Reference Entry

Bechet, Sidney Joseph (1897 - 1959), Saxophonist, Clarinetist, Jazz Musician

Salim Washington

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Bechet, Sidney Joseph (1897 - 1959), Saxophonist, Clarinetist, Jazz Musician

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clarinetist, soprano saxophonist, and composer, was born Sidney Joseph Bechet, the youngest of five sons and two daughters (three other children died in infancy) born to Omar Bechet, a shoemaker, and Josephine Michel in New Orleans, Louisiana. Bechet was raised as a middle-class Creole at the time when state law reclassified Creoles of color as Negro. The adoption of the black codes and de jure segregation had profound repercussions for the first generations of ragtime and jazz musicians in the Crescent City. Although Sidney spoke French in his childhood household and his grandfather, Jean Becher, was free and had owned property since 1817, Sidney Bechet identified himself as African American.The Bechet family was decidedly musical. Sidney's father played the flute and trumpet for relaxation, and Sidney's brothers all played music as a hobby and developed skills in various trades for their vocations. Homer was a janitor and string bassist, Leonard a dentist and trombonist, Albert Eugene a butcher and violinist, Joseph a plasterer and guitarist. When he was only seven or eight years old, Sidney began playing a toy fife and soon began practicing on his brother's clarinet morning, noon, and night. He played in a band with his older brothers, but his family and other adult musicians quickly realized that Sidney was a prodigy whose technique outstripped that of some professionals.Sidney's mother organized parties and hired professional bands to play in her home. When Sidney was just ten years old, she hired the great band of Manuel Perez (who sent the equally legendary Freddie Keppard as a substitute) to play for her oldest son's twenty-first birthday. George Baquet, the band's clarinetist, was late for the engagement, and Sidney, sequestered in another room, began playing his brother's clarinet as Baquet arrived. Sidney played well enough to cause Keppard to believe that it was Baquet warming up. As a result, Baquet began giving Sidney clarinet lessons. Bechet learned from him certain rudiments of clarinet playing, but he had already developed an unorthodox set of fingerings and refused to learn to read music. Bechet also studied with Paul Chaligny and Alphonse Picou. His most important influence, however, came from “Big Eye” Louis Nelson. Nelson did not play in the academic style and specialized in the rougher “uptown” styles of the black players. Another lasting influence was the opera, which his mother took him to listen to. He especially liked the tenors (his favorite was Enrico Caruso), and the heavy vibrato that characterized his playing was in part modeled after them.Sidney Bechet, performing at an unknown location, possibly New York City, November 1946. (© William P. Gottlieb; www.jazzphotos.com.)As Bechet began to play with professional organizations in parades, picnics, dance halls, and parties, he did not attend school regularly, despite his family's admonitions, and he reportedly ignored their advice about learning a trade other than music. At age fourteen he joined the Young Olympians, and soon he was playing with all the notable bands of New Orleans, including those led by Buddy Petit and Bunk Johnson. Bechet's family worried about the boy's exposure to the seamier aspects of musicians' nightlife. Yet, in this setting, Bechet developed into a soft-spoken and charming fellow who was very attractive to women. He also became a heavy drinker with a very short fuse and sometimes displayed a violent temper. As a teenager he was jailed for a violent incident. This odd mixture of musical virtuosity, charm, and violence would follow Bechet throughout his adult life.Bechet went to Chicago in 1918, where he quickly found work within the various New Orleans cliques that dominated the scene. There he met and played for Noble Sissle, James Reese Europe, and Will Marion Cook. Bechet's virtuosity and his ear for melodies and harmony were such that he amazed all three of these bandleaders, despite his not being able to read music, a skill normally required for these orchestras. In 1919 Bechet joined Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which brought him to New York, where his talents were much in demand. He then went to the British Isles with Cook's orchestra. British audiences received the orchestra warmly, and many critics singled out Bechet's playing as noteworthy. The most important review came from the Swiss conductor Ernst Ansermet, who wrote, in what was the first truly insightful critical article on jazz, that Bechet was an “extraordinary clarinet virtuoso” and an “artist of genius.”While in England, Bechet bought a soprano saxophone. The soprano saxophone was used very little in jazz, in part because of the severe intonation problems it presents, especially in the early models. But Bechet had a strong embouchure and a highly developed vibrato that allowed him to express himself with the