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He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.
From a young age Bechet quickly mastered any musical instrument he picked up. (Some New Orleanians remembered him as a cornet hot-shot in his youth. In a 1941 early experiment in over-dubbing, he recorded on 6 different instruments.) At first he decided on the clarinet as his main instrument, and Bechet remained one of jazz's greatest clarinetists for decades. However he is best remembered as the master of the soprano saxophone. Bechet was perhaps the first notable jazz saxophonist of any sort. Forceful delivery, well conceived ideas, and a distinctive wide vibrato characterized Bechet's playing.
Bechet had experience playing in traveling shows even before he left New Orleans at the age of 20. Never long content in one place, he alternated using Chicago, New York, and Europe as his base of operations until finally settling in France in 1950.
Bechet successfully composed in jazz, pop-tune, and extended concert work forms. His recordings have often been reissued. Some of the highlights include 1924 sides with "Clarence Williams Blue Five", the 1932, 1940, 1941 "New Orleans Feetwarmers" sides, a 1938 "Tommy Ladnier Orchestra" session ("Weary Blues", "Really the Blues"), and various versions of his own composition Petite Fleur. The power and individualism of Bechet's musical personality are evident in all of his recordings. Existentialists in France called him 'le dieu'.
Bechet was an important influence to alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges who studied with Bechet as a teenager.
Shortly before his death in Paris, Bechet dictated his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, one of the most poetic of musical biographies.
Bechet is also said to have served as a prototype for the saxophonist Pablo in the novel Steppenwolf, since it was almost certainly through listening to his playing in Europe in the 1920s that Hermann Hesse became acquainted with the world of jazz music.
"Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz... everything he played in his whole life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique man to ever be in this music." -- Duke Ellington
Philip Larkin wrote an ode to Bechet in The Whitsun Weddings .
- Treat It Gentle by Sidney Bechet (Twayne 1960, Da Capo 1978)
- Sidney Bechet the Wizard of Jazz by John Chilton (Macmillan 1987)
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