Accidents of history are a strange thing, but sometimes all we know hinges on them. Had Sidney Bechet not gotten deported from England in 1922, for instance, we might legitimately wonder how long it might have taken for him to make studio recordings, and whether his influence on the likes of a young Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would ever have taken place. Shortly after his deportation, he was hired by pianist and composer Donald Heywood as part of a traveling show called How Come. It was while on tour with this show that the young Duke Ellington heard him in Washington D.C., an experience that Duke recalled for the rest of his life.
"I have never forgotten the power and imagination with which he played," Duke said of the experience. [Chilton, pg.56] In 1962, Ellington was to expand upon this, saying:
"Yes, there were some very good Lester Young imitators. Lester was one of the very potent influences. Charlie Parker had plenty of imitators. Johnny Hodges too. And there was a time when there was hardly a tenor player in the world who didn't try to sound like Coleman Hawkins. But we mustn't leave out the greatest--Bechet! The greatest of all the originators, Bechet, the symbol of jazz! [...] I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside. It was very, very difficult to find anyone who could really keep up with him. He'd get something organized in his mind while someone else wass playing, and then he'd play one or two choruses--or more--that would be just too much." [Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, 10]
Listening to the first recordings of Sidney Bechet immediately after hearing the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band recordings of 1923 or Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, while paying attention to the timeline, is a revolutionary experience for anyone raised on standard histories. Many year ago, when I finally discovered Bechet for myself, my reaction as a clarinetist and soprano sax player, was simply that trumpet and cornet players must have had the greatest PR agencies on earth working for them to lay any claim to originating jazz solo style! I mean no disrespect to the great Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, or the others, but I can't hear how much any of what that they did, conceptually, hadn't been mastered by Bechet long before they added to it.
I don't really have the time to do an analysis of these important recordings, so will refer readers interested in further analysis to John Chilton's important study: Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. Oxford University Press. NY: 1987. Here let me just mention some highlights as I see them:
There is a pride of place to "Wild Cat Blues", as it's our first Bechet recording and the first great jazz saxophone on record.
"Kansas City Man" shows a fully formed blues soloist: we don't need to hear him grow into the music or go through and apprenticeship phase.
"Achin' Heart Blues" documents a clarinet soloist more advanced than either Johnny Dodds or Leon Roppolo.
"Shreveport Blues" is not only a demonstration of Bechet's mastery of lyric playing, but his double time figurations behind the cornet aren't the sort we hear other players struggling to master: he already has the music entirely within his scope and is comfortably throwing down exactly what he wants.
His lightening runs behind the melody in "Old Fashioned Love" are all musically substantial and emotionally relevant -- in this way he stands out in contrast to other flashy players, including Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmie Noone on some of their virtuosic choruses.
On "House Rent Blues" he builds perfectly balanced solo through interconnected triplet breaks. On "Mean Blues" he shows his lyrical ability to create a counter melody more interesting than the original. I can't stress enough how superior he seems to compared to everyone else out there at the time these were made. The listener remains glued to his lines no matter who is playing the lead at the time. Perfect variation after variation unfolds until the end.
"Texas Moaner Blues" features his first work with a young Louis Armstrong, this time on clarinet and soprano sax. His solo concept is clearly far in advance of Armstrong at this point, and Satch seems to have learned a lot, when we check out later recordings.
Bechet's next recording was backing blues singer Sippie Wallace on "Off and On Blues." His clarinet is rich, powerful, and his blues fills and choruses are perfectly conceived.
On "Mandy Make Up Your Mind" we get a little soprano sax work comping, but the big solo is taken by Bechet on sarrusophone! And it sounds great!
On the last of the early Armstrong/Bechet sessions, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird", it is once again Bechet who is the true soloist in the band, building a commentary of baroque ornamentation around Armstrong's statements of the theme, and motivic response to the vocal chorus.
According to Fabrice Zammarchi's notes to The Complete American Masters of Sidney Bechet, the last two Clarence Williams Blue Five sessions were behind vocalists on January 8, 1925. They feature typical accompaniment by Bechet and tasteful solos.
Shortly after this era, Bechet returned to Europe and wasn't documented again on American records for several years of the important roarin' '20s, which fixed the canon in many jazz fans' minds. We can be grateful that Clarence Williams took the opportunity to showcase his talents between 1923-1925, or history might have lost perspective on the man Ellington considered the foundation and eptiome of jazz itself.