Remembering Sidney Bechet
Next to Josephine Baker, clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet was the most beloved African-American performer in France during the 20th century. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 14, 1897 and died in France on his birthday in 1959.
Bechet traveled to Paris for the first time in 1921 to perform at the Apollo Theater with the Jazz Kings. He met Baker for the first time in 1925, when he returned to France as part of the troupe of La Revue Nègre (The Black Revue). The show opened on October 2nd at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Bechet was the star musician of the show; Baker was the star dancer.
La Revue Nègre went on the road in 1926 and Bechet traveled with the show. He returned to Paris in 1928 to play at the club Les Ambassadeurs with Noble Sissle’s band. He made a brief trip to London and Frankfurt before returning to Paris to play at Chez Florence, a jazz club in the Pigalle district.
On a fateful evening in 1928, Bechet was involved in a shoot-out with banjoist Gilbert “Little Mike” McKendrick outside Chez Florence. Both men were sentenced to 15 months in prison. After serving 11 months of the sentence, Bechet was deported. He returned in 1931 to play briefly with Noble Sissle’s band at Les Ambassadeurs.
Bechet’s popularity in France skyrocketed in May 1949, when he appeared at the International Jazz Festival in Paris. He began playing with Claude Luter and his Orchestra (a French jazz orchestra) that same year and made the first of numerous recordings of “Les Oignons,” his most successful recording. His performances in the fall and winter of 1949 represented the revival of New Orleans jazz in France.
Bechet established permanent residence in France in June 1950. He resumed performing with the Claude Luter Orchestra and began to spend summers performing in Juan-le-Pins on the French Riviera. In 1951, he married a German woman whom he met during his first tour of Europe during the 1920s and settled with her in the Paris suburb of Grigny. He would subsequently take an apartment in Paris.
By 1953, Bechet’s concerts were attracting record crowds. At a free concert that he held at the Olympia Theater in 1955, the crowd that gathered was far larger than the theater could hold and the agitated young fans ended up rioting!
In 1956, Bechet moved to the Paris suburb of Garches with a mistress named Jacqueline and their son, Daniel. The Sidney Bechet Fan Club was founded that year. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1958, his health deteriorated over the subsequent months. He succumbed to the disease on his birthday, May 14th. He died at home in Garches.
By Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the creator of Entrée to Black Paris tours.