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.”
The hundreds of recordings that Bechet made between 1923 and his death in 1959 leave no doubt of the truth of Ansermet’s words. Yet, unlike Armstrong, Bechet is known today only to a small circle of aficionados, and in America he was never much better known during his lifetime. Indeed, he found it so hard to make a living here that in 1950 he moved to France, where he became a popular entertainer.
Why was so outstanding an artist unable to make more of an impression on his contemporaries? What did Armstrong have that he lacked? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer has less to do with Bechet’s music than with the prickly, unforthcoming personality of the man who made it.
As his name indicates, Sidney Bechet was a “Creole of color,” a term used in turn-of-the-century New Orleans to refer to light-skinned blacks descended from mixed-race slaves who had been freed prior to the Civil War by their French and Spanish owners (many of whom were also their natural fathers). These blacks comprised a full-fledged middle class, among the first of its kind, and even after the passage of the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation and forced the New Orleans Creoles into working-class occupations, they continued to view themselves as a class apart from their darker-skinned brethren, whom they treated with snobbish disdain.
Bechet’s family conformed closely to the Creole pattern. Though Omar, Sidney’s father, was a shoemaker, the Bechets lived in a French-speaking neighborhood and hewed insofar as possible to its bourgeois ways. Young Sidney, for instance, was taken to operatic performances by his doting mother. Although his unusual musical aptitude had long been evident—he was given his first clarinet at the age of eight—his parents made it clear that they expected him to learn a trade, playing music only as a pastime. But Omar and Josephine Bechet, unlike more straight-laced contemporaries (such as the grandmother of fellow Creole Jelly Roll Morton, who disowned him as a disgrace), did not frown on popular music, nor do they seem to have discouraged Sidney’s attempts to play it.
For his part, Sidney was fascinated by the sounds of early jazz, especially the rough-and-ready kind that was played by such dark-skinned musicians as Bunk Johnson and Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong’s cornet-playing mentor. “Some [Creole] musicians played the tune prettily, but I like the playing that makes me want to dance,” Bechet explained in a 1940 interview. No sooner did he master his instrument than he started playing such music himself. Within a few years he had established himself as one of the top jazzmen in New Orleans, even though he showed no interest in learning how to read music, claiming then and later that to do so would interfere with his ability to improvise freely.
Despite his middle-class upbringing, Bechet was fascinated by what one of his brothers called “the rough element.” As a teenager, he began playing in and around Storyville, New Orleans’s red-light district, and his blues-permeated style was shaped by the music he heard there. But he was just as fascinated by the opera singers whom he had first heard in childhood, and the vibrantly romantic voices of such celebrated tenors as Enrico Caruso and Richard Tauber also left their mark on his playing. And while Bechet was not prejudiced against dark-skinned blacks, he would always be both proud and status-conscious. His failure to win the fame that came so easily to Armstrong, who made no secret of his working-class origins, thus filled him with an intense resentment that in time developed into something close to paranoia.
Unlike most New Orleans jazzmen, who preferred to stick close to home, Bechet had a restless streak. In 1919 he joined the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, an all-black semi-classical ensemble that toured Europe. Ernest Ansermet first heard Bechet at a concert given by this group, and the review that he wrote soon afterward suggests that Bechet’s style was already fully developed:
There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet….I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet.
Bechet spent the next few years performing throughout Europe, where he was widely acclaimed. It was during this period that he began playing soprano saxophone, an instrument that had not been previously used in jazz. With it he produced a sound that was louder and more penetrating than that of the clarinet, making it possible for him to compete on even terms with cornet and trumpet players. He would thereafter alternate at will between the two instruments, increasingly favoring the saxophone in his later years.
Bechet returned to America in 1923, the year in which black jazz and blues musicians (among them Armstrong, Morton, Oliver, and Bessie Smith) were first recorded extensively. In July he cut two 78 sides, “Kansas City Man Blues” and “Wild Cat Blues,” which live up in every way to Ansermet’s oft-quoted description of his playing. Not only does Bechet’s voluminous sound slice through the haze of the primitive acoustic technique used to make these records, but the florid unaccompanied “breaks” that he tosses off in “Wild Cat Blues” have a hard-swinging momentum that constitutes a radical departure from the ragtime-based two-in-a-bar rhythms of early jazz. So far as is known, Armstrong was the only other jazz musician in the world able to play with such rhythmic ease in 1923, and Bechet’s fiery playing already had a formal coherence to which the younger man could not yet aspire.
“Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” dazzled such up-and-coming jazz musicians as Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, and Lionel Hampton. According to Bigard, “Every time you passed someone’s house [in New Orleans] that had the door or windows open they would be playing that on their Victrola.” Had Bechet stayed in America, he might have become one of the best-known jazzmen of the day. Instead he went back to Europe, where his erratic temperament got him into serious trouble. In 1928, he pulled a gun on a fellow musician and spent the following year in a French prison.
Because of his ill-timed emigration and subsequent imprisonment, Bechet made no recordings between 1925 and 1931, the years when Armstrong established himself as a major soloist and jazz became widely popular in America. Even after returning home, he remained obscure, so much so that he was forced to open a Harlem tailor’s shop in 1934. By then, jazz was starting to be dominated by the big bands that would be popular well into the 40s, and Bechet’s inability to read music made it impossible for him to work as a sideman in any of the top ensembles of the day. His career had come to a near standstill.
It was not until the publication in 1939 of Jazzmen, the first factually reliable history of jazz’s early years, that Bechet managed to restart his faltering career. Jazzmen, in which he was prominently featured, helped spur a widespread revival of interest in New Orleans jazz. Soon Bechet was recording regularly for the first time since 1925, and the performances that he cut between 1939 and his permanent emigration to France a decade later are the ones for which he is best remembered today.
Most of these performances, interestingly enough, are not in the self-consciously conservative style of the New Orleans revivalists. Instead Bechet frequently chose to work with younger swing-era musicians (among them Sid Catlett, Louis Armstrong’s favorite drummer). And while his repertoire still included such time-honored staples as “China Boy” and “Wild Man Blues,” he also recorded such harmonically challenging pop songs as David Raksin’s “Laura” and Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” “Love for Sale,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?”
Bechet’s playing, however, remained essentially unchanged, as can be heard in “Blue Horizon,” a slow, themeless six-chorus blues that he recorded on clarinet in 1944. All of the characteristics of his style are on display: the shivering, throaty vibrato, the quasi-operatic expansiveness, the crisply tongued articulation, and inexorable forward momentum. Equally noteworthy is Bechet’s sure sense of compositional logic, which makes it possible for him to build his improvised solo to a perfectly placed climax.
It stands to reason that so formidably gifted a player should have expected to receive at least as much popular acclaim as Louis Armstrong, his lifelong rival. But Bechet’s bland outward demeanor and charmless stage presence were ill suited to the swing era, which put a premium on the personal charisma that Armstrong possessed in abundance. In addition, his playing, for all its resplendent warmth, lacked the crowd-pleasing sparkle of wit with which Armstrong always enlivened his performances.
It was presumably for this reason that Bechet finally threw in the towel and moved to France, where his full-bloodedly melodic style made him a bona fide star for the first and only time in his life. No doubt it helped that he now performed not with his peers but with younger, less accomplished jazz revivalists who were ill at ease with the sophisticated popular songs that he had recorded to such striking effect in the 30s and 40s. As a result, he now chose to concentrate almost exclusively on New Orleans–type staples and sentimental ballads like “Si tu vois ma mère.”
Only once, in 1957, did Bechet stretch himself, cutting an album of well-chosen pop standards in which he was accompanied by a modern rhythm section led by the French pianist Martial Solal and anchored by the drumming of Kenny Clarke, a pioneer of bebop. As always, Bechet rose to the occasion, playing with an aggressive confidence that suggested a potential for continued growth that his death two years later left sadly unrealized.
Bechet’s musical legacy is problematic. Though many later players, including John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, were inspired by his towering example to take up the soprano saxophone, his highly individual style seems to have left no mark on any of them. Moreover, the rise of bebop, the style of modern jazz played by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, inevitably made Bechet sound old-fashioned to younger ears.
Because of all this, Bechet became, in a sense, a musician’s musician. One of his colleagues, Miles Davis, heard Bechet for the first time in 1949 and admitted to being impressed: “I don’t know if this is the music of New Orleans or Texas, or wherever, but it sure is music and this old guy can really play it. He’s fantastic.”
That the most influential jazzman of the postwar era should have responded so enthusiastically to the playing of a man born in the 19th century says much about Sidney Bechet’s music. So, too, does the heartfelt enthusiasm of the poet Philip Larkin, a devotee of prewar jazz who in 1954 wrote the poem “For Sidney Bechet.” He praises the saxophonist with indelible eloquence: “On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes.” Never has the emotional force of Bechet’s playing been described so aptly. Cramped and awkward as a man, Bechet was irresistibly appealing as an artist. His playing continues to speak to those willing to listen, and the ecstatic reception of many moviegoers to his Midnight in Paris performance suggests that his music might be on the cusp of a genuine revival, more than a half-century after his death.