Sidney Bechet truly led the life of a jazz musician. He was a supporter of Dixieland Jazz who played the clarinet and was the first person to play Jazz on a Soprano Saxophone. Domineering is a word frequently used to express his music. Various fights showed he had a short temper that reflects in his music. His solos were often soaring and passionate, endlessly inventive, direct rather than ornate. Throughout his life, he never had the discipline needed to play in a regular band; he always preferred to be a soloist and worked in many different bands.
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; Omar also played the flute as a hobby. In fact, music had a central role in the Bechet household, as Sidney's four brothers also played instruments.
His brother, Leonard, played the clarinet and trombone, and it was to the former instrument that eight-year-old Sidney was attracted. Leonard, whose major interest was the trombone, passed along his clarinet to his younger brother. At first, Sidney played in the family musicales - waltzes, quadrilles, and the polite music of the middle class.
By his early teens, he was playing in both children's 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. At last, 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. 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.
As a boy, he would watch the street parades in which jazz bands played. Young Sidney was so fascinated by the music, that he often played hooky from school. And as he became more skillful on the clarinet, Sidney played in local jazz bands, such as the Young Olympians. His playing so impressed Bunk Johnson, the legendary cornet player, that Sidney was invited to join Johnson's band, the Eagle Band. Sidney gained a great deal of experience, playing in dance halls, and for picnics, and parties. In addition to his love of traveling, Bechet was also renowned for his love of the opposite sex, a fact that often got him into serious trouble. . Bechet also cemented his reputation as being somewhat hotheaded 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.
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 quarrelling 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 left 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 awkward to return just then instead he decided to go to Berlin in 1926, but returned to the United States when he got an offer to play with Noble Sissle's band.
In 1933, he suddenly decided to give up music. He opened up a shop, in partnership with Tommy Ladnier for mending and ironing clothes, called the "Southern Tailor Shop." Bechet enjoyed a growing reputation towards the latter part of the thirties and a relatively tranquil personal life traveling with his new wife Marilouise.
In 1951 while touring Scandinavia, Belgium, and North Africa, he met a woman from his past in Algeria.
He somehow ran into his old fiancee Elisabeth and the two rekindled their romance that ended up with Bechet proposing marriage. On August 17, 1951, the couple was 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 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 delayed. He restarted 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. Regardless of his health and his son Daniel, Bechet was back out on the road touring through 1955.
In 1959, Bechet's health took a turn for the worse and it was soon apparent that he would have to stop his traveling altogether. He became very sick with cancer and died on May 14, 1959. Bechet's highly colorful autobiography, Treat It Gentle, was published in 1960. In it, Sidney Bechet described his feelings for music: "That's one of the things that make it why a musicianer, if he's real serious about the music, has to have this place inside himself. You've got to say that to yourself...'I've got the music and I don't give a damn for the rest. Rich or poor, the music is there and that's what I'm for.'"
Life as a Musician
Repressive racial laws had begun to blur the traditional distinctions between New Orleans' black and Creole cultures. Musically, this resulted in the cross-fertilization of southern blues and the European-flavored Creole sound. This combination was evolved into jazz. Bechet 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.
1903 Without telling his family, he practiced secretly on his brother Leonard's clarinet. During a family party, he played along side Freddie Keppard. His playing was heard by George Baquet who was amazed by his promise and decided there and then to give him free lessons. In 1908 At the age of just 11, he was hired by Bunk Johnson's Eagle Band. By 1910, His mother gave him permission to play in the Storyville clubs. He started playing with King Oliver from1913. 1915 saw him making a tour of Texas in a band led by Clarence Williams. In 1917, he moved from clubs in Perdido Street in New Orleans to Chicago, first with King Oliver and then Freddie Keppard. Later he left Keppard to play in other bands. Bechet was 21 and playing in Chicago when Will Marion Cook, a well- known black composer and bandleader, discovered him and took him to New York. With the band of Will Marion Cook, he achieved great personal success in England, earning the admiration, among others, of Ernest Ansermet, 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 it -- it is Sidney Bechet."
When the band broke up, he decided to stay in London with some other members of the band. Bechet stayed in Europe for two years and played in one of the splinter groups from Cook's orchestra led by Benny Payton. The band mainly played in London, Paris, and Brussels.
During this time, 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…