Almost forgotten by today’s jazz world, Sidney Bechet remains one of New Orleans’ early jazz immortals. Distinguished for his pioneering work, introducing the soprano saxophone into jazz, Bechet is also revered as one of jazz history’s first, most brilliant soloists. His genius as a soloist is often associated with that of his contemporary Louis Armstrong. Born in 1897, only a few years before Armstrong, Sidney Bechet grew up in a middle class Creole family far different from the dire poverty of Louis Armstrong’s childhood. Unlike Armstrong, Bechet could never achieve stardom in the United States.
Sidney Bechet’s father Omar, a shoemaker, played flute as a hobby and music was a part of family life. Sidney’s four older brothers all played instruments, and the family entertained themselves performing the waltzes and quadrilles of Creole polite society. Even as a young boy, Sidney was forever running out to catch the music of New Orleans’ street scenes; chasing after brass bands, second lines and parades. As a teenager, he was attracted to the hot blues of Buddy Bolden and the syncopated sound of Freddie Keppard blowing his horn in the public parks of New Orleans.
On this edition of Riverwalk Jazz, reedman Bob Wilber joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to pay tribute to Sidney Bechet. In the mid-1940s Wilber was still a teenager when Bechet took him under his wing and became his personal music tutor.
Today Bob Wilber is an internationally acclaimed saxophonist and clarinetist, arranger and composer; and he’s also a leading figure in keeping alive the spirit of classic jazz. Wilber began to study clarinet very early, and formed a group called The Wildcats in high school with two classmates who would also go on to make professional careers in jazz—the renowned stride pianist Dick Wellstood and former Jim Cullum Jazz Band trombonist Ed Hubble. But in 1946 Wilber had the good fortune to become Sidney Bechet’s star pupil (even living in Bechet’s Brooklyn home for a time); Wilber went on to appear with Bechet on stage, in recordings and on radio broadcasts.
Duke Ellington once described Sidney Bechet as “the very epitome of jazz,” saying, “everything he played in his entire life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique man ever to be in this music.” Bechet's approach to the soprano saxophone greatly influenced Ellington's star alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges.
It is clear that Sidney Bechet was a child prodigy. He mastered the clarinet when he was ten years old and played in the Eagle Band, which he described as “the only band around that could play the low down blues.” At age eleven, Bechet soloed with Bunk Johnson’s Orchestra. He soon taught himself to play the soprano saxophone, and went on his first European tour at the age of seventeen.
Ultimately, France would become his home. It was there, late in life, that he received the stardom he could never achieve in America. Always more at home in Europe than is the U.S., Sidney Bechet became a national hero in France.
On our show this week, Bob Wilber performs classic tunes made famous by Sidney Bechet, including "The Fish Vendor," "Petit Fleur," "Song of Songs," and a live crossfade from the original recording of "Kansas City Man Blues." Joining forces with Wilber to pay tribute to the New Orleans jazz master is Cullum Band clarinetist Allan Vaché.
After leaving the tutelage of Sidney Bechet, Bob Wilber’s musical career continued to soar. By the mid-1950s he was a member of the noted guitarist and record producer Eddie Condon’s band, playing at Condon’s popular nightclub in Greenwich Village and touring England. Wilber wound up the decade playing with cornet legend Bobby Hackett in New York, and he toured with ‘King of Swing’ Benny Goodman’s big band. In 1969 Bob Wilber became a founding member of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, led by Bob Crosby Orchestra veterans, bassist Bob Haggart and trumpeter Yank Lawson. Wilber next teamed up with Kenny Davern in 1974 to form the acclaimed group Soprano Summit, featuring the unique sound of two soprano saxophones. With organizations like the Smithsonian and the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Wilber has collaborated on re-creations of music by Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Benny Goodman. In 1984 he won a Grammy for his musical arrangements of Ellington compositions for the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Cotton Club.”
Today Sidney Bechet’s rhapsodic improvisations—as documented on his many recordings—continue to capture the imagination of musicians and music lovers. Revered as the first notable saxophonist in jazz history, Bechet also continues to be recognized for his compelling and wholly individual jazz clarinet style with its signature vibrato.
Photo credit for Home Page Image: Sidney Bechet by Wm Gottlieb in public domain.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1991