This year marks the centennial of the earliest recordings of clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, one of the greatest and most influential musicians to come from New Orleans. Credit: William P. Gottlieb Collection at Library of Congress

Mention the name Sidney Bechet to almost anyone in France over the age of 60 and the response will likely be a smiling gasp and perhaps the title of one or more of the legendary jazz musician’s songs. Say the name Sidney Bechet to most New Orleanians of any age and the reaction is often: “Who is that?”

This year marks the centennial of the earliest recordings of Bechet, a clarinetist and soprano saxophonist, known as one of the greatest and most influential musicians to come from New Orleans. Bechet, along with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton was among those who developed and spread jazz around the world in the 1920s. 

The reedman’s contribution to jazz was arguably as great as that of Armstrong, but Bechet’s wandering spirit, less compromising nature, and career as an improvising musician made him far less known to the public. Bechet didn’t sing or clown and wasn’t a general entertainer. He was a fierce non-compromising musical artist who played the hell out of the clarinet and soprano saxophone.

Bechet was born on May 14, 1897 into a Black Creole family that lived near the intersection of St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues. From birth he was hopelessly swept up into the exciting jazz music all around coming from street parades, dance halls, advertising wagons, and neighborhood parties. 

While still a child, Bechet picked up his brother’s clarinet and soon began playing in small combos and brass bands. He was resistant to formal music lessons and never learned to read music, but the mainly self-taught youngster was a prodigy who developed into a highly skilled and versatile improvising clarinetist. Though never as popular as Armstrong, Bechet had an incredible career performing in clubs, touring, and recording hundreds of songs. 

Both in music and life, Bechet displayed an almost restless wandering spirit that kept him from settling in the same place too long. He left New Orleans as a teenager and never looked back. Bechet found his way to New York and in 1919 traveled to Europe as a featured soloist with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, during which time he was praised by a Swiss conductor who labeled Bechet a genius. 

Sidney Bechet is known as the first great jazz saxophonist. Credit: William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress

While in London he came across a soprano saxophone, which soon became his main instrument. The soprano saxophone was an unusual instrument in early jazz, but its louder sound allowed Bechet a wider range of expression and dominance in ensembles that suited his musical personality.  Bechet became the first great jazz saxophonist. 

His first recordings on soprano saxophone and clarinet were made between 1923 and 1925 with pianist Clarence Williams and includes a classic battle with Armstrong on two recordings of “Cakewalking Babies.”  Along with Armstrong, Bechet’s innovative improvising helped to place the emphasis of jazz on featured solo playing and the concept of swinging. 

Like many entertainers, Bechet struggled during the Depression, but he continued to record.  “Dear Old Southland” and “Characteristic Blues,” made in 1931 with Noble Sissle, show a fully developed Bechet at the height of his creative powers. His style was characterized by a broad and expressive tone, a wide vibrato, melodic lines and phrases, repeated riffs and four note arpeggios, and opera-like solo cadenzas. 

Bechet’s music displayed a wide range of emotions — from rough and aggressive statements to tender and romantic whispers — and always conveyed the feeling of telling a story. 

Bechet’s impact on the center of jazz, New York, was profound and legendary. Jazz musician and vocalist Danny Barker recalled how Bechet soundly defeated the tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins in  a musical battle after Hawkins had insulted New Orleans musicians. 

The great composer and bandleader Duke Ellington recognized Bechet’s greatness and added him to his orchestra for several months. Ellington’s main soloist, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, was greatly influenced by Bechet’s sound and style. 

“Sidney Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz,” Ellington said. “Everything he played in his whole life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique to ever be in this music.”

During a revival of interest in early jazz, Bechet received a greater degree of visibility and success. He made hundreds of recordings of which he performed creative versions of jazz classics, blues, rags and marches. He also played material from other genres beyond the repertoire and style of New Orleans jazz, including ballads, Caribbean merengues, show songs, and swing tunes. In 1939 he had achieved a rare hit recording with his reflective rendition of the Gershwin classic, “Summertime.”                       

In his last decade, Bechet migrated to France where he became a widely celebrated star. Over the years Bechet had recorded several original songs, like Bechet’s “Fantasy” and “Blue Horizon,” but in France he fostered an extension of traditional jazz that had its own French-influenced sound. His compositions like, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère,” “Promenade aux Champs-Élysées,” and “Dans les Rues d’Antibes” remain popular classics in European traditional jazz. His most famous composition, the romantic ballad “Petite Fleur” from 1952, became a widely recorded international hit song.

Bechet died of cancer in France on May 14, 1959. He was 62. His autobiography “Treat It Gentle,” remains among the most important jazz biographies with its inside views of Black New Orleans music and culture. Bechet’s music is credited as a main influence on the modern jazz saxophone style. His songs are still heard and performed today across the globe. Bechet is an ultimate example of the Black New Orleanian cultural tendency to find and create amazing new things from unusual combinations, multiple influences, and personal creative spirit. 

Clarinetist Michael White will perform Sidney Bechet music in Paris, France and at the Healdsburg, California Jazz Festival in June 2023.

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Dr. Michael White is an award-winning New Orleans-born jazz clarinetist, composer, band leader, and historian. He is also a professor and Endowed Chair at Xavier University of Louisiana.