About this Recording
8.120699 - BECHET, Sidney: Shake It And Break It (1938-1941)



‘Shake It And Break It’  Original Recordings 1938-1941


With Louis and Jelly Roll one third of the classic New Orleans triumvirate, ‘grand gentleman of jazz’ Sidney Bechet, the genre’s archetypal prodigy, also ended his days a living legend. Powerful and inventive in his frequent interchanges from clarinet to soprano-sax, he towers as a formative influence alongside Louis and Duke Ellington in the pantheon of early jazz. As a player in the ‘embellished’ New Orleans tradition he ranks with Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Noone, while as an improviser he stands in direct descent from Charles Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) the jazz pioneer whom Jelly Roll Morton rated “the most compelling trumpet player I ever heard”. In the midst of such powerful traditions, Bechet was from an early age aware that something precious was being entrusted to him and, while outwardly never overtly ambitious (the phantom Fame never overrode more everyday considerations or his “ferocious lust for life”) his apparent technical security displayed all the studied nonchalance of true greatness.


Sidney Joseph Bechet was born in St Antoine Street, New Orleans on 14 May 1897, the youngest of seven siblings. His four brothers were all, in their respective ways, musical (in particular his brother Leonard was for a time a professional trombonist prior to a career in dentistry and his son, Leonard Jr. was a saxophonist who for a time managed his uncle Sidney’s affairs). Although surrounded by great trumpeters, from the age of six Sidney’s first love was the clarinet, an instrument on which he was largely self-taught and which, according to legend, at ten, he was already playing in the band of the legendary Freddie Keppard (1890-1933). Respected from the outset by both peers and elders alike as a natural talent (Larry Shields and Jimmie Noone were among his pupils) his own training was gleaned intermittently from, among others, Lorenzo Tio Jr. (1893-1933), Big Eye Louis Nelson (1880-1949) and Georges Baquet (1883-1949).


Bechet’s professional career took off during 1909 with a stint in the Silver Bells Band, an outfit consisting of Sidney, his two brothers and trumpeter Sidney Desvigne (1893-1959). Principally, at this stage, he played only clarinet in leading New Orleans bands led by Buddy Petit, Jack Carey, John Robichaux and Bunk Johnson but, like many other musicians of that city, was also heard on cornet in Sunday parades and church processions. By 1913, lured away from the Silver Bells by Johnson, he had joined New Orleans’ more renowned Eagle Band and the next year he left his native town with pianists Louis Wade and Clarence Williams to join a travelling show in Texas, indulging a penchant for wandering which, already by 1916, was becoming obsessive.  Later that year he returned briefly to New Orleans with King Oliver but in 1917 left permanently, touring at first with a travelling company through the South and Midwest, then appearing in Chicago with bands led by Keppard, Oliver and Lawrence Duhé.


Late in 1918 Bechet was ‘discovered’ by violinist-composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) and the following year made his first trip across the Atlantic as a member of Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Following so soon after the visit of the all-white ODJB, the arrival in London of an all-black band proved both a novelty with audiences and a personal coup for Sidney. The Cook band played the Philharmonic Hall where Bechet’s “extraordinary clarinet virtuoso” playing was extolled by the great classical conductor Ernest Ansermet.  Later in 1919 Bechet, with other Southern Syncopated band members, quit Cook to join the Jazz Kings, a small ragtime outfit fronted by drummer Benny Peyton. This band spent a year-and-a-half touring various European venues, including Paris (in his final years to become his second home) and London. In London the band’s activities included two (unpublished) 1920 recordings made for Columbia and a residency at the Hammersmith Palais during 1921. At this time the notoriously ‘colourful’ Sidney’s own offstage high jinx continued until his deportation to New York following a fracas involving a prostitute, in November 1922. 


Once again in New York he worked variously as a musician and actor (with Ford Dabney) in revue and played in bands, notably Mamie Smith’s and, during 1924, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. With the latter, in groups colourfully dubbed ‘Clarence Williams’ Blue Five’ and the ‘Red Onion Jazz Babes’, he recorded the first discs to enshrine the New Orleans style in transition. Early in 1925, Bechet worked again with Duke Ellington and also with James P. Johnson before returning to Paris to join Josephine Baker in the Revue Nègre in September. Thereafter, for the next five years, while his jazz counterparts in the United States were reaping world renown and financial rewards, he proceeded on a nomadic and largely obscure pathway.  In 1926, he was in Russia, from 1927 he was active in Europe, mainly France and Germany and on his return to the States, in 1931, he found himself half-forgotten, squeezed out by the lucrative recording contracts of his former colleagues.  Fighting back, in 1932, with Tommy Ladnier (1900-1939), whom he had first met in Moscow in 1926, he formed the short-lived New Orleans Footwarmers (they recorded six sides only for Victor in September of that year) but by 1938, upstaged by the more fashionable Swing orchestras, ran a full-time tailoring repair business with his old trumpeter pal by day and jammed at the back of the shop, after hours, just for the love of it.


Renewed recognition, however, soon came Bechet’s way. In 1938, he was invited by John Hammond to participate in a landmark New York revival gala “to epitomise the New Orleans ‘jass’ band” (boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, stride-man James P. Johnson and blues honker Big Bill Broonzy were also featured) and, in November of that year, he recorded a handful of titles for Vocalion (Tracks 1-4 were the published fruits of that session) and a similar clutch (for contractual reasons, under the pseudonym of ‘Pops King’) in a seven-piece fronted by Ladnier, for RCA’s Bluebird label. Quickly recognised as one of the great pioneers by a consensus of jazz commentators, Bechet now had a new career thrust upon him as the father-figure of the New Orleans ‘new wave’ and, rescued at least temporarily from gramophonic oblivion, found himself re-packaged for a younger, more analytically-minded generation of enthusiasts, albeit at first it was the smaller, specialist labels who took the initiative. In 1939 (with a quintet including Meade Lux Lewis on piano) and 1940 with his Quartet, Bechet recorded two sessions (five sides) for Blue Note, while two more sessions in 1940, with Chicagoan cornettist Muggsy Spanier (1906-67) made for the Hot Record Society, spotlighted Sidney’s multi-instrumental capabilities. By 1940 RCA had returned to the frame (he was after all known to them from his September 1932 session) and stage-managed and stylised his new image for maximum impact. To boost sales, the 1940 ‘S.B. & His New Orleans Footwarmers’ sessions (Tracks 8-15) also featured several of Sidney’s noted contemporaries: that of 4 June highlighting the trumpet of Sidney de Paris, that of September 6, the piano of Earl Hines.


In later years Bechet was accorded the accolade that had previously eluded him and the fame of his Revival recordings preceded him when, in 1949, he returned to Europe for the first time in eighteen years.  In London, for Melotone (Savoy) he recorded in small ensembles in company with Humphrey Lyttleton and others and, under the auspices of the Hot Club de Paris, was rapturously received at the Paris Jazz Festival. He enjoyed belated media stardom and such was the reverence and esteem he received from his young French pupils that, from 1951 onwards, he took up residence in the French capital, where he strove to pass on his technical knowledge.  Feted as a celebrity in Paris, he lived in comfort there until his death, on his 62nd birthday, on 14 May 1959.


Peter Dempsey, 2003

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