Sidney Bechet was an early jazz virtuoso musician primarily known for his work on soprano saxophone and, to a lesser extent, clarinet. In particular, he was known for playing with a wide vibrato on his soprano saxophone. He was as good as the best of any of the early improvisers but didn’t have the influence that others had. Contributing to this lack of influence was a combination of personality issues, extended periods living in Europe, and legal problems.
He did some early recordings with Louis Armstrong (1924-1925) and even had his own recordings before Armstrong (1923). The recordings with Armstrong were their first together and the only ones until much later, in the 1940s.
Bechet was born in 1897 to a middle-class Creole (of color) family. As a boy, he played many different instruments but eventually specialized in the clarinet. He studied with many renowned Creole clarinetists – Lorenzo Tio, ‘Big Eye’ Louis Nelson, and George Baquet. His early professional work included many of the legendary bands of that time. These included Freddie’s Keppard’s brass band, Olympia Orchestra, John Robichaux’s Society Orchestra, Bunk Johnson in the Eagle Band, and ‘King’ Oliver in the Olympia Band.
Over the length of his career, Bechet made several trips to Europe. First he went to London circa 1919 with Will Marion’s Syncopated Orchestra. On this trip he discovered and began concentrating on the straight soprano saxophone. Then, in 1925 he went to Paris to play as part of the Revue Negre featuring Josephine Baker. He followed that by touring in Russia with his own band. Finally from 1929 to 1932 he toured with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra. He more-or-less permanently relocated to Paris in 1950.
Authorities deported Bechet twice back to the United States – once from London in 1922, after an assault conviction of a woman, and again in 1929, after spending 11 months in jail after a shoot-out that wounded a female passer-by.
Recordings and Studio Work Highlights: • 7/30/23 – session led by Clarence Williams: “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” • 1924 – with Louis Armstrong in Red Onion Jazz Babies & Clarence Williams Blue Five • 1932, 1940, 1941 – New Orleans Feetwarmers • 1939 – “Summertime” • circa 1950s – “Petite Fleur”.
Dave Thomas, who compiled this post, is a music historian and New Orleans musician. So the next time you’re in the city you can catch Dave leading our New Orleans Rythms & Roots Music Tour. Dave is also hosting lectures for the upcoming series Unknown Influences of New Orleans Music for the Louisiana State Museum on Tuesdays starting July 13 through August 17, 2021. Click here for more information.
The Savvy Native is a group of experienced local tour guides who were either born in New Orleans or wish they had been.
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