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Treat It Gentle 

Take some straight-ahead blues, like maybe "Blue Horizon," and listen to this man play it. Yeah, the music is half-past 2 in the morning and like someone's asked you to walk on down with them to the morgue and identify a body that might be their brother. Or the woman is leaving you for good and she's down the street with her grip in her hands and you're talking low and contrite to get her to change her mind.

And alone, the instrument is carrying your feet and your heart past the animals of the night, and it's persuading you by pain alone -- some of the prettiest pain you ever heard.

That's the way Sidney Bechet played his horn, whether it was the clarinet or the soprano sax and after 40 years of playing, everyone who didn't hate him was a little in love with Sidney Bechet.

He was born on N. Villere Street on May 14, 1897, and baptized in St. Augustine Church, the seventh surviving child of Omar and Josephine Bechet. In his last years, Sidney would write an autobiography -- the most lyrical of all jazzmen's autobiographies -- titled Treat It Gentle, and in it, he told a poetic lie about his slave grandfather wooing his slave grandmother.

Closer to home and accuracy, the boy Sidney once asked his cafe au lait mother why she'd married his dark father. She just laughed and said, "Why, when I saw him dance, I just couldn't help but fall in love with him."

That same mother took little Sidney to the Opera House and played Caruso for him on the gramophone. It created a lifetime love of classical music in the boy, and when he was much older, he liked it when told he resembled Beethoven.

Perhaps his greatest musical disappointment was the flat reception he got for writing ballet music for Night of the Sorcerer. He always longed to be taken "serious."

He started out playing a penny-whistle in a neighborhood band that included future vocal great Lizzie Miles. In later years, he would claim he never had a toy to play with and was a lonely boy who always wanted to write a song titled "Sans Amis."

His musical influences were everywhere and talented. At 9, he claimed he heard the legendary Buddy Bolden in a musical street duel. He hung out at places like St. Catherine's Hall and Des France Amis Hall, where he savored the clarinet work of George Baquet and "Big-Eye" Louis Nelson. Both would later teach him, as did renowned reedman Alphonse Picou and Luis Tio.

He had little patience for teachers, but enormous patience for practice. Even as a star, he would often blow his horn around the house all day. He composed one of his biggest hits, "Petite Fleur," on the john, calling for his wife to bring him his horn.

Yet he never learned to read music and later would disparage many who did as lacking feeling. He compensated with a remarkable musical memory that would usually let him re-play something he'd heard once.

As he grew, he found work playing gigs at Milneburg and a bar called The Alley at St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues. Bunk Johnson heard the youth and was impressed enough to talk Frankie Duson into taking him into the Eagle Band, which played the Storyville district. A whorehouse owner bought him his first suit of clothes; in his prime, Sidney would be a fastidious dresser, though a pupil once noted that, like many New Orleans musicians, Sidney often wore one thing that didn't quite jibe, e.g. a great shirt with gold cufflinks, stickpin and watch -- and a pair of white socks.

By the time he left New Orleans, he had some bad habits to take with him. He was belligerent, especially with drummers. He was drawn to tough guys and for much of his life carried guns or switchblades. But he also became skilled in many instruments, including piano and trumpet, and in an early over-dubbing of "Sheik of Araby" done in 1940, played all six instruments heard.

He aged prematurely, being portly and grey and was called "the old man" even in his late 30s. He usually lied about his age, making himself older when the history of jazz was being discussed, younger when women were involved. He liked to eat and cook, especially Creole dishes. He was a drinker of gin or brandy, but not on the bandstand, where he suffered fools badly. He smoked a little pot, but lots of tobacco.

He was not much for male friendships, but could be very generous to younger musicians -- although one observer noted it was always with "amateurs" or inferiors. He was much more interested in the company of women and likely included such luminaries as Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker among his playmates. He had a long-running affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead, and a protege of his recalled a time when Bechet took him to her hotel. She answered the door naked and the two musicians serenaded her in her bed for an hour and then left.

In 1919, Bechet left New Orleans to go to London with the Will Marion Cook Orchestra. There he discovered the soprano sax, a horn requiring a strong lip and broad vibrato. He became a sensation at the Embassy Hotel, sitting in the middle of the dance floor and playing that soprano sax like it was aflame.

But in 1922, he and another musician got into a brawl with two chippies and he was jailed, then deported; with only one shilling in his pocket, he needed help from the English authorities to get home.

Back in America, he went to New York and hooked up with homeboy Clarence Williams. It was Williams who just recorded Bechet on the Okeh label. Those early Okeh records inspired the likes of Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. The Duke even had Bechet in his band briefly, but had to fire him when Sidney turned up AWOL for five days.

Some of the Okeh recordings included sessions with fellow expatriate Louis Armstrong, including an unforgettable "Cakewalking Babies." Sidney and Satchmo didn't socialize, but they were productively competitive.

Competition stimulated Sidney. Once the sax-man Coleman Hawkins spoke badly of New Orleans players and Bechet challenged him at a Harlem club called Band Box. Bechet blew the Hawk right off the stage and, as Hawkins left, followed him out to the sidewalk, still blowing.

In 1925, Bechet returned to France, where he played in La Revue Negre and then Noble Sissle's band. He played all over Europe, including a long stint in Russia. But it all ended on a Parisian street when Sidney and a banjo-picker sprayed enough wildly-aimed bullets around to wound three bystanders. Bechet was jailed for most of 1929, then deported.

Back in America, Bechet never had much business luck, failing as a club owner, mink farmer and tailor. Once he believed himself to be hexed and sought some hoo-doo exorcism. One of his penitent tasks was to compose music for the 23rd Psalm. He did -- and his luck changed for the better.

His recording of "Summertime," fat and sultry, was the first hit for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label and helped overcome birth pains for what would become jazz's best label.

In 1944, Bechet returned to New Orleans for the first time in a quarter-century to get new teeth from his dentist brother Leonard. The following year he returned to play a Municipal Auditorium concert with Louis Armstrong. One rehearsal ended with Satchmo yelling "I ain't gonna have no two leads in my band."

Bechet never returned home again, though he usually waxed nostalgic about the place: "New Orleans, that was a place where the music was natural as the air. The people was as ready for it like it was sun and rain."

He played around New York for a few years and then moved to France in 1950, where he played mostly with Claude Luter. The old deportee became an idol once again, with boulevards bearing his name and chocolates bearing his image. In 1959, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and he died on May 14 of that year, his 62nd birthday.

In the late 1940s, Bechet often played the New York jazz club Jimmy Ryan's. His drummer there remembered late-at-night sets, the bar empty and Sidney Bechet playing 20-minute blues solos with his eyes closed and his brain far away.

That's the music that men found in this city. Found it and bottled it up and climbed into the bottle with it and they went everywhere together. And everywhere they went, people would call for the genii to come out of the bottle and bring the music of that long-ago city with him. And when the genii was a great one in the way that Sidney Bechet was great, the people listening would find no need to make any additional wishes.

It's a thought for the tens of thousands of people who will shuffle out to the Fair Grounds to Jazz Fest this week. A little thought for the music that gave the Fest its name and its place and for the man who played that music to greatness. A little thought while you wait for New Orleans to again fill with music and you, as ready for it like it was sun and rain.

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