Expo 1958 was the first World’s Fair following WWII. The theme was ‘a balance sheet for the creation of a more human world’, but given the political antagonisms of the period it is hardly surprising that the Americans and Russians took competitive stances. It is significant that the US was represented musically by several African-American jazz musicians, most notably Sidney Bechet, the grandson of a slave. This forum will explore how music was (mis)used to curb American anxieties about the negative impact of segregation on anti-Communist rhetoric.
It’s clear that France gladly adopted Bechet in his old age, despite his youthful shoot-out in the streets of Montmartre. Ignoring the cold rain that fell in Paris that day, three thousand mourners attended his funeral procession, and the church organist played the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’.
So, if Sidney Bechet’s career represented the roots of jazz in the cultural and racial crucible that was New Orleans in the early 20th Century, and its adaptation to the popular demands of Swing in the US and Europe, what did his involvement in the Brussels 1958 Expo actually mean? He had left America for a foreign country in which he felt closer to home. He was old and at the end of his career. And anyway, why choose Bechet and not a more progressive jazz musician? After all, during the same period, the CIA and the Congress of Cultural Freedom were promoting modern art and literature as an expression of anti-Communist sensibilities.
Clearly, on this occasion, for the American organisers it was more important to present accessible popular entertainment with a homely (and potentially patronising) message, rather than avant garde high art as an overt challenge to socialist realism and repressive regimes. Remember that the US was on the back foot and looking for fitting, cultural distractions on this occasion.
We know some of the tunes that Bechet played, and with whom, because his last complete recording project was the album ‘Brussels Fair 1958’, compiled from live recordings at the Expo during the period July 29 – Aug 3. His band, the All-Stars, comprised five well-established US musicians: Buck Clayton (tpt), Vic Dickenson (tbn), George Wein [Ween] (pno), Arvell Shaw (bs), and Kansas Fields (dms). Their average age was 45, with Bechet the oldest at 61 years old. All were African-Americans apart from Wein, who was also the youngest at 32. Despite his relative youth, Wein was already an influential figure, being Director of the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as fixer for this band and the other jazz musicians playing the Fair.
We might wonder if Ween’s role was as much minder as fixer, since he was better known as an establishment-friendly impresario, rather than as a player. In the recorded introductions of individual band members, which are included on the album, the compere devotes more time to introducing Ween than any of the other musicians, and his own applause for Ween are louder and longer than that of the audience. It’s Ween’s solos that occasionally demonstrate the most advanced harmonic thinking, which sometimes sits uneasily with the rest of the band’s contribution. Nevertheless, Bechet is never daunted or eclipsed, and it’s he who repeatedly injects energy back into the recordings.
Their repertoire was standard, representing music that Bechet had performed since the 1930s. Not all of the recorded tracks feature him as soloist, though the strongest ones do.