[4 April 2007]
“But, you know, no music is my music. It’s everybody’s who can feel it. You’re here… well, if there’s music, you feel it—then it’s yours too. You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It’s that way with music too.”
—Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle: An Autobiography
He is widely regarded as a forefather of jazz and a premier soloist. Born in 1897 in New Orleans, he came to musical maturity at an early age in the vibrant and lascivious Storyville District. Although he was adept at multiple instruments, he performed mostly on the clarinet and later popularized the soprano saxophone. Before reaching the age of 20, he had played with cornetist Bunk Johnson and traveled to Chicago with pianist Clarence Williams. By his mid-20s, he had toured abroad, performed with Will Marion Cook in London, and won accolades from Swiss conductor Ernst Ansermet, who called him “an artist of genius”.
His lush tone, wide vibrato, and improvisational creativity influenced a wide range of musicians, from one-time student Johnny Hodges to the thoroughly modern John Coltrane. In his personal life, perhaps because he loved women so much, he married several times and had mistresses on the side. For a brief spell, he “retired” from music and co-ran a tailor shop in Harlem. Though his stature never rose to the level of his peer and rival Louis Armstrong, he was embraced unquestionably in his home-away-from-home of Europe. When he died in 1959, thousands flooded the streets of Paris to pay their respects.
Yet, for all his accomplishments, mishaps, and adventures, Sidney Bechet would likely have preferred a less calculating and exact retelling of his life, such as the one documented in Alan Lewens’ Treat It Gentle.
Titled after Bechet’s posthumous 1960 autobiography, Lewens’ film recounts the musician’s storied life in a similarly colloquial and off-the-cuff manner. Through interviews (with celebrities like Wynton Marsalis and Woody Allen, as well as associates closer to Bechet like former student Bob Wilber and band-mate Claude Luter), performance clips, and narrated selections from his autobiography, the film presents Bechet’s seemingly idiosyncratic life with compassion and acceptance. Though philandering, ego, and violence arguably restrained Bechet from attaining broader acceptance, Lewens treats these vices as jigsaw pieces that complete the puzzle of the man’s accomplishments. By applying his intuitive approach to music to his life (he, like many of his New Orleans peers, was unschooled and seldom used written music), Bechet is rosily rendered as a man greater than the sum of his achievements.
Unfortunately, in presenting Bechet by-the-book, Lewens mostly repeats an existing narrative and offers little revelatory insight. Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center colleague Dr. Michael White go into detail about Bechet’s technical innovations, but mostly reiterate his status in the pantheon of jazz innovators. Luter and trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton channel their youthful awe of the God-like musician, which is more earnest than persuasive. Allen, whose impressive ragtime clarinet skills were well documented in Wild Man Blues, speaks like a humble fan when lauding Bechet’s records and his inability to replicate those performances—as though a hobbyist should be expected to come close to “an artist of genius”.
Lewens attempts to remain true to Bechet’s credo on music (“Oh, I can be mean—I know that,” Bechet is quoted as saying, “But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle”) by allowing a conversation to come forth ‘naturally.’ However, the film’s message sounds familiar and canned: the unsung jazz hero.
Treat It Gentle‘s pitch is disappointing as it fails to truly embrace the musician’s free spirit and broad perspective on music. By trapping Bechet in turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans culture, his influence on and personal identification with a wider field of modern music is completely overlooked. While having the traditional Bechet story in DVD format is a welcome addition, considering the relative dearth of information of the reedist, the content hardly moves the conversation along.
But one senses Bechet would hardly be caught rolling in his grave. In his autobiography, he reflected, “You come into life alone and you go out alone, and you’re going to be alone a lot of time when you’re on this earth—and what tells it all, it’s the music.” Inquiring minds can do their selves the greatest favor and listen to the man’s legacy. A simple bath in the sun will reveal more than any talking head.