Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sidney Bechet: My Teacher Who I Never Met

Anyone who knows me or my music knows that I’ve been obsessed with Sidney Bechet since I was eleven years old. I consider him to be my teacher who I never met and find his music and life story endlessly fascinating. In terms of my own work, when I first started improvising I knew that if I was going to use the Bechet influence in my own music I didn’t want to simply copy, cover tunes or re-create what Sidney did so eloquently and perfectly. That just wouldn’t have made any sense. Plus I didn’t feel that this approach would have moved me in the direction of doing something new and different. I was very much aware of the experience that the wonderful jazz clarinetist Bob Wilbur had when he studied with Bechet in the 1940s. Wilbur of course came under the sway of the great master, but then needed many years to find a way to move beyond simply copying Bechet and be able to find his own voice. That seemed like an extremely difficult (and possibly painful) process for him. With that in mind (plus a strong penchant from an early age for doing things my own way), I was determined from the get-go to find my own personal path in paying homage to this great giant as opposed to becoming a kind of disciple. The first opportunity arose for me in 1997, when I was asked by the Saalfelden Festival to create a new project with my band Klezmer Madness for that year’s edition. Since 1997 was the hundredth anniversary of Bechet’s birth, I decided to do a “Klezmer Tribute to Sidney Bechet.” For that project I created a whole set of new original compositions that musically described an imaginary meeting in New York between Bechet and the great Eastern European Jewish klezmer master Naftule Brandwein. That suite of music eventually came out on my second CD for the Tzadik label, Klezmer, NY. Then most recently, I did an arrangement with loops and samples of Bechet’s fantastic “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” for my new show The Big Picture, a performance that takes the listener on a journey through the music of iconic films that all relate to Judaism either in content or sensibility (in this case via Woody Allen).

Plus for the future, plans are in the works for a multimedia piece based on a short story that I wrote about an imagined time in Bechet’s life.

So how did this “obsession” for Sidney Bechet come about?

I think that anyone who goes into music seriously somewhere along the way has a moment of inspiration that motivates them to make the decision to pursue this incredibly challenging art form with all their passion. That moment came for me when I was about eleven years old.

‎To set the stage: I grew up in a musical household. My late mother was a classical violinist and my dad was (and is) an avid music lover and very serious amateur singer. So there was always music in my home. When I was a kid, many of the New York City public schools had very fine ‎music programs and I had the opportunity to start playing the clarinet when I was ten. My mom told me I was WAY too old to play the violin, and that I should play the clarinet or the flute… in that order. So that’s how I came to the instrument that’s been my voice ever since. But I didn’t really have a deep passion for music right away. Looking back, I think I initially loved the instrument like a child loves an amazing new toy. The adventure of putting it together, the smell of the wood and the cork grease, figuring out the reeds, etc. were all so alluring. Plus there was the romantic mystique of the old school New York City music shops like the original Manny’s on 48th Street with its wall-to-wall photos of musicians, the charmingly cluttered Levitt and Elrod on 96th St where I rented my first clarinet, or the old music studios in the Carl Fisher Building on Astor Place where master craftsman Murray Snyder repaired clarinets. All this held an incredible appeal for me representing that magical time period of New York in the 1960s. And as far as the clarinet itself was concerned, I also had a pretty good idea of what the instrument could do, having been exposed to the fantastic clarinet solos in the Rhapsody in Blue and Milhaud’s La création du monde. But (looking back on it now) it was still a childhood activity in the realm of fun and games.

But when I was eleven, I got my very own record player‎. And naturally the next step was to start a record collection. So with the advice of my first teacher, Boston jazz legend Joel Press, my parents got me an LP of the great master of the clarinet and soprano saxophone from New Orleans: Sidney Bechet. Along with Louis Armstrong, it can be said that Bechet created the concept of the soloist in jazz bringing the music to the next phase from the collective improvisation of the early 20th century.
I’ll never forget that moment when I first heard ‎that glorious sound literally soar out of the vinyl. It was a beautiful day in June, and as the sun streamed in my bedroom window I put on track 1 of my brand new RCA Victor Vintage series LP Bechet of New Orleans. The song was “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” from 1939 with Jelly Roll Morton. Right away the sound of Sidney’s soprano was telling a story with the most incredibly huge range of emotions. In the brief space of 16 bars, a whole world opened up. His majestic statement of the melody and the improvisation that followed was cajoling, wise, witty, seductive, tender, exultant, searing… all at once with a deep sense of swing embedded in the notes themselves. I was flabbergasted! I had never heard anything like that in my life and it was nothing less than a life awakening moment for me. And in retrospect, it was a rite of passage as well. I knew right then and there that I couldn’t go back, that music had now become a serious endeavor and that my life path was in front of me. I was to have my Bar Mitzvah two years later, but my real passage into the beginnings of adulthood happened when I first heard Sidney Bechet. It was at that moment when an infinite floodgate of possibilities opened up to me.

