On Jan. 7, we learned the City of New Orleans tore down the childhood home of jazz great Sidney Bechet. The news disappointed preservationists and jazz enthusiasts, who believed the blighted house should’ve been restored and designated an historical landmark.
The AP reported:
Jazz lovers worry that the zeal to “renew” New Orleans is threatening what’s left [of jazz history].
Since taking office last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said he wants to eliminate 10,000 blighted properties in three years. The Bechet house, which had been occupied until Katrina hit, was one of them.
“This building was in imminent danger of collapse. The roof had caved in,” said Jeff Hebert, the city’s new “blight czar.”
He said the city was unaware of the house’s historic significance, but that he had no regret in tearing it down.
If Hebert were more knowledgeable about Bechet’s life story, he might have turned the tables on his critics. Hebert could’ve said: Sure, many regard Bechet as a huge jazz talent and other-worldly soloist, but were you aware that his love for musical performance had unwholesome origins? According to biographer John Chilton:
Sidney’s desire to play music like his brothers made itself clear when he was little more than a toddler. One of his earliest memories was of finding a douche that belonged to his mother and attempting to blow the nozzle of it like a clarinet. This innocent experiment provided his parents with shocked amusement, but it also made them well aware of their youngest child’s ambitions. They bought him a small fife, and soon all of the neighbours were introduced to the sound of Sidney’s diligent practice.
Is this really a part of jazz history that we need to memorialize?
Further, Hebert could have asked why New Orleans should even bother preserving the property of a troublemaker such as Bechet, who had so little regard for other people’s property during his lifetime. Exhibit A would be this news story from 1956 titled “Bechet Causes Stampede” (source: Nov. 1956 issue of Black Chronicle):
TOULOUSE, France, Feb. 25, 1956 — Clarinet wizard Sidney Bechet “blew them all away” here last week, creating such a frenzy among 1200 teenage hep-cats that they nearly tore the concert hall apart piece by piece.
The veteran New Orleans jazzman was smoking with Dixieland favorites for more than 90 minutes. When Bechet blew himself out of breath, the crowd thundered for an encore. He failed to reappear, and they streamed outdoors, tearing down everything in sight.
Police arrived just as the crowd, shouting for more music, stampeded back into the theater. The management turned off the heat and the building got so cold the fans left.
Recently there’s been lot of debate about the dangers of incendiary political rhetoric. Yet, nobody has even mentioned the dangers of incendiary jazz. The New Orleans blight czar had a chance to inject this point into the national conversation, and remind everyone that now is a time for respectful discourse, not inflamed improvisation. Why should New Orleans endorse a Pied Piper who riled up 1,200 “hepcats” into a frenzied throng, only to deprive them of their encore “fix.” It’s inevitable that they’d unleash their energies in violent fashion, destroying private property and disturbing neighborhood sensibilities.
The brute fact is this: Bechet incited one of the worst jazz riots of all time. His soprano saxophone was the smoking gun.
Unfortunately, our blight czar missed an opportunity to stand tall against woodwind terrorism. He should’ve told his critics that the new New Orleans will not have monuments to Bechet’s provocative musicianship, and that the violent destruction of Bechet’s old home is perhaps the most fitting “tribute” to this jazz provocateur.