May 14th, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana
May 14th, 1959 in Garches, France
An Early Innovator
Early Life in New Orleans
Bechet did not read music, but taught himself to play well enough to attract the attention of bandleader and cornetist Bunk Johnson, who offered Bechet a job. Bechet worked as a musician in New Orleans until he was 19, when he left for Chicago to play with bandleaders Freddie Keppard and King Oliver.
In 1919, Bechet put down his clarinet in exchange for the soprano saxophone, the instrument for which he was eventually most well-known. Around that time, jazz was beginning to abandon the interwoven counterpoint of typical New Orleans music. Instead of equal interplay between the cornet, clarinet, and trombone, jazz began to involved featured improvising soloists accompanied by small groups or big bands. Bechet played the soprano saxophone in a style similar to the way he played clarinet, although the instrument’s more powerful sound allowed him to compete more affectively with trumpet players.
Sidney Bechet’s famous 1939 recording of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” exhibits his fully developed soprano saxophone sound, in which he combines the power of a trumpet and florid grace of the clarinet. His passionate solo is a timeless performance, and is a perfection introduction to his style. It shows his aggressive, yet graceful and emotional playing, all with a fast and wide vibrato that gave Bechet’s sound a distinctively vocal quality.
Bechet’s Role in the Story of Jazz
Bechet is often remembered as a secondary figure in early jazz. Louis Armstrong is the undisputed star of early jazz due to his incredible talent as an entertainer as well as a musician. Armstrong exhibited tremendous business savvy and was able to translate his style into a mainstream music career. Without a similar capacity to captivate the popular audience, Bechet went through long period in the middle of his life without performing much at all.
Towards the end of a career marked by intermittent creative periods, Bechet moved to France in 1950, where he recorded and composed until he died in 1959. By then, his music had been rediscovered due to a rekindled interest in New Orleans music. Today, Sidney Bechet is considered one of the most important innovators in jazz.