Sidney Bechet Mosaic Select 23: Sidney Bechet
In August 2004, in a back street in the German town of Konstanz, I heard his music played by an itinerant Italian clarinetist. Days later in Spain, in front of Barcelona cathedral, I heard a different clarinetist and a different Bechet tune. Back in Germany a year later, another Italian and more Bechet.
These guys weren't even jazz musicians, unlike Evan Christopher, who during the same period delivered a Bechet recital at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival; or the veteran Scottish Bechet-influenced clarinetist Forrie Cairns, who was at the same festival; or the revered English veteran Wally Fawkes, who even recorded with Bechet; or even Barbara Thompson, whose heartfelt "To Bechet With Love" is included on her compilation, In The Eye Of The Storm (Intuition).
The first great jazz soloist, rather than one of the firstand beating trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the honourBechet was first written about seriously in 1919 by the musicologist and orchestral conductor Ernest Ansermet. Ansermet was an intimate of Debussy and Ravel who heard the young Bechet with a touring African-American company. Perhaps, he wondered, this was the music of the future? Listen to this three disc Mosaic Select set, a collection of tracks recorded, and you can't help feeling Ansermet might have been right.
Bechet's first recordings, in New York in 1923, establish him as arguably the first major jazz saxophonist. In little studio bands led by the New Orleans composer-entrepreneur Clarence Williams he dominated musicians grown up in the rhythmically and harmonically pedestrian milieu of North-Eastern African-American music. On the well-named "Wild Cat," opening the first CD, which collects Bechet's major Clarence Williams recordings (with the best audio quality I've heard yet), Bechet drives with his foot downoutstripping everybody else with his broad expression, note-bending, huge swell and ripping phrases. "Kansas City Man Blues," a few tracks later, is the first recorded saxophone masterpiece and minutes-long jazz solo.
The cornet, trombone and soprano (rather than clarinet) front line on these tracks play no "dixieland: the other musicians mainly play fill-ins while Bechet blows right through, sometimes with massive power. When the New York trumpeter Thomas Morris solos Bechet doesn't add decorations, he takes Morris's simple and square line as a frame on which to perform more involved improvising. On the fourteen of the twenty-five tracks here featuring women singersfrom the great blueswoman Sippie Wallace to straighter contraltos like Eva Taylorthe story's similar. Morris' playing noticeably improves over the period of these sessions, and a final cut by the so-called Get Happy Band well represents pedestrian New York African American proto-jazz, beside Bechet's mercifully merciless phrases.
On a few titles, Louis Armstrong, the revelatory import from Chicago via Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, takes over from Morris. Beyond the increased musical quality and empathy, the fact that on "Texas Moaner Blues" Armstrong can complete seamlessly a line begun by Bechet does raise questions as to their musical inter-relationship. This was some three years before Armstrong's quantum leap in harmony, timing and phrasing. Who had been there been before him but Bechet? Who was near the same musical place in 1923? When in 1940 Bechet and Armstrong recorded again in the same small band, representing New Orleans jazz in an album, why was Armstrong so unsettled? The results weren't up to their own extraordinary standards.
During Bechet's fallow 1930s he worked and recorded as guest soloist in the veteran singer and songwriter Noble Sissle's dance band. He carried over some numbers featured in 1919, though not on disc "Vesti La Giubba" from I Pagliacci. This operatic aria was certainly an influence on how Bechet developed solos, as well as Armstrong and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins after him. The generally commendable Oxford Companion To Jazz reports Armstrong's enthusiasm for Caruso, not Bechet'sbut Bechet onstage in Europe was performing entire arias on his clarinet. Although not included on this collection from the Sony/Columbia archives, which also couldn't include some recordings with Sissle's band for Decca, Bechet's big-selling 1939 hit "Summertime" helped establish him with a wider audience, along with the Blue Note label which released it.
And on to disc two. With Sissle, Bechet had recorded "Dear Old Southland," adapted from the spiritual "Deep River," and apparently one of his 1919 features. As on Armstrong's 1930 grandstand performance of the tune, Bechet's recording includes some comic business before launching into the sublime. The track was never issued commercially.
With just rhythm, "Okey Doke" features driving clarinet, as black-toned as that of Johnny Dodds. Then "Characteristic Blues, another title identified as a 1919 Bechet feature, opens with ferocious clarinet growls, egged on by the comedian-singer Billy Banks, who then delivers a crazy parody of blues lyric clichés. Bechet's singing voice is recognizable in the barbershop quartet which echoes the final phrase of each daft verse; and his extravagant low-register clarinet arpeggios to Banks' unexpected yodelling burn, like the clarinet ride-out tearing up some traditional New Orleans clarinet phrases. A masterpiece of strangeness and emotional articulacy.
