Sidney Bechet: Treat It Gentle [DVD]

For all his accomplishments, mishaps, and adventures, Sidney Bechet would likely have preferred a less calculating and exact retelling of his life.

Sidney Bechet

Treat It Gentle

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Kultur
US Release Date: 2007-02-27
"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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.