The People of Traditional New Orleans Jazz:
If music is the essence of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, then people are the heart of our story.
In the jazz world it's hard to imagine a more signature sound than the wailing cry of Sidney Bechet's soprano saxophone. This signature sound resonates throughout in classic Bechet recordings of "Summertime", "St. Louis Blues", or his famous composition, "Petit Fleur". Finding an individual voice on an instrument in a way that is emotionally expressive is, after all, the standard to which jazz musicians are judged. The greatest musicians of all can play just a few notes and be immediately recognized. Few musicians ever displayed this individualistic quality like Sidney Bechet. A throbbing vibrato and piercing rhythmic attack was Bechet's calling card, a trademark sound which allowed him to cut through everyone else on the bandstand. A sound so big and full of life, it's only match was the personality of it's creator. If the soul of a man ever revealed itself through an instrument, it was the charismatic, proud, and slightly dangerous jazz pioneer, Sidney Bechet.
Bechet was Born into a Creole musical family in 1897 during a period in New Orleans musical history when all the critical ingredients were coming together to create what would later be called jazz. Young Sidney was so enamored by his older brother's ability to play instruments that he often imitated their actions using household objects. Sidney's brother Leonard eventually gave him a clarinet, which quickly replaced other childhood activities, particularly attending school.The budding young musician was so consumed with practicing his clarinet that he was regularly truant in order to do so. As Sidney continued to progress at an astounding rate on the clarinet older musicians became impressed and often offered their advice. Once, when taking a lesson from traditionalist Luis "Papa" Tio, Sidney broke enough rules of clarinet technique to be admonished, "No! No! No! We do not bark like a dog or meow like a cat!" Even as a boy Sidney's fiery determination challenged authority and disheartened his parents who wanted Sidney to learn a respectable trade like masonry, shoe making, or carpentry, as was the custom in most Creole households.
While Bechet lacked the formal acquisition of a trade he certainly gained an apprenticeship in the world of jazz. As a teenager Bechet sat in with some of the most popular bands in New Orleans, including the Eagle Band in the infamous red-light district, Storyville. Performing in Storyville further disturbed Bechet's parents and would have been considered scandalous in proud Creole society. He was by most descriptions, completely consumed by the new life his music led him to. Bechet played well beyond his years and his peers were now grown men, most of whom realized he was on a higher musical level. The great New Orleans clarinet player Johnny Dodds reportedly ran from the stage whenever he saw Bechet approach the bandstand, less he be humiliated in a "head cutting" contest (instrumental competition). It was as if Bechet grew from a boy to a man overnight, and in doing so began to establish himself as a brilliant soloist with a fondness for the night life and all its trappings.
Sidney Bechet left his hometown of New Orleans for good in 1917 and arrived in Chicago the following year.There he joined Will Marion Cook's band which took him to Europe for the first time near the end of World War I. In London he eyed a soprano saxophone which quickly became his instrument of choice. Bechet was the first jazz musician to embrace the 'skinny' saxophone, which tended to sound out of tune in its higher register. He compensated for the instrument's flaws with an operatic vibrato, or wavering tone which became his specialty. Jazz, to Bechet, "wasn't spirituals or blues or ragtime, but everything all at once, each one putting something over on the other". This poetic understanding of the music was reflected in Bechet's uncanny ability to display the pulsating vibrato, reminiscence of his favorite vocal tenors, and use it to stir up a impassioned, blues-laden mix. His technical ability allowed him to fire rapid successions of notes as if from a gun, while utilizing the full range of his instrument-from the lowest note to the highest one. The soprano saxophone, once merely a novelty instrument, now served as an even greater extension of Bechet's personality.
As Bechet continued to cement his reputation as jazz's finest clarinet and soprano saxophone player, he spent extended amounts of time performing and living in Europe, eventually rising to hero status in France. Parisians were especially enthralled with his passionate and sentimental playing and found his New Orleans Creole accent charming. Bechet also relished the more carefree racial attitudes that flourished in many places throughout France, where black service men were viewed as liberators following W.W.I, bringing with them a wonderful new American dance music-jazz. Back in the US, returning African American service men where treated as poorly as ever, especially in the South.. Jazz to Bechet was a way to connect the African American's yearning for liberation and self expression to music. Asked when jazz began Bechet was known to reply, "The music started with the emancipation". Indeed, the music was not just notes on paper to Bechet; for he always had refused to learn to read music for fear that it would hamper his ability to improvise. The music was a spirit to Bechet, inspired by his ancestors, treated with utmost respect, dignity, and passion.
"Oh I know I can be mean- I know that. But not to the music"... Sidney Bechet
Trouble, it seems, sometimes lurked in the shadows during Bechet's life. Several altercations with police had previously plagued this jazz genius, once in New Orleans and once in Europe-which earned him a brief deportation back to the states. In 1930, Bechet's problems came to a boil during an incident in which the circumstances still remain cloudy. Whether the cause of the fracas was a dispute over chord changes or over a woman, neither scenario is unbelievable considering Bechet's temperament. What is not in doubt was the fact that Bechet wounded 3 people as a result of a gun duel and none of the victims were the intended target. Apparently Bechet's accuracy on his instrument did not extend to pistols. One of the wounded, another musician who was shot in the leg, publicly contemplated filing a lawsuit against Bechet upon his release from prison. Bechet, incensed upon learning of his plans, sent word back to drop the suit or watch out for his other leg. This aspect of Bechet's persona, a darker side with sometimes violent tendencies, somehow was revealed in his music as well. Listening to this jazz master one not only can hear the passionate soul of the blues, but a sense of risk also. Bechet was sometimes attracted to violent gangster figures and often this darker side of the man revealed itself through devilish twists and turns on the soprano. Bechet's ability to display a melancholy seriousness on his instrument remained as ever-present throughout his career as the handgun he often toted.
Dark side and all, the genius of Sidney Bechet manifested itself in many ways. From the adoration of the French for his passionate sentimentality and brilliant musicianship, to his huge role in the development of jazz music from 1920 until his death in 1959. He was often referred to as an instrumental peer to Louis Armstrong (and competitor) and considered among the 4 most influential jazz musicians during the music's first 50 years (Along with Buddy Bolden, Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton). Bechet possessed the ability to call upon spirits of his enslaved ancestors who danced in New Orleans' Congo Square or appeal to the most courtly of opera fans with dazzling technique and range. Whether wringing emotion out of a slow blues drag, or making folks get up and dance with his mastery of hot rhythms, Bechet's fiery temperament was always on display through his instrument. It's almost as if his soul was revealed through the sounds that came out of the bell of his horn. Bechet also serves as a reminder that no matter how confident one may feel, there may always be something lurking around the corner, something better left avoided. Maybe we had better enjoy the music while we can. Sidney Bechet did.
If you would like to learn more about the legendary jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet, check out the autobiography Treat it Gentle, and John Chilton's book entitled Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. To experience Bechet's influence on jazz music today, get out and hear the real thing. The living and breathing artform called jazz is far from extinct and is readily heard each night in New Orleans. Listen close enough and you'll be able to hear Sidney Bechet's musical bloodline still flowing in today's young musicians like Evan Christopher and Tim Laughlin. A musical gift passed on from generation to generation, always treated with respect and love.
Marquis, Donald M. In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz (Louisiana State University Press, 1978)
Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz (Da Capo Press, New York, 1996)