Jazz Profiles from NPR
Sidney Bechet
Produced by Elisabeth Perez-Luna

Sidney Bechet  

Sidney Bechet was the undisputed the 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, and was best known for his heavy vibrato.

Listen to clarinetist and educator Dr. Michael White talk about the music of Sidney Bechet

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 with pianist and singer Clarence Williams throughout the deep South, 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.

Listen to Dr. White explain how Bechet infused his playing with the essence of New Orleans

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

Listen to a 1959 interview with New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin -- he talks about Sidney buying his first clarinet out of a pawn shop

Bechet has left a profound mark on the way the clarinet and the soprano saxophone are played today in 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.

It was in Europe that he achieved his greatest success and where eventually made his home, 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.

Listen to writer John Chilton discuss Bechet's playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra


View the Sidney Bechet show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library segment on The Sidney Bechet Story


More InfoBrowse the Sidney Bechet Society Web site