Y. Town Hall concerts. Occasionally, he led own quartet for residencies outside of N.Y. From March 1945, he led a band at the Savoy, Boston, but then returned to N.Y. in January 1946, and began making regular guest star appearances. Bechet made a few trips to Europe in the late 1940s, and then, from the summer of 1951, he made his permanent home in France where he became a celebrity. His most famous compositions are “Petite Fleur” (a worldwide hit by Chris Barber in 1959, with clarinetist Monty Sunshine playing the Bechet part) and “Les Oignons,” made in France in 1949 with clarinetist Claude Luter, and said to have sold a million copies by 1955. He returned to the U.S. for various tours and guest-star bookings—late 1951, September 1953 (including first trip to San Francisco)—and toured Britain in September 1956, and Argentina and Chile in spring 1957. Bechet remained musically active until shortly before succumbing to cancer, leading an all-star band at the Brussels International Fair in the summer of 1958. During the last years of his life, his extended works Nouvelles Orleans and the Night Is a Sorceress were given public performances. In 1955, he appeared in the French film Blues.
“Wild Cat Blues” (1923); “Petite Fleur”, “Haitian Moods” (both 1923^); “Jazz from California” (1937); “Summertime” (1939); Jazz Nocturne, Vol. 1-11 (1945); Bechet, Bunk and Boston (1945); Wingy Manone/Sidney Bechet Together (1947); Sidney Bechet’s Blue Note Jazzmen (1950); Live in N.Y. (1950); Bechet in Philadelphia, Vol. 2 (1950); Days Beyond Recall (1951); Wally Bishop’s Orch. (1952); Jazz Festival Concert Paris (1952); In Concert (1954); Dixie by the Fabulous Sidney Bechet (1953); Sidney Bechet at Storyville (1955); Olympia Concert (1955); La Nuit Est une Sorcière (1955); Jazz a la Creole (1955); With Sammy’s Price’s Blusicians (1956); Sidney Bechet Duets (1956); Grand Master of the Soprano Sax (1956); Young Ideas (1957); When a Soprano Meets a Piano (1957); Paris Jazz Concert (1957); Sidney Bechet in Paris (1958); Brussels Fair ’58 (1958).
J. Chilton, Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz (Oxford, 1988).
—John Chilton Who’s Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter