Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) was a brilliant musician whose fascinating and sometimes dramatic life could make a great Hollywood movie. Born in New Orleans and self-taught on the clarinet when he was eight, Bechet was playing in public by the time he was ten and was soon working with Freddie Keppard, the best cornetist in the city at the time. He began to travel in the South in 1915, moved to Chicago in 1918, was in New York the following year, and toured Europe with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra during 1919-20.
While overseas, Bechet bought a soprano sax, he quickly mastered it, and it gradually became his main instrument. Always having a fiery and competitive personality, he managed to get deported from England due to being involved in a fight. In New York in 1923, Bechet became the first major African-American jazz horn player to be showcased on record, being featured extensively on soprano during “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” with the Clarence Williams Blue Five. After appearing on some other classic recordings, Bechet was back in Europe by 1925. He got into a gun fight with guitarist Mike McKendrick in late 1928 which resulted in an 11-month prison sentence and being deported from France. Despite that, Bechet was in Europe until 1931.
Other than an exciting record date with his New Orleans Feetwarmers in 1932 and work with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra, much of the 1930s were a relatively lean period for Bechet. His fortunes began to change in 1938 when he was one of the participants at John Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall and began to record for several labels. His 1939 waxing of “Summertime” was a hit at the time and during 1940-41 he recorded a series of all-star sessions for the Bluebird and Victor labels. Whenever “best of” Bechet sides are compiled, they invariably focus on those record dates.
Bechet made it through the 1940s with other recordings and jobs but he was feeling neglected by the late 1940s with the rise of bop, the fame enjoyed by his contemporary Louis Armstrong, and a decline in demand for his playing in the US. However a new and unexpected chapter in his life began in the spring of 1949 when he was invited to perform at the Paris Festival de Jazz International. Bechet became not only the hit of the festival but was considered a sensation. By 1951 he had moved permanently to France where he was treated as a celebrity and a national hero in the years before his death in 1959.
Sidney Bechet In Switzerland is a remarkable box set that received several prestigious awards in Europe during 2014-15 although it seems to have never been reviewed in the US. In addition to four CDs (over 250 minutes) of previously unreleased music that was recorded at concerts and on the radio during 1949-59 in Switzerland, it contains a giant 12” X 12” 216 page hardcover book written in both English and French that relates the story of Bechet’s life, focusing on his periods in Europe and his visits to Switzerland. The book is filled with fascinating stories, interviews of those who knew him during his final decade, and more than 200 often-rare photos, some of them as large as a full page.
While the box set is worth acquiring for the massive book alone, its music is consistently exciting. Each of the CDs is built around a specific concert while also containing other items. Four radio interviews with Bechet are included but unfortunately those talks are in French. The soprano saxophonist performs enjoyable versions of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “St. Louis Blues” with a quartet in 1954, three songs with another quartet that same year, and is heard on two occasions in 1958: a pair of songs (plus a brief “American Rhythm”) with clarinetist Andre Rewelitty’s group, and three numbers on which the high-note trumpeter Jack Butler dominates in somewhat tasteless fashion.
The highpoint of the four major concerts took place on May 14, 1949, which happened to be Sidney Bechet’s birthday. Having a day off from the Paris festival, Bechet and a trumpetless septet headed by soprano saxophonist Pierre Braslavsky flew to Geneva and performed before a very enthusiastic audience. Their versions of 11 songs are electrifying and among the most exciting documented performances of Bechet’s life. The sidemen (best-known is pianist Eddie Barclay) are excellent and were clearly thrilled to be playing with and supporting the master. On such numbers as the opening “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “High Society,” “Weary Blues,” and “Wild Cat Blues,” Bechet and his young players (many of whom were 30 years younger than him) swing hard and with a great deal of passion. And while Bechet would always be a New Orleans jazz stylist, the riffing that he leads behind each soloist often makes the group sound like a large and rollicking swing band. Every classic jazz fan should get to hear the music from this memorable night.
The other three concerts that are the main parts of this set include Bechet’s return appearance to Switzerland with Braslavsky’s group five months later (which is just as exciting as the May 14 set), a very good concert with clarinetist Claude Luter’s band in 1951, and a 1954 performance with soprano saxophonist Claude Aubert’s sextet which includes British clarinetist Wally Fawkes and pianist Henri Chaix.
Sidney Bechet In Switzerland, which is housed in an attractive box, is not inexpensive but those who love the soprano’s playing and want to acquire a memorable book are advised to contact the United Music Foundation for information about the limited-edition set.
Sidney Bechet In Switzerland