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.




Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.