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Sidney Bechet - he treated jazz gently

SIDNEY BECHET belongs among those mythic figures thought of as the ``giants of jazz.'' Born around the turn of the century, the generation including Armstrong, Ellington, Hawkins, and Basie constituted the second wave of the new art form - the fulfillers if not quite the pioneers. They nicknamed themselves royally - the Duke, the Count - and often gallantly affected the swagger of conquerors, even though jazz was ignored by the general public to the extent that Bechet, in his prime, considered quitting and opening a fast-order hash house on Philadelphia's south side. Bechet was described by a fellow musician as dominating the stage like a Caesar, flourishing his soprano saxophone as a monarch would his scepter. He regarded himself as his own legend, and when he wrote his autobiography, ``Treat It Gently,'' he composed rich improvisations on his life as he did on his music. It has remained for the English jazz critic and trumpeter, John Chilton, to sort out the facts from the fancy in a new biography, ``Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz'' (Oxford University Press, $24.95).

Whatever he was in his fallible and erratic private life, Bechet was a master in his music. The soprano saxophone can sound pale and thin, shrinking before other saxophones like a piccolo before a flute. Bechet produced a robust, majestic tone that soared and swooped like an eagle. He had played the cornet as a boy in New Orleans, and he brought the aggressive authority of a brass instrument to his reeds. A man of unpredictable moods, with a soprano sax or less frequently a clarinet in his hands, he sublimated his restlessness and hot temper into quicksilver inventiveness and fire. As the old New Orleans classic had it, didn't he ramble! - up and down the scale in liquid runs, followed by warbling trills, and ending perhaps with an elegant little scooped tone under the coda.

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Bechet was a poet, and a romantic poet at that. Jazz does not contain romanticism easily. The melody turns lush, the beat goes slo-mo. The result is generally neither le jazz hot nor le jazz cool but le jazz syrupy. With his vibrato tone, Bechet lived dangerously on the soft edge - and got away with it. One of his most popular recordings, ``Summertine,'' dives straight into the sweet, honeyed Gershwin mainstream and turns it into the blues, and a swinging blues at that.

Even when he was playing an up-tempo flag-waver like ``China Boy'' or ``Buddy Bolden Stomp,'' Bechet put feeling into it. Even when he was playing a heart-throbber like ``Laura'' or ``Sweet Lorraine,'' he made feet tap.

``People listened and they danced,'' he recalled of his New Orleans days, and that always seemed to him a fair situation for jazz.

During his last years in France, Bechet observed of two musicians in his band that if the fellow with passion only had the beat of his colleague, and vice versa, they would add up to one fine musician. Bechet had both - and certainly did. ``A genius among musicians,'' the Swiss conductor, Ernest Ansermet, exclaimed on first hearing him, recognizing that here was a romantic fully under control.

Bechet once advised a sideman, ``You're trying too hard to tell the whole story of your life every time you take a solo.'' He himself had the simplicity of a good storyteller who knows what to leave out. Nobody ever played a rococo blues, and Bechet was first and last a master of the blues.

In an extended blues solo like ``Blue Horizon,'' Bechet could walk his listener through the valley and somehow come out into the light on the other side. It was not a trick. It was the sum of his gifts. He simply had too much song in him - it burst through his very tone.

The pianist Dick Wellstood once guessed about what was going through the great man's mind as he played. Money worries. Petty lusts. Dreams of going back to Europe. Dark suspicions of a world conspiring against him, and the thought of the knife in his pocket just in case.

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``And when the tune was over,'' Wellstood remembered, ``someone would come up to shake his hand and say, deeply moved, `I can tell from your music that you've had a happy life,' and Sidney would smile and shake his head and answer, `Oh yes ... yes.'''

In a certain sense, someone was right.

A Wednesday and Friday column