Sidney Bechet: Ken Burns Jazz

Bechet, Sidney

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The First Great Saxophone Soloist

The legend of Sidney Bechet goes like this: One of seven kids from a Creole family in New Orleans, he started on the clarinet, and quickly developed a reputation for a shrill, piercing sound that could be as brash as a trumpet. Musicians had trouble working with him because he constantly wanted to be the lead voice. This only got worse when, on the first of many European tours, he stumbled on a soprano sax in a store and switched instruments on the spot. Suddenly Bechet was like a human siren—his wide vibrato careening atop whatever else was going on, the wild pitch-bends of the soprano offering him more expressive range than the clarinet ever could. (On many of his best recordings, however, Bechet plays both clarinet and soprano.)

The first international jazz musician, Bechet (1897–1959) was largely unknown in America. But through his early touring with vaudeville troops, he became a fixture in Europe. Many of the recordings here were made during Bechet's regular returns to the U.S.—the racing "Shag" was recorded in 1932 by a small group he coled called the New Orleans Feetwarmers, while his "Polka Dot Stomp," from 1934, is one of several recordings masterminded by bandleader and vocalist Noble Sissle. Bechet eventually settled in France, and died there a beloved figure.

Bechet continued to grow as a musician, incorporating tunes from the Great American Songbook into his repertoire of rags and hot blues—his creepin'-around 1939 hit version of George Gershwin's "Summertime" is one highlight of this career-spanning single-disc compilation, which was issued in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary series Jazz, and is the best Bechet primer available. Everyone needs some Bechet in their lives, if only to be reminded about the exuberant razzle-dazzle that was a crucial part of early jazz.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 2000, Columbia/Legacy
Key Tracks: "Wild Cat Blues," "Shag," "Summertime," "Blue Horizon."
Next Stop: Bix Beiderbecke: Singin' the Blues, Vol. 1
After That: Jimmie Noone: Apex Blues
Book Pages: 63–64

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