Sidney Bechet Took The New Orleans Jazz Solo To The World

Wonder about that wonderful New Orleans-style jazz on Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight In Paris’, which stars Owen Wilson?  This is Sidney-Bechet, New Orleans-style- inspired jazz.

Verona-363Picture by Lachlan 2012

Sidney Bechet was born in the  lively port-city of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi.  He learned the clarinet initially, and it wasn’t until he went to London in 1919, whilst on tour, that he discovered a second hand soprano saxophone in a junk shop, bought it, and decided that he would feature this instrument on his show.  Playing this sax on “Song of Songs’ apparently earned him overnight success in London, winning him the admiration of the Prince of Wales and Ernst Ansermet, and leading him to play for the King at Buckingham Palace, according to “Jazz The Essential Companion’, Carr, Fairweather, Priestley, 1987.

Sidney Bechet was the first to coin the notion of the jazz  soloist, which makes him a pivotal figure in the history of jazz.  Soon after Sideney’s debut as a solo artist,  Louis Armstrong helped establish the trend by suddenly becoming world famous as a solo star on cornet, and with his vocals .  These two giants of jazz worked together in 1940, to  cut some historic sides.

Sidney Bechet was  born into the hotbed of New Orleans jazz at a time when the phenomenon saw many powerful players flourishing in the region.  The river boats which travelled up and down the Mississippi employed the best bands to entertain the passengers, as did the night clubs, which meant money for musicians.  And so New Orleans was an economically viable, extremely stimulating, and vibrant place for a young musician to develop.

Sidney Bechet was a contemporary of the famous trumpeters Freddie Keppard, and Joe ‘King Oliver:  All three came from the New Orleans area of America.  In fact, their birthdays were only several years apart, which gives some indication of their creative relationship:  Joe ‘King’ Oliver was born 11 May, 1885 in Louisiana; Sidney Bechet was born 14th May 1987 in New Orleans; and Freddie Keppard 27 February 1890, also in Louisiana.  Louis Armstrong was another contemporary New Orleans boy.  His birthday is the 4th July – Independence Day – 1900, so he was around 13 years younger than Sidney Bechet.  One source suggests that Louis took this birthday for himself because of the significance of ‘Independence Day’ as a black musician.  Astrologically, I think it is interesting to note that Sidney Bechet died on his 72nd birthday, in Paris, on the 14th May, 1959.  Considering his pattern of drinking and his highly colourful and chequered career,  to reach his 72nd birthday was a remarkable thing.

After gaining recognition in New Orleans, Sidney Bechet went on to Chicago, where, at age 20, he began playing clarinet with Will Marion Cook’s orchestra.  This band gave him his lucky break which resulted in Sidney Bechet becoming  world famous  as soloist extraordinaire, and later, as a recording artist. Will Marion Cook’s orchestra played in New York,  and then toured  Europe in 1919.  This was immediately after the first world war had ended, and Sidney was just 22 years of age.  It was around this time that Sidney bought his first soprano saxophone, and got to play for the King at Buckingham Palace.

I am listening right now to a later recording of Sidney’s –  the “Jazz in Paris” recording which was made of ” Sidney Bechet et Claude Luter”, between 1948 and 1949.   Claude Luter was a devotee of the Joe Oliver New Orleans jazz tradition, and it is this connection which culminated in these fab recordings. This is wonderful,  happy and energetic music in the true New Orleans style – just the thing for driving away a dose of the blues.  The first four numbers are Honeysuckle Rose (Fats Waller), High Society (Melrose/Steele), On the sunny side of the street (Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh), and I Cant’ Believe That You’re In Love With Me (Clarence Gaskill/McHugh).  The opening sound of  Sidney’s soprano sax with the orchestra on Fats Waller’s classic, Honeysuckle Rose,  is simply dynamic and addictive, and sets the wonderful vibrant and joyful tone for the whole of the set.   Sydney plays  soprano saxophone on all four of  these opening numbers, with his orchestra  who are : Gerard Bayol on trumpet, Benny Vasseur on trombone, Eddie Bernard on piano, Jean-Pierre Sasson on guitar, Guy de Fatto double bass, and Andre Jourdan on drums.

Sidney’s flair for melodic invention, and his great technical ability,  were the attributes which set the stage for his debut as the world’s first great solo artist.   He is reputed to be the first to present the New Orleans style solo to the world, even before Louis Armstrong took the world by storm, with his recording of ‘Wild Cat Blues’ , which Sidney made with Clarence William’ Blue Five in 1923.   Sidney plays soprano saxophone on this record;  Thomas Morris plays cornet;  John Mayfield plays trombone;  Clarence Williams is on piano; and Buddy Christian is on banjo.

Others were soon to follow suit with the improvisational solo:  Bix Beiderdecke’s famous ‘Singin’ The Blues’ was made just four years later, in 1927.   I feel that Sidney Bechet’s Paris  1948/49 version of ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, by Ted Koehler/Billy Moll/Harry Barns is a tribute to Bix, as its mournful, languid, beautifully melodic solo is reminiscent of Bix’s most lovely “Singin’ The Blues’ which Bix had recorded 20 years earlier.  Bix’s solos were so gorgeous, he would have been a well known name today  had he lived  longer than his 28 years.  Bix loved the creatuve invention of jazz making, as well as the life style which took musicians all over the place.  He  famously said:   “One thing I like about jazz, kid, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  Do you?”   Bix is the only white man amongst the musicians mentioned above.   He came from a well-to-do, conventional, middle class family who would not accept his vocation as a musician, partly because this meant that Bix’s friends were mostly black musicians.  The one big achievement for Bix was cutting the ‘Singin The Blues’ and other sides:  His father reportedly refused to listen to any of Bix’s records.  Bix Beiderdecke suffered alcoholic tendencies, and sadly ended his life on his Saturn Return at age 28, which so many very talented musicians and actors have done, the most recent being Heath Ledger last year, and Amy Winehouse last month.

Barney Bigard has said of Sidney Bechet that he was ‘the most temperamental son-of-a-bitch in music’.  He was also the bane of every recording technician’s life, as he would never play the same piece the same way again.  Sidney was a big drinker, like many of his fellow musicians, but he also had a tendency to violence once he was drunk. This combination  led him doing some time in jail.  He was  jailed and then deported soon after suddenly arising to fame in London, because of an assault charge.  A few years later,  in 1929, whilst playing on the ‘Revue Negre’, he was involved in a shooting in Paris on the Rue Fontaine, with opponent Mike McKendrick, who was a banjo-player.  This incident apparently  resulted in a man being killed.  So Sidney served 11 months  in a Paris jail, after which time he went back to America.  He would return to Paris later on, but meanwhile there was much playing to be done in New York and America generally.  He worked for ten years with Noble Sissle, which was an incredibly productive time.

The recording sessions made in Paris with Claude Luter’s orchestra have made Sidney Bechet’s music a ‘national treasure’, much beloved by the French.  The revue by  Alain Tercinet quotes Alain Gerbet  describing the Paris recording sessions with Claude Luter as being   “That very particular sound of the French sessions with Luter  which belongs to our collective imagination and which, in that respect, have become irreplaceable.’



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