the beauty of bechet


sax moans river strong

spurting song into the sea

of our aroused souls


the cornet and its first cousin the trumpet were the first solo instruments of jazz, the first horns to carry the tone of defiance, slicing the air with the gleaming sassiness of a straight razor wielded with expert precision on someone who was dead but didn’t know it yet (the hit was so quick that the head fell off before the body knew it had been cut). these brass siblings were the hot horns that caught the feel of august in the sun, a hundred-pound sack shading the curve of your aching back. especially the trumpet with its ringing blare which could be heard cross the river on a slow day when somebody in algiers was practicing while a bunch of other bodies was sweating, toting barrels and lifting bales on the eastbank riverfront.


the second brass voice was the nasty trombone. you stuck stuff up its filthy bell. it was not loud but was indeed very lewd. a toilet plunger its regular accessory. of course you had drums and some sort of harmony instrument, a string bass where available, a tuba, sousaphone, banjo or even a piano in certain joints.


now the reed of choice was the clarinet. long. slender. difficult to master. the snakelike black reed. and that was the basis of your early jass bands.


everybody had a part. bechet was a clarinetist. an excellent clarinetist. extraordinary even. but no matter how well he sucked on that licorice stick he could never get it up the way he wanted it. get it to make the sound inside bechet’s head. until he heard the sound of the soprano saxophone. the fingering was similar so he was familiar with covering and uncovering the holes. familiar with the right stiffness of reed and the just tough enough strength of embrochure. what the soprano saxophone did was enable him to challenge the trumpet—just ask louie armstrong or give a listen to clarence williams and his blue five when bechet and louie took turns walking them jazz babies on home.


this mytho-poetic orpheus sired by omer soaked his reeds in mississippi muck and washed down the horn’s bell in bayou goo.


what bechet did was press the humidity of crescent city summers into every quivering note he played with a vibrato so pronouced it sounded like a foreign dialect.


what bechet did was alter the course of history, the clarinet faded after bechet switched and the saxophone became the great horn of jazz. sure there were a couple of great trumpets in years to come (little jazz, fats, dizzy, brownie, and, of course, miles) but none of them turned the music around like the saxophonists did, like bechet, like bird, like trane not to mention hodges, hawkins and the prez, and the list can go on and on. the point here is that bechet was the one, the first, the progenitor of a royal succession that is all but synonymous with jazz as an instrumental music.


and what was even more incredible back in the twenties and thirties was bechet’s sense of africa as source and blues people as the funnel through which the source sound was poured. bechet speaks of that specifically. in bechet’s autobiography he goes on for pages (pgs. 6-44 out of 219 pages of text) talking about his grandfather who danced in congo square, overlaying the legendary bras coupe (a runaway, maroon warrior of the early 1800s) story onto the life story of his grandfather handed down to bechet through bechet’s father, thereby insuring that the statement of resistance was made, the resistance that fuels the internal integrity of our music.


bechet was an early african american griot. one of the first to consciously understand the music he played so well. to articulate the ancestral worship implicit in the call and response. or as bechet describes the music: “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them.” in brasil they call this feeling “saudade,” this longing to be whole again, this we know that we were whole once and with all our being quiver with an anxiety, an almost unbearable longing, to be whole again, this hope—dare i say this optimism colored by the reality of the blues—that, yes, someday, someway, we will be whole in some soon come future.


like a mighty river which never ceases to flow and which has seen it all before, bechet’s sound was an ever unfurling cornucopia of lyric delight, its alluvial melodies inundating us, fertilizing our spirits, rendering us both funky and fecund.


bechet’s music was brazen, was brilliant, was growling sun bold. startling in its intensity. powerful in its keening. knowing—he was a philosopher of sorrow, was both intimate with hurt as well as on a first-name speaking terms with joy. while life had its ups and downs, bechet played it hard at both extremes and always with a sparkle of hope shining irrepressibly behind and through whatever tears temporarily clouded his eye.


all of that, all of his life, his individual self and his people’s birthright, all was played through the bell of bechet’s horn, so strong and unmistakable. unmissable. one listen and you got it. the force hit you. you felt it. bechet. bechet. he seemed to be that special sound you had been waiting all your life to hear.


—kalamu ya salaam