To this day, even the very name of Sidney Bechet evokes intense images and stories. Feisty, explosive, operatic, mellifluous; his blazing, intelligent eyes staring back at us from photos: we know all the stories of his temper and his prodigal career. If Bix Beiderbecke was the prototypically alienated young man with a horn; the distanced aloof genius; Bechet was the first of the unyielding, spiritually restless reedmen who found themselves at odds with the crass commercialism of the music business. His abandonment and intense re engagement of a musical career, multiple times, was to echo through jazz history in the careers of Artie Shaw and Sonny Rollins. Likewise, his expatriation to Europe became the template for later luminaries such as Dexter Gordon and Kenny Dorham.
We know this Bechet: Bechet the misunderstood, under appreciated icon. We also know the Bechet Duke Ellington referred to as the "symbol of jazz", preeminent over even Louis Armstrong as the foundation of jazz itself.
We can listen to all the old recordings, hearing a sound that shakes us internally, sometimes soaring lyrically, sometimes shouting, often pushing the bounds of whatever group he is playing with: Bechet the master; Beethovenian Bechet.
Then there is the Bechet of the mugshot. Bechet the violent, who got in a gun fight at rush hour in Paris. Bechet the deported. This is the Bechet of the Documentary Videos: Bechet of the Ten O'Clock News.
But there is another Bechet to know: a reflective, older Bechet. This is the Sidney Bechet described by Desmond Flower as "warm, wise, kind and gentle." A Bechet whose words rolled like warm poetry, who humbly sought to place his journey in perspective of the music. This is the Sidney Bechet whose wisdom radiates from what might be the finest autobiography of any musician, and an essential work of American literature.
To write a real analysis of Treat it Gentle would require a book length study longer than the brilliant text itself. Some quotes here will have to suffice as an introduction to a work that has the potential to change our understanding of America, jazz, and the nature of music itself. From the very beginning of the book, he sets out to shift our understanding, to give us something (the concept of giving, united to music, is a central aspect of Bechet's philosophy of music). So I'll start there:
You know there's people, they got the wrong idea of Jazz. They think it's all that red-light business. But that's not so. And the real story I've got to tell, it's right there. It's Jazz. What it is--how it come to be what it is.
People come up to me and they ask me 'Are you going to play Tin Roof Blues?' They ask me, 'What's bebop?' or what do I think of some record Louis Armstrong put out. But if I was to answer that, I'd have to go a long way back. [pg. 1]
On what Jazz is:
Bechet was once told by an enthusiastic man in Paris, "This music is your music."
But, you know, no music is my music. It's everybody's who can feel it. You're here...well, if it's music, you feel it--then it's yours too. You've got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It's that way with music too.
The man persisted, however. He wanted to know what would happen when men like Bechet passed on.
..you know, Jazz isn't just me. It isn't just any one person who plays it. There'll always be Jazz. It doesn't stop with me, it doesn't stop anywhere. You take a melody...people can feel a melody...as long as a there's a melody there's Jazz, there's rhythm. [pg 2]
But here's what I really mean. All God's children got a crown. My race, their music...it's their way of giving you something...of showing you how to be happy. It's what they've got to make them happy. The spiritual, that's sad; but there's a way in it that's happy too. We can be told: 'Maybe you don't belong in Heaven, and you haven't got a place on this earth; you're not in our class, our race.' But somewhere, God's children wear a crown, and someday we're going to wear ours too. [pg 3]
On inspiration and the reason to play music:
The real reason you play...it's just because you're able to play, that's all.
Inspiration, that's another thing. The world has to give you that, the way you live in it, what you find in your living. The world gives it to you if you're ready. But it's not just given...it has to be put inside you and you have to be ready to have it put there. All that happens to you makes a feeling out of your life and you play the feeling. But there's more than that. There's the feeling inside the music too. And the final thing, it's the way that life-feeling comes from in you...even if you start playing a number from a love-feeling, it has to become something else before you're through. That love-feeling has to find the music-feeling. And then the music can learn how to get along with itself.
