Thursday, February 18, 2021

Sidney Bechet

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles often learns along with its readers regarding the musicians featured on these pages.

Such was the case with Sidney Bechet [1897-1959], about whom we knew very little other than he was one of the early makers of the music and about whom many Jazz musicians had a high regard.

Perhaps it was because Sidney left for France [he lived there from about 1925-1932] so early in his career and was out of the American public’s eye [ear?] during some of the important, formative years of Jazz [Thankfully, before he left town, he did make some wonderful recordings with Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines].

Even after his return, it seems that Sidney’s music never did catch on here and Bechet relocated to France in 1950 after performing as a soloist at the Paris Jazz Fair. His performance at the fair resulted in a surge in his popularity in France. After that, Bechet had little problem finding well-paid work in France. He died there in 1959.

In searching out information about Sidney Bechet, this fine essay by Martin Williams, the distinguished Jazz author and critic, proved extremely helpful as a starting point about Bechet’s music and his importance to Jazz.

Rough and ready and somewhat of a rogue, Sidney would have been the perfect symbol of the USA Jazz Age run riot had he not spent so much of the Roaring Twenties in another country.

Sidney Bechet: First and Last

“Sidney Bechet's earliest recordings come from mid-1923, and they offer a fully developed musician. Fully developed not only because he played with power and authority, but also because we know from his biography that by then he had been a star soloist for some years, and because the elements and resources of his style can be heard on those records, elements that changed very little over the years. Yet Bechet did some of his most challenging recording work in 1957, two years before his death, collaborating with French pianist Martial Solal, effectively interpreting, ornamenting, and improvising on a repertory of standard songs which few of his New Orleans contemporaries would have undertaken in the first place, and which none of them, not even Jimmy Noone, could have handled so confidently.

By the time of those 1923 records, Bechet had taken up the soprano saxophone, had mastered that difficult instrument, and had come to prefer it to the clarinet. At a time when jazz saxophonists were apt to be shallow, fleet-fingered, slap-tongued virtuosi, Bechet's work must have come as a revelation of eloquence, depth, and elegance of musical phrase. On Kansas City Man Blues,, he even used some horse whinneys (derived no doubt from New Orleans cornetist Freddy Keppard) and brought them off with dignity. And within a few months, Bechet had recorded not only passionate slow blues and faster stomps, but an exceptional ballad solo on Old Fashioned Love. There is no question of Bechet's rhythmic verve, confidence, and swing as a jazz player. He understood the relaxed, legato New Orleans phrasing that Armstrong's predecessors introduced so tentatively and that Armstrong himself elaborated so brilliantly. And although there was an occasional fleeting echo in Bechet of the clipped accents of the previous decade, it diminished over the years.

The year of Bechet's earliest recordings is the year in which New Orleans Negro jazz began to be recorded regularly, but Bechet's soprano saxophone style already represents an important step within that music. He based his work on that instrument on a combination of the lead style of the cornet or trumpet and on the clarinet's obbligato in the New Orleans ensemble. Bechet therefore needed to take the lead voice in the polyphonic ensemble, and he gave problems to trumpeters throughout his career. There are two 1924-25 recordings of Cake Walkin* Babies which also feature the young Louis Armstrong. On the first (labeled the "Red Onion Jazz Babies") Bechet is uncannily responsive in polyphony and all poised excitement in his breaks. On the second (by "Clarence Williams Blue Five") Bechet's breaks again are statements in controlled excitement, but the climax of the performance is awarded to Armstrong in solo.

A 1938 session involved Bechet's lead with Ernie Caceres's baritone saxophone in obbligato, and it is particularly successful on What a Dream. Trumpeters were usually wise not to compete with him (but, alas, some of them did), and this is quite evident in some 1940 duets with cornetist Muggsy Spanier. Spanier did not push the limits of his resources but remained his simple self, and some of the resultant interplay between the two horns is exceptionally effective.

A unique expression of sympathetic, integrated New Orleans polyphony can be heard on Blues of Bechet. By an early example of overdubbing (done before the days of tape and therefore done on successive acetate discs by means of full studio playbacks) Bechet himself plays variously clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones, piano, bass, and drums.

We owe Blues of Bechet to Bechet's 1940-41 association with Victor records and his various pick-up groups which were given the unpretentious collective name of the "New Orleans Feetwarmers." There were some earlier 1932 Feet-warmers recordings, but I confess that they seem to me to have more uninhibited energy than ensemble swing or musical success. However, Bechet evidently did find the atmosphere inspiring at least for the first half of Maple Leaf Rag. And in the opening section of Shag he offered the first non-thematic use on records of the I Got Rhythm chord progression.

The 1940-41 Feetwarmers series contributed the plaintive re-make of Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning. And it offered Blues in Thirds with Bechet in the company of Earl Hines, a pianist whose relative sophistication was, of course, no deterrent. Between them, Hines and Bechet also worked out a beautifully paced arrangement of Hines's fine little piece.

The Feetwarmers series also offered at least one ensemble which works because of a subdued trumpeter (I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jelly Roll, with Gus Aiken). The Ellington pieces Bechet did for Victor (The Mooche, Stompy Jones, Old Man Blues, Mood Indigo) may not all be among the best of the series, but they do remind of one of the great losses in the recorded repertory: it was Bechet's passionate presence in Ellington's early Kentucky Club orchestra that helped the pianist find his way as a bandleader and composer, and no aural evidence of that historic association has survived.

Bechet's Victor When It's Sleepy Time Down South has a lovely non-thematic half-chorus on soprano saxophone. Such improvisation was of course not at all beyond his inventive powers; he is equally inventive on Sweet Sue in the Spanier duets, and there is a 1947 showpiece treatment of Just One of Those Things. Indeed, Bechet seems to have loved Cole Porter (he also left us a strong Love for Sale and an eloquently simple reading of What Is This Thing Called Love?), and that, in turn, reminds us of his—and Porter's—understanding of major-minor relationships. Bechet also loved Puccini, and that should not surprise us either.

Bechet recorded intermittently for Blue Note in 1939 and regularly in 1944-45. The results included his affecting showpiece Summertime and his slow blues clarinet masterpiece, Blue Horizon.

Sidney Bechet was not always the sublime soloist he was at his best, of course, and there was a banal, turn-of-the-century sentimental streak in him that occasionally showed in his choice of showcase material (Song of Songs) or in the trite, bravura endings he was so fond of. And if, on the whole, his ornaments and his inventions do not show the sustained originality and imagination of an Armstrong, nor of Armstrong's best successors, one should not expect that of him. He was true to the limits of his style and truly creative within them.

He was an eloquent musician, a musician whose range could encompass the fundamental passion of Blue Horizon, the elegant simplicity of What Is This Thing Called Love?, and the unpretentious invention on Sleepy Time Down South. And he was a pioneer jazzman who could collaborate, late in his career, with Martial Solal with singular success especially on It Don't Mean a Thing, Rose Room, and The Man I Love.

My praise of his eloquence, as well as my occasional reservations about his taste, is ultimately subjective of course. And I will conclude my comments even more personally. It has been said that Bechet's strong, constant wide vibrato is an acquired taste. For me, it was a taste I willingly acquired without thought as a teenager. And it was one night in 1949 or 1950 in Philadelphia when I saw Bechet play, and watched as the man, the instrument, the sounds, the emotion—all of these became by some magic process one thing, one aesthetic whole. I think it was then that I was first in touch with the essential miracle of music.”

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