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Sidney Bechet: 1897-1959
Sidney Bechet
Soprano saxophone, clarinet

Born: May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Died: May 14, 1959 in Paris, France

Centennial Celebration

by Tom Jacobsen
Copyright © 1999 Tom Jacobsen

This piece originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 1997 issue of The Mississippi Rag and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher of that journal; present version originally in Jazz Notes 9/1 1997

The month of April (as well as early May) is always a time of great musical activity and excitement in New Orleans, but this year it was something else! In addition to the annual French Quarter and Jazz and Heritage Festivals and the many special events that inevitably coincide with them, the spring witnessed the unique celebration of the Sidney Bechet Centennial. Indeed, if one theme dominated the season it was Bechet and his music. Therefore, I will be devoting the majority of this limited space to Bechet-related activities, with apologies to the many fine musicians and bands whose coverage had to be neglected as a result.

It all began (actually, Bechet events and special presentations have been taking place since last fall) on April 10 with the opening of an exhibition, "Sidney Bechet: A World of Jazz, 1897-1997," at La Belle Galerie on Chartres Street. The splendid exhibit included photographs by Ray Avery, William P. Gottlieb, Jean-Pierre Leloir, Bob Parent, Charles Peterson, and Duncan Schiedt, as well as various other Bechet memorabilia gathered from a variety of sources (not least, the Zammarchi Archive in Paris). This tasteful and informative show will be running through June 29, but there is a chance it will be traveling later (details when available).

A highlight of the opening day (April 11) of French Quarter Fest was a concert in Jackson Square by Jacques Gauthé and his Creole Rice Jazz Band, along with special guest Bob Helm on clarinet and soprano saxophone. They performed many numbers from the band's wonderful new recording, Echopes of Bechet (Good Time Jazz CD 15006-2), which had only been released a few days earlier.

More Bechet music could be heard on the following day from clarinetist Michael White and his band (Mark Braud, trumpet; Freddie Lonzo, trombone; Steve Blailock, banjo; Dewey Sampson, bass; and Louis Cottrell, drums). Both of these bands were heard repeatedly throughout the Jazzfest season. On April 24 the New Orleans Post Office and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation hosted a special ceremony honoring Bechet at La Belle Galerie. The occasion marked the release of a handsome Sidney Bechet commemorative envelope (cachet), the latest in the Post Office's series honoring New Orleans jazz greats. The Bechet cachets were issued in a limited edition of 2500 and are still available for purchase ($10 each). Those interested in securing one or more should contact the New Orleans Post Office at 701 Loyola Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70113-9802 (504/589-1416).

The total attendance for the two weekends of the festival was well over 400,000, but less than last year's record turnout of 471,000. There were many musical highlights. Fans of contemporary jazz were treated to the likes of James Moody, Art Farmer, Herbie Hancock, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, and McCoy Tyner and Michael Brecker, among others. But the real highlight of the second weekend was the many musical tributes to Bechet by prominent local reedmen and illustrious imports. I have never seen so many soprano saxophones (of both straight and curved varieties) in one place at one time! It was like a fishhorn convention.

I missed the May 1 concert at Loyola University featuring Michael White and one-time Bechet protege Claude Luter, but both were back on the stand at Jazzfest on May 3 for special Bechet tributes. Not only did I hear White on soprano for the first time, but he also featured young Derek Douguet on the instrument playing a couple of Bechet standards. The set came to a rousing conclusion with a "soprano summit" jam in which White (on clarinet) and Douguet (soprano) were joined by modernists Harold Battiste (soprano) and Wes Anderson (sopranino) in a lively rendition of "Indiana." That led to an encore ("Royal Garden Blues") which had the assembled host on its feet with tumultuous applause. Later in the same afternoon Claude Luter joined Jacques Gauthé and his Creole Rice Jazz Band in yet another wonderful tribute to Bechet. These two fine players, who work so well together, performed a program of Bechet standards as well as several lovely Luter originals. They continued their symbiotic musical interaction throughout the weekend with successful nightly appearances at the Meridien Hotel.

