Sidney Bechet’s 117th birthday anniversary was on May 14, Fats Waller’s 110th on May 21, recent datelines that coincide with an anecdote I gleaned from an interview heard two weeks ago in New Orleans. When I visited the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, I asked if they had any recorded interviews with Bechet. Seconds later, with the assistance of Hogan’s Curator Bruce Rayburn and Associate Curator Lynn Abbott, I was seated at a computer and handed a CD with an interview that homed in on events that have always interested me about the great clarinetist and soprano saxophonist.
Bechet appeared on a Tommy Ladnier session under the nom de disque “Pops King” in 1938; it was the first of a trad nature that Bechet and Ladnier had made since The New Orleans Feetwarmers six years earlier. The session, which many credit as a watershed in the traditional jazz revival, was supervised by the outspoken French-born Hughes Panassie, who disliked swing and would come to despise bebop. In the interview, Bechet recalls how dismayed Pannasie was with the drinking that took place on the session and that a row came up between clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow and guitarist Teddy Bunn. Tempers flared between Panassie and RCA executive Eli Oberstein too, but in the midst of the turmoil, Ladnier shouted, “Vive la France!” and the session resumed. One of the date’s most heralded originals, “Really the Blues,” features Bechet and Mezzrow playing the theme on clarinets, and Bechet soloing on soprano. The tune also lent its name to Mezzrow’s sensational, yet essential autobiography.
Bechet discusses working at Nick’s in Greenwich Village (“Green-witch” in his locution) in the late ’30’s with a band that featured the unique instrumentation of two electric guitarists, Leonard Ware and Jimmy Shirley. I was amused to hear him stumbling over Shirley’s name, at one point calling him “Shirley Temple,” with no apparent irony.
He also discusses the one-man band session that he recorded for RCA in 1941, and it’s here that he mentions Fats Waller. The recording featured Bechet multi-tracking the six instruments heard on “The Sheik of Araby,” and the four he played on “Blues for Bechet.” Once the idea was broached by RCA’s John Reid and Bechet agreed to give it a go, he had to spend several months developing proficiency on bass and drums, which he played in addition to soprano and tenor saxes, clarinet, and piano. In the interview, he says he was “afraid” about the task ahead and says it “got on my nerves,” but he remembers the results with pride. The format’s unprecedented nature attracted the attention of the New York press. “It was a great story for the newspapermen,” he recalls. “Every paper had a story about this one-man band.” He adds that the publicity “raised so much hell until the union made the company pay me for a seven-man band!” That put an end to one-man band recordings in New York studios, but Bechet says the royalties he “collected” enabled him to buy a house in Brooklyn in 1945.
Shortly after it was released, Bechet ran into Waller at the Apollo Theater, which he refers to simply as the “Polo,” just as he did in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle. When the pianist congratulated him on the one-man feat, Bechet said it would have benefited from a rehearsal, meaning prep time with the studio engineer. But Fats misunderstood him, and with obvious relish Sidney recalls Waller, “laughing so hard,” exclaiming, “Man, how in the hell you gonna rehearse with yourself?”
Mezzrow spoke of the one-man band in Really the Blues. Imprisoned at the time for dealing marijuana, a sideline he was so renowned for that “Mezz” was slang for reefer, he writes, “Not long before they sprung me, I was lolling around…listening to the radio. We had a record program on, and they began to play “Blues for Bechet,” and then they turned it over and played the other side, “The Sheik of Araby.” I had never heard those two recordings before— they must have been made while I was in jail— and I sat there trembling all over, unable to believe my ears.
“There are six instruments…And all six are played by Bechet! It was an engineering stunt, of course…But if you think it was just a gag and not wonderful music-making…[then] listen to what the critics said later in The Jazz Record Book: ‘Demonstrating the versatility of this self-taught genius, this disc is also an interesting experiment in unity of style…the intonation and intense vibrato characteristic of Bechet’.”
Mezzrow, like Panassie, was a fierce proponent of the traditional jazz revival then in formation, and for him the one-man band epitomized everything that had been right and was now wrong with jazz. “Unity of style is right, brother. I sat there full of flutters and quakes over that unity of style. Those two unbelievable records are two of the greatest New Orleans jazz performances ever recorded, with a perfect blend and balance…and it had to be done by Bechet single-handed! That was the final and most eloquent comment on the level to which our jazz had sunk, in this mechanical swing-band age, organ-grinder riffs, mop-mop and rip-bop; there were so few musicians left around who were still inspired with that New Orleans love of rich melodious invention, spirited teamwork, and weaving counterpoint, that when Bechet wanted a full harmonic and rhythmic background for his preaching, why, he had to supply it himself. Every jazz musician alive ought to hang his head in shame, I thought, to see the great genius of Bechet so isolated that it has to provide its own musical environment, its own lush context.”
Speaking of Bechet and Waller, in 1964 Roland Kirk recorded a tribute to them, and tenor great Don Byas, with Jaki Byard channeling Fats at the piano. Mosaic has just reissued it on an LP collection of Kirk’s Limelight and Verve recordings. Marc Myers wrote about the set last week on JazzWax; click here to read more. I’ve long thought that the church bells heard at the opening of Kirk’s tribute were inspired by Bechet’s widely-reported wedding in Cannes in 1951. 400 guests attended, and thousands of well-wishers showed up to cheer on the Creole legend who’d recently settled in France. What a pity to think this wouldn’t have appealed to Mezz and Pannasie.