As I explored the rest of the record, at first I couldn’t tell the difference between Bechet’s soprano sax or his clarinet — the vocal quality was so overwhelming! It was more distinctly HIM than any particular instrument. But gradually I came ‎to discern the difference and appreciate the incredible, intensely personal clarinet sound that Bechet produced that had nothing to do with either a “standard” jazz or classical sound.

After that day something was kindled in my brain that of course didn’t bear fruit right away. I started to become an avid jazz listener while most kids my age (in the late 1960s) were into rock. When I was about thirteen, I was able to play my instrument sufficiently well to try to start improvising, but only had any tangible luck a couple of years later when I got to the High School of Music and Art and started playing jazz seriously with my friend Anthony Coleman. But in my early twenties, I had a crisis of confidence and abandoned improvised music because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my own personal voice. It was at that point that I focused on classical music for the next ten years. But that desire to find something truly personal for myself was still deep in me. So when I got into klezmer (the music of my ancestry) in my early 30s, I finally found a musical home from which I was able to really pursue that dream.

That being said, the music of Sidney Bechet is something that remains truly vital to me. Today it pains me to hear young jazz musicians say “Yeah, I checked out some old jazz: Miles Davis.” And they don’t mean the records with Miles and Charlie Parker from the late 40s. They mean Kind of Blue or maybe even Bitches Brew. It goes without saying that those are great records, but when I hear that kind of comment, I’m disturbed by a certain lack of overview. Given that jazz is an oral tradition, it’s my feeling that one should go all the way back to understand the full story. In any case, these days Bechet’s music may be getting a ‎bit of a resurgence due to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Bechet’s late composition “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère”(1958) serves as the gorgeous opening and closing music for the film, and this wistful recording truly evokes the sensual and romantic quality of Paris. I certainly hope that the tremendous popularity of Midnight in Paris will help expose a whole new audience to Bechet’s music.

If one wants to do more listening to Bechet then here are some suggestions:


You can’t go wrong with the RCA Victor recordings from 1932-1941. In particular, the six tracks recorded by the New Orleans Feetwarmers from 1932 are some of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded, hands down. This would certainly be on my “desert island” playlist. One hears of course Bechet the soloist, but this astonishing session is also one of the most evolved and exquisite examples of collective improvising that has ever been captured on a recording. There’s some real mind reading going on between Bechet, his best friend/trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, and the rest of the band. Plus there are some notable aspects regarding these recordings in terms of the history of jazz:

a) “Maple Leaf Rag” is extraordinary in that it’s a rare example of a recording of Scott Joplin’s music played by jazz musicians from that early period. This performance certainly makes the link irrefutable between ragtime and jazz, with an interpretation of unbelievable power and intensity. Bechet was a great admirer of Scott Joplin’s and talked about him in the late 50s… way before the ragtime craze hit the US.

b) To my knowledge, “Shag” is the first time that “I Got Rhythm” chord changes were transformed into a new song by jazz musicians. George Gershwin’s masterpiece was after all only about a year old at that time!

The volcanic energy of those 1932 recordings is tremendous, and to my ears really reflect the hot-bed of creativity that was exploding in Harlem in the early 1930s. On a side note, one can check out firsthand descriptions of that time period when Billie Holiday first arrived in New York in the book With Billie by Julia Blackburn. (This is virtually the saddest book I’ve ever read. Through a collection of firsthand accounts, it explores Billie Holiday’s extremely complex psychology of sexual dependency and masochism, plus the persecution she endured at the hands of law enforcement officials who decided to make an example out of her instead of trying to help her overcome heroin addiction.) Also amazing to look at in terms of that era is the beautiful Harlem Nightclub map from 1932 by the famed African American illustrator E. Campbell Simms. The drawings are delightful and really invoke a scene that was teeming with life.

