Term Paper: Pioneering Jazz Musician, Sidney Bechet

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[. . .] In 1945, he moved to Brooklyn and started teaching music to supplement his unstable musician wages. He taught a young man named Bob Wilber the rudiments of both the clarinet and soprano saxophone. After high school, Wilber moved into Bechet's house so that he could have more in-depth lessons. Today, Wilber is a leading exponent of the soprano sax and clarinet, and with his own group, the Bechet Legacy, he plays in the Bechet tradition.

Bechet returned to France in 1952 and was warmly received there. While in France he recorded several hit records, which provided fierce competition with the sales of pop records. Bechet was considered one of the great soloists of early Jazz and France provided inspiration for many of his songs, including Petite Fleur, Rue des Champs Elysees, and Si tous vois ma mere. (Chilton)

Bechet became the idol of many young musicians in France and was know far beyond the borders of the jazz world. Among his admirers were Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet and Orson Welles. He was the first jazz musician to sell over a million records.

He performed for enthusiastic audiences in Europe and made occasional return visits to the United States until shortly before his death from cancer in 1959.

Chapter Two: Musical Style

Sidney Bechet was a man of musical genius. His mystic qualities have been compared to those of Bach and Beethoven. His music had a poetic quality and when he played, his instruments embodied the spirit of the whole art. Critics called Bechet "the best jazz artist" in New Orleans, placing his talent and natural ear over other musicians of the area, including Louis Armstrong. (Williams)

Bechet's sound was original and had a trademark strong rhythm. His musical talent swayed the music of every band he played in. He was an instrumental virtuoso of the first magnitude. His grasp on reality and humanity are seen as strong influences in music. He lived by his own rules, despite his background and possible consequences.

Bechet maintained the jazz tradition, but adapted modern harmonic developments to it. His style is characterized by a flawless technique, an intense style of playing, a romantic melodiousness and a thrilling, slow vibrato. (Hippenmeyer)

Chapter Three: Soprano Sax and Clarinet

The soprano saxophone is the instrument for which he is best known. The instrument is rather difficult to play, as it poses significant problems of intonation, especially in its upper register, but Bechel quickly mastered it, playing it as smoothly as he did the clarinet. His virtuosity on the soprano gave the saxophone musical legitimacy.

Bechet played with a pronounced vibrato, meaning he altered the pitch of his notes by slightly changing embouchure, the position and pressure of his mouth on the mouthpiece, to make the note waver above and below its true pitch. (Kennington)

Bechet, unlike many other musicians, never changed his sound or style, despite changing trends in music. In the 1920's, musicians leaned toward a rapid vibrato. In the 1930's, they favored a slower vibrato. After the 1940's, the vibrato has been dispensed, except on held-out notes or phrase endings, especially in slow-tempo ballads.

Bechet always used a rapid, wide vibrato in his music, in both the clarinet and saxophone. He was a confident and inventive improviser, both in individual solos and in the collective improvisation that characterized New Orleans jazz. He was also very competitive, comapeting with the trumpet and cornet players for the lead in collective improvisation.

Many trumpet players elected to let him improvise freely, and this brought a new style to the music of many bands. This freedom can be heard in an innovative piano-less quartet that recorded eight selections in 1940. Besides Bechet, the group featured Muggsy Spanier on cornet, Welman Braud on bass, and Carmen Mastren on guitar. The quartet played timeless jazz that was known for its light, driving swing and for giving Bechet the freedom in which to solo, which is particularly seen in his reveled rendition of "China Boy."

Many critics have said that the stylistic differences among blues musicians have a lot to do with their attitudes towards tradition. Bechet believed that jazz should be world music, speaking to the world and being responded to universally. Sidney Bechet made this point in Treat it Gentle, which was a book about the origins of jazz during slavery. (Bechet)

Bechet wrote that the music spoke to those who weren't free and told them what they might do with freedom if it were ever theirs. Once a slaves' music, jazz now carries that same message to everyone.

