Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 95 - Sidney Bechet Married in Cleveland
I have never seen it mentioned in any biographies, but now, there is new information that Sidney Bechet, the all-time master of the soprano saxophone and one of the true legends of jazz – was once married in Cleveland.
It was very early in his long music career. Bechet, who was born in New Orleans and played as a teenager with a variety of early New Orleans bands, began a life-long obsession with wandering. At the age of 17, he left New Orleans with pianists Clarence Williams and Louis Wade to play in shows in Texas. He returned briefly to New Orleans to play clarinet with the King Oliver band. In 1917, the Secretary of the Navy issued an order that effectively shut down the sporting section of New Orleans known as Storyville where many of the early jazz musicians were employed. That secretary of the Navy was Clevelander Newton D. Baker. The closing of Storyville sent many New Orleans musicians scrambling north, looking for work. Among them was 20 year old Sidney Bechet.
In his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, Bechet said, "I wanted to see places, so I joined up with the Bruce and Bruce Stock Company and we set off on a very big tour." The small jazz group performed at theatres on the black vaudeville circuit in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Ohio. They played at the Washington Theatre in Indianapolis, according to an article in the February 2nd, 1918 edition of the Indianapolis Freeman, and then the February 9th edition said they would perform at the Grand Central Theatre in Cleveland.
A little over a week later, while he was in Cleveland, Bechet married a young woman who lived on Central Avenue. Paul Klein of Cleveland Heights discovered the marriage license at the Cuyahoga County Archives on Franklin Avenue. Dated February 18th, 1918, it is in volume 108, on page 189. On the form, the name listed is "Sidney Bachet." It gives his age as 21, (he was actually a few months short of 21). Bechet listed his place of birth as "New Orleans," his occupation as "musician," and his parents as "Omar and Josephine Mitchell Bechet." Despite the misspelling of his name (apparently by a clerk), all of the information matches what we know about the legendary jazz musician.
According to the marriage license, Bechet was married on February 18th, 1918 by Justice of the Peace W. J. Zoul to 22 year old Norma Hale, who was born in Oklahoma. Zoul was a longtime justice of the peace in Cleveland. The form listed Bechet’s address as 3658 Central Avenue, Cleveland, and Norma Hale’s address as 3615 Central Avenue, just across the street.
Nowhere in his autobiography does Bechet mention his marriage in Cleveland. Nor is there any reference to it in John Chilton’s book about Bechet, The Wizard of Jazz.
Bechet apparently did not stay in Cleveland very long. By the fall of 1918, he was in Chicago playing with former New Orleans musicians Freddy Keppard and Minor Hall, and pianist Lil Hardin, who would later marry Louis Armstrong. In 1919 in Chicago, bandleader Noble Sissle, whose father was the pastor of Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, heard Bechet playing and auditioned him for his orchestra. Sissle remembered, "Bechet pulled half of his clarinet from his right coat pocket, half from the left, and his mouthpiece from the inside coat pocket." According to Sissle, "The instrument’s keys were held together with tape and rubber bands." But, with the dilapidated instrument, Bechet played a spectacular audition and joined Sissle’s band despite the fact that he could not read music.
But, a short time later, the clarinetist who loved to wander got a better offer. Will Marion Cook, who had studied at Oberlin College, was about to take his large concert band, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, to Europe and hired Bechet to go with them. The band was a big hit in London not long after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first played there. It was in London that Bechet first purchased and learned to play a straight soprano saxophone, his primary instrument for the rest of his life. In England, he was hailed as "an extraordinary virtuoso." He left Cook’s band and played for about three years in England and France before getting in trouble with the law. He was involved in a shooting incident and ordered deported.
When Bechet returned to the United States aboard the steamship The Finland, the manifest listed his last place of residence as "Chicago, Illinois" and his marital status as "married." But, a search of Ellis Island records disclosed absolutely no listing for Norma Hale Bechet, the woman he had married in Cleveland four years earlier.
Back in the U.S. Bechet played for about three months with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and made a series of recordings with Louis Armstrong.
He went back to France and became involved in another shooting incident. This time, he spent 11 months in a French jail. In his autobiography, Bechet admitted, "When I get mean, I can be powerful mean." When he was released from jail in 1929, he got a wire from Sissle, asking Bechet to rejoin his band.
Bechet spent most of the 1930s playing and touring with the Noble Sissle Orchestra. It was during this period that he married again. His second wife was an actress named Marie Luise Bechet, who was in a 1939 motion picture, Moon Over Harlem. Sidney appeared briefly in the opening scene.
In 1949, Bechet returned to Europe and decided to live permanently in France. In 1951, he married for the third time -- a German woman named Elizabeth Ziegler. They separated a few years later. Bechet lived out his final years in France and died on his 62nd birthday, May 14, 1959, in Paris.
In his autobiography, written shortly before his death, Bechet referred only briefly to one of his marriages, but described in some detail several affairs, including one with blues singer Bessie Smith. We have no idea how long he continued his marriage with Norma Hale, the woman he married in Cleveland in 1918. Nor do we know what happened to her.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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