Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering Sidney Bechet

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Next to Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, clarinetist and saxophonist, was the most beloved African-American performer in France during the 20th century. He was born on May 14, 1897, and died in France on his birthday in 1959. The following is a brief recounting of his life in France.

Sidney Bechet (1922)

Bechet traveled to Paris for the first time in 1921 to perform at the Apollo Theater with the Jazz Kings during a brief hiatus from a trip to London. He met Baker for the first time in 1925, when he sailed to France as part of the troupe of La Revue Nègre (The Black Revue), which opened on October 2nd at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. He was the star musician of the show; she was the star dancer.

Josephine Baker and the cast of La Revue Nègre
Sidney Bechet is in the back row, wearing a hat – his face is visible just to the left of Baker’s.

La Revue Nègre went on the road in 1926, and Bechet traveled and performed with the show. He returned to Paris in 1928 to play at the club Les Ambassadeurs (now Espace Pierre Cardin) with Noble Sissle’ band. He made a brief trip to London and Frankfurt before returning to Paris to play at Chez Florence, a jazz club in the Pigalle district.

On a fateful December evening in 1928, Bechet was involved in a shoot-out with banjoist Gilbert “Little Mike” McKendrick on rue Fontaine. Both men were sentenced to 15 months in prison. Bechet served 11 months of the sentence and was deported. He returned in 1931 to play briefly with Noble Sissle’s band at Les Ambassadeurs, toured Europe again for a few months, and then returned to the U.S.

The year 1949 was the watershed period for Bechet in terms of his popularity in France. In May, he appeared at the International Jazz Festival in Paris, sharing the spotlight with Charlie Parker. Bechet’s performances were widely acclaimed, and his standing in the eyes of jazz fans grew enormously. He began performing with Claude Luter and his Orchestra (a French jazz orchestra) in the same year, and made the first of numerous recordings of “Les Oignons” (Bechet’s most successful recording). His performances in the fall and winter of 1949 represented the revival of New Orleans jazz in France.

Click here to listen to a recording of “Les Oignons”

Bechet departed for the U.S. toward the end of the year, but returned to France in June 1950 to establish permanent residency. He resumed performing with the Claude Luter Orchestra, and began to spend summers performing in Juan-le-Pins on the French Riviera. In 1951, he married a German woman whom he met during his first tour of Europe during the 1920s and settled with her in the Paris suburb of Grigny. He would subsequently take an apartment in Paris.

By 1953, Bechet’s concerts were attracting record crowds. In 1955, he held a free concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris to celebrate successful record sales (they topped 1,350,000). The crowd that gathered was far larger than the theater could hold, and the agitated young fans ended up rioting! During that year, he also appeared in a French film with Claude Luter – L’Inspecteur Connaît la Musique. Yet his attempts at writing operettas and scores for ballets were not well received by the French public.

In 1956, Bechet moved to the Paris suburb of Garches with a mistress named Jacqueline and their son, Daniel. The Sidney Bechet Fan Club was founded that year. Two years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His health deteriorated over the subsequent months, and despite radiation therapy, he succumbed to his disease on his birthday, May 14th. He died at home in Garches.

Bechet Funeral Procession
May 19, 1959


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