Back to the RCA Victor sides: in addition to the 1932 recordings, the material from 1939-41 ‎is also incredible including the aforementioned session with Jelly Roll Morton and the transcendent “Blues in Thirds” with Earl Hines and Baby Dodds. The line-up for all these recordings is a virtual who’s-who of jazz with (for example) a range of trumpet giants ranging from Rex Stewart to Henry “Red” Allen to Charlie Shavers.


Bechet was in and out of the Noble Sissle band throughout the 1930s when he wasn’t running a tailoring shop in Harlem to try to make a living. Leaving aside the contributions of Sissle and Blake as important songwriters and entertainers, it has to be said that the Sissle outfit was more of a society band than a jazz group. Some of the earlier recordings with horribly self-deprecating lyrics, a heavy dollop of minstrel show antics, and stilted phrasing are on the border of embarrassing. You really have to be a deep connoisseur of Bechet’s music to even bear to listen to these early 30s sides. And even so, Bechet’s solos soar out of this stultified context like a ray of light. That contrast in and of itself is interesting if one has the patience to endure the ensemble passages. While the Sissle band would never evolve into a great contributor to the jazz lexicon, nonetheless by the late 30s they had more or less caught up with the times to create credible swing performances. To separate the wheat from the chaff, here are some things worth checking out: “Okey Doke” was recorded in 1937 with a small band under the name of Noble Sissle’s Swingsters. That particular track along with the astonishing solos with the full band on the two takes of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” are examples of some of the greatest clarinet playing on the planet‎ in terms of power, sound and pure swing. And “Dear Old Southland” from the same session is an electrifying feature for Bechet’s soprano sax that showcases his tremendous operatic lyricism. (Bechet cited the French Opera House in New Orleans as a big influence on his playing and was also a collector of recordings by the great operatic tenors Richard Tauber and Enrico Caruso).

3) THE 1920s

The recordings that Louis Armstrong and Bechet made together in 1924-1925 ‎with the Clarence Williams Blue 5 and the Red Onion Jazz Babies are an amazing example of two great musical giants coming together in the most ecstatic kind of a meeting. It’s been correctly compared to the great “Groovin’ High” session from 1945 with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In particular, to hear these two masters from New Orleans “joust it out” in “Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home” makes my hair stand on end.


Bechet’s version of “Summertime” from 1939 virtually launched Blue Note records‎ and is nothing less than a classic of classics. Interestingly Bechet cited Gershwin in his autobiography Treat it Gentle saying that while he felt Gershwin had a great feeling for African American music, it also had to be noted that “Summertime” is really based on the “St. Louis Blues.” That comment always struck me as very astute, and really contextualizes Gershwin in a very particular way.


Bechet spent the last ten years of his life in France and was an enormous success there. He sold over a million records with huge hits such as “Petite Fleur,” “Les Oignons,” and “Dans les Rues D’Antibes.” I can only imagine‎ the incredible effect that Bechet had on so many levels (as a great artist, as an American and as an African American) coming to France just four years after the end of WWII. You can hear the insane electricity of the audience on the live recordings. Bechet was brilliantly able to somehow combine New Orleans jazz with French chanson during that period with an alchemy all his own. Perhaps it could be said that these recordings are more on the “commercial” side, but the fact that he was able to hit such a sweet spot with the French public is absolutely remarkable. And through it all Bechet played brilliantly up to the very last recording session right before the end of his life.

Sidney Bechet was one of the most unique musicians who ever lived. Duke Ellington called him a “true American original” and I think his influence was deeply profound.‎ I know there are many people who are afraid to listen to “old jazz.” They just can’t get into it. So I would urge them to give Bechet’s music a try. Who knows? It could change their life.

Suggested Reading
Treat it Gentle
The autobiography of Sidney Bechet (Da Capo Press)
The Wizard of Jazz
by John Chilton (Da Capo Press)
With Billie
by Julia Blackburn (Vintage)

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