Mugshot of Sidney Bechet
|Birth name||Sidney Bechet|
|Born||New Orleans, Louisiana
May 14, 1897
|Origin||New Orleans, Louisiana|
May 14, 1959 (aged 62)
He was one of the first important soloists in jazz (beating cornetist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by several months and later playing duets with Armstrong), and was perhaps the first notable jazz saxophonist of any sort. Forceful delivery, well-constructed improvisations, and a distinctive, wide vibrato characterized Bechet's playing.
Bechet's mercurial temperament hampered his career, however, and not until the late 1940s did he earn wide acclaim.
Bechet (pronounced "beh-SHAY") was born in New Orleans to a wealthy Creole family. From a young age, Bechet quickly mastered any musical instrument he encountered. Some New Orleanians remembered him as a cornet hot-shot in his youth. At first he decided on the clarinet as his main instrument and Bechet remained one of jazz's greatest clarinetists for decades. The clarinetist Jimmie Noone, who became famous in his own right, took lessons from Bechet when the latter was only thirteen years old. Despite his prowess on clarinet, Bechet became best remembered as the first great master of the soprano saxophone.
Bechet had experience playing in traveling shows even before he left New Orleans at the age of twenty. Never long content in one place, he alternated using Chicago, New York, and Europe as his base of operations. Bechet was jailed  in Paris, France when a female passerby was wounded during a shootout; after serving jail time, Bechet was deported. The most common version of the story, as related in Ken Burns' jazz documentary, reports that the initial shootout started when another musician/producer told Bechet that he was playing the wrong chord and Bechet then challenged the man to a duel; critics assert, however, that Bechet was essentially ambushed by a musician with whom he did not get along.
He continued recording and touring, although his success was intermittent.
Bechet relocated to France in 1950. He married Elisabeth Ziegler in Antibes, France in 1951. Existentialists in France called him "le dieu".
Shortly before his death in Paris, Sidney dictated his poetic autobiography, Treat It Gentle. He died from lung cancer on his sixty-second birthday.
Bechet successfully composed in jazz, pop-tune, and extended concert work forms. He knew how to read music, but chose not to, he developed his own fingering system, and he never played section parts in a big band or swing-style combo. His recordings often have been reissued.
Some of the highlights of his career include 1923 sides with Louis Armstrong in "Clarence Williams Blue Five"; the 1932, 1940, 1941 "New Orleans Feetwarmers" sides; a 1938 "Tommy Ladnier Orchestra" session "Weary Blues", "Really the Blues"); a hit 1938 recording of "Summertime"; and various versions of his own composition, "Petite Fleur".
On July 28, 1940, Sidney Bechet made a guest appearance on NBC Radio's The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street show, 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 theretofore unissued master of this recording was included in the 1965 LP Bechet of New Orleans, issued by RCA Victor as LPV-510. On the liner notes, George Hoeffer quotes Sidney 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 Chicago Jazz Pianist and Vibraphonist Max Miller, private recordings which are part of the Max Miller archive and have never been released. These concerts and recordings are covered completely in John Chilton's great book on Bechet.
Bechet was an important influence on alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who studied with Bechet as a teenager.
In 1968, Bechet was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
The New York Times music writer Robert Palmer wrote of Bechet that, "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."
Renowned blues harmonica player, Sugar Blue, took his name from the Bechet recording "Sugar Blues". The former has stated "I needed a nickname... all the good ones were taken! You know 'Muddy Waters', 'Blind Lemon', 'Sonny Boy'...until one night a friend and I were leaving a concert - a Doc Watson concert - when somebody threw out of the window a box full of old 78s: I picked one up and it said "Sugar Blues" by Sidney Bechet...That's it! I thought it was perfect...so here I am".
Bechet is said to have served as a prototype for the saxophonist "Pablo" in the novel Steppenwolf, since it was almost certainly through listening to his playing in Europe in the 1920s that Hermann Hesse became acquainted with the world of jazz music.
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. — Duke Ellington.
Bob Dorough, who played with Bechet, recorded a tribute song, called "Something for Sydney," on his "Right On My Way Home" album.