The Ovation network periodidcally broadcasts a documentary on the life of Sidney Bechet entitled "Treat It Gentle" a wonderful look on the man frequently touted as the first recorded jazz soloist. Bechet's first recordings preceded those of Louis Armstrong and as soloists they were peers. Armstrong's genius went beyond soloing which result in his being the singular figure in jazz. Bechet, well Bechet was his own worst enemy.
Bechet unlike Armstrong was an extremely difficult personality, temperamental and not averse to violence when it suited him. A mercurial human being alternating between charming and vicious he was still an unbelievable performer. To this day his work on the clarinet and soprano saxophone defies imitiation. The great ones all have a distinct voice on their instruments. Armstrong on the trumpet is a study in virtuosity, foot-stomping rhythm, and a gorgeous warm tone that seems like it should be the only way jazz trumpet should sound. Art Tatum's piano inspired disbelief in his fellow musicians, Fats Waller called him God and the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" has a wonderful scene where Ray Charles walks into a speakeasy and in hushed and awed tones asks "is that Art Tatum playing?" Bechet's tone is energetic but sensual. On fast numbers like "I've Found A New Baby" he wows fellow musicians with his techique, rhythm and fluidity. On slow numbers like "I've Got A Right To Sing The Blues" or "All of Me" he'll seduce you.
Bechet was born in 1897 and recorded throughout the 30s and spent much of his adult life in Paris. LIke many other Jazz luminaires of the early 20th century he was a victim of the institutional racism in the United States that prevented many from subsisting solely as professional musicians let alone accrue any measure of wealth. Jazz recorded in the 70s by such greats as Coltrane and Davis is far more attuned to the sensibilities of the contemporary jazz listener. Indeed, it's fair to say Coltrane and Davis inform the modern jazz listener's sensibility more than any other musicians. Bechet's music is a generation earlier than those two giants and is firmly entrenched in Dixieland, early Swing and New Orleans style jazz.
It takes getting used to as our ears and brain aren't as familiar with that style of play. At the same time as Bechet was pressing his first records, Louis Armstrong was recording the seminal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions. If Armstrong had died after recording those works he'd still be considered the most important jazz musician of the era. However, it is Armstrong's later work recorded throughout the 50s and 60s that gets the most play and is more readily identified with him. Aficionados talk about "West End Blues" or "Heebie Jeebies" but everybody recognizes "Hello Dolly" and "What A Wonderful World."
So the next time you're looking to expand your musical taste (a constant goal for me) see if you can give a listen to some "Best of Sidney Bechet" collection, especially if it has some of the aforementioned earliers tracks.
In a bit.