Sidney Bechet was a pioneer jazz musician who changed the music of his time into a unique art form. Considered to be one of the greatest jazz musicians of New Orleans, Bechet was an innovator on both the clarinet and saxophone. His music changed jazz music forever and inspired countless musicians of all types.
Bechet was born in New Orleans in May 1897. He was of Creole ancestry and grew up in a middle class neighborhood. He was greatly influenced by music, as his father, a shoemaker, played the flute as a hobby, and his four brothers played various instruments, as well. (Chilton)
Each of Bechet's brothers showed an aptitude for music making, although playing music was regarded as a hobby in the Bechet family, something to indulge in when their daytime work was complete. Homer was a janitor who played string bass. Albert Eugene was a butcher who played violin. Joseph was a plasterer who played guitar. Leonard was a dentist, who played the clarinet and trombone when Bechet was young. (Chilton, William)
Bechet was given his brother's clarinet when Leonard decided to concentrate on the trombone. Bechet enjoyed playing in the family's musicals, which typically consisted of mellow waltzes and quadrilles.
At the age of ten, he impressed many professional musicians, including George Baquet, a clarinetist, who offered to coach him. Bechet's clarinet playing was greatly influenced by Baquet, who coached him on his playing concerning reeds, mouthpieces, embouchure, and legato and staccato playing. Bechet also received musical guidance from professional clarinetists Alphonse Picou, Paul Chaligny and Luis Papa Tio.
Bechet credited "Big Eye" Louis Nelson as the biggest influence of his youth. Nelson played a significant role in the switch of clarinet playing from the academic approach to the uptown dancehall style.
Bechet said, "I learned myself to play by patterning my work after "Big Eye" Louis Nelson. In fact, Nelson gave me my first formal instruction on the clarinet. After I had learned the rudiments from him I had to learn the rest for myself. That's what every young person has to do." (Chilton)
When he was an adolescent, Bechet became drawn to the music played in the dance halls and brothels in the Storyville District of New Orleans. He loved to watch the jazz bands that played in the street parades and practiced his clarinet in the hopes of playing like the musicians he saw.
As his clarinet talents progresses, Bechet played in local jazz bands, such as the Young Olympians. Bunk Johnson, a legendary cornet player, who invited Bechet to join his band, the Eagle Band, recognized his music. He gained a lot of experience, playing in dance halls, and for picnics, and parties.
Local bands in New Orleans considered Bechet a child prodigy, and his style of playing clarinet and soprano sax dominated many of the bands that he was in. He played lead parts that were usually reserved for trumpets and was a master of improvisation.
Bechet joined a band led by two Louisianans, clarinetist Lawrence Duke and trumpeter "Sugar" Johnny Smith. When he joined Lawrence Duke band in 1918, he became its featured "hot man," while Duke himself concentrated on reinforcing the melody.
While performing with the band, Bechet discovered that Duke was being paid a lot more than he was and quit the band. He joined Freddie Keppard's band at the De Luxe. Bechet had established a solid reputation amongst the jazz musicians in Chicago at this point.
Bechet left New Orleans when he was 19 years old, traveling to Chicago with pianist, Clarence Williams and his variety show. Bechet's big break came in 1919 when the composer-conductor Will Marion Cook invited him to join his Southern Syncopated Orchestra for an engagement in London.
During this time, Bechet was seen by a famous Swiss conductor, Ernst Ansermet, known for conducting the music of Stravinsky for the Ballets Russa. Ansermet wrote in a Swiss musical Journal, "The extraordinary clarinet virtuoso Bechet is an artist of genius!"
Bechet said, throughout his life, that his European experiences with Cook and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were the highlight of his life. Bechet stole the show everywhere he went. Along with trumpeter Arthur Briggs, he was the only real improviser in the band. (Chilton, Williams)
The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, was very impressed by Bechet's work and invited the Southern Syncopated Orchestra to play at a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 1919, when Sidney and the SSO entertained on the grounds of the Royal Palace.
Bechet later became famous as a virtuoso of the soprano saxophone. At first, he attempted to play on a beat-up old soprano sax he bought in a pawnshop. He soon found it was extremely difficult to play the instrument in tune. Bechet quit and returned the sax to the pawnbroker.
However, a year later, Bechet invested in a brand new soprano saxophone and tried to learn again. He was successful this time. The soprano saxophone was an instrument rarely played in jazz at that time. He mastered the rather difficult instrument, and succeeded in giving the soprano saxophone a prominent place in jazz as a solo instrument.
While colleagues encouraged Bechet to stick to the clarinet, he loved the extra power the sax offered, enabling him now to dominate by both power and artistry. Referring to his preferenc for the soprano saxophone over the clarinet, he said, "I could express myself, and I had a better audience."
Bechet played both the clarinet and soprano saxophone with a broad vibrato, a characteristic that gave passion and intensity to his playing.
After polishing his soprano saxophone skills, Bechet set off to play jazz abroad. Bechet remained in Europe until late in 1922. His playing inspired the first piece of serious jazz criticism, an essay by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who praised Bechet as "an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet.... form was gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it, it is Sidney Bechet." (Williams)
In 1923, Bechet made his recording debut with Clarence Williams, appearing on several of Williams' records backing up blues singers and on a classic session with the Clarence Williams Blue Five, featuring
Louis Armstrong, whom he had know as a child in New Orleans.
Sidney's debut with Williams was well received. "Wild Cat Blues" featured Bechet from the first note right through to the final phrase of the coda. His powerful soprano sax states the three main themes after which he plays a series of telling two-bar breaks ending the tune on a boldly blown seventh note. The rest of the band, pianist Clarence Williams, cornetist Thomas Morris, trombonist John Maysfield and banjoist Buddy Christian simply functioned as accompaniment. (Chilton)
On "Kansas City Man Blues," Sidney is a strong lead throughout the first three choruses and remains a lead when Morris and Maysfield step forward in the last two choruses. Bechet displays a variety of talents in this great early jazz performance. His excellent technical skill and mastery of time contributed to a superb jazz performance.
These two performances taught many aspiring musicians the idea of jazz improvising, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Lionel Hampton all claimed that they played these sides over and over again.
In 1925, he was a member of Claude Hopkin's band, accompanying a revue with Josephine Baker. He also played in bands led by Noble Sissle in London and Paris, and later, in the United States. Some of the numbers performed and recorded by Bechet with Nobel Sissle are Loveless Love, Polka Dot Rag, and Dear Old Southland. (William)
From 1925 to 1929 Bechet lived and played in Europe, playing in England, France, Germany, and Russia. While living in Paris, Bechet fought with another musician and a gun fight broke out. Three people were wounded and Sidney spent a year in a French jail as a result of the dispute. He was deported upon release from prison and went to Berlin, Germany. He could not stay in France and he would not get a visa for England so he stayed in Berlin till 1931 then joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and returned to America.
In 1932, Bechet formed a band with trumpet player Tommy Ladnier. The band was called the New Orleans Feetwarmers. The band was unsuccessful and the pair opened a dry-cleaning business in Harlem, where Bechet turned his talents to pressing and altering clothes. (Bechet)
In 1938 he had a hit record of "
Summertime." In the 1940's, Bechet worked regularly in New York with Eddie Condon and tried to start a band with Bunk Johnson. Bechet was a popular figure of the Dixieland revival of the late 40's often…