by Mark Berresford
(from the liner notes of The Young Sidney Bechet 1923 – 1925 on Timeless Records)

The October 1920 edition of The Dancing World, an English publication owned by and ran to primarily publicise the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, carried an article by Benny Peyton, leader of The Jazz Kings, then resident at the Hammersmith Palais and Rector's night club. In it he wrote: "I would like to mention Mr. Sidney Bechet, our clarionetist (sic), and it is no exaggeration to say that he is in a class by himself. Bechet is regarded by many who are competent to judge, as the most original and possibly the greatest of known clarionet (sic) players (at least of dance music) in the world, in saying which I would like to emphasise this is a statement of fact. He is, in many respects, the pride of our band and the envy of his rivals."

Click Here To OrderPraise indeed, if somewhat publicity-minded, for a musician who had already been lauded by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, in a famous critique, regarded by most jazz scholars as the first serious writing on jazz. The subject of Ansermet's article was the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a vast organisation of African-American instrumentalists and vocalists, presided over by conductor/composer Will Marion Cook. Buried between the symphonic pieces and plantation ballads was some genuine jazz, most notably Bechet's instrumental feature Characteristic Blues, with which Ansermet was so impressed.

Sadly, Bechet's playing at that time was unrecorded, or at least unissued; rumour has it that the Jazz Kings recorded High Society and Tiger Rag for Columbia, but the results were rejected. In view of the evidence of the band's repertoire being preserved in another Dancing World article, and consisting almost entirely of popular dance tunes of the day, it seems likely that the wish was the father of the thought!

Bechet was deported from England in late 1922 for assaulting a woman, and returned to America, virtually unknown and jobless. In the two and a half years he had been away there had taken place giant leaps forward in jazz and the music scene in general. Bands were much more organised and the market for records by African-American artists was booming, fuelled by the craze for 'blues' records, both vocal and instrumental. After a stint in a short-lived black musical show, 'How Come' and a few concerts with his erstwhile employer Will Marion Cook's Orchestra, Bechet was contacted by pianist/composer/publisher/A&R man Clarence Williams to make records with his recording band. Williams, an old friend from New Orleans had come North in the 'teens to further his publishing/songwriting career, firstly to Chicago and eventually to New York. Quick to capitalise on the blues craze, he built up a large catalogue of blues compositions and through this was employed by the Columbia and Okeh record companies to scout for talent and supervise recordings by African-American artists. It is thanks to Williams that the likes of Bessie Smith, Piron's New Orleans Orchestra, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet and scores of others found their way onto records.

The Okeh company possessed a team of excellent recording engineers, and the results they coaxed out of the primitive acoustic equipment (including all the tracks bar one on this CD) are a testament to their patience and skill. The sound is big, mellow and clearly defined, with the lower range frequencies being better recorded than by their bigger rivals with more sophisticated equipment.

Bechet's first trip to the Okeh studios was with a group assembled by Williams, and the resulting tracks, Wild Cat Blues and Kansas City Man Blues are a magnificent recording debut for the young Bechet. Unlike the recording debut of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver earlier in the same year, where their playing is primarily in an ensemble role, Bechet cuts through the rest of the band like a knife. Both sides can be regarded as soprano saxophone solos with incidental orchestral accompaniment, the band playing a subsidiary and supportive role to Bechet's impassioned outpourings. As such, Bechet can be regarded as the first great jazz soloist on record.

The next two tracks on this CD feature Bechet with the same band accompanying blues singer Sara Martin. Sara had been something of a fixture at Okeh for a year or so, complementing the more vaudeville-styled Mamie Smith, whose career was taking a downward turn after her break with composer/publisher/promoter Perry Bradford. In that time her accompanists had been as diverse as W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues Band and the youthful Fats Wallerbut for the most part was provided by the somewhat pedestrian piano of Clarence Williams. On Blind Man's Blues and Atlanta Blues Bechet provides Sara with sympathetic responses and fills, and his horn dominates the orchestral passages.

By the time of the next instrumental sessions, Bechet was taking a less dominant role in the proceedings, giving the rest of the band a chance to show their wares. On Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do trumpeter Thomas Morris is given a chance to shine, notably in the muted breaks, but once more Bechet steals the show. New Orleans Hop Scop Blues, a George W. Thomas composition, is an early example of instrumental boogie-woogie, a rhythm favoured by Thomas in several of his compositions, notably The Fives and The Rocks. Williams' boogie-woogie left hand sets the rhythm for Bechet's solo, with its off beat phrasing, which was very daring if not unique in 1923.

By comparison with the previous performance, Oh Daddy is a rather lacklustre piece. Bechet's solo, after a straight rendition of the verse, consists mainly of glissando phrases, more akin to the style of white saxophonists Bennie Kreuger and Don Parker. Only in the last chorus does both Bechet and the band come alive, Bechet providing a splendid upward torrent of notes in his break.

Rosetta Crawford never gained prominence as a blues singer, but the results of the two sides she made teamed up with Bechet, Williamsand banjoist Buddy Christian are quite superb by any standards. Unhindered by the clutter of other lead instruments Bechet's musical thoughts and subtleness come across with great clarity, perfectly complimenting Rosetta's rich voice and phrasing.

In 1924 the average Briton's idea of jazz extended no further than Jack Hylton or the Savoy Orpheans, so the issue of Margaret Johnson's E Flat Blues and If I Let You Get Away With It Once on the Parlophone label in June of that year must have sounded completely alien to the casual record buyer. Although only 18 years old at the time, she possesses an assuredness, poise and character of voice belies her youth. Bechet's break on If I Let... is a masterpiece of power and construction, and the musical 'shrug' at the end of the instrumental interlude leaves no doubt as to his self-confidence and command of his instrument. Surprisingly, this record sold quite well in Britain, and formed the bedrock of many a British jazz collection in the days when American original issues were quite thin on the ground.

