by Maggie Burch
In the early twentieth century, France – specifically Paris – was a center of knowledge, cosmopolitanism, and entertainment. For many Americans, Paris represented a change of pace and a foreign culture in which to indulge. For others, it represented an escape – an escape from money troubles, the depression of war, and racial struggles. For many African Americans, Paris became an opportunity to leave the oppression and racism of America, especially that in the South, and go to the city of light, full of opportunity and prosperity. This extremely optimistic idea of what France could offer did realize itself for a few African Americans, most of them artists. Among the many African American artists who found fame in Paris, including Josephine Baker and Dexter Gordon, Sidney Bechet became the most influential African American jazz musician in Paris, and he made his way in France unlike any other.
Sidney Bechet was born in New Orleans on May 14, 1897, to a middle-class Creole family. Bechet’s family heritage is important first because it gave him a background in the French language. Second, Bechet believed that jazz music, France, and Africa all were connected because jazz began with many African influences in the formerly French town of New Orleans. Music was important to Bechet’s family. His father, a shoemaker, played the flute as a hobby, and all four of Sidney’s brothers played musical instruments. Bechet first played the clarinet, but soon fell in love with the soprano saxophone.
In his youth and young adulthood, Sidney Bechet grew in prominence within the United States, playing with different groups and orchestras. He eventually joined Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which toured Europe and settled in London. At some point, he crossed the channel and visited Paris. Tyler Stovall, author of Paris Noir, wrote that Bechet “took an immediate liking to the French capital, beginning an association that would last almost forty years” (37). Bechet returned to Paris for a permanent stay in 1925 when he went with his band to open for Josephine Baker in the Revue Nègre. While Bechet was in Paris the first time, most of the jazz musicians lived in Montmartre and most jazz clubs were located there as well. Stovall says, “[a]lthough by the mid-1920s, many night clubs in Paris featured jazz bands, the ones in Montmartre, especially those owned or managed by African Americans, usually offered the best music, played by black Americans” (Stovall 42). Since Montmartre was the hub of jazz clubs in Paris, the neighborhood was known to be somewhat dangerous late at night, as patrons and musicians left clubs intoxicated.
Bechet was known for his temper, which ended up getting him in enough trouble to cause him to leave Paris. Due to the violence in Montmartre, many musicians carried guns. Bechet himself said, “You could be surer if you had a gun on you” (Bechet 150). One night, Bechet was leaving a club, and was pursued by fellow jazz musician, Mike McKendrick. A small dispute turned into a gunfight in the street that wounded multiple people. The fight was not Bechet’s idea, and he was mad that anyone got hurt. He was arrested shortly thereafter, imprisoned for a year, and then deported from France. Bechet returned to America and lived in New York, recording, composing, and performing. Also while Bechet was out of the country, Stovall points out that “black Montmartre did not survive the war…the center of African American life crossed the Seine to the Left Bank and now thrived in the bustling ancient streets of the Latin Quarter and St.-Germain-des-Près” (131).
Bechet returned to Paris after World War II. Because the United States had such a large impact on France’s liberation at the end of World War II, the French were extremely indebted to America, and Stovall argues that the United States “became once again the object of Parisian fascination” (133). This fascination with American culture by a new generation of French people included jazz music and the culture that surrounded it. When Sidney Bechet returned to Paris in 1949, he returned as a star. He was greeted by a party in his honor at a jazz club on the Champs-Elysées, and then began performing nightly at the Edouard VII Theater. The jazz revival that took place in the 1940s helped create an image of Bechet as “a premiere exponent of the traditional music from his native city, New Orleans” (Stovall 170). Bechet became extremely popular in Paris in the 1950s, selling well over one million records there. Parisians adored his music and created fan clubs, taking his popularity to cult dimensions.
While in Paris, Bechet officiated at the Vieux Colombier, a club in Saint-Germain-des-Près. Bechet collaborated with many musicians, both American and French, but his most successful and most well known collaboration was with French clarinetist Claude Luter. Together, the musicians and friends recorded “Les Oignons,” an extremely popular song, and toured widely throughout France and Europe. During this time, Bechet also rekindled a relationship with Elizabeth Ziegler. Bechet met Ziegler in 1928, during his first stay in Paris, but lost touch with her for over twenty years while he was out of the country. During 1951, while on tour in Algiers, Bechet met Ziegler again. They were married in Cannes in front of a large crowd. However, Bechet soon took up a mistress, Jacqueline Pekaldi, with whom he had a son. Bechet kept up two separate families, and even wrote songs named after both of his women.
Sidney Bechet continued to play into the late 1950s, but he became very sick with lung cancer and died on his 62nd birthday, May 14, 1959, only five months after he gave his last concert. Bechet had an incredible career in Paris; a career he could not have had in the United States. Stovall writes that he “carved out a place for himself in the French capital equaled by no other African American since Josephine Baker” (172). Also like Josephine Baker, Bechet did not enjoy going back to the United States, because there he was still discriminated against, and the prejudices would have prevented his career from succeeding in the way it did. Sidney Bechet died in Paris, proving himself a true expatriate and committing himself to his chosen home.
Music Clip: Les Oignons:
Bechet, Sidney. Treat It Gentle. New York: Da Capo, 1975. Print.
The Sidney Bechet Society, Ltd. Web. Oct. 2010. http://www.sidneybechet.org/.
Stovall, Tyler Edward. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.