Clarinettist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet was a symbolic figure in the history of New Orleans style American Jazz. He was one of the best soloists and most impressive improvisers of the first half of the 20th century. He was famed for his sound, his controlled breathing and his impressive vibrato. He remains one of the most popular jazz musicians in France.
Sidney Bechet was born in New Orleans into a large Creole family. His French family origins meant that he had a mixed cultural background, being both French and American. As a teenager he played the clarinet, his first instrument, in his brother’s band, the “Silver Bell Band”, with George Baquet, and with different groups in the area. He studied with Papa Tio and Lorenzo Tio. He arrived in Chicago in 1917 and there he played with Freddie Keppard (trumpeter), Tony Jackson (pianist) and King Oliver (Cornet Player). He also discovered his future instrument, the soprano saxophone, which would become his preferred instrument.
From the 1920s he made several trips between Europe and the United States. He moved to New York and recorded with the “Blue Five”, under the aegis of Clarence Williams. He also accompanied and recorded with blues singers Mamie Smith, Rosetta Crawford, Sippie Wallace, Virginia Liston, Sara Martin and Eva Taylor. In 1924 he joined a band with Duke Ellington for a few months. Here he met Louis Armstrong, with whom he recorded.
He returned to Europe (Paris, Brussels and Berlin) in 1925 and did a tour with La Revue Nègre (including Josephine Baker). He played all over, in Egypt, the USSR, the Balkans and Scandinavia. His life was full of concerts, recording sessions and tours. He was impetuous and a brawler, which sometimes led to him being expelled from bars and put in prison. In the 1930s he worked more as a soloist.
In the 1950s he settled in France and got married on the Côte d’Azur. He became a big star, playing in the evenings at the “Vieux Colombier” with the orchestra of Claude Luter and was invited to play in jazz festivals in Paris and Juan-les-Pins. He moved away from his New Orleans style, inventing a style, which mixed the Mississippi Blues with European dance songs. Commercial success soon followed, with his pieces Les Oignons (1949), Petite Fleur (1952) and Dans les rues d’Antibes (1952). In this period he was involved with the cinema as both a musician and an actor. He played publically for the last time on the 20th of December 1958, at the “Nuit de Jazz” at the Salle Wagram. He died on his birthday, the 14th of May, the next year, following a struggle with lung cancer.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Sidney Bechet
1923: Debuts in the United States with the “Blue Five” and Clarence Williams
1928: Spent 11 months in Fresnes Prison following a brawl with the guitarist Mike McKendrick
1932: Joined the “New Orleans Feetwarmers” with Tommy Ladner (trumpet player)
1949: Invited to the Festival de Paris with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis
1952: Recorded Petite Fleur, his most internationally known record
1955: Received an Olympia “Disque d’Or” Award during a concert on the 19th of October