Almost a decade has passed since Sidney Bechet replaced Louis Armstrong as the unquestioned King of Jazz. Bechet is a complete original. He invented his own instrument, the soprano saxophone, a metal clarinet which is both reedier and brassier than the wooden version. With it he produces soaring, melodious, and fanciful clarinet passeges; deep, throaty, and emotional "trombone" interjections; and the clear, fiercely driving attack associated with the trumpet. Usually he does all at once, with a tone so magnificent one feels he could drive a truck down it and with such imagination and variety that one actually has to catch one's breath.
This immensity of tone and variety enables, almost compels, Bechet to dispense with a trumpeter. In his present quarter, "Big Chief" Russell Moore plays a sound and steady fill-in trombone, and his occasional solos are clean and imaginative, though not inspired. Art "Traps" Trappier keeps a driving beat on the drums without submitting to that urge for flashiness that often wrecks a band. Pianist Red Richards, the only new man in the group, is a skillful accompanist.
Bechet is, of course, the whole show. He takes the standard classics-"Muskrat Ramble," "That's Aplenty," "Tin Roof Blues," etc.-and gets something different out of each of them. I have heard him play "High Society" at least five times, once for almost twenty minutes, and never did he repeat or borrow from any source other than his limitless creative inspiration. And he takes such surprising tunes as "Casey Jones" and turns them into jazz classics.
"When the Saints Go Marching In" is as astounding stylistically as is "High Society" creatively. Bechet slams into the opening chorus with a piercing, ringing attack that few trumpeters can match, flows into an inventive clarinet approach with more intensity and artistry than even Johnny Dodds at his most stirring, and drives on and on in the fashion which can be defined in only one way: Bechet.
Not all of Bechet is fast and loud, of course. On blues numbers he packs so much emotion into lowregister laments and heart-breaking high-register flights that one expects to see tears streaming down his cheeks.
A wise, kindly, rather sad face and a completely relaxed presence make Bechet a pleasure to watch as well. Born in New Orleans, he migrated to Chicago with his contemporaries in the Twenties. But commercial success did not come to him as it did to the "orthodox" of the Joe Oliver camp. Perhaps his fondness for France cost him his share in the proceeds from the enthusiastic public acceptance of jazz. Whatever the reasons, it is still Armstrong who gets thousands for appearances at the vast showplaces and theatres, while Bechet plays at the far smaller Storyville, in the Hotel Buckminster at Kenmore Square, and in tiny Jimmy Ryan's, the only remaining "52nd Street dive" in New York. And Bechet's superb records are made for Bluenote, a specialized small company which neither advertises heavily nor licenses its records for broadcast.
Bechet has spent the past two years in Europe, after a year in New York. He married a French girl and bought a house outside Paris. He has been in America a month, playing in Chicago and Toronto before coming last week to Boston. After this week he will tour Philadelphia, Toronto, and points west and return to Storyville for the last three weeks of December.
Since he seems destined to play in America only occasionally in the future, any one who fails to hear him when given a chance must be tabbed as a fool.