32. Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet was a clarinet and saxophone player, the youngest of seven children from a successful Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. Music was a constant presence in the Bechet household, and from the moment precocious Sidney picked up a musical instrument, he devoted himself to mastering the music of New Orleans. Within a few years he was among the city’s finest musicians, and eventually began a long career traveling and performing throughout the world. Although a generally fine fellow, Bechet was capable of anger and jealousy, especially over affairs with women. He spent time in jail in England in 1922 and France in 1928 for violent crimes, and spent many years in Europe while New Orleans native Louis Armstrong achieved worldwide acclaim by popularizing jazz and blues in America. Bechet returned to New York City in 1930, where he spent most of the next two decades, creating the recorded music that would be his most powerful legacy.

Sidney Bechet is my favorite horn player, and my favorite improvisational soloist of all time.

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), soprano saxophone, clarinet, composer

Link to the Sidney Bechet Society

Notable Collaborators:

Clarence Williams (1893-1965), piano, composer
Tommy Ladnier (1900-1939), trumpet
Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow (1899-1972), clarinet, saxophone
Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903-1983), piano
Frederick “Muggsy” Spanier (1901-1967), trumpet, cornet
Sidney De Paris (1905-1967), trumpet
Vic Dickenson (1906-1984), trombone
Wellman Braud (1891-1966), upright bass
George “Pops” Foster (1892-1969), bass
“Wild” Bill Davison (1906-1989), trumpet, cornet
Charles “Pee Wee” Russell (1906-1969), clarinet
Claude Luter (1923-2006), clarinet, saxophone

Take Me Way Back

Both of my parents liked Dixieland music. In particular, Dad owned a Sidney Bechet record since before I was born, and I’ve still got it. He must have bought it around 1956; it might be a couple years older than that. Here’s a picture of Blue Note Records #1204:

Technology has eliminated the need to play the record, but it’s still in great shape after almost sixty years. It is an extraordinary document, a thick record with the loudest sound of any record I own, literally 10-20% louder than other records. The musicians are notably loud as well; I think Dad liked the wailing cornet player Wild Bill Davison just as much as Bechet. With Sidney Bechet in the ensemble, musicians had to be powerful just to be heard.

Dad’s favorite song was the high energy, fast tempo song “Runnin’ Wild”. After the introductory verse, Bechet moves up and down through three or four choruses as the band builds the tension behind him. Then Davison joins in at the end, offering primitive, powerful counterpoints as Bechet weaves in and around him. Music taken at breakneck tempo does not appeal to many, but I always understood it. For a moment, I considered playing “Runnin’ Wild” at my father’s funeral, because it’s a part of this sedate golfing partner they didn’t quite know, but it’s too jarring, and too hard to understand.

In the Boz Scaggs profile, a comparison is made between “Runnin’ Wild” and Boz Scaggs’ great “Loan Me A Dime”, which features a duet between guitarist Duane Allman and drummer Roger Hawkins, which I feel an apt comparison with Bechet and Davison.

“See me through days of wine and roses
By and by when the morning comes
Jazz and blues and folk, poetry and jazz
Voice and music, music and no music
Silence and then voice
Music and writing, words
Memories, memories way back
Take me way back, Hyndford Street and Hank Williams
Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet on Sunday afternoons in winter
Sidney Bechet, Sunday afternoons in winter
And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless
Before, yes before this was the way it was
More silence, more breathing together
Not rushing, being
Before rock `n’ roll, before television
Previous, previous, previous
See me through, just a closer walk with Thee.”

— Van Morrison

John Chilton’s Fine Biography

There are two notable biogrpahies of Bechet’s life. The first is the autobiogrpahy “Treat It Gentle”. The other book is “Sidney Bechet: The Wizard Of Jazz”, by English author and musician John Chilton. I’ve read that one, and re-read many parts recently, getting a feel of what to say, and looking for good songs and quotes. Here are a couple of quotes taken from this fine biography:

First, a description of a particular performance of “China Boy”:

“Sidney opens in confident, rhapsodic mood, then re-enters to play an intricate chorus consisting of his “pre-set variations”; these were phrases which he had practiced to perfection, knowing that whenever he performed them in public they always impressed his audiences. In common with many other great jazz musicians, Sidney would “frame” a particular solo chorus when he thought it was as good as any he was ever likely to conceive; he did this on most of the feature numbers he had played in Noble Sissle’s band (with whom he played during periods of the twenties and thirties), and he continued to follow a similar procedure for the rest of his life. But his set solos were always delivered with the alacrity and freshness of spontaneous improvisations, and Bechet’s masterful jazz talent allowed him, at whim, instantly to replace a set solo with newly conceived musical ideas. Often his solos contained set phrases and daring improvisations.”

