"Ken Burns Jazz: Sidney Bechet"
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
From a musical perspective, there are benefits to being in the 21st century. Namely, the internet and social networking make it possible for anyone with talent to find an audience, and theoretically, a career in music. The downside is that because of the same social networking, and the Wikiculture at large, much of the mystique behind such artists has disappeared. In the early part of the 20th century however, for every Louis Armstrong, an artist who would go down in history as one of the foremost faces of jazz, there were dozens of artists who will never be known by you or I because they never got the chance. Thanks to sharp writers like Tom Moon however, at least a few of these musicians will be remembered, including Sidney Bechet.
There are two features that define Bechet's career, and both are featured on this 20-track collection that correspond's with Ken Burns' documentary series on jazz music. The first and more positive quality associated with Bechet's music was his liberal use of vibrato.
Vibrato is a pulsating change in pitch, or, to put it simply: when a sound wave actually sounds like a wave, it's a case of vibrato. Bechet began his career as a clarinet player, but his proverbial day was made when he discovered a soprano saxophone while traveling abroad. The instrument, straight like the clarinet, unlike the typical "S" shape of a common tenor saxophone, not only aided Bechet in his vibrato-style, but allowed him to do it more loudly than on a clarinet. The best display of Bechet's loud and proud playing comes during "Characteristic Blues," where he opens with what a guitar player might call a "face-melting" solo, egged on by the catcalls of vocalist Billy Banks. Bechet follows up with a second, relatively milder solo at the outro, but the song's intro is a worthy summation of the saxophonist's style. Which brings us to the second quality of Bechet's musical personality, and the reason why you've never heard of him up until now.
Bechet was somewhat the Chad Ochocinco of jazz music. He was talented and stylistically flamboyant, but he didn't work well with others. If he wasn't the number one receiver, he didn't want to be any part of it. It's humorous to listen to "Texas Moaner Blues," a single he recorded alongside Louis Armstrong. No one, and I mean no one, got to play lead over Louis Armstrong. It seems they settled the argument by letting both men play lead melodies on their respective instruments, but Armstrong got to stand closer to the microphone. The result isn't a cacophony, but it's clear that heads are butting; all melody and almost no rhythm. Bechet earned the respect of his peers, but as a result of his contentious attitude (and several assault charges), Bechet never got the renown in the United States that the first true jazz saxophone soloist deserved. The good news is that Bechet became an icon in France, where he settled late in his career.
Most of the recordings on this compilation feature Bechet on the saxophone, but there are a few where he's still using the old clarinet (see his low-register solo at the end of "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind"). If you're interested in checking out the instrumental arrangements for any of the tracks here, or any track in Bechet's discography for that matter, www.sidneybechet.org has very detailed notes on his recording history that I found very helpful to follow along with.
Bechet was only the first of many jazz and bluesmen who have been largely swallowed up by history. Fortunately for us, Moon has done his homework, and we all benefit from it.
INTERESTING FACT: Bechet wasn't completely forgotten by Americans. Director Woody Allen is among the musician's biggest fans, frequently featuring Bechet's music in his soundtracks, and even named one of his children "Bechet."