instrument, and his supremacy as the greatest soprano saxophonist in jazz was not challenged until John Coltrane took up the instrument years after Bechet's death. The saxophone was perfect for Bechet, as its brassier and louder projection facilitated his natural inclination to take the melodic lead, usually the prerogative of trumpeters in the jazz ensembles of the 1910s and 1920s.Bechet's stay in London ended when he was charged with assaulting a woman. Bechet pleaded not guilty, as did his codefendant, George Clapham. The stories of the two defendants and the two women involved conflicted, and Bechet hinted that his troubles with the police in England had racial overtones. He was sentenced to fourteen days of hard labor and was then deported on 3 November 1922.Upon his arrival in New York, Bechet began to work in the theater circuit. He joined Donald Heywood's show How Come, in which Bechet played the role of How Come, a Chinese laundryman who was also a jazz musician. He was later billed as the “Wizard of the Clarinet” in theater bookings under Will Marion Cook's leadership. Bechet also began his recording career in New York, through Clarence Williams, a shrewd talent scout who helped supply black talent to record companies eager to cash in on the blues craze that followed Mamie Smith's hit record “Crazy Blues.” In 1923 Bechet recorded his soprano saxophone on “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” on Okeh Records. These records were listened to by thousands and served as models of jazz phrasing and improvisation for young musicians, including the likes of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Lionel Hampton. Bechet's success led to other recordings, where he accompanied singers such as Sara Martin, Mamie Smith, Rosetta Crawford, Margaret Johnson, Eva Taylor, and Sippie Wallace. Bechet also began composing and made a big impression with his “Ghost of the Blues.” He also wrote significant portions of Negro Nuances, a musical cowritten with Will Marion Cook and his wife, Abbie Mitchell. While the musical was not successful, Cook praised Bechet's compositions lavishly in the Chicago Defender.In 1925 Bechet joined the Black Revue, featuring Josephine Baker. The show took them to France, where they both became expatriates. Bechet continued working under the leadership of Noble Sissle and others. He also worked extensively in Germany, where he met Elisabeth Ziegler in 1926. He would eventually marry her in 1951, after both of them had married and divorced others. His original plans to marry Ziegler, after bringing her back to Paris in 1928, were spoiled. An argument between Bechet and the banjoist Gilbert “Little Mike” McKendrick began over a dispute about the correct harmonies to a song they had just played. By the end of the night the two were shooting at each other. Neither Bechet nor McKendrick was hit, but the pianist Glover Compton was shot in the leg, the dancer Dolores Giblins was shot in the lung, and an innocent bystander was shot in the neck. Bechet was sentenced to fifteen months in jail and was then deported.He moved to Berlin and later returned to the United States after rejoining Noble Sissle's orchestra. In New York he led the New Orleans Feetwarmers with the trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. The group was short-lived, and Bechet briefly went into retirement from music and opened the Southern Tailor Shop in Harlem. In addition to tailoring, Bechet held jam sessions in the back room and cooked and served Creole cuisine. In 1934 Bechet returned to music once again at the behest of Noble Sissle. By the end of the 1930s the market for Bechet's style of jazz had lessened, but his cachet increased by the 1940s during the crest of the jazz revival. He played as either a bandleader or a star soloist throughout the United States. In 1949 he returned to Europe, eventually settling in France again, where he was the acknowledged patron saint of the European jazz revival. In 1951 he married Ziegler, with whom he lived for the rest of his life. He also had another home with a woman named Jacqueline, with whom he had a son, Daniel, in 1954. Bechet penned his most famous composition, “Petite fleur,” in 1952, and in 1953 the Paris Conservatory Orchestra debuted his La Nuit est une Sorcière, a ballet in seven movements. With the help of two amanuenses, Joan Reid and Desmond Flower, Bechet also wrote Treat It Gentle, one of the most literarily ambitious jazz autobiographies.Bechet, along with Louis Armstrong, was among the first great jazz improvisers to liberate their solos from the rhythms and contours of the melody. Bechet's fame might have been even more widespread had the clarinet not fallen out of favor and the soprano saxophone been less obscure. He was the first to fashion legato melodies on the instrument and influenced such saxophone giants as Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins. He died before two of his disciples on the instrument, Steve Lacy and John Coltrane, popularized the instrument in the 1960s.

Reference Entry.  1636 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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