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.
Admittedly he returned to the US at a bad time for jazz. It was not so much that the slump knocked the bottom out of the market for jazz records, which were hardly yet money spinners for sidemen, as that hot jazz, somehow tied to the mood of the Roaring Twenties, fell victim to the depressed atmosphere as well as the money problems of the slump years. The shift of public taste away from the fast and loud and toward dreamland—it has not been much noted by jazz historians—was international in the early Thirties. German music critics observed it, mainly with satisfaction, between 1931 and 1933. Chilton demonstrates that it was equally marked in Harlem. In 1932 Rudy Vallee pulled in 2,800 customers a night in a leading ballroom, but Ellington only a quarter of that; Guy Lombardo 2,200, but Cab Calloway 500; Ben Bernie 2,000 but Louis Armstrong 350. Bechet was not the only player for whom the times were out of joint in the early 1930s, but it must have been particularly hard for a man so conscious of his gifts to lack both money and reputation among his peers.
What saved him was the strange and unexpected phenomenon of jazz antiquarianism in the form of the search for the true music of New Orleans by impassioned groups of young white fans for whom jazz was not only a music but also a symbol and a cause. The Dixieland revival, which grew out of this search, has been dismissed (in The New Grove) as “the longest-lasting movement in jazz but…the only one to have produced no music of value.”2 However, if it had done no more than to recover Bechet for the main jazz tradition, it would have justified its existence.
Bechet had always attracted the musical cognoscenti. Ernest Ansermet wrote his universally quoted panegyric in 1919, when Edward J. Dent, the champion of Mozartian opera, also singled him out favorably from among the rest of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which he otherwise considered “nightmare entertainment.” Ansermet’s forgotten praise (“I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it, it is Sidney Bechet”) was given general circulation after 1938 when it was republished in the (French) Le Jazz hot and the (British) Melody Maker.3
The small but select group of knowledgeable jazz lovers had no trouble in recognizing his quality, but few others listened to fugitive groups like the New Orleans Feetwarmers of 1932–1933 and the half-dozen sides they recorded. After a market for jazz developed again in the mid-1930s these aficionados managed to get Bechet a few small-group sessions which for the first time brought him before the main jazz public and made his reputation: the 1937 tracks on the Variety label (initiated by Helen Oakley, supported by Bechet’s old admirers Ellington and Hodges), the classic 1938 Bechet-Ladnier records organized by the French pioneer critic Hugues Panassié, and, of course, John Hammond and New Masses’ famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert “From Spirituals to Swing.” These inspired the 1939 recordings of Bechet by a recent refugee jazz-enthusiast from Berlin, Alfred Lion, which established the fortunes of his new Blue Note label as well as confirming those of Bechet.
While Bechet’s Euro-American rescuers appreciated the New Orleans tradition—how could any jazz lover fail to do so?—and were always anxious to bring back unjustly forgotten artists, they were not New Orleans buffs. Even the Bechet-Ladnier sessions which, it has been claimed, “had more to do with the Dixieland revival than any others” were distinguished for their artistry more than their authenticity. Yet behind them an obscure tide of nostalgia was rising, especially among young middle-class whites, for the pure, the beautiful, the only true music of jazz which had somehow been betrayed when Storyville was shut down and the players moved up the Mississippi, though the survivors of the 1920s doing their own thing in small groups were better than nothing, especially if they were black.
Dixieland or the New Orleans revival was essentially a nonmusical phenomenon, though it was to enable vast numbers of amateurs to enjoy themselves playing “Muskrat Ramble” and similar numbers. It belongs to cultural and intellectual history, which is why it deserves the serious investigation it has not yet received. It was a purely white movement, though naturally welcomed by aging Creole musicians, especially those down on their luck. “New Orleans” became a multiple myth and symbol: anticommercial, antiracist, proletarian-populist, New Deal radical, or just anti-respectable and anti-parental, depending on taste.
In the US and other English-speaking countries, its ideological center was unquestionably located on the borders between the New Deal and the Communist party, though for most of the young fans it was probably just something that spoke straight to even uninformed hearts. The internationally influential book Jazzmen of 1939, the first American history of the music based on research, which established the “up the river from Storyville” version in its purest form, was co-edited by a music critic on the Daily Worker. Revivalism linked the cause of the blacks and the (minority) taste for jazz, with folk song and folk music, ancient and modern, which were and long remained the central pillars of the left-wing subculture that merged into the New Deal culture.
So Bechet, “a man of catholic musical tastes,” found that he “had somehow been swept into the dixieland world.” For him Dixieland was in the first instance the key to recognition. The 1940 recordings on which he shared the bill with Louis Armstrong were the proof that he had won it, and (granting his late restart) with remarkable speed. From then on no short list of “the jazz greats” would ever leave him out. In the second instance, the Dixieland movement gave him a license to go on doing what he had done all along, since he had told Ansermet in 1919 that he followed “his own way,” without taking much notice of others. His age made him an undeniable founding father of New Orleans jazz, and his style was therefore ipso facto beyond criticism. In fact, Bechet felt quite at home within the limited Dixieland format, for he was primarily a linear improviser and melodist, and not much interested in harmonic games as such. In any case he was only too pleased that his strong, fluent, looping, and pulsating ropes of beautiful sound (“a jugful of golden honey” Armstrong called his tone) were easily accessible even to the nonmusical, except for those—they always existed—who found his striking vibrato intolerable. He was not, and did not have to be, a purist, but neither did he have to keep up with the times. This did not stop him from playing superbly with any first-rate musician irrespective of style.