— John Chilton

Next, a reminiscence from violinist Oscar Madera, who played with Bechet in Noble Sissle’s band. It is instructive to note that Madera and Bechet were not friends:

“He was a very friendly human, with a joke and a smile always. He got on fine, not only with Mr. Sissle, but with all the members of the band. He was a nice man, one of those natural God-made musicians, a real artist with such marvelous musical ideas, and mastery of his instruments. As far as I could appreciate he had what we would call a photographic mind. We used to rehearse arrangements for the orchestra and believe me he would memorize the complete melody and bass parts of each arrangement. Such a marvelous mind, because as far as I knew he couldn’t read a note of music. He himself once said that music was born inside of him and that he could never understand how to read music, no matter how hard he tried.”

— Oscar Madera (courtesy of John Chilton)

Amazon.com Link to John Chilton’s “Sidney Bechet, The Wizard of Jazz”

John Chilton and I disagree about the 1945-1953 Blue Note recordings, though I fully understand my underlying bias; he doesn’t even mention “Runnin’ Wild” or “Joshua Fit The Battle Ob Jericho”, which is amazing to me. Maybe I’m a punter when it comes to jazz, but those songs get my toe tapping. Above anything, Sidney Bechet rocks music when he plays his horn.

Loud and Vibrato

There are two important traits of Sidney Bechet’s style worth mentioning. First of all, the decision to evolve from clarinet to the straight soprano saxophone, which caused him grief in the jazz community. It is loud and crude sounding, but increased his range as a musician, and he became the first master of the instrument. Second, Bechet employs vibrato more than any famous great musician. The Roy Hobbs of jazz, Bechet is the natural, bending notes at his will.

I love the Dixieland style, with every horn a voice. Both Bechet and Louis Armstrong establish a significant footprint on the future of music. They popularized the syncopated jazz of New Orleans, and also the jive vernacular that came with it.

Concluding Remarks

Among the few videos which highlight Sidney Bechet are these two from France in 1953:

People my age tend to gravitate to cool jazz, established in the forties with the bop musicians. I always liked hot jazz best, and when considered even against Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But the intense music also takes its toll; I have tired at times listening while reviewing his work, but the next subject for discussion seems bland in comparison. Django Reinhardt, though ten years behind Bechet, is most similar as a soloist. But for me, Sidney Bechet is the greatest soloist I ever heard.

Bechet returned to France in 1949, and spent his last ten years there, finally achieving national recognition and adoration, an adopted, deserved son of France.

Sidney Bechet Song Notes:

Bechet has a huge collection of recordings, with many duplicates over the years. I will do my best to steer you to the best version of these songs. Please select from the following albums:

Maple Leaf Rag
Okey Doke
Indian Summer
That’s A Plenty
Wild Man Blues
Nobody Knows The Way I Feel Dis Mornin’
Blues Of Bechet
The Mooche
Blues In Thirds

Masters Of Jazz, Vol. 9
House Party
Perdido Street Stomp

New Orleans Songs
Perdido Street Stomp (Alt)

Sidney Bechet: Petite Fleur
Petite Fleur
Si Tu Vois Má Mere

Triple Best Of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note Records)
Blue Horizon
That’s A Plenty
I Found A New Baby
When The Saints Go Marching In
Basin Street Blues
Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll
Joshua Fit the Battle Of Jericho
Runnin’ Wild
That’s A Plenty (Alt)

