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Clarinet Gone Wild: Sidney Bechet and the Soprano Sax

There comes a time in every saxophone player's life where they pick up a clarinet and, without hesitation, put it back down again. All kidding aside, the clarinet is a demanding instrument. As a saxophonist, I see playing the clarinet as one of the great challenges in summiting Everest, or base jumping the Grand Canyon (I don't people do that?). Its a historically beautiful and expressive instrument, and like few others, is as appropriate in Mozart as it is in New Orleans jazz, as it is in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. It is wildly demanding of the player and demands incredible technique (at least from my perspective). It is an unforgiving instrument that wont let you cheat. Fingers, air, embouchure, articulation...its all about consistency and precision.

The clarinet played a very important role in the development of New Orleans jazz music. We can't talk about New Orleans jazz without mentioning the recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five/Hot Seven. Clarinetist Johnny Dodds was one of the most often recorded clarinetists of the time and has become one of the most well known. He is not without important contemporaries and predecessors who are commonly overlooked. Larry Shields (Original Dixieland Jazz Band) and Alcide Nunez (Louisiana 5) had both been captured on record before Dodds recorded with Kid Ory's Creole Orchestra in 1922 and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923. Also in 1923, Leon Roppolo (Friars Society Orchestra/New Orleans Rhythm Kings) wrote and recorded solo's on Tin Roof Blues, immortalizing his contributions to the clarinet's role in the burgeoning style of New Orleans jazz. Side by side with Johnny Dodds in King Oliver's band (also on clarinet) was Jimmie Noone, both of whom studied clarinet with Lorenzo Tio Jr., whose father and uncle were also master clarinetists and teachers. (An interesting side note: French composer Maurice Ravel acknowledged that Bolero was based on a Jimmie Noone improvisation.) The Tio family was influential in the clarinet becoming the soloistic jazz instrument we see in New Orleans still to this day. Another pupil of the Tio clarinet tradition was none other than Sidney Bechet. Looking back to the earliest recordings of New Orleans clarinetists, Bechet is curiously nowhere to be heard.

Having performed around New Orleans with Bunk Johnson and King Oliver in the early 10's his career took off and sent him on the road touring to Chicago, New York, and before long, Europe. In 1919, while on tour in London with Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Bechet bought a soprano saxophone and (with a few exceptions) put down the clarinet. We hear Bechet on record for the first time in 1923 with Clarence Williams Blue Five playing on Wild Cat Blues and Kansas City Blues. Although we never heard his early clarinet playing, it is well known that he was perhaps the most influential clarinetist from New Orleans. Having mastered the instrument by age 10, Bechet had a reputation as a child prodigy. Both his clarinet and soprano playing have been acknowledged as having a lasting influence on jazz music and musicians. Bob Wilbur, Steve Lacy, and Aurora Nealand, to name a few, have all been admittedly disciples of the Bechet tradition. Duke Ellington said that Sidney was "The very epitome of jazz." He later said, "I consider Bechet the foundation. His things were all soul, all from the inside."

I began really listening to Sidney Bechet when I started playing soprano with the Po Boys. It was the obvious place to start. His name was as synonymous with New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, or hot sauce. As usual, one influence leads to a root system of others and brought me further back in time and deeper in the tradition. I am now more excited than ever to continue my studies with the clarinet so that I too may one day put it down to play exclusively soprano saxophone.

Sidney playing Egyptian Fantasy on soprano:

Later in life Sidney playing Egyptian Fantasy on clarinet:

(a rare occasion that he recorded on clarinet)

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