I’ve just read Treat It Gentle, the autobiography of Sidney Bechet, one of a handful of jazz’s supreme masters. The book is a holy book. It belongs not just with Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress or the writings of Louis Armstrong, but with Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass. In fact, I’d take it over either of those classics.
There’s a chapter called “Omar” about Bechet’s grandfather that is the most riveting story I’ve ever read, both as a gripping plot as well as a masterfully told tale; Bechet displays a psychological sensitivity you have to rate with Turgenev or Tolstoy. I’m going to write more on this at a later date.
In one episode of Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet runs into a Mexican fellow in New Orleans, and despite the language barrier, they hit it off, because, “He’d got the kind of laugh about him you can’t help wanting to see happen.” The Mexican had no money or home; so after some deep drinking, they try to sneak into Bechet’s brother’s house. A policeman mistakenly believes they’re trying to break in and arrests both of them. Once in the big house, the police savagely attack the Mexican, beating him just this side of death. Bechet later finds out that one of the policemen had had some trouble in a Mexican town and insisted on brutalizing any Mexican he could find. But Bechet didn’t know that at the time and feared he was next. They took him to a cell with other blacks in it. Since Bechet had his clarinet with him, they all started on some blues.
Got a life full of so much punishment, got me a feeling. Come down Jesus.
Oh, why don’t they put God on this earth where you can find him easier?
Though Bechet was already a master at the time, he began to understand the blues afresh: “Oh my God, that was a blues. The way they sang it there, it was something you would send down to earth if it had been given to you to be God. What you’d send to your son in trouble if he was on earth and you was in Heaven.” It’s an understanding very few have reached: the Greek tragedians, the authors of the Gospels, Shakespeare.
“That man there in the grocery store, the Mexican, the jail,” he says later in the book, “they’re all in the music. Whatever kind of thing it was, whenever it happened, the music put it together . . . What it is that takes you out of being just a kid and thinking it’s all adventure, and you find there’s a lesson underneath all that adventure–that lesson, it’s the music. You come into life alone and you go out of it 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. You tell it to the music and the music tells it to you. And then you know about it. You know what it was happened to you.”