Music: A monster of a player

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
He was a mean old daddy, but his music captured the spirit and essence of jazz in the Twenties and on into the Fifties. Phil Johnson look at the life and swinging times of Sidney Bechet.

Philip Larkin wrote a poem about him; fellow clarinettist Woody Allen is in awe of him still; Ernst Ansermet - the conductor of the premiere of Stravinsy's Rite of Spring - greeted his first performances in Europe as the birth of a new art.

But the jazz musician Sidney Bechet, whose centenary is celebrated by a BBC Arena special to be shown next Tuesday, was the very model of the musician as existential outlaw. Bechet was as rough and as tough as they come, and he doesn't make an easy candidate for the secular sainthood normally conferred by commemorative celebrations.

Bechet's early career was as full of controversy as that of Snoop Doggy Dogg. In 1920 he was deported from England after being arrested for rape. In Paris in 1928 he served a year in Bastille prison after a shoot-out with gangster rivals resulted in a passer-by being injured by a ricochet.

Throughout his travels, from home in New Orleans to mob clubs in Chicago, speakeasies in New York, and on to England, Germany, Russia and France, where he eventually settled, Bechet incarnated the very spirit and essence of jazz: he lived his life in the same free and easy way he improvised his music.

A ladies' man right up until his death from cancer in 1959 in Paris - where, in true French fashion, he kept his mistress in an apartment across the road from his wife, and had children with both - Bechet had countless affairs, including a fling with blues singer Bessie Smith. Not believing in the banking system, he kept his life savings in his back pocket, entrusting a thick wad of notes to his band's most dependable member when, at the end of a gig, he would go off into the night on a bender.

Born into a relatively well-off black family in New Orleans, where his grandfather had played the drum in Congo Square as a slave, Bechet ended his days playing to the acclaim of fashionable existentialists in Left Bank clubs. Like Josephine Baker he became a huge star in France, where he was loved and respected in a way that he never could be at home because of his colour and fiery temperament.

Unlike his colleague and rival Louis Armstrong, Bechet was both unable and unwilling to fulfil the stereotyped roles expected of black entertainers in his home country. He also spent so much time abroad that he missed out on the recording boom that Armstrong and Bessie Smith benefitted from, and when he returned to America in the early 1930s he was already something of an anachronism: the music had moved on but he hadn't. He spent the Swing boom of the Thirties pressing trousers in a tailor's shop in Brooklyn and it wasn't until he returned to France in 1949 that he found real fame.

Listen to Bechet today and his genius really does reach out across the years. As both Woody Allen and Wynton Marsalis point out in the Arena film, Bechet was, on either the clarinet or the soprano saxophone which he later made his favoured instrument, a monster player. In that iconic jazz phrase, he truly wails - the soprano offering the extra volume and verve he needed to dominate the other instruments of the band - and the full flood of his ideas, the daring, dandyish, almost impossibly intricate melodic lines, wash over the listener in a huge, tumultuous wave of creativity.

Bechet was also a musical prodigy who never learned to read music. As a child he heard the legendary cornettist Buddy Bolden and other local "musicianers" in the street parades of New Orleans, and after teaching himself to play his brother's clarinet at the age of six, he joined a brass band. At 12 he was playing professionally and giving lessons to others older than himself. In 1917 he followed the burgeoning jazz trail to Chicago where he joined Will Marion Cook's orchestra, with whom he travelled to New York and then to Europe. It was here that Ansermet encountered him, and wrote of "this very black, fat boy with white teeth and that narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his `own way'."

But even after this excellent film, Sidney Bechet remains an enigma. What one really wants to know, in spite of Wynton Marsalis's and Woody Allen's testimonies to his genius as a musician, is what Bechet was like as a person. Was he, to come to the point, a bit of a bastard? Here the few sources on record are not very helpful. According to his fellow New Orleans musician Barney Bigard: "Some people say Sidney was the most temperamental son-of-a-bitch in music; others say he was the nicest man you ever met." One person who does have first hand knowledge of the subject is the American musician Bob Wilber, who in 1945 became Bechet's pupil.

"I got a call from Mezz Mezzrow (the legendary record-date fixer and pot-smoker) to say that Sidney was opening a school for musicians in his home - he had a sign saying `The Sidney Bechet School of Music' outside his front door - and I became his first and almost his only student", Wilber says. "Time had passed him by and he was semi-retired. One day he called and said, `Bobby, I'm working on this ballet. Maybe you could come over here and help me with it.' I did, and I stayed, sleeping on a couch in the corner. Later, we would go to John Ryan's club on 52nd Street and around midnight he would beckon me and I would play till 4am.

"Sidney had very mixed feelings, just like his music," Wilber remembers. "He was a very passionate man and he could be charming, but he had a paranoid streak. On the bandstand he could be extremely difficult.

"Back in the Twenties he and Louis Armstrong virtually invented what we call Swing. Their first collaborations in 1924-25 were years ahead of everyone else, and Sidney's sound was so individualistic that if you attempt to copy him you're never going to succeed."

In the Arena film, Woody Allen admits to having feelings of inadequacy whenever he listens to Bechet and then trying to copy him. He also confesses to practising his music in bed with all the sheets over his head, or in a parked car, in order to prevent the noise from disturbing others. Bechet, one feels, wouldn't have cared what anyone thought.

Arena's `Treat lt Gentle: Sidney Bechet' is on BBC2, Tuesday, 11.25pm.

Comments