This might be a short one today, because it’s all about a story I heard once, and it’s a short one at that. But I never use three words when I can get away with ten, so sit down and we’ll begin with a visit to the Bay Area. I was up there for Thanksgiving, and I had my usual lunch with Bob, my lawyer, guide and friend for over forty years. I can’t say enough about Bob, but it’s not about him, so let’s get to the tour.
I hadn’t been in Bob’s home for a long time, and he was showing me around when we got to his den, and the first thing I saw was this big old stand-up record player, and I was stopped cold. He said it was from 1913, and he picked up the lid to show me the 78 rpm disc on the turntable. It was one of my favorite boogie woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, and the song was “Early Morning Blues.” Then he flipped it over and I flipped out: it was Sidney Bechet playing “Viper Mad.”
A Sidney Bechet record! Dude played clarinet and soprano saxophone, and he was so excellent!
Bechet (pronounced Bih-SHAY) was born in New Orleans in 1897 to a musical middle-class creole family, and, self-taught, achieved notice at six playing in his brother’s band; by his teens he was the only player in New Orleans who could share the bandstand with Louis Armstrong without embarrassing himself. Bechet was one of the founders of jazz, but not many know about him, and although everyone recognizes Louis Armstrong as being among the first jazz artists to put their craft on wax, Bechet beat him to the studio by several months. That may seem insignificant now, but at the time it was quite important.
While playing in London, Bechet discovered the straight soprano saxophone
, and quickly developed a style quite unlike his warm, reedy clarinet tone. His saxophone sound has been described as "emotional", "reckless", and "large," using a very broad vibrato, common to some New Orleans clarinetists at the time. Bechet was known for his forceful delivery, well-constructed improvisations, and that distinctive, wide vibrato.
He was as arrogant as he was talented. In 1922 that attitude got him arrested in London for beating up a prostitute, but he did not isolate his anger solely on women, as other players felt his wrath if he didn’t think they were playing up to his standard. After serving almost a year in a London jail, he was deported back to New York, where he got off the boat and went to Harlem (naturally), where sat in with a band before confronting saxophonist Coleman Hawkins for his disparaging remarks about New Orleans musicians, playing so fiercely in Hawkins’ direction that Hawkins ran off the bandstand, out of the building and down the street, with Bechet right behind him, blowing his soprano saxophone at him all the while.
I hope you’re intrigued by this relatively unknown jazz giant, but I will never forget the story that endeared him to me instantly and eternally. Because I love passion.
Everyone might have their own definition of art, but there had better be passion in there, or what you got ain’t art. To me, art is passion coupled with vision and technique. If you have one or two but not the third, it might be good, but it won’t be art. And Sidney Bechet had all of those in spades. He knew it and he demanded it in others. If you hadn’t mastered your axe, Bechet wouldn’t play with you. And yes, he could be an ass about it. You can hear his passion and technique in his recordings, but what sold me on his passion happened early one morning in 1929, in a small club in Paris. The one in France.
He was playing with a group he’d gigged with before, and all were up to his exacting standards.
The night wore down, the late set was over, and they were packing up their gear when the piano player told Bechet not to worry about that clam, that bad note. “What clam?” demanded Bechet!
The player told him where, in which song, he’d played the bad note, and Bechet went ballistic. He said “Sidney Bechet does not make mistakes
!” The other guy said he’d heard it, ‘but not to worry about it,’ that the band had passed over it, and it was over. ‘Just don’t worry about it.’ Bechet was incensed, denied making a mistake again, and the guy said something like, ‘Well, I heard it,’ and Bechet exploded, called him a nasty name and challenged him to a duel.
Now, you have to give it to Mr. Bechet for passion, but passion and clear thinking are frequently at opposite ends of how things turn out, and despite cooler heads trying to prevail, rather than repairing to the traditional country field at dawn to play out this madness, Bechet and his newest mortal foe repaired to the middle of the street in the middle of Paris in the middle of the morning rush hour. When all was ready and all pleas for reason were exhausted, the two men stepped into the street, turned their backs to each other and paced the agree-upon number of paces. Bechet turned to his opponent and shot, and reports thereafter differ. One witness has him wounding a bystander in the shoulder, another has him wounding three people, but both reports say the piano player was left unharmed. Now, c’mon! The dude! He’s the Dude! The dude played like a champion and cared so much about his art that he went out to face death for his it. C’mon!
I mean… C’mon!
Whatever the result, the French authorities expressed their disapproval of dueling in downtown Paris by arresting Bechet. Once again he spent less than a year in jail before—once again—being deported back to New York, this time just after the stock market crash of 1929, when, needing work, he joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, with whom he plays on “Viper Mad,” and with whom he toured Europe, playing dates in Germany and Russia, but not England or France.
Sidney Bechet was a musical genius, a megalomaniac, and a man with a violent temper. His erratic temperament hampered his career, and despite his talent, it would not be until the late 1940’s that he earned wide acclaim, even in Paris. With special permission, in 1950 Bechet performed as a soloist at the Paris Jazz Fair, where his performance resulted in a surge in his popularity there. After that performance, the French government relented and Bechet relocated to Paris and thereafter had little problem finding well-paid work in France.
Shortly before his death, Bechet dictated his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, to Al Rose, a record producer and radio host who had worked with Bechet several times. Rose thought Bechet's view of himself in his autobiography was starkly different from the man he knew. "The kindly old gentleman in his book was filled with charity and compassion. The one I knew was self-centered, cold, and capable of the most atrocious cruelty, especially toward women."
Sidney Bechet died near Paris from lung cancer on May 14, 1959, on his 62nd birthday.
Well, I told you this was going to be a short piece, and it wasn’t. I told you what I wanted to tell you, and now, if you haven’t gone there already, I’ll turn you over to Mssrs. Ammons and Bechet and their respective recordings—the ones on Bob’s record—after which you may read the lyrics to “Viper Mad.” Peace out.
Early Morning Blues:
(By the way, back in the day, a viper was a drug user. “Viper Mad” was about pot.)
Just viper mad to have my fun
I’m never sad, it can’t be done
The people talking but I don’t care
I’m 21, far from done, I’ve just begun
Wrap your chops around this stick of tea
Blow this gage and get high with me
Good tea is my weakness
And I now it’s bad
It sends me, gate, and I can’t wait
I’m viper mad
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE
about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101
. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.