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Sidney Bechet, 'Soprano Sax King'

Sidney Bechet, early 1950s.
Hulton Archive
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Sidney Bechet, early 1950s.

Sidney Bechet was the undisputed king of the soprano saxophone and also one of the most innovative and original clarinetists in jazz. He brought an unequaled energy, clarity and verve to his chosen instruments, along with his trademark heavy vibrato.

The blues, and the spirituals and the remembering, and the waiting and the suffering, and the looking at the sky watching the dark come down - that's all inside the music. The music, it's my whole story.

Along with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Bechet is part of the pantheon of New Orleans' greatest jazz musicians. Born May 14, 1897, into a New Orleans Creole family, Bechet was a child prodigy with a tremendous natural talent for music. By the age of 13, Bechet was not only a professional musician, but — much to his family's dismay — a jazz musician.

At 16, Bechet began touring through the deep south with pianist and singer Clarence Williams, moving on to trumpeter King Oliver's band six years later in 1919. Music took Bechet to Chicago, New York, even Europe — valuable worldly experience that would later influence his playing.

Bechet started out on clarinet and later, in the early 1920s, discovered the soprano saxophone — an instrument rarely heard in jazz at that time. He mastered the rather difficult instrument, and succeeded in giving the soprano saxophone a prominent place as a solo instrument in jazz.

Bechet’s signature style left a profound mark on the way the clarinet and the soprano saxophone are played in today’s jazz. He has influenced countless musicians including Johnny Hodges, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Bob Wilber and Branford Marsalis, among others. Bechet was a great improviser, with a passion for life as well as music.

Bechet worked with his own group as well as with King Oliver, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. However unlike Armstrong, whom he had known growing up in New Orleans, Bechet never achieved great popularity in the U.S.

He achieved his greatest success in Europe, and eventually made his home there, but he never forgot the New Orleans tradition that nurtured and inspired him. Bechet died in Paris, France, on his 62nd birthday, May 14, 1959.

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