100 Jazz Profiles
1897 - 1959
Clarinetist and soprano saxophonist. Along with his fellow New Orleanian, Louis Armstrong, Bechet was one of the first great soloists in jazz. His throaty, powerful clarinet, and his throbbing soprano are among the most thrilling sounds in early jazz. He went from being a pioneer of jazz in the 1920s to a national hero in France, where he spent the final decade of his life. In his teens he made his name playing in some of New Orleans's up-and-coming bands, and he played there and in Chicago with King Oliver and Freddie Keppard.
But early on he showed signs of wanderlust , and came to Europe in 1919 with the 'syncopated orchestra' of Will Marion Cook. He ended up travelling widely, living in both London and Paris, though his fiery temper got him into trouble and he was deported. In the USA he worked with Duke Ellington, and recorded with Louis Armstrong, but he also returned to Europe with bandleader Noble Sissle. Bechet spent most of the 1930s and 1940s in America, and from his brilliant recordings with his New Orleans Feetwarmers in 1932, to his long series of discs for Victor, he bridged the gap between being at the height of fashion, and becoming a figurehead of the 1940s 'revival' of early jazz styles.
He played the latter role to the hilt , making splendid discs for Blue Note and for clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow's King Jazz label, and he had a hit with his version of Gershwin's Summertime. Once he moved to France he made dozens of popular discs, and became a father figure to European musicians who wanted to play in the 'classic' jazz style.
John Chilton: Sidney Bechet The Wizard of Jazz (London, Macmillan) 1987
Sidney Bechet Jazz Classics Vol. 1 and 2 (Blue Note 789384/5)
Suggested track: Summertime
Sidney Bechet at Red Hot Jazz
Excellent site with biography and Vivo film clips of the great man in action
on radio 3
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