Sidney Bechet (May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer.
He was one of the first important soloists in jazz (beating cornetist/trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by several months and later playing duets with Armstrong), and was perhaps the first notable jazz saxophonist of any sort. Forceful delivery, well-constructed improvisations, and a distinctive wide vibrato characterized Bechet's playing.
However, Bechet's mercurial temperament hampered his career, and not until the late 1940s did he earn wide acclaim.
Listen to Sidney Bechet's performance in The Sheik, free from redhotjazz.com.
Bechet was born in New Orleans. From a young age, Bechet quickly mastered any musical instrument he encountered. Some New Orleanians remembered him as a cornet hot-shot in his youth. At first he decided on the clarinet as his main instrument, and Bechet remained one of jazz's greatest clarinetists for decades. The clarinetist Jimmie Noone, who became famous in his own right, took lessons from Bechet when the latter was only thirteen-years old. Despite his prowess on clarinet, Bechet is best remembered as the first great master of the soprano saxophone.
Bechet had experience playing in traveling shows even before he left New Orleans at the age of 20. Never long content in one place, he alternated using Chicago, New York, and Europe as his base of operations. Bechet was jailed in Paris, France when a passerby was wounded during a pistol duel (which Bechet himself had instigated in an argument over chord changes); after serving jail time, Bechet was deported.
He continued recording and touring, though his success was intermittent.
Bechet relocated to France in 1950. He married Elisabeth Ziegler in Antibes, France in 1951.
Shortly before his death in Paris, Bechet dictated his poetic autobiography, Treat It Gentle. He died on his 62nd birthday.
Bechet successfully composed in jazz, pop-tune, and extended concert work forms. His recordings have often been reissued.
Some of the highlights include 1924 sides with Louis Armstrong in "Clarence Williams Blue Five"; the 1932, 1940, 1941 "New Orleans Feetwarmers" sides; a 1938 "Tommy Ladnier Orchestra" session ("Weary Blues", "Really the Blues"); a hit 1938 recording of "Summertime"; and various versions of his own composition, "Petite Fleur".
Existentialists in France called him "le dieu".
On April 18, 1941, as an early experiment in overdubbing at RCA Studios on 24th street in New York City, Bechet recorded a version of the pop song "Sheik of Araby", playing six different instruments: clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. A heretofore unissued master of this recording was included in the 1965 LP Bechet of New Orleans, issued by RCA Victor as LPV-510. On the liner notes, George Hoeffer quotes Sidney as follows: "I started by playing The Sheik on piano, and played the drums while listening to the piano. I meant to play all the rhythm instruments, but got all mixed up and grabbed my soprano, then the bass, then the tenor saxophone, and finally finished up with the clarinet."
In 1944, 1946 & 1953 he recorded and performed in concert with Chicago Jazz Pianist/Vibraphonist Max Miller, private recordings which are part of the Max Miller archive and have never been released. These concerts and recordings are covered completely in John Chilton's great book on Bechet.
Bechet was an important influence on alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who studied with Bechet as a teenager.
In 1968, Bechet was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Renowned blues harmonica player Sugar Blue claims to have taken his name from the Bechet recording "Sugar Blues".
Philip Larkin wrote an ode to Bechet in The Whitsun Weddings.
Bechet is said to have served as a prototype for the saxophonist "Pablo" in the novel Steppenwolf, since it was almost certainly through listening to his playing in Europe in the 1920s that Hermann Hesse became acquainted with the world of jazz music.
Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz... everything he played in his whole life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique man to ever be in this music. — Duke Ellington
In the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues, filmmaker and clarinet aficionado Woody Allen repeatedly references Sidney Bechet. One of his adopted children with Soon-Yi Previn is also named Bechet.