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Sidney Bechet

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Bechet, Sidney (Joseph) (1897-1959) Clarinetist and soprano saxophonist

Audio sample Cake Walkin' Babies From Home
Recorded January 8, 1925
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Sidney Bechet
Image courtesy of Charles Peterson
Sidney Bechet grew up in a musical family, and all of his four brothers played instruments; Leonard (Victor) Bechet (1886-1952) was briefly a professional trombonist before becoming a dentist, and his son, Leonard, Jr. (1927-), played saxophone and was his uncle's manager for a while. Sidney Bechet took up clarinet as a young boy. He studied sporadically with the older clarinetists Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Big Eye Nelson, and George Baquet, but was principally self-taught. By about 1910 he was working with some of the incipient jazz bands in the city, but around 1916 he left New Orleans to wander (a habit which stayed with him into middle age), playing in touring shows and carnivals throughout the South and Midwest. He arrived in Chicago in 1917, and played with bands led by the New Orleans pioneers Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, and Lawrence Duhé.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's All Things Considered: Sidney Bechet
Elisabeth Perez Luna presents this profile of Armstrong contemporary Sidney Bechet, who helped create the role of the soloist in jazz music. Featured are remarks by Bechet's son, Daniel.

In 1919 Bechet was discovered by Will Marion Cook, who was about to take his large concert band, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, to Europe. The orchestra played mainly concert music in fixed arrangements with little improvising, but featured Bechet (who could not read music) in blues specialties. In London the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet heard the band, and in an article that has been widely reprinted referred to Bechet as "an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso" and an "artist of genius."

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
On Bechet as "the poet of New Orleans music"
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Bechet first discovered the curved soprano saxophone in Chicago; while in London he purchased a straight model and taught himself to play it. It became his primary instrument for the rest of his life, though he continued to play clarinet frequently. The soprano, although difficult to play in tune, has a powerful, commanding voice, and with it Bechet was able to dominate jazz ensembles.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Sidney Bechet
Jazz critic Stanley Crouch profiles Sidney Bechet and describes the relationship between Bechet and Armstrong.

In 1919 Bechet broke away from the Southern Syncopated Orchestra to work in England and France with a small ragtime band led by Benny Peyton; throughout the 1920s he traveled constantly between Europe and the USA, even touring Russia with a jazz band. Crucially, in 1924, he worked for two or three months in New York with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1923 the band had acquired the trumpeter Bubber Miley, a growl specialist under the influence of King Oliver. Miley had awakened Ellington's musicians to the new jazz music, but the band was in a transitional period, still playing much ordinary jazz-flavored popular music. Bechet had by this time acquired a capacity to swing that was matched only by that of Louis Armstrong, and his example led the band further towards jazz. Not long afterwards Bechet opened his own club, the Club Basha, in Harlem, and engaged Johnny Hodges from Boston to play in his band. Hodges was profoundly influenced by Bechet, and from his commanding position in the Ellington orchestra from 1928 he extended this influence widely and deeply.

In 1924 and 1925 Bechet made a group of recordings with Armstrong which were variously issued under the names Clarence Williams's Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies. These constitute one of the most important bodies of New Orleans jazz, and were influential with musicians of the time. (On one of these numbers Bechet played sarrusophone — the only known example of this instrument on a jazz recording.) Through the next few years Bechet continued to wander, traveling in Europe and the USA. In the 1930s, as hot dance music lost its popularity to more sentimental styles, Bechet dropped into obscurity, playing when he could find work. He organized the New Orleans Feetwarmers in 1932 with Tommy Ladnier, but largely owing to the group's musical style it was short-lived, and the following year the two men briefly managed a tailor's shop. However, with the New Orleans revival, from about 1939 Bechet was extolled by critics as one of the greatest jazz pioneers and his fortunes improved. He made several recordings, notably several fine titles with the Big Four and a series with Mezz Mezzrow for King Jazz. In 1949 he returned to Europe for the first time in almost 20 years. He was received there with adulation and reverence, and in 1951 he settled permanently in France, where he lived out his final years as a show business star.

NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Bechet's "Summertime"
Jazz critic Will Friedwall reports on what he considers to be "one of the defining jazz solos of all time:" Bechet's soprano sax break on the George Gershwin tune Summertime, recorded in 1939.

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