Reviving Sidney Bechet
The musical score for Woody Allen’s unexpected 2011 hit, Midnight in Paris, features songs intended, like the film itself, to evoke the spirit of the City of Lights in the 1920s. The musical performance that opens the movie is a jazz recording called “Si tu vois ma mère.” It dates not from the interwar years but was instead cut in 1952 by a soprano saxophonist whose sound—huge, nasal, and piercing, with a startlingly wide vibrato—is as atypical of jazz as the French-flavored song itself. “Si tu vois ma mère” (“If you see my mother”) delights everyone who hears it, and the sublime mood in which it drenches Midnight in Paris was partly responsible for the movie’s surprising success.
The saxophonist is Sidney Bechet, who wrote “Si tu vois ma mère.” Born in 1897, four years before Louis Armstrong, Bechet is now thought by scholars to have been the first indisputably great jazz soloist. A child prodigy who played soprano saxophone and clarinet (his first instrument) with like virtuosity, he broke with the ensemble-dominated sound of early jazz at a time when Armstrong was still serving out his youthful apprenticeship in the honky-tonks of New Orleans. As early as 1919, only two years after the Original Dixieland Jass Band made the first jazz recordings, Bechet’s playing caught the ear of the distinguished Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who praised its “richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected.”
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.