Sidney Bechet (May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer. He was one of the first important soloists in jazz, beating trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by several months. His erratic temperament hampered his career, and not until the late 1940s did he earn wide acclaim.
Bechet was born in New Orleans in 1897 to a middle-class Creole of color family. His older brother, Leonard Victor Bechet, was a full-time dentist and a part-time trombonist and bandleader. Sidney Bechet learned to play several musical instruments kept around the house, mostly by teaching himself; he decided to specialize in clarinet. At the age of six, he started playing with his brother's band at a family birthday party, debuting his talents to acclaim. Later in his youth, Bechet studied with Lorenzo Tio, "Big Eye" Louis Nelson Delisle, and George Baquet.
Bechet played in many New Orleans ensembles using the improvisational techniques of the time (obbligatos, with scales and arpeggios, and varying the melody). He performed in parades with Freddie Keppard's brass band, the Olympia Orchestra, and in John Robichaux's dance orchestra. In 1911–12, he performed with Bunk Johnson in the Eagle Band of New Orleans and in 1913–14 with King Oliver in the Olympia Band.
Bechet spent his childhood and adolescence in New Orleans, but from 1914 to 1917 he was touring and traveling, going as far north as Chicago and frequently performing with Freddie Keppard. In the spring of 1919, Bechet traveled to New York City where he joined Will Marion Cook's Syncopated Orchestra. Soon after, the orchestra traveled to Europe; almost immediately upon arrival, they performed at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in London. The group was warmly received, and Bechet was especially popular.
While in London, Bechet discovered the straight soprano saxophone and developed a style unlike his clarinet tone. His saxophone sound could be described as emotional, reckless, and large. He often used a broad vibrato, similar to what was common among some New Orleans clarinetists at the time.
Bechet was convicted of assaulting a woman and was imprisoned in London from September 13 to 26, 1922. He was deported to the United States, leaving Southampton on November 3 and arriving in New York on November 13, 1922.
On July 30, 1923, he began recording; it is some of his earliest surviving studio work. The session was led by Clarence Williams, a pianist and songwriter, better known at that time for his music publishing and record producing. Bechet recorded "Wild Cat Blues" and "Kansas City Man Blues". "Wild Cat Blues" is in a multithematic ragtime style, with four 16-bar themes, and "Kansas City Man Blues" is a 12-bar blues. He interpreted and played each uniquely, with outstanding creativity and innovation.
On September 15, 1925, Bechet and other members of the Revue Nègre, including Josephine Baker, sailed to Europe, arriving at Cherbourg, France, on September 22. The revue opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, on October 2. Bechet toured Europe with various bands, reaching as far as Russia in mid-1926. In 1928, he led his own small band at the Bricktop's Club in Montmartre, Paris.
Bechet was jailed for 11 months in Paris when a woman passerby was wounded during a shoot-out. The most common version of the story, as related in Ken Burns's documentary film Jazz, is that the shoot-out started when another musician-producer told Bechet that he was playing the wrong chord. Bechet challenged the man to a duel and said, "Sidney Bechet never plays the wrong chord."
After his release, Bechet was deported to New York, arriving right after the stock market crash of 1929. He joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, which traveled toured in Germany and Russia.
In 1932, Bechet returned to New York City to lead a band with Tommy Ladnier. The band, consisting of six members, performed at the Savoy Ballroom. He went on to play with Lorenzo Tio and also got to know Roy Eldridge, another trumpeter.
Over time Bechet had increasing difficulty finding music gigs. He eventually started a tailor shop with Ladnier. During this time, they were visited by various musicians and played in the back of the shop. In the 1940s, Bechet played in several bands, but his financial situation did not improve until the end of that decade.
By the end of the 1940s, Bechet had tired of struggling to make music in the United States. His contract with Jazz Limited, a Chicago-based record label, was limiting the events at which he could perform (for instance, the label would not permit him to perform at the 1948 Festival of Europe in Nice). He believed that the jazz scene in the United States had little left to offer him and was getting stale.
In 1950 he moved to France, after his performance as a soloist at the Paris Jazz Fair caused a surge in his popularity in that country, where he easily found well-paid work. In 1951, he married Elisabeth Ziegler in Antibes.
In 1953, he signed a recording contract with Disques Vogue that lasted for the rest of his life. He recorded many hit tunes, including "Les Oignons", "Promenade aux Champs-Elysees," and the international hit "Petite Fleur". He also composed a classical ballet score in the late Romantic style of Tchaikovsky called La Nuit est sorcière ("The Night Is a Witch"). Some existentialists in France took to calling him le dieu ("the god").
Shortly before his death, Bechet dictated his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, to the record producer and radio host Al Rose. He had worked with Rose several times in concert promotions and had a fractious relationship with him. Bechet's view of himself in his autobiography was starkly different from the one Rose knew. "The kindly old gentleman in his book was filled with charity and compassion. The one I knew was self-centered, cold, and capable of the most atrocious cruelty, especially toward women."
Bechet died in Garches, near Paris, of lung cancer on May 14, 1959, his 62nd birthday, and is buried in a local cemetery.
Bechet successfully composed in jazz, pop, and extended concert forms. He knew how to read music but chose not to, because of his highly developed inner ear; he developed his own fingering system and never played section parts in a big. His primary instruments were the clarinet and the soprano sax. His playing style is intense and passionate, and had a wide vibrato. He was also known to be proficient at playing several instruments and a master of improvisation (both individual and collective). Bechet liked to have his sound dominate in a performance, and trumpeters found it difficult to play alongside him. Philip Larkin wrote about his music,
- On me your voice falls as they say love should,
- Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
- Is where your speech alone is understood,
- And greeted as the natural noise of good,
- Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
Some of the highlights of his career include 1923 sides with Louis Armstrong in the Clarence Williams Blue Five; the 1932, 1940 and 1941 New Orleans Feetwarmers sides; a 1938 Tommy Ladnier Orchestra session ("Weary Blues", "Really the Blues"); a hit 1939 recording of "Summertime"; and various versions of his own composition "Petite Fleur".
