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. 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 …

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