In the annals of jazz there is no more strongly polarized musician than Sidney Bechet. A Creole–that is, a descendant of mixed European and African heritage–he came from a class that considered itself superior to pure descendants of African slaves, and yet despite his superior education and comfortable upbringing he was forced by Jim Crow laws into a class he considered beneath himself.
He and other Creole musicians became “persons of colour” after the Civil War as the South was resegregated following the collapse of Republican state governments, and they were excluded from white orchestras and white venues even though they were in many cases classically trained.
As a result, he was steeped in the more emotional music that was played on the “wrong side of town” in New Orleans–the red-light district called “Storyville,” or simply “The District”. The rhythms of the music he learned to play on his clarinet there were looser, and the notes were bluer, bent to places in between the “normal” pitches of the European twelve-tone scale.
And so Bechet’s repertoire, as preserved today, included such gut-bucket songs as “Shake It and Break It,” “Save It, Pretty Mama,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None O’ This Jelly-Roll,” pieces you wouldn’t hear when the conductor motioned for a classical orchestra to begin.
Yet Bechet, like ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin before him, never abandoned his classical aspirations. He moved to France, the country of his white ancestors, in the 1940s, and he lived out the rest of his life there, achieving fame and wealth that would always have remained beyond his grasp in America. He was the first foreigner to sell more than a million records in France, and he became something of an institution there in his golden years in the manner of Louis Armstrong. Bechet was an irascible man all his life, arguing with bandmates and clubowners and spending a year in jail in 1929 after shooting and wounding a man and two women in an argument. “Pops” he was not.
In the 1950s Bechet composed several major orchestral pieces, including “La Colline du Delta” (The Hillside on the Delta), a ballet. It was performed only once in France, without a full orchestration, recorded in a limited edition, and then forgotten until a few years ago when James Ralph of the Oregon Festival of American Music found an out-of-print CD and persuaded the French publisher that held the rights to the work to produce orchestration for it.
The score consists of but twenty minutes of music which must support a too-heavy story line involving the death of Bechet’s grandfather following a romantic entanglement with a fellow slave. No dance notation exists, and so choreographers are free to interpret the music without the burden of representation, as did Toni Pimble when La Colline was performed in Oregon.
We will never know what La Colline could have been in full, just as we will never know what Joplin’s first opera, A Guest of Honor, sounded like. The score to that work is believed to have been impounded by the proprietor of a theatrical boarding house after a member of Joplin’s touring company stole the box office receipts and he could not pay the bill.
We will have to make do with what we have, which is Joplin’s Treemonisha and twenty minutes worth of La Colline, and try to imagine how a native African-American classical music could have developed from such roots.