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The Caruso of Jazz

Jazz Odyssey: The Autobiography of Joe Darensbourg

as told to Peter Vacher
Louisiana State University Press, 231 pp., $19.95

He was the first among the players of the barely baptized “jazz” to be identified as “an artist of genius.” Very few jazz musicians are as well known as Sidney Bechet, especially among people not particularly familiar with the music. No one has a voice more easily and immediately recognizable. Within months of his death in 1959 a statue of him was unveiled on the French Riviera and, thanks to the labors of his biographer, we now know that his face is on postage stamps of the republics of Chad and Gabon. The poet Philip Larkin wrote about him:

On me your voice falls as they say love should
Like an enormous yes.

Equally to the point, in the 1920s Bechet was admired by other musicians, including men of considerable discernment like Duke Ellington and Benny Carter. And small wonder. He was, after all, one of the first, if not the first, to turn the saxophone into a major jazz instrument.

Why is it, then, that the career of Sidney Joseph Bechet (1897–1959) is, or rather became, peripheral to the mainstream of jazz development? He was strategically placed, and had more than enough originality and talent to become a model and inspiration for other musicians, or a permanent model for those playing an instrument: like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, John Coltrane. Yet, while he had inspired Johnny Hodges of the Ellington band, his impact during his lifetime is otherwise hard to trace except on white Dixieland disciples. When white fans launched the Bechet vogue in the late 1930s, he was not even particularly well-known among the musicians themselves.

John Chilton’s book, one of those monuments of devoted and scholarly data-collection which jazz has so often inspired among its loyalists, probably provides as much material for understanding Bechet’s isolation as we are now likely to get. It certainly replaces the romances that passed as Bechet’s autobiography.1 It will provide the indispensable basis for any subsequent exploration of an extraordinary life, which will sooner or later find its way onto film or television. For how many men can claim to have been expelled from both Britain and France (the former after an arrest for rape, the latter after a gunfight in Montmartre), to have had affairs with both Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker and a long, passionate, if intermittent, relationship with Tallulah Bankhead, to have been the toast of Moscow in the mid-1920s after having taught the clarinet to the man who is supposed to be the original for James Bond’s M? He also, later, played a couple of seasons at a Communist summer camp in the Berkshires, oblivious to the warnings of Willie “The Lion” Smith, who could not stand it for more than a week, on the grounds that “it was the most mixed-up camp I ever saw or heard about—the races, the sexes, and the religions were all mixed.”

Unlike most other jazz musicians of his generation, Sidney Bechet was essentially a loner and, in the opinions of those who had business with him, which almost invariably ended in acrimony, a man to handle with great care. At the mere egomaniacal end of the entertainment business, where a number of jazz musicians are also to be found, those who have dealings with artists are inclined to regard them (privately) as monsters rather than human beings, but the critical consensus about the difficulties of life with Bechet goes well beyond the complaints of bookers and managers.

He was dangerous if he thought you didn’t like him,” observed Sammy Price, the Texas blues pianist, who came from a milieu where mere shortness of temper would not necessarily warrant this adjective. He could be “a fiend” admits his biographer. “A very difficult person to work with, self-centered and inconsiderate of others, and never happy to share a spotlight,” observed one of his many bookers. Even his admiring pupil Bob Wilber concedes that “he could be evil and, it’s not too strong a word, paranoic [sic].” Others were constantly conspiring against him, on at least one occasion, he was convinced, by witchcraft, against which he took appropriate action by setting the Twenty-third Psalm to music. He was so worried that he did so without payment.

In short, as in Cocteau’s joke about Victor Hugo, Sidney Bechet was pretty close to being a madman who imagined he was Sidney Bechet. In both cases the illusion was justified by the man’s undeniably extraordinary talents. Moreover, in both cases illusion became reality. The French reopened the Pantheon for the dead Hugo and they put up a statue to the dead Bechet. Bechet took this for granted. “My most durable memory,” wrote a musician of a week’s gig, “is of seeing Sidney sitting backstage, as though he were a king on a throne. He received his loyal subjects, and there were quite a few, with imperious acknowledgments. Alfred Lion of Blue Note records came and feted Sidney with champagne, which he accepted with an egocentric but regal bow.”

These characteristics are probably enough to explain his musical isolation. By and large, in the structured and expensive forms of stage and screen entertainment the excesses of solipsism were (until the rise of rock-and-roll) kept under some control. And jazz is a democratic art, shaped by those who play together, which imposes limits on all participants: no skater, however brilliant, has as much scope for personal display in a hockey game as in figure skating.

