Sidney Bechet is considered by some jazz experts to be the greatest soprano saxophonist ever and he was equally adept with the clarinet as well. Bechet was also a hothead who had legal issues that would eventually plague his career.
Bechet was born May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, La. As a member of a middle-class Creole family, Bechet had access to music and culture. An older brother who was dentist and part-time bandleader served as an early inspiration, and Bechet took to the clarinet as a boy. By the age of 13, Bechet was a full-fledged musician although his parents frowned upon as a career choice.
As an adult, Bechet traveled to Europe and discovered the saxophone while in London. Bechet’s playing style was innovative, and he became known for his signature wails and aggressive playing style. This made him a virtual star across Europe, but living across the pond wasn’t a cakewalk.
Legal issues began to mount due to Bechet’s alleged mistreatment of women and his overall bad attitude. He was convicted of assault in 1922, and was deported back to the States. But Bechet resumed his career returning to Europe and touring around the globe.
In 1930, (some accounts say 1928) Bechet faced another major legal setback. The details are murky and have never been officially confirmed but historians say a shootout took place between Bechet and banjoist Gilbert “Little Mike” McKenzie. Apparently, during a set, McKenzie accused Bechet of playing an incorrect chord. This prompted Bechet to challenge McKenzie to a gun duel which left a woman and another musician injured.
Bechet was jailed for 10 months and deported to New York, but returned to Europe eventually. In 1949, Bechet garnered even more accolades after playing alongside Charlie Parker at the International Jazz Festival in Paris.
However, his career slowed considerably when he permanently relocated to France. Lung cancer and it affected his playing and that, along with his notorious temperament slowed his bookings.
Bechet died in 1959 at the age of 62 while living in France.