Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Lives and Loves of Sidney Bechet

Kicking the dust around Bagan’s Shwe Gu Gyi Temple, I throw some jazz in my ears, little clarinet of Sidney Bechet and just… float away. Who was Sidney Bechet? Well… born to Creole parents in 1897 in New Orleans, he was a lover, traveler, innovator, and wild man who played with America’s greatest musician, Louis Armstrong. Here are a couple of my favorite Bechet stories and yes, they always have to do with a woman.
After breaking with old New Orleans style master cornet king Joe Oliver and developing his own unique fingering, Bechet took his wanderlust and headed north, attracting great attention playing jazz shows up and down the Mississippi. Then, Bechet left for London where he developed a strong and vibrant new style for the soprano saxophone. In London he was a sweeping success and hailed as a jazz hero, but of course, he fell in love with the wrong woman, and passions running high, was arrested, jailed, and later deported for beating her in a hotel room. Oh Sidney, not a role model, but a legned in the making.
Back in the States, he continued to play and innovate and live wildly. Drunken carousing, epic tales of womanizing, bar brawls… and all the while, creating a new form of free jazz that would be emulated by countless others to come. Bechet was most famously involved in another imprisonment, this time in Paris, where after a disagreement about a chord played wrong, he challenged another musician to a duel… both men wild and drunk, Bechet’s shot missed and struck a woman, and he was imprisoned for a year and then again deported back to America… where the legend and the music continued to grow.
Say what you will about his life, but Bechet’s music has always destroyed me. Ellington said of the his genius, “He was the very epitome of jazz… a complete original.” So as I wandered today in the hard sunshine, floating on air through these ancient places, I took Sidney Bechet with me, wanderlust and all.

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