The Williams Blues Five sides from October 1923 find Bechet less prominent in the orchestral balance, and seems more subdued than on the earlier sides. Bechet in his autobiography stated that the recording engineers feared his presence on a session, such was the power of his playing, so it may have been a deliberate action on the part of the engineers to subdue Bechet's presence, which in turn subdued Bechet emotionally and musically. On House Rent Blues he pours out a torrent of passionate arpeggio breaks, whilst the band, possibly sensing a more level playing field, seem more relaxed, Morris in particular seems much more at ease.

Nearly a year was to pass before Bechet returned to the Okeh studios (he had made one strange side in the summer of 1924 accompanying the white vaudeville singer Maureen Englin for the Pathe label), but in October 1924 he commenced a series of recordings for Williams that are among the best-loved in the classic jazz genre.

Prior to this date, the musicians who comprised the Williams band can only be described as adequate accompaniment to Bechet's seemingly endless flow of invention and passion. Thomas Morris was a trumpeter in the Johnny Dunn mould, slightly four square to the beat, but lacking Dunn's technical ability and bravado. His replacement for the 1924 Williams Blues Five sides was Louis Armstrong, fresh to New York, having been lured away from Chicago by Fletcher Henderson. Armstrong and Williams were friends from New Orleans, and as Henderson did not restrict his sidemen taking on ad hoc recording work, he was an obvious choice to appear on the Okeh sessions organised by Williams. Thus the two towering figures of early jazz met for the first time on record, in what John Chilton in his scholarly biography of Bechet, 'Sidney Bechet, Wizard of Jazz', describes a the 'Duel of the Giants'.

Their first pairing was on the Clarence Williams composition Texas Moaner Blues. Bechet opens on clarinet, weaving sinuous lines behind Louis' confident lead – a far cry from Thomas Morris. After a workmanlike solo from trombonist Charlie Irvis, Louis comes in with a magnificent solo, after which Bechet, now on soprano sax, takes a solo which rises to the challenge laid down by the young cornetist.

The next session sees the band accompanying vaudeville blues singer Virginia Liston on two classics of the vaudeville blues genre. The perfect meeting of minds of Bechet and Armstrong match for audacity the memorably racy lyrics of You've Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole, a tune that has lost none of its ability to bring a smile to the face of the listener despite the passage of nearly 75 years since it was written.

The outpouring of genius from Bechet and Armstrong continue on the next two sides, Mandy Make Up Your Mind and I'm A Little Blackbird, on which the band is joined by Clarence Williams' wife, Eva Taylor as vocalist. Mandy Make Up Your Mind is notable for the only example on a jazz record of a sarrusophone solo. A twin reeded instrument sounding like a cross between a bassoon and a bass saxophone, the sarrusophone was often used in the pre-electric recording era as a replacement for a double bass, which did not have the carrying power to record satisfactorily. Thus it would not be unusual for a sarrusophone to be lying around a recording studio, and one can imagine Bechet seeing one of these oddities in a corner and giving it a blow!

Although Bechet plays wonderfully throughout on both soprano sax and sarrusophone, the star of Mandy Make Up Your Mind is Louis – his lead in the final chorus is overwhelming in its power and intensity, which comes over clearly despite his being placed some distance from the recording horn.

Cake Walkin' Babies From Home is another timeless classic jazz recording where the upbeat tempo and firm rhythm provide the perfect backdrop to some of the most memorable playing by Bechet and Armstrong on record. Louis' simple, but wonderfully swinging lead is followed by a vocal from Mrs. Williams, after which his lead is punctuated by a series of stunning soprano sax breaks from Bechet. The final rideout chorus is completely dominated by Louis, moving away from the melody and rising to a crescendo of torrid breaks.

After the raw emotion of the previous offerings, Pickin' On Your Baby comes across for what it is: a piece of syrupy, racially offensive nonsense. The lyrics are hard to take nowadays, but its one redeeming feature is Louis' high register final chorus.

For the final Okeh session of this CD, the band is augmented by Louis' fellow sidemen from the Henderson band, Buster Bailey and Don Redman. Louis is in fine form, but the reed passages are blurred by being over-arranged, giving rise to the suggestion that Bechet is not even present on this session.

The closing track is something of a bonus, recorded for Gennett by the same personnel as the Blue Five, but with Williams relinquishing the piano stool to Louis' wife, Lil Hardin-Armstrong. The recording balance and Lil's presence give the band a lighter, airier sound and both Louis and Bechet are extremely well recorded. Bechet's final breaks on Cake Walkin' Babies are breathtaking in their originality and execution, proving just how far ahead he was of his contemporaries.

Bechet was to disappear from the recording studios shortly after these sides for the rest of the decade, returning to the more racially tolerant Europe with Josephine Baker and 'La Revue Negre', followed by a series of tours that took him as far afield as Russia, Egypt, Turkey and Greece.

Sadly, no one thought to record Bechet at his peak during these European wanderings, so we are indeed fortunate that when he was deported from England in 1922, he chose to return to New York, and that he met up with Clarence Williams. Who knows what further glories there may have been had he stayed in the USA?

If you would like to order the Timeless Records' CD of The Young Sidney Bechet 1923 – 1925 you can do so through Worlds Records or direct from Timeless Records.