Largely self taught, the prodigiously talented reedman Sidney Bechet developed one of the most distinctive solo voices in jazz. Unlike fellow New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong, Bechet never achieved stardom in the United States. Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and soprano sax legend Bob Wilber this week on Riverwalk Jazz to explore the two sides of Bechet.
Born in 1897 in New Orleans, Bechet mastered the clarinet when he was ten years old. He played in the Eagle Band, which he described as “the only band around that could play the low down blues.” He moved to Chicago in 1917, and five years later he was featured on a series of ground-breaking recordings with Louis Armstrong, known as Clarence Williams’ Blue Five.
From 1925—29 Bechet performed throughout England, France, Germany and Russia. In Paris, Bechet was brawling with another musician when a gun fight broke out. Three people were wounded and Sidney spent a year in a French jail. In 1931, he was deported back to America.
He worked and recorded throughout the ’30s and ’40s in groups with Tommy Ladnier, Mezz Mezzrow and Eddie Condon. Then in 1945, Bechet began teaching music in Brooklyn, NY. High School student Bob Wilber became his star pupil. A long-time leading exponent of the Bechet style on soprano saxophone and clarinet, Wilber performs classics from Bechet’s body of work this week’s show.
Also on the bill is clarinetist Evan Christopher, a disciple of the New Orleans clarinet style. Actor Vernel Bagneris presents scenes from Sidney Bechet’s life—told in Bechet’s own words—from his autobiography Treat It Gentle, published by DaCapo Press.
Sidney Bechet did not find the success he craved until very late in life. Though he recorded and performed widely in the United States, he never earned the money or recognition he hoped for at home. Everything changed in June, 1950 when he returned to France and found a new, young audience eager to embrace his music and make him a star. People waited in long lines at every concert. The stocky silver-haired Bechet was suddenly a celebrity, and made France his home for the rest of life.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Paris Poster: Club du Vieux Colombier. Sidney Bechet, Claude Luter et son orchestre… 1952; poster by Pierre Merlin courtesy of Historic New Orleans Collection (hnco.org)
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012