But Bechet, while naturally recognizing the collective nature of his music, seems to have resented any version of jazz which did not either build the collective round his central and dominant voice, or at least provide him with a regular virtuoso showcase. Indeed, he switched from his original instrument, the clarinet, to the soprano saxophone, in which hardly anyone else specialized in his lifetime, most certainly because of its greater capacity to lead, or to impose itself on, an ensemble. Bechet could not stand trumpeters who took the lead which conventionally belonged to their instrument, especially not those like Louis Armstrong, who might have outshone him, and of whom he was acutely jealous. He worked best with good and even-tempered partners who did not compete for first place, like the trumpeters/cornetists Tommy Ladnier and Muggsy Spanier, with both of whom he produced ravishing records. In such cases he made adequate room for their solos. He was even more at ease with instruments that complemented his, such as the piano, as with Earl Hines in the famous “Blues in Thirds.”

However, basically he had the instincts, but not the talents, of a commanding officer; or perhaps of the old-fashioned actor-manager who took it for granted that his shows were about him. That is why in later years he felt at ease with young, less talented, and less experienced French musicians, for whom he was the honored sensei or master, even when he cut out the solos of those who had eyes for the girls he fancied himself.

But Bill Coleman, the delicate expatriate trumpeter, was unfair to accuse Bechet of being “only happy when he can bark orders at amateurs.” The most one can say is that he needed more control than he liked or, usually, got. His finest work was done in small groups of players who took each other’s talent, and, above all, professionalism for granted. He played some marvelous sides in 1949 with the bop drummer Kenny Clarke, though neither had much sympathy or feeling for the other’s music. He was even better when he shared the basic ideas on format and procedure with his partners, as a former sideman recalled:

Bechet and [the bass player Wellman] Braud arrived wearing big old coats and hats; I think Bechet had a beret on. They sat down opposite one another and exchanged pleasantries. It was like an ancient ritual between chieftains. Muggsy [Spanier] joined in whilst he was warming up—same sort of approach. Being used to the razzmatazz [of his swing band preparations] I wondered what was going to happen: one, two, three, four, and wham! This music explodes all around me.

However, Bechet’s isolation was not only personal but also geographical. Jazz is, among other things, diaspora music. Its history is part of the mass migration out of the Old South, and it is, for economic as well as often for psychological reasons, made by footloose people who spend a lot of time on the road. It would certainly not have become a national American music as early as it did if men with horns had not physically brought it into places where it had not previously been known. Joe Darensbourg’s autobiography Jazz Odyssey illustrates this diffusion of New Orleans jazz excellently, and in doing so it throws light on the pioneer generation to which Bechet belongs. It takes its hero in the 1920s from Baton Rouge, via Los Angeles, Mississippi, Tennessee, St. Louis and Harrisburg, Illinois back to the West Coast and up to the Pacific Northwest which he helped to open up to jazz. In the history of this music, cities like Seattle, Portland, and Spokane have hardly counted for much, but Darensbourg demonstrates that at least social historians of jazz should take the Northwest seriously. (“Word spread round among musicians that you could make money in Seattle. It was a money town,” Darensbourg says.)

Nevertheless, most migratory jazzmen stayed in the US, which was, in any case, the place where the action was. Bechet belonged to the minority who, from the start, looked to the global market for black artists: women like Josephine Baker, who was discovered by Paris, men like the pianist Teddy Weatherford who, from the mid-1920s, operated mainly in the great Asian port cities like Shanghai and Calcutta; or the trumpeter Bill Coleman who lived mainly in France from the early 1930s. Bechet himself spent only three years of the 1920s in the US (1922–1925) and the rest in England, France, Germany, Russia, and a number of lesser European countries, which explains both why he recorded much less in that decade than musicians of lesser talents, and why, when he returned to the US in 1931, younger players thought of him as passé, compared to influential sax players like Hawkins and Benny Carter. A great deal had happened to the fast-evolving music in the almost six years since he had left. Probably a lot of the younger musicians of the Swing Era continued to think of him as a strong but old-fashioned player, if they thought about him at all.

Indeed, Bechet’s position was so marginal that he and Tommy Ladnier left full-time music to open a clothes-repair and cleaning shop in Harlem in 1933 (unsuccessfully, like all business projects of Bechet, who mistakenly saw himself as an entrepreneur), and as late as 1939 he considered quitting music again to open a hash house in Philadelphia. In short, the man who had been a major figure and influence in the early 1920s, at forty-two seemed an exhausted talent, an impression reinforced by his looking older than his years.

  1. 1

    Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle: an Autobiography (London: Cassell and Co., 1960). It was published after a bumpy ride through publishers, lawyers, and collaborators such as John Ciardi.

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