The next day (May 4) brought more of the same - yet also some most interesting new sounds. Fabrice Zammarchi, French clarinetist/soprano saxophonist and Bechet biographer, led a first-rate quartet that played a program of largely less well-known Bechet compositions. I found it a very fresh and innovative performance and was struck by the extent to which some of Bechet's later writing lends itself to contemporary arrangements. Canadian soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway sat in on the last two numbers, which concluded with a torrid uptempo treatment of "I Know that You Know." The enthusiastic response of the Jazzfest crowd must have rivaled that reportedly received by Bechet in his rendition of the same number at a festival in Paris in 1949 (at which Charlie Parker was another headliner).

The day concluded with a performance by Bob Wilber and his fine band, The Bechet Legacy, composed of Randy Sandke (trumpet), Mark Shane (piano), James Chirilli (guitar), Darryl Conutt (bass), and Joe Ascione (drums). A sparkling performance that was enhanced by several songs from Bob's wife, Pug Horton. Wilber's command of his horns continues to be impressive. I was interested to hear him say later that, while he plays both, he finds it easier to move more quickly on the curved soprano than on the straight variety. Both Zammarchi and Wilber had performed with others at a jazz mass held earlier in the day at Bechet's baptismal church, St. Augustine's, at the corner of Governor Nicholls and St. Claude. I missed it, but was later told about their moving performance of a new composition by Wilber called "Dear Sidney."

The Bechet Centennial Conference officially got underway on the following day (May 5) with an opening reception at The Cabildo on Jackson Square. Honored guests included the Ambassador of France, the French Consul General in New Orleans, Mayor Morial, and members of the Bechet family (most notably, son Daniel Sidney Bechet). (The latter is also a musician, leading two bands in France where he resides.) Music was provided by Jacques Gauthé and his band, with guest Claude Luter. The conference itself began on Tuesday, May 6, with three principal sessions devoted to the following themes: "Treat It Gentle and the Jazz Narrative Tradition," "Sidney Bechet's Career and Reputation in Europe," and "Teaching Jazz: The Mastery and Influence of Sidney Bechet." Each session was chaired by a distinguished musician/scholar,with a principal speaker and a panel of a half dozen eminent discussants.

Space limitations clearly prohibit a detailed account of the proceedings, but that may be available in an eventual conference publication. The initial (in which Bechet biographer John Chilton was the main speaker) was particularly good because there was a reasonable amount of time for discussion among panelists and audience on the significance of Bechet's autobiography - which Chilton called "the most poetic" of all books on jazz.

The second session was led by Fabrice Zammarchi who evaluated the last decade of Bechet's life in France (1949-59) with recorded musical illustrations. Wolfram Knauer (Germany) suggested that Bechet's vibrato(which Chilton had considered a "major stumbling block" to his wider appreciation) especially appealed to "the French aesthetic" in popular music and therefore contributed to his popularity in that country. Bob Wilber recounted in the third session his "student/teacher"relationship with Bechet and called the latter "a born teacher." He went on to illustrate (with demonstrations on his own instruments) the purposefulness and careful planning of Bechet's playing. He stressed that Bechet always "had an idea of what he was doing - and he could talk about it." Wilber called Bechet "a swing musician," and concluded his remarks by urging that we "eliminate" the words "dixieland" and "bebop"from our lexicons. All jazz, he said, is "traditional" in that it is part of a continuous tradition. The panel, which included modernists Alvin Battiste, Harold Battiste, Kidd Jordan, and Ellis Marsalis, seemed to agree.

The conference was brought to conclusion late in the afternoon with a brass band parade (billed as the largest of its kind in the history of New Orleans) from Jackson Square to Congo Square via St. Peter Street. The culmination of the parade was the dedication of a bronze bust of Bechet at its permanent location in Congo Square. The bust itself is a replica of the famous 1960 original in Juan-les-Pins, France. The dedication ceremony was attended by Centennial dignitaries and large throng of Bechet admirers.

And so ended the official Bechet celebration. But historically savvy cornetist Chris Tyle devoted the evening of May 14 in his regular gig at the Can Can Cafe on Bourbon Street to a final Bechet tribute. (May 14 is of course the date of both Bechet's birth and death.) Playing mostly soprano saxophone (his new doubling instrument), Tyle and playmates Jacques Gauthé (soprano), Orange Kellin (clarinet), John Royen (piano), and Hal Smith (drums) presented one last excursion into the music of Sidney Bechet. Perhaps the city of his birth will now, at long last, have a better appreciation of the depth and range of Mr. Bechet's music.

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With 1 reader comment, posted February 10, 2001