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ClassicsOnline Home » BECHET, Sidney: Blackstick (1938-1950)
SIDNEY BECHET Vol.2: "Blackstick" Original Recordings, 1938-1950
Flamboyant, colourful and world famous among New Orleans musicians on a par with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Bechet was jazzs archetypal prodigy. Powerful and inventive in his frequent interchanges from clarinet to soprano-sax, alongside Armstrong and Duke Ellington he towers as one of the triumvirate most responsible for the shaping and popularising of early jazz as we now perceive it. As a player in the embellished New Orleans style he ranks with Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Noone and as an improviser he is in direct descent from Charles Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) the jazz pioneer whom Jelly Roll Morton rated "the most compelling trumpet player I ever heard". In the midst of these and similarly powerful traditions, Bechet was from an early age aware that something precious was being entrusted to him and, while outwardly never overtly ambitious (the phantom fame never overrode more everyday considerations or his "ferocious lust for life") but technically secure, he approached his playing with the studied nonchalance of true greatness.
Born in St Antoine Street, New Orleans on 14th May, 1897, Sidney Joseph Bechet was the youngest of seven siblings. His four brothers were all, in their respective ways, musical (in particular his brother Leonard was for a time a professional trombonist prior to a career in dentistry and his son, Leonard Jr. was a saxophonist who for a time managed his uncle Sidneys affairs). Sidneys first love was the clarinet on which, at least initially, he was self-taught and, reputedly, as a lad he once played that instrument in the band of the legendary Freddie Keppard (1890-1933). Respected from the outset by both peers and elders alike as a natural talent, he subsequently received intermittent training from, among others, Lorenzo Tio Jr. (1893-1933), Big Eye Louis Nelson (1880-1949) and Georges Baquet (1883-1949).
Bechets professional career took off during 1909 with a stint in his brother Leonards Silver Bells Band. Principally, at this stage, he played only clarinet in leading New Orleans outfits led by Buddy Petit, John Robichaux and Bunk Johnson but, like many other musicians of that city, was also heard on cornet in Sunday parades and church processions. In 1914 he first quit New Orleans with pianists Louis Wade and Clarence Williams to join a travelling show in Texas, indulging a penchant for wandering which, already by 1916, was becoming a habit. Later that year he returned to New Orleans but in 1917 left permanently, initially to tour with a travelling company through Georgia, Alabama, Ohio and Indiana.
In 1918 Bechet joined Will Marion Cooks Southern Syncopated Orchestra and in 1919, at Cooks invitation, made his first trip across the Atlantic. Following so soon after the visit of the all-white ODJB, the arrival in London of an all-black band proved both a novelty with audiences and a personal coup for Sidney. The Cook band played the Philharmonic Hall where Bechets "extraordinary clarinet virtuoso" playing was extolled by the great classical conductor Ernest Ansermet. After a year spent at various European venues (not least Paris, soon to become his second home) plus some extra-mural activities culminating in being deported following a fracas involving a prostitute, Bechet returned to New York in November 1922. There, he worked variously as a musician and actor (with Ford Dabney) in revue and played in bands, notably Mamie Smiths and, in 1924, with Louis Armstrong, in groups colourfully dubbed Clarence Williams Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babes, recorded the first discs to enshrine the New Orleans style in transition.
Early in 1925, he worked with Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson before returning to Paris to join Josephine Baker in the Revue Negre in September. Thereafter, for the next five years, while his jazz counterparts in the United States were reaping world renown and financial rewards, he proceeded on a nomadic and largely obscure pathway. In 1926, he was in Russia; in 1927, back in Europe mainly in France and Germany and on his return to the States in 1931 was already half-forgotten, eclipsed by his erstwhile colleagues lucrative recording contracts. Fighting back, in 1932, with Tommy Ladnier (1900-1939) he formed the short-lived New Orleans Feetwarmers (they recorded six sides only for Victor in September) but by 1938, having been upstaged by the more fashionable Swing orchestras, was already "resting", running a full-time tailoring repair business with his old trumpeter pal by day and jamming behind the shop, just for fun, on odd evenings.
Renewed recognition, however, was not long in coming. In 1938, Bechet took part in a landmark New York revival gala promoted by John Hammond "to epitomise the New Orleans jass band" (boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, stride-man James P. Johnson and blues honker Big Bill Broonzy were also featured) and, in November of that year, he recorded a handful of titles for Vocalion and a similar clutch (for contractual reasons, pseudonymously as "Pops King") in a seven-piece fronted by Ladnier, for RCAs Bluebird label. Quickly reinstated to the Pantheon of great pioneers by a consensus of jazz commentators, Bechet now had a new career thrust upon him as the leader of the father-figure of the New Orleans new wave and, rescued at least temporarily from gramophonic oblivion, found himself re-packaged for a younger, more analytically-minded generation of enthusiasts.
To this end, various attempts were made to underline Bechets poly-instrumental capabilities and his new image was in some measure stage-managed and stylised for maximum impact. In one early session Bechet was teamed on clarinet and alto with Chicago-born cornettist Muggsy Spanier (1906-1967) and, during a session in April 1941, in a feat of over-dubbing Bechet the one-man-band seemed to be playing all of six instruments. Already by 1940, however, the economics of recording meant that in order to paint a fuller self-portrait Bechet had need to resort to the subsidiary labels Blue Note and Commodore which, mercifully, preserve some of his best small-groups.
In 1949 he returned to Europe after an eighteen-year interval. In London, for Melotone (Savoy) he recorded in small ensembles in company with Humphrey Lyttelton and others and, under the auspices of the Hot Club de Paris, was rapturously received at the Paris Jazz Festival. His recording of "Les oignons" with clarinettist-bandleader Claude Luter scored a big hit and indeed, such was the reverence and esteem he received from his young French pupils that, from 1951 onwards, he made his home in the French capital, fired by a desire to impart technical knowledge of his instruments. Feted as a celebrity, he lived a comfortable life-style in the French capital until his death, on his 62nd birthday, on 14th May, 1959.
Peter Dempsey, 2002
PRODUCER'S NOTE: The sides with blues singer Josh White were made at a small New York studio, under circumstances that seem unusually informal. White's vocal is very poorly miked, and the opening notes of "Milk Cow Blues" do not exist on the original 78. A bit of digital magic and artistic licence have been applied for this transfer.
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BECHET, Sidney: Blackstick (1938-1950)