A major figure in early jazz, an outstanding clarinettist, and for decades the only performer of consequence on soprano saxophone, Sidney Bechet's career began in 1909. During the next few years he played clarinet in bands led by legendary musicians such as Buddy Petit, John Robichaux and Bunk Johnson. By 1917 Bechet had left New Orleans behind, both literally and musically, visiting Europe in 1919 as a member of Will Marion Cook's orchestra. While in London during this tour, Bechet purchased a straight soprano saxophone and eventually achieved mastery over this notoriously difficult instrument, thus becoming the first real jazz saxophonist. Bechet's European trip was a mixed affair: he received rave reviews, including one (much quoted) from the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, and was briefly imprisoned in London after a fracas with a prostitute. Back in the USA, Bechet worked with James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington before returning to Europe for an extended visit. This time Bechet encountered problems with the law in Paris, his stay being forcibly extended by almost a year after he was involved in a shooting incident with pianist Mike McKendrick.
Out of prison and back once more in the USA, Bechet settled into a long association with Noble Sissle that lasted throughout the 30s. During this period he worked and recorded with numerous jazzmen of note, including Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier and Eddie Condon. In 1938 Bechet temporarily retired from the music business and began business as a tailor in New York. However, the following year he recorded 'Summertime' for the fledgling Blue Note Records label and enjoyed both a popular hit and one of his greatest performances. In the 40s Bechet continued much as before but was now teaching, (he had earlier briefly schooled Johnny Hodges), and one of his pupils was Bob Wilber, who studied and worked with the master. The end of the 40s saw Bechet risking Europe again and this time there was none of the trouble that had overshadowed his previous visits. His 1949 appearance at the Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival in Paris was a massive success. Later that same year he made another trip to France and this time he stayed. Throughout the 50s Bechet was a king in his new homeland, experiencing a freedom and a measure of appreciation and adulation that had always escaped him in the USA. He continued to play and record extensively, visiting the USA but always considering France as home. Right until the end, his powerful playing, for example at the 1958 Brussels Exhibition, gave no indication of his approaching death from cancer, which came on 14 May 1959, his 62nd birthday. In Antibes, where he had made his home, they erected a statue and named a square after him.
A lyrical heart-on-sleeve player with a wide vibrato, Bechet was also one of the most passionate of performers, on either of his instruments. On soprano he could hold his own with anyone, even trumpeters as powerful as Louis Armstrong. Although his recorded legacy is melodically rich and immensely satisfying in its emotional intensity, only a handful of players, of whom Wilber is the outstanding example, have noticeably followed the path he signposted. Bechet's autobiography, Treat It Gentle, is a romantic, highly readable but not always accurate account of his life.
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