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Sidney Bechet was born on this date in 1897 in New Orleans. He was an African American jazz musician and composer.
A young and primarily self-taught Bechet was highly influenced by trumpeter Freddie Keppard. In 1917, he moved to Chicago, and two years later traveled to New York and Europe with an orchestra led by Will Marion Cook. While in London, Bechet discovered the soprano saxophone. He enjoyed living in London, but his fondness for the city ended as a result of an assault charge, leading him back to New York where he worked with Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson. A future trip to Russia, Germany, and France resulted in a similar legal encounter: Bechet spent 11 months incarcerated in Paris for a shooting incident.
Back in New York, Bechet developed a close working relationship with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, the two remaining a notable presence on 52nd Street up to the time bebop overtook the scene. But Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did not entirely smother his career: Bechet kept traditional jazz afloat through collaborations with Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, and Bunk Johnson. Bob Wilber, one of the most vocal proponents of Bechet's playing, became a live-in student during the 1940s, though the ensuing decade showed less and less interest in Bechet's style.
To his surprise, Bechet's appearance at the French Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival was a monumental success, with the adoration leading him to move permanently to Paris in the early 1950s. Many consider the clarinetist/soprano saxophonist as the first great jazz improviser; he was certainly a major influence on the development of swing. Bechet, though, never created a strong following stateside due to the restless musician's refusal to build a fan base through a lengthy association with a dance band.
Bechet was a defining figure in creating the vocabulary for his instruments, giving lessons to figures as diverse as Jimmie Noone and Johnny Hodges. Not until John Coltrane took up the soprano did Bechet have any equals on the instrument. His ability to construct highly melodic solos on very little chordal backing made him a hero among outside players. Bechet died of cancer in Paris on his birthday in 1959.
by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York
Image: Ray Avery