Those who have read my stuff before (all three of you) will remember that I was once quite a clarinetist. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I played at being a clarinetist, but that was enough to find myself drawn to some of the greats. You know, the guys who could actually play well.
I definitely dug Benny Goodman, and once wrote a piece about how he and I shared a lot of characteristics (even if those didn’t include talent and skill). Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and a few others also attracted my attention, but there was one guy who always intrigued me because his vibrato style of play was so different. And if that wasn’t strange enough, try this — he was a tremendously skilled clarinetist who pretty much let the instrument gather dust for most of his career.
Sidney Bechet, who is probably best known for the classic “Petite Fleur,” was one of the pioneers of jazz. And even if fellow New Orleans native Louis Armstrong was more famous, Bechet actually hit it big earlier than the iconic Satchmo. He was a clarinet prodigy with so much talent that he was able to move to Chicago and play professionally while still a teenager. And it was during those early years of jazz — before, during, and immediately after World War I — that Bechet began to build his fame in the music world, and that included Europe.
In fact, it was during one of his tours of the continent that he first tried the instrument that would replace his clarinet — a soprano saxophone. For the rest of his career he would mostly stick to the sax, but he did transfer his tremulous style of play to his new instrument. That sound would become his trademark, as would his dominance of the spotlight. In almost any musical setting he tended to annoy some of the other musicians by overriding their efforts — but he was a star and he knew it.
Over the course of his long career Bechet worked with many of the greats, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and he also led his own groups at times. He was one of the first jazz musicians to appear on records, and he sold a lot of them. In addition to the well-known “Petite Fleur”, some of his best were “Summertime,” “Sweet Lorraine,” and one of my favorites, “Perdido Street Blues.”
He spent most of the last decade of his life in France, where he was a major star and much better known than he ever was in his native land. He died in Paris in 1959.