Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

154: Sidney Bechet in London 1919-1922

In 1959 the hit parades of Britain, the U.S.A., Australia and Norway noted the continuing sales of a haunting song Petite Fleur, played by Monty Sunshine the clarinettist of the Chris Barber Jazz Band of England. Composed by New Orleans-born Sidney Bechet it drew attention to a remarkable individual, for Bechet had travelled widely, working in England from 1919, Berlin and Paris in the mid- and late-1920s and in Soviet Russia. Recordings made in America 1923-1925 with the youthful Louis Armstrong – aimed at the black (‘race’) market – had become known in Europe, and are regarded as jazz classics. His influence was more than musical: the English poet Philip Larkin wrote For Sidney Bechet in 1954. A sextet played Bechet’s Blue Horizon at Larkin’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey (The Times, 15 February 1986, p 10).

He first arrived in Britain in mid-June 1919 as a member of a large show band directed by Berlin-educated Will Marion Cook. This Southern Syncopated Orchestra performed in London theatres and halls until Christmas when it played Glasgow and Edinburgh. A programme for 22 December 1919, for Kelvin Hall, Glasgow lists ‘Soprano Saxaphone Solo'[sic] and a clarinet solo, a blues, by Sydney [sic] Bechet.

As black performers were the latest fashion as were American dances and music, members of the Orchestra had offers to work elsewhere but, with variants in the name, the Orchestra continued, reaching Vienna in October 1922. Bechet worked in the Jazz Kings in London from late 1919, and from October 1920 was at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse in west London. An all-white band from New Orleans had played there, and its clarinettist was Larry Shields. A third American clarinettist, Edmund Jenkins from Charleston, South Carolina, had been studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music since 1914 (he also taught the clarinet there) and, in the way of music students, worked in a dance band in central London. Jenkins got to know the Orchestra’s members. Jenkins made several recordings in 1921 – as had Shields in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – whereas Bechet was not recorded until he was back in America in 1923.

The observations of Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, published in October 1919, was the first occasion that a jazz performance was professionally reviewed in print. Bechet’s ‘richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected’ were praised. In other areas Bechet was a liability. He was ‘hot-tempered’ (Scott Yanow, Jazz on Record, 2003 p 128). He also took up opportunities that were dead-ends: a summer 1920 period in Belgium for example. He worked with the slowly expanding number of black bands, and as in the Syncopated Orchestra, with musicians from the West Indies. One was George Clapham, a pianist-composer from St Kitts, and the two men were involved in a dispute with two women in London in September 1922. Bechet and Clapham were sentenced to fourteen days in Brixton prison, with hard labour but Clapham, as a British national was not subject to a deportation order. Bechet was taken from the prison to Southampton and on 3 November 1922 sailed to New York.

Bechet settled in post-war France where he died of cancer in 1959. He was sixty-two.

In November 2014 a blue plaque was unveiled at 27 Conway Street in London, where Bechet had lived in 1922. A crowd of admirers of the man’s music had paid for it, recognition by many of a lifetime’s love of Bechet’s creative talents.

John Chilton, Sidney Bechet. The Wizard of Jazz published in 1987 by Macmillan, and the two volumes of research on the Syncopated Orchestra published under the editorship of Howard Rye Black Music Research Journal Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 are authoritative. Most of Bechet’s recordings have been issued, in various formats and varied locations.