There has never been a more instinctive, natural musician than Sidney Bechet, the great Creole jazzman from New Orleans who was to the soprano saxophone what Louis Armstrong was to the cornet and trumpet and Coleman Hawkins was to the tenor saxophone. Born in New Orleans – probably sometime in 1897 – Bechet was captivated at an early age by the sound of the clarinet which his brother, Leonard, played. Charles E. Smith relates in his book Jazzmen, published in 1939, that when Bechet came home from school, he would pick up his brother’s clarinet and blow it. He practiced thus, unknown to his brother, and made so much progress that his mother got Leonard to listen to him one day. Sidney played one piece – and when he’d finished Leonard told him he could keep the clarinet.
The Bechet brothers played together in a band called Silver Bell and by the time he was 18, Bechet was one of the finest musicians in New Orleans, having played with Jack Carey and the New Orleans Eagle Band. In 1916 he worked with King Oliver and, like Oliver, migrated to Chicago when the Storyville red light district of New Orleans – where many jazz musicians worked – was closed down. Bechet played with Freddie Keppard, among others in Chicago, and then, in 1919, moved to New York where he joined Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra and went with the band on a tour of Europe. Bechet stayed on after the Cook band broke, spent some time in London and played in the Bennie Peyton band in Paris. Thereafter he spent much of his time in Europe, finally settling permanently in Paris in 1951.
It was while he was in London that Bechet acquired his first straight soprano saxophone – the instrument on which he was to become a jazz legend. He made his first recordings in 1923, with the Clarence Williams Blue Five, and subsequently worked with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Tommy Ladnier (whom he first met in Moscow while on a tour of Europe in 1925) and Noble Sissie, with whom he had a long association.
Perhaps because of spending so much time outside the United States, Bechet never received the recognition there that was due to him during his lifetime. But in France he triumphed. He became a national hero, his recordings of Petite Fleur and Les Oignons were tremendous hits and a statue in his honour was erected in Juan-les-Pins. He died of cancer in Paris on May 14th, 1959.
Bechet was hailed as “an artist of genius” by the Swiss composer and conductore Ernest Ansermet. He played with matchless passion and commitment and, in the words of Joachim Berendt “a majestic expressiveness”. He simply overflowed with melodic inspiration and had vast reserves of musical energy. As Jelly Roll Morton once said, “He plays more music than you can put on paper”.
photo: from the album 'Really the Blues'