Jan 25th 2015

The wailing vibrato of Sidney Bechet

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

I left jazz behind many years ago when I got hooked on Handel. The harmonies, the bounce and the melodies of the old German seemed to hold much more promise. I remember boasting to a friend, “I even have The Messiah in English.” I had a lot to learn. 

In the intervening years, submerged in baroque, romantic and modern composers, I lost touch with the world of jazz, so it has come as a big surprise to find myself foot-tapping and humming along with a new set of four CDs and reading the lavish accompanying book on one of the founders of the genre. The book is called Sidney Bechet in Switzerland, published by the United Music Foundation of Geneva. The CDs are composed mostly of his live, unpublished performances in Switzerland between 1949 and 1958, many remastered and cleaned up to modern standards.


Bechet’s soprano saxophone on these recordings sparks such wild applause and cheering – almost rock-music level -- that I wondered if Swiss jazz fans had perhaps spent too much time cooped up behaving themselves until they finally found a legal outlet. Solos by Bechet and his sidemen trigger applause and whoops amid such jazz standards as Basin Street Blues, Muskrat Ramble, Sweet Georgia Brown and When the Saints Come Marching Home.

Bechet is at his marvelous, joyous, soaring best, taking his soprano saxophone to heights no previous player had attempted. He exploited the full range of the instrument, using his wide vibrato and his technique to slide around the scale and make it scream, wail or purr, as the song demanded. He was one of those improvisers so accomplished that he didn’t seem to think about fingering or embouchure. The instrument had become an extension of his musical mind. 

The accompanying book, by French music writer Fabrice Zammarchi with the Swiss collaborator Roland Hippenmeyer, credits Bechet with making jazz popular in Europe. “In substance and in form his music has remained ingrained in the subconscious of later generations, and continues to arouse passion and wonder," they wrote.

Bechet, who died in Paris  in 1959 at age 62, was one of the inventors of jazz, ranking along with his New Orleans friends Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. His impact was felt on both sides of the Atlantic over the four or five decades of his career, including his time with the Duke Ellington Orchestra where he tutored Johnny Hodges in the fine points of the soprano sax. He was so far out front in musical terms that he made friends with admirers Igor Stravinsky and Ernst Ansermet.

The strong-minded Bechet had a zigzag career, however, ending up in jails in England and France for brawling, expelled by both countries and sent back to the United States. But after suffering through the U.S. depression years he returned to Europe and spent the rest of is life touring in Europe. He had a special bond with the Swiss, where fans adopted him and he communicated in broken French.

The beautifully produced book that comes with the CDs is a large-format 216-page year-by-year chronological survey of Bechet’s Swiss period, plus details of his tumultuous life. The story is told in part through many reminiscences of Bechet fans and fellow-musicians. It is a warts-and-all treatment that presents his complexities in straightforward terms. Hundreds of photographs, posters and concert programs illustrate the pages. The smartly designed text is printed in two inks – gold for the French original, silver for the English translation.

The soprano saxophone – never heard of it? Bechet hadn’t either until he discovered it early in his career as a clarinetist.  Soon he had made it part of the jazz scene. (I first heard the sweet sounds of the instrument in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band in the 1970s, the curved version played by the great Ed Xiques. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a toy.)

The soprano gave Bechet the additional range of sound he sought. It is pitched one octave above the tenor sax and is sometimes substituted in classical music for the oboe. Maurice Ravel called on it for a solo in his Bolero.

Credit for the concept and production of this package goes to  David Hadzis, composer-cum-sound-engineer and producer, who oversaw the project. Hadzis tells me United Music Foundation has plans for more such compilations, including a look at pop music from France, Britain and Brazil, as well as future boxes on classical and jazz themes.

The box containing the book and the four CDs can be obtained through United Music at http://shop.unitedmusic.ch/.

In the picture left David Hadzis

ADDITION, January 26, 2015:

The box set has just received the Best Reissue Award 2014 (Prix de la Meilleure Réédition 2014) from the French Académie du Jazz, a major accolade in jazz circles.




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