But drinking and reefers and all that stuff, most times they just mess up all the feeling you got inside yourself and all the feeling the music's got inside itself. When a man goes at the music that way, it's just a sign that there's a lot inside himself he don't know how to answer. He's not knowing which way he needs to go. He's not going anywhere at all. [pg 128]
On contracts, the music business, and commercialism:
My answer--all I can say of it--it's just to be giving, giving all you're life, finding the music and giving it away. God maybe punishes a man for wanting too much, but He don't punish a man for giving. Maybe He even fixes it so that what you give away, it's the mostest thing you've got.
And maybe there's another thing why so many of these musicianers ended up so bad. Maybe they didn't know how to keep up with all this commercializing that was happening to ragtime. If it could have stayed where it started and not had to take account of the business it was becoming--all that making contracts and signing options and buying and selling rights--maybe without that it might have been different. If you start taking what's pure in a man and you start putting it on a bill of sale, somehow you can't help destroying it. In a way, all that business makes it so a man don't have anything left to give.
I got a feeling inside me, a kind of memory that wants to sing itself...I can give you that. I can send it out to where it can be taken, maybe, if you want it. I can try to give it to you. But if all I've got is a contract, I've got nothing to give. How'm I going to give you a contract? [pg 124]
On the Blues:
And it was when I was in jail...that I played the first blues I ever played with a lot of guys singing and no other instruments, just the singing. And, oh my God, what singing that was! It was my first experience that way, hearing someone right next to me start up singing...Got a life so full of punishment, Got me a feeling. Come down Jesus. Oh why don't they put God on this earth where you can find Him easier. Hearing someone else come in after a minute, just hearing his voice in the dark and knowing right away his life has a long way to go. Seeing someone hungry and beat up, seeing his face all bloody and knowing he can't speak your language to tell you what it is, knowing that the only way he has to explain himself is being human, suffering, and waiting....
I'll never forget what those blues did to me. I can't remember every single line, but some I remember. And how it was, the thing it was saying inside itself--I remember that entire. This blues was different from anything I ever heard. Someone's woman left town, or someone's man, he'd gone around to another door...then there was something that took every thought I had out of my mind until it had me so close inside it I could taste how it felt...I was seeing the chains and that gallows, feeling the tears on my own face, rejoicing in the Angel the Lord sent down to that sinner. Oh my God, that was a blues. The way they sang it there, it was something you would send down to earth if it had been given you to be God. What you'd send to your son in trouble if he was on earth and you was in Heaven. [pgs 106-107]
[Both] of them, the spirituals and the blues, they was a prayer. One was praying to God and the other was praying to what's human. It's like one was saying 'Oh God, let me go,' and the other was saying, 'Oh Mister, let me be.' And they were both the same thing in a way; they were both my people's way of praying to be themselves, they had a kind of trance to them, a kind of forgetting. It was like a man closing his eyes so he can see a light inside him. That light, it's far off and you've got to wait to see it. But it's there. It's waiting. The spirituals, they're a way of seeing that light. It's far off music; it's a going away, but it's a going away that takes you with it. And the blues, they've got that sob inside, that awful lonesome feeling. It's got so much remembering inside it, so many bad things to remember, so many losses. [pgs 212-213]
There have been countless books written on the Blues, countless interviews with experts on the matter, but these quotes constitute the best explanation I have ever read or heard in words of what the blues actually do, what they are, how I experience them, and what they're meant for.
I could keep quoting until the whole book was reprinted on this blog...these have only scratched this surface of Bechet's wisdom. Just as Bechet is foundational for jazz clarinet, and jazz itself, I believe his musical philosophy and analysis ought to be treated as a foundational hermeneutic for jazz.
Treat it Gentle is a book to be returned to, regularly, through the course of one's musical life.