Sidney Bechet (May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer.
He was one of the first important soloists in jazz (beating cornetist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by several months and later playing duets with Armstrong), and was perhaps the first notable jazz saxophonist.
Forceful delivery, well-constructed improvisations, and a distinctive, wide vibrato characterized Bechet’s playing. Bechet was born in New Orleans in 1897 to a middle-class Creole of color family.
Sidney’s older brother Leonard Victor Bechet (1877–1952) was a full-time dentist and a part-time trombonist and bandleader.
Sidney Bechet quickly learned to play several musical instruments kept around the house, mostly by teaching himself; he soon decided to specialize in clarinet.
At the age of six, Sidney started playing along with his brother’s band at a family birthday party, debuting his talents to acclaim.
Although Bechet spent his childhood and adolescence in New Orleans, from 1914 to 1917 he was touring and traveling, going as far north as Chicago, and frequently teaming up with Freddie Keppard, another notable Creole musician.
In the spring of 1919, Bechet traveled to New York, where he joined Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra.
Soon after, the orchestra journeyed to Europe where, almost immediately upon arrival, they performed at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in London.
On July 30, 1923, he began recording; it is some of his earliest surviving studio work. The session was led by Clarence Williams, a pianist, and songwriter, better known at that time for his music publishing and record producing.
Bechet recorded “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues”. “Wild Cat Blues” is in a multi-thematic ragtime tradition, with four themes, at sixteen bars each, and “Kansas City Man Blues” is a genuine 12-bar blues.
Bechet interpreted and played each uniquely, and with outstanding creativity and innovation for the time.
From 1925 to 1929 Bechet lived and played in Europe, playing in England, France, Germany and Russia. While living in Paris, Bechet got into a dispute with another musician and a gun fight broke out.
Three people were wounded and Sidney spent a year in a French jail as a result of the fracas.
He was deported upon release from prison and went to Berlin, Germany.
He could not stay in France and he would not get a visa for England so he stayed in Berlin till 1931 then joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and returned to America.
Bechet managed to keep playing during the Thirties, but he also ran an unsuccessful tailor’s shop with Tommy Ladnier and made some memorable recordings with the trumpeter under the name of the New Orleans Feetwarmers.
While in France he recorded hit records that rivaled the sales of pop stars.
Bechet was one of the great soloists of early Jazz.
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.