Monday, January 12, 2009

Sidney Bechet 1923

Wild Cat Blues

One fine day in New Orleans back before 1910, a band was playing a party in someone's house. From another room they suddenly heard someone playing a wicked clarinet along with the band. I turned out that little Sidney Bechet had picked up his brother's clarinet and just taught himself how to play, that's all!

Bechet kicked around New Orleans in the teens with the rest of the musicians, most of whom, as Louis Armstrong describes in his book My Life In New Orleans, had day jobs. But by the end of the teens things had changed - jazz had become big business, and, ironically, all of the best jazz musicians had left New Orleans. Sidney Bechet was touring Europe with a band, and came across a soprano saxophone one afternoon in a pawnshop in England.

He had always had a ferocious lip, a supernaturally powerful tone, and a scintillating vibrato wide enough to frame the sistine chapel. He also had a nasty temper and tended to get into fights. After one such fracas he was persuaded to leave Europe for a while, so he came back to the United States for a few years, recording this and a few other sides. Discographers joke that he is one band member who can never be mistaken when there is little other information about a rare record: that tone could only be Sidney!

During the 20s and 30s he was in and out of the United States, but soon he settled in France, where he became a national treasure. His innate sense of musical drama, in addition to his tone, sustained many more decades of performing there, and he lived like an aristocrat. He belongs on the roll of true and original New Orleans Jazz geniuses.


  1. We might never agree about politics but it looks like we both enjoy Bix and Bichet. Where do you stand on Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster? How about Lady Day? But would you follow me all the way to Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Bob Wills?

  2. Hawkins has a shining place in the jazz pantheon as the first person to come up with a real jazz tone for the saxophone (in the mid 20s), and also for anticipating the whole bebop movement with his famous solo on Body and Soul.

    About Lady Day, I can only say that I worship her madly. She still sends thrills down my spine...

    And Bob Wills is great - virtually the inventor of country swing! I love the way Patsy Cline is always 100% living the song that she is singing.

    but to return to Hawkins and Webster - they are masters, but I have to say that I am a devotee of Lester Young...

  3. Another great performer you can always easily pick out is Ben Webster. You can always pick up the sound of him blowing past the mouthpiece. I imagine there were fewer unidentified track from the times in which hiscareer fell.

  4. Yeah, Ben Webster! - Ellington made a habit of picking musicians with distinctive, expressive tones. (as for being easily identifiable on a track - the last time i heard somebody say that was about Bechet).

    Webster, i think, starts with the broad, emotional, Hawkins-style tone and takes it to the max. You can't get much deeper or more emotional than Webster

    i read that in the 30s, though, the tenor players divided into the Hawkins camp and Lester Young camp. i have to put myself more in the Young camp - i try to emulate his cool, joyful, smooth, controlled tone and interesting choices in notes, altho i don't play tenor. With Webster in the Ellington band and Young in the Basie organization, you have the heart and soul of 30s swing tenor masters!