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Listen to This First 1920s Recording By One of the Kings of Jazz

Sidney Bechet was one of the first big jazz soloists, and brought the soprano saxophone into the jazz fold

Sidney Bechet, one of the early jazz greats, made his name on the clarinet, not the cornet or trumpet. (Artist: Arthur Leipzig, 1945, Gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Arthur Leipzig)
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Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans May 14, 1897, was a jazz original.

“Along with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Bechet is part of the pantheon of New Orleans' greatest jazz musicians,” writes Elisabeth Perez-Luna for NPR. Bechet was a child prodigy who worked as a professional musician from the age of 13 onwards and helped to originate jazz music, even before the genre had a widely-recognized name.

Like other New Orleans musicians such as Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard and Joe Oliver, he made jazz music before the 1917 “jass” record that’s associated with the national birth of the musical genre. Those musicians “had combined the precise, written music of ragtime with the meandering “ear music” of rural blues, adding improvised solos to the “ragged” syncopated rhythm,” writes Geoffrey Hines for Smithsonian Magazine. Bechet, however, played the clarinet and the soprano saxophone rather than the cornet, which was more popular at the time.

After the "jass" record came out, writes the National Park Service, jazz was in national demand and many New Orleans musicians, including Bechet, headed out to find work elsewhere.  Bechet first went to Chicago and then ended up touring abroad in France. The wide-open landscape of early jazz music gave him room to improvise and develop his own style as a musician, one that has continued to be influential.

Bechet made his first recording in 1923, according to History.com. It featured “Wild Cat Blues”:

“Bechet has left a profound mark on the way the clarinet and the soprano saxophone are played today in jazz,” NPR writes. “ 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.”

In the ‘20s, writes History.com, Bechet alternated between touring Europe and working in New York. He worked with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1924. He didn’t stay, but “the band absorbed much of Bechet’s style,” the website writes, and he later worked with people who would go on to join Ellington. He also collaborated with seminal jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Armstrong once described Bechet's playing as like a "jug full of golden honey," according to the National Portrait Gallery.

Though Bechet was a musician on the level of these other, better-remembered musicians, in the United States he never got the same level of popular recognition, writes NPR. He traveled extensively in Europe, eventually settling in France, where he died on his birthday in 1959.

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