How far did Dixieland provide him with a living, the question that was undoubtedly uppermost in his mind? It is certain that he relied heavily on the public for the rediscovered small-group jazz of the 1920s players, which found a Greenwich Village home at Nick’s and its public relations man in Eddie Condon. He clearly also relied on the left-wing connection for gigs, though it is not clear how far this was purely commercial. (Still, in spite of suggestions of communist sympathies, and his undoubted fond memories of Russia, it is hard to see Bechet as a political figure, still less a Red among black jazz players). As for the New Orleans revival, he recognized its potential for a certified charter member of the Crescent City. Whatever the motives, his 1945 partnership with Bunk Johnson, an ancient trumpeter disinterred by the purists and turned into an icon of authenticity, showed the fans where he stood. Like earlier partnerships, this one also ended in bad feelings.
Yet none of these jobs provided him with an adequate income at the level Bechet thought appropriate to his standing, though by the late 1940s he now had reasonable record royalties. What finally solved his problems was the invitation to France in 1949. In that country, where jazz had enormous intellectual and cultural prestige and Resistance associations, he discovered what he had always dreamed of—a vast public for whom the man with a French name and sponsored by French critics was a certified genius of jazz, and a community of young fan-musicians whose hearts beat faster at the very thought that he would honor them by stepping into their cellars. France became his permanent home. He became a cultural mascot as Josephine Baker had been. It did his music little good, but his finances no harm at all. It removed him from the personal and entrepreneurial frictions that had always complicated his life in the US. He lived out his life as a happy expatriate.
The man who emerges from Chilton’s admirable researches was both a typical product of New Orleans and a very odd character. As a member of the Creoles of color, members of the (Francophone) free mulatto artisan and lower middle class, pressed back toward the blacks by post–Civil War segregation, he acquired the musical and professional skills of his community. Throughout his life he could do tailoring and cook, although he refused to be apprenticed to a craftsman’s trade as most Creole players were. But then he also, and quite uncharacteristically, refused to learn to read music, initially no doubt because it seemed unnecessary for so brilliant a natural musician, later out of rebellion, in the end perhaps out of defensive pride.
He shared the New Orleans Creole social courtesy, their taste for dressing respectably, their justified pride in the city’s musical tradition, and perhaps the unusual lack of interest in race-relations that seems to have been characteristic of New Orleans musicians. From Joe Darensbourg’s autobiography it is impossible to discover whether he was white or black. Bechet himself frequently said he was more interested in a man’s musical talent than in the color of his skin and—apropos of Mezz Mezzrow, a white champion of black superiority, that “race does not matter—it is hitting the notes right that counts.”
And perhaps the intense interest in classical music that he had a chance to develop in Moscow—on free days he would regularly go to symphony concerts before hitting the nightclubs—was based on the pre-1914 musical culture which lower-middle-class Louisiana Creole families shared with James Joyce’s Dublin equivalents. Caruso, from whom Bechet claimed to derive his vibrato, was part of both. At all events Bechet, a great man for the espressivo, put a quote from Pagliacci into a solo as readily as he put Beethoven’s picture on his wall.
And yet, there can be no denying that he was a man who stood at a fairly acute angle to his universe. Jazz players are more tolerant of the vagaries of human behavior than any other group of people, but while nobody who played with him failed to admire his marvelous musicianship, the general view about Bechet from the bandstands was distinctly unenthusiastic, whether he was with or without the dog and the knife that often accompanied him. Even his admirer Ellington, who seriously considered bringing him into the band again in 1932, in the end chose not to. He must plainly have been a hard man to get along with for any length of time, although with women he found it easier to maintain his soft-spoken and courteous New Orleans charm.
He remains an extraordinary figure in jazz: a role-player who was not good at choosing his roles, a man often living in a world of fantasy, a wayfaring stranger who rode into and out of town, nowhere at home except on the throne he thought of as his right, loyal to nobody except himself; but he was an astonishing, unforgettable artist, utterly original in spite of remaining firmly within an obsolescent tradition. After his death he acquired a reputation even among the modernists, as shown by the spread of the soprano saxophone among them. It had been virtually Bechet’s monopoly. Coltrane took to it from 1961. He became a posthumous classic.
And yet, if it were not for the handful of jazz intellectuals who rescued him, the small jazz labels of the late 1930s, the white kids in basement clubs, the French who made his dreams come true, what would have happened to him? He would not have fitted into the big swing bands. He would have been around, but why should younger musicians have made space for an old man with a voice from the past who seemed to take no interest in new ideas, and had the reputation of being a self-centered, truculent, and tightfisted son of a bitch? Perhaps after his death some musicians might, by sheer accident, have discovered the forgotten six sides from 1932 and, listening to that astonishing “Maple Leaf Rag,” have felt what Coltrane said apropos of the same session: “Did all of those old guys swing like that?” No, but Bechet did.
Thanks to middle-class whites we do not have to recover a handful of old 78s from beyond the grave. We were lucky to recover a classic while he was still alive. There is some justification for the jazz-fans after all, even the ones who don’t know much about jazz. When they heard it, they had no trouble recognizing the eloquence, the lyrical passion, the swinging joy, and the blues that came out of Bechet’s horn whenever he blew into it. Fans do not always fall in love with the best in the arts, but this time they did.
May 12, 1988
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. ↩
Paul Oliver, Max Harrison, and William Bolcom, The New Grove: Gospel, Blues and Jazz (Norton, 1987), p. 292. ↩
However, Ansermet’s negative judgment thirty years later (“The days of jazz are over. It has made its contribution to music. Now in itself it is merely monotonous”) has not been propagated by jazz-lovers or Bechet fans, though Chilton records it (p. 207). ↩