Classic Sides 1931-1937 (CD A)
I Want You Tonight
Dear Old Southland

Classic Sides 1937-1939 (CD B)
Characteristic Blues
Viper Mad
Jack I’m Mellow

Classic Sides 1940 (CD D)
Sweet Lorraine

The Definitive Sidney Bechet Collection, Vol. 4
China Boy
Egyptian Fantasy
Blues In Thirds
Save It Pretty Mama
You’re The Limit
Strange Fruit
Blues In The Air
Egyptian Fantasy

Dear Old Southland (1937-1938)
Dear Old Southland (Alt)

The Commodore Story
At A Georgia Camp Meeting

The Sheik Of Araby (Remastered) – Single
The Sheik Of Araby

Note: This song and “Blues Of Bechet” are one man band performances, in which Bechet plays all instruments.

Ken Burns Jazz – The Story Of American Music
Wild Cat Blues
Cake Walking Babies (From Home)

Wild Cat Blues (1923-1924) [Featuring Clarence Williams]
Kansas City Man Blues

The alternate version (take 1) of Runnin’ Wild is not available on iTunes. It can be found on the Mosaic Records compilation The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Sidney Bechet.

Sidney Bechet Songs:

Runnin’ Wild, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭✭✭

Blue Horizon, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭✭
Egyptian Fantasy, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭✭

Joshua Fit The Battle Ob Jericho, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Si Tu Vois Má Mere, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
The Mooche, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Perdido Street Stomp, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Blues In Thirds, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Muskrat Ramble, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Stompy Jones, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
Dear Old Southland, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭
That’s A Plenty, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭

Runnin’ Wild (Alt), Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Avalon, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
The Shiek Of Araby, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Summertime, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Dear Old Southland (Alt), Sidney Bechet ✭✭
At A Georgia Camp Meeting, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
When The Saints Go Marching In, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Basin Street Blues, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
China Boy, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Strange Fruit, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
That’s A Plenty (Alt), Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Blues In the Air, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Viper Mad, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Perdido Street Stomp (Alt), Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Indian Summer, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
I Want You Tonight, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Save It Pretty Mama, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Nobody Knows The Way I Feel Dis Mornin’, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
I Found A New Baby, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Sweet Sue, Bechet-Spanier Big Four ✭✭
Love For Sale, Sidney Bechet ✭✭

You’re The Limit, Sidney Bechet
Sweet Lorraine, Sidney Bechet
Maple Leaf Rag, Sidney Bechet
Okey Doke, Sidney Bechet
Characteristic Blues, Sidney Bechet
Wild Man Blues, Sidney Bechet
Petite Fleur, Sidney Bechet
Copenhagen, Sidney Bechet
Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll, Sidney Bechet
Shag, Sidney Bechet
Blues Of Bechet, Sidney Bechet
House Party, Sidney Bechet

Related Songs:

Summertime, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Summertime, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Summertime, Billy Stewart ✭✭
Summertime, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Summertime, Paul Desmond

The Mooche, Duke Ellington ✭✭

The Sheik Of Araby, Albert Ammons ✭✭✭
The Sheik Of Araby, Jack Teagarden
The Sheik Of Araby, Red Nichols ✭✭

Avalon, Benny Goodman ✭✭✭
Avalon, Django Reinhardt, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins All Star Band ✭✭
Avalon, Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France ✭✭✭✭

Stompy Jones, Duke Ellington ✭✭

When The Saints Go Marching In, Blind Willie Davis ✭✭
When The Saints Go Marching In, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭

Basin Street Blues, Bob Wills & Texas Playboys ✭✭✭
Basin Street Blues, Charleston Chasers
Basin Street Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭

Wild Cat Blues, Clarence Williams’ Blues Five ✭✭
Kansas City Man Blues, Clarence Williams’ Blues Five ✭✭
Cake Walkin’ Babies (From Home), Clarence Williams’ Blues Five ✭✭

China Boy, Benny Goodman

Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday ✭✭✭✭

That’s A Plenty, Wild Bill Davison ✭✭✭

I’ve Found A New Baby, Benny Goodman ✭✭✭
I’ve Found A New Baby, Lester Young ✭✭

Jack, I’m Mellow, Trixie Smith ✭✭

Sweet Lorraine, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭✭✭

Love For Sale, Shirley Horn

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