The largely self-taught New Orleans reedman Sidney Bechett developed one of the most distinctive solo voices in jazz. Unlike Louis Armstrong, Bechet never achieved stardom in the United States. This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris joins The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band and reedman Bob Wilber to explore Bechet's musical legacy.
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.
Born in 1897 in New Orleans, Bechet mastered the clarinet when he was ten years old. He played in the Eagle Band, which he described as “the only band around that could play the low down blues.” He moved to Chicago in 1917, and five years later he was featured on a series of ground-breaking recordings with Louis Armstrong, known as Clarence Williams’ Blue Five.
From 1925-29 Bechet performed throughout England, France, Germany and Russia. In Paris, Bechet was brawling with another musician when a gun fight broke out. Three people were wounded and Sidney spent a year in a French jail. In 1931, he was deported back to America.
He worked and recorded throughout the ’30s and ’40s in groups with Tommy Ladnier, Mezz Mezzrow and Eddie Condon. Then in 1945, Bechet began teaching music in Brooklyn, NY. High School student Bob Wilber became his star pupil. A long-time leading exponent of the Bechet style on soprano saxophone and clarinet, Wilber performs classics from Bechet’s body of work this week’s show.
Also on the bill is clarinetist Evan Christopher, a disciple of the New Orleans clarinet style. Actor Vernel Bagneris presents scenes from Sidney Bechet’s life—told in Bechet’s own words—from his autobiography Treat It Gentle, published by DaCapo Press.
Bechet did not find the success he craved until very late in life. Though he recorded and performed widely in the United States, he never earned the money or recognition he hoped for at home. Everything changed in June, 1950 when he returned to France and found a new, young audience eager to embrace his music and make him a star. People waited in long lines at every concert. The stocky silver-haired Bechet was suddenly a celebrity, and made France his home for the rest of life.
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