[Dixielandjazz] Bechet's Main Instrument

ROBERT R. CALDER serapion at btinternet.com
Tue Nov 13 14:49:12 PST 2007

Both Henry Red Allen (see John Chilton's biog of Red)
and Louis Armstrong remembered Bechet playing cornet
in New Orleans, and he seems to have been regarded as
among the best. He did however play a lot of clarinet,
and seems to have had at least as big an influence as
anybody on New Orleans clarinetists, Noone and Dodds
and the rest, not as an older generation teacher but
as just the most gifted among contemporaries. The hard
blues of Dodds and also the full tone of Noone and
Bigard can both be heard in Bechet's clarinet
He found a soprano saxophone in London in 1919, the
original one was bought by the father of Benny Green,
saxophonist and writer. Bechet however played  a lot
of soprano on the 1923 Clarence Williams records, and
in his later years he hardly ever played clarinet. The
British saxophonist and clarinetist Bruce Turner
remembered him refusing both a clarinet and Bruce's
curved soprano one night when the mainspring of his
soprano broke. Other musicians who worked with Bechet
that night remember he actually faked everything that
evening with a broken soprano!!!
It is another old British story, which I heard from
the lips of the late Eddie Lambert, British critic and
author of a book on Dodds, that Lambert one night
asked Bechet why he played soprano all the time rather
than clarinet. Lambert was terrified by Bechet's
response, which was: 'what the [expletives deleted]
has that to do with you?' I have seen the story in
print, but Lambert remembered Bechet's words as much
ruder than would have been printable at the time.
Wall Fawkes, a Bechet stylist whom Bechet admired, and
who worked and recorded with Bechet, later told me
that there was a question of problems with reeds,
which Bechet didn't want to be bothered with. 
Wally himself has latterly stuck with clarinet, though
he did play soprano for a while. 
Incidentally I heard the late Oskar Klein, Austrian
trumpeter in an Armstrong style who liked to play
other horns during a gig, pick up a clarinet which had
been sitting for two or three hours untouched in a
very hot church during a heatwave (September 2006 --
Oskar died suddenly only a few months later aged 75)
and though he made a beautiful big New Orleans sound
the reed just would not pitch accurately. 
Presumably Bechet didn't want to have to deal with
clarinet reed and climate problems and thus gave up
doubling and stayed with soprano. I suppose the
soprano also allowed him to do some trumpet or cornet
things. He did of course record with a trumpet style
of mouthpieced when he played sarrusuphone with
Clarence Williams: a curly contrabass clarinet cum
saxophone with a trumpet mouthpiece rather than a
reed. It's not surprising that nobody else seems to
have tried that horn.       

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