Beside these Sissle-related titles the second disc includes the recordings of Bechet's little 1938 working band with early electric guitarist Leonard Ware, Gil Evans' favourite baritone saxophonist, Ernie Caceres, and the Eddie Condonish pianist Dave Bowman. The disc concludes with a session by Bechet in the band of his 1940s pupil Bob Wilber, achieving something of the lilt achieved by that band of mostly New York veterans Bunk Johnson led just before booze (which had queered a Boston collaboration with Bechet) might have made "I Had It But It's All Gone Now" appropriate for him. That was another pre-1920 Bechet aria, well done again here with Wilber.
The third disc collects everything Bechet's 1947 New York quartet recorded, including "Buddy Bolden Stomp. As Bob Wilber suggests, in liner notes well up to Mosaic's usual high standard, this tune was probably comprised, at least in part, of melodic ideas New Orleans musicians senior to Bechet remembered, and Bechet heard them re-echo, from the playing of the legendary unrecorded trumpeter. Wilber also notes that "Song Of Songs" entered the quartet's repertoire because its pianist, the under-appreciated Lloyd Phillips, shared Oscar Peterson's game of trying to catch colleagues out. He started numbers he thought Bechet might not know, but when he tried "Song Of Songs" Bechet could go back yet again to a major item from his recital repertoire of before 1920.
Bechet's biographer John Chilton has evidence of Bechet's musical memory: his "original compositions, often produced for the French tyro bands he latterly recorded with, had often been played under other names, and composed by other people, in New Orleans long before. If that seems to belittle Bechet slightly, how much more is he belittled by the failure to recognize the scale and nature of his achievement and influence.
Tracks: CD1: Wild Cat Blues; Kansas City Man; Atlanta Blues; Kansas City Man Blues; Irresistible Blues; Jazzin' Babies Blues; 'Tain't Nobody's Bus'ness If I Do; New Orleans Hop Scop Blues; Oh Daddy!; Graveyard Dream Blues; If I Let You Get Away With It; Shreveport Blues; Old Fashioned Love; House Rent Blues (The Stomp); Mean Blues; Texas Moaner Blues; Early In The Morning; You've Got The Right Key, But The Wrong Keyhole; I'm So Glad I'm A Brownskin; Off And On Blues; Mandy, Make Up Your Mind; I'm A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird; Who'll Chop Your Suey (When I'm Gone); Cake Walking Babies From Home; Harlem's Araby. CD2: Bandana Days; Bandana Days; I'm Just Wild About Harry; I'm Just Wild About Harry; Dear Old Southland; Okey-Doke; Okey-Doke; Characteristic Blues; Characteristic Blues; What A Dream; What A Dream; Hold Tight; Hold Tight; Jungle Drums; Chant In The Night; Spreadin' Joy; Spreadin' Joy; Spreadin' Joy; I Had It But It's All Gone Now; I Had It But It's All Gone Now; I Had It But It's All Gone Now; Polka Dot Stomp. CD3: Kansas City Man Blues (three takes); Buddy Bolden Stomp (two takes); My Woman's Blues (two takes); My Woman's Blues; The Song Of Songs; Love For Sale; My Woman's Blues; Just One Of Those Things (three takes); Love For Sale(three takes); Laura (two takes); The Song Of Songs;. Shake 'Em Up (three takes).
Personnel: CD1: Sidney Bechet: soprano saxophone, clarinet, sarrusophone; Tom Morris, Bubber Miley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dunn, John Mayfield, Charlie Irvis, Aaron Thompson, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton: trombone; Bob Fuller: alto saxophone; Clarence Williams: Porter Grainger: piano; Buddy Christian,: Sam Speed: banjo; Mamie Smith, Eva Taylor, Sara Martin, Margaret Johnson, Virginia Liston, Sippie Wallace: vocal. CD2: Bechet: soprano saxophone, clarinet; Wendell Culley, Demas Dean, Clarence Brereton: trumpet; Johnny Glasel: cornet; Chester Burrill, George Matthews, Bob Mielke: trombone; Jose Madera, Jerome Pasquall: clarinet, alto saxophone; Gil White: tenor saxophone; James Tolliver: tenor saxophone, arranger; Ernie Caceres: baritone saxophone; Bob Wilber: clarinet, soprano saxophone; Erskine Butterfield, Dave Bowman, Dick Wellstood, piano; Jimmy Miller: guitar; Leonard Ware: electric guitar; Jimmy Jones, Henry Turner, Charlie Treager, Wilbert Kirk, Denny Strong, Freddie Moore: drums; Noble Sissle: director; Billy Banks, Two Fish Mongers: vocal. CD3: Bechet: soprano saxophone, clarinet; Lloyd Phillips: piano; Pops Foster: bass; Zutty Singleton, Arthur Herbert: drums.