In 1939, Bechet and the pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith led a group that recorded several early versions of what was later called Latin jazz, adapting traditional méringue, rhumba and Haitian songs to the jazz idiom.
On July 28, 1940, Bechet made a guest appearance on the NBC Radio show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, playing two of his showpieces ("Shake It and Break It" and "St. Louis Blues") with Henry Levine's Dixieland band. Levine invited Bechet into the RCA Victor recording studio (on 24th Street in New York City), where Bechet lent his soprano sax to Levine's traditional arrangement of "Muskrat Ramble".
On April 18, 1941, as an early experiment in overdubbing at Victor, Bechet recorded a version of the pop song "The Sheik of Araby", playing six different instruments: clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. A hitherto unissued master of this recording was included in the 1965 LP Bechet of New Orleans, issued by RCA Victor as LPV-510. In the liner notes, George Hoeffer quoted Bechet as follows:
I started by playing The Sheik on piano, and played the drums while listening to the piano. I meant to play all the rhythm instruments, but got all mixed up and grabbed my soprano, then the bass, then the tenor saxophone, and finally finished up with the clarinet.
In 1944, 1946, and 1953 he recorded and performed in concert with the Chicago jazz pianist and vibraphonist Max Miller, private recordings that are part of the Max Miller archive and have never been released. These concerts and recordings are thoroughly described in John Chilton's authoritative biography, Sidney Bechet:The Wizard of Jazz.
Bechet was an important influence on the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who studied with him as a teenager.
Legacy and honors
- In 1919, Ernest Ansermet, a Swiss conductor of classical music, wrote a tribute to Bechet, one of the earliest (if not the first) to a jazz musician from the field of classical music, linking Bechet's music with that of Bach.
- In 1968, Bechet was inducted into Down Beat magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame.
- The music writer Robert Palmer wrote of Bechet, "by combining the 'cry' of the blues players and the finesse of the Creoles into his 'own way,' Sidney Bechet created a style which moved the emotions even as it dazzled the mind."
- Duke Ellington said, "Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz ... everything he played in his whole life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique man to ever be in this music."
- The British poet Philip Larkin wrote an ode to Bechet in The Whitsun Weddings.
- A crater on Mercury is named for Bechet.
In popular culture
Sugar Blue, the renowned blues harmonica player, took his name from the Bechet recording "Sugar Blues".
- Bechet's song "Si tu vois ma mère" was featured prominently in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (2011).
- In Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disneyland Paris' Tower of Terror rides, Bechet's song "When the Sun Sets Down South" is played as queue music. The ride is a "deserted [since Halloween of 1939] hotel in the dark side of Hollywood."
- In the BBC television series Grantchester, the protagonist, Sidney Chambers, listens to jazz records, and Bechet is one of his favorites. A running joke is that his housekeeper keeps pronouncing the name "Becket" rather than "Beh-SHAY".
- Bob Dorough, who played with Bechet, recorded a tribute song, "Something for Sidney", on his album Right on My Way Home.
- Van Morrison mentions Bechet in his song "See Me Through Part II (Just a Closer Walk with Thee)".
- The French chanteuse Patricia Kaas recorded the song "L'Enterrement de Sidney Bechet" ("The Funeral of Sidney Bechet") for her 1990 album Scène de vie.
- Raquel Bitton pays tribute to Bechet on her CD Paris Blues, singing "Petite Fleur" (2006).
- Radiohead used his single "Egyptian Fantasy" as the exit music on their 2012 tour.
In film and TV
- Bechet played a jazz musician in three films, Serie Noire, L'Inspecteur connait la musique and, Quelle équipe!
- In the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues, Woody Allen, the director and clarinetist, repeatedly referred to Bechet. He named one of the children he adopted with his wife Soon-Yi Previn after Bechet.
- Bechet is portrayed by Jeffrey Wright in two episodes of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
- In the 2001 French feature film Amélie several Bechet recordings are used as background music, including "Summertime" (1949).
- The 2009 film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," set in New Orleans, includes a scene featuring Bechet's "Out of Nowhere."
- In the 2009 Disney animated feature The Princess and the Frog, Bechet is mentioned by Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, during the musical number "When We're Human".
- Bechet's recordings are used throughout the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris.
- In the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, James Stewart, the country lawyer defending an army officer accused of murder, is an amateur jazz pianist and refers to Bechet as "one of the best."
- In the ITV detective drama Grantchester the protagonist, vicar Sidney Chambers, listens to Bechet frequently.
- In the 2016 film La La Land, the character played by Ryan Gosling tries to persuade the character played by Emma Stone that jazz is not "relaxing", saying, "Sidney Bechet shot somebody because they told him he'd played a wrong note, that's hardly relaxing."
- "Texas Moaner Blues", with Louis Armstrong, 1924
- "Cake Walkin' Babies from Home", with Red Onion Jazz Babies, 1925
- "Blues in Thirds", 1940
- "Dear Old Southland", 1940
- "Egyptian Fantasy", 1941
- "Muskrat Ramble", 1944
- "Blue Horizon", 1944
- "Petite Fleur", 1959