The black Creoles were notably the proudest yet most insular of all the racial groups in Louisiana. They were the mixed race descendants of Negroes and French or Spanish settlers. Many Creole ancestors were wealthy and owned cotton and sugar plantations. Their children were often educated in France, where they often achieved considerable prestige in scientific and literary circles. (William)

The New Orleans Creoles were the backbone of the growth and prosperity of the city, providing it with many craftsmen, tradesmen and musicians. The many privileges the Creoles enjoyed were curtailed after the end of the Civil War in 1865, when racial intolerance increased, and their position became even more precarious after racial discrimination began to intensify in New Orleans during the 1890's.

Bechet was a Creole and was taught to dislike those who were not like him. However, Bechet accepted and befriended the dark-skinned Negroes he's been raised to reject because of his mysticism about life. This mysticism helped him to see humanity in a new light, regardless of what he's been taught. This mysticism and regard for others presents a freedom in his music and a voice of intent in his songs that has been described as "uncompromising."

Today, saxophone is possibly the most widely heard solo instrument of the wind family in popular and jazz music. The instrument possesses a singing quality with a rich middle register, commanding low register, and an exciting and colorful extended range. (Kinkle)

Many saxophonists perform in large ensembles including concert, jazz, and marching bands as well as wind ensemble. Although not a regular member of the orchestra woodwind section, orchestral composers occasionally use saxophones, and sometimes incorporate a saxophone quartet. There is also a good body of concerto repertoire for the saxophone.

The study of the saxophone inevitably involves learning soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Most players, however, choose to establish a recognizable solo voice on only one of these.

Bechet preferred the saxophone to the clarinet because it gave him the freedom to improvise more and steal the show.

The saxophone is not as prone to squeak like the clarinet or sound airy and flat like the flute in the beginning. Attention must be given to the development of good posture, support, relaxation, hand position, breathing, embouchure, articulation, and manual dexterity, when mastering the instrument. It can be difficult to hit the low notes or bell tones and the high notes or palm keys.

Chapter Four: Other Instruments

While Bechet is famous for his skills on the clarinet and soprano saxophone, there is a famous jazz recording of him playing a sarrusophone on the song "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind" with the Clarence Williams Blue Five. He plays it during the introduction, and takes the first solo after the vocal, continuing beneath the trombone solo that follows. It is also prominent in the last few notes of the piece. (Horricks)

The sarrusophone, an unusual and unwieldy woodwind instrument with a double reed, never won over the public or caught the imagination of other musicians and composers. In "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind," Louis plays an obligato behind Bechet's low-note excursions on the instrument, while Charlie Irvis joins in with a trombone contribution.

Bechet also demonstrated his abilities as a cornetist, an instrument he had taught himself as well. Working with Buddy Petit and Louis Armstrong, Bechet was assigned to play the high note that ended a particular piece. He hit it perfectly, leaving Louis Armstrong, a great fan of Bechet, totally astonished.

Chapter Five: Comparing His Styles Through His Music

In "Shag," one of the earliest masterpieces of jazz improvisation, Bechet shows ideas that were unheard of until that point. The long notes from his soprano sax creating a feel of high-octane power. "Shag" is one of the first recorded jazz themes without an opening melody. Instead, the ensemble launches straight into a unique translation of "I Got Rhythm."

Bechet dominates the proceedings on Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" from his commanding soprano saxophone lead in the theme statements to the throbbing high notes with which he ends the tune. (Williams, Chilton)

Polka Dot Rag," written by Bechet and Noble Sissle's tenor saxophonist James Toliver, features a saxophone section struggling through the fast and complex first theme. The second theme has Bechet's clarinet leading the band, and the saxophones struggle once more. Tenorist James Toliver somehow finishes his solo in one piece after which Oscar Madera solos… [END OF PREVIEW]

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