Coleman Hawkins

Jul 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Coleman Hawkins1904-1969  Coleman Hawkins was perhaps the most influential saxophone player of all time and was responsible for the instrument’s importance in jazz. He was the first to establish its legitimacy in the genre, and was able to evolve with shifting currents in the music over a 40-year period while maintaining his artistic leadership and distinctive style.

Piano, Cello, Sax

Hawkins was born in 1904 in Saint Joseph, Missouri. His mother was a schoolteacher who also played the organ, and she gave him piano lessons beginning at age five. Hawkins gravitated to the cello two years later, and to the saxophone when he was nine. He was playing professionally by age 12 for school dances and attended high school in Chicago. By his own account, he then studied for two years at Washburn College in Topeka, concentrating on composition and harmony. His familiarity with classical forms would manifest itself in his harmonically sophisticated improvisations as he matured. His choice of instrument was also unusual: at that time, the sax was considered suitable for marching bands, at best, but Hawkins was intent on creating a new sound.

By the spring of 1921, Hawkins was playing with the 12th Street Theater Orchestra in Kansas City. When blues singer Mamie Smith appeared there that summer, she took note of Hawkins and asked him to tour with her group. This brought him to New York City in 1922, where he made his first recordings as a sideman with Smith; to California in 1923; and back to the east coast that year when he left the band. He freelanced in New York with several groups and was noticed by bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Henderson brought him in on recording sessions that summer, and invited Hawkins to join his new band in 1924.

A decade-long relationship resulted, which became the context for Hawkins’ technical development and his emergence as an important soloist. Louis Armstrong joined the band later in 1924, and the influence of the cornetist’s easy-going legato style can be heard in the evolution of Hawkins’ tone. Even as he was doubling on clarinet and bass sax, Hawkins’ prowess on tenor, his forceful sound, and fast vibrato became recognized with recorded solos on tunes like “Stampede” and “Dirty Blues.” The Henderson band played most of the year in New York while touring New England, the midwest, and the south in 1933. By that time, Hawkins was widely viewed as the star of the show; when a planned 1934 tour of England fell through, he left the band and made his own arrangements for what would prove to be an extended European sojourn.

Body & Soul

Hawkins joined British bandleader Jack Hylton in 1934 and toured England as a guest artist with his band. Enjoying great success there, he decided to remain overseas, and began playing the top spots of continental Europe including The Netherlands, Zurich, and Paris. Many of these resulted in recording sessions, including one notable date in Paris with Benny Carter, and Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France; Hawkins’ solos on “Crazy Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose” show him at full overdrive. In 1939, he returned to England for another tour, then sailed back to New York that year.

While Hawkins hadn’t been forgotten by U.S. musicians during his absence, most of them hadn’t heard his European recordings and didn’t know what to expect. Hawkins didn’t disappoint them, putting together a nine-piece band that began performing at Kelly’s Stables on Manhattan’s famed 52nd Street jazz mecca, and which went into the studio that same year. On a take of the tune “Body and Soul,” Hawkins blew two solo choruses that set the standard for tenor sax, a performance that remains iconic to this day. The record sold well and attracted critical attention, thereby elevating Hawkins’ visibility before a mass audience and his reputation among his peers. Some years later, jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson set lyrics to the song and honored Hawkins’ contribution, singing “He was King of the Saxophone.” Down Beat magazine’s readers voted him “Best Tenor Saxophonist” in 1939. He played the top New York venues and toured with a new big band until 1941 when he resumed his small-group work with several ensembles, playing extensively in Chicago and the midwest, and then returning to New York.

The 1940s brought the new sound of bebop. Hawkins was one of the few from the age of Hot Jazz who not only made the transition, but helped to lead it. He hired such pioneers as Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie as part of a quartet, played with a young Miles Davis and modernists Howard McGhee and Oscar Pettiford, and is credited with leading the first official bop recording session in 1944. For the remainder of the decade, he divided his time between these small groups and appearances with the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour coupled with visits to Europe. Hawkins continued developing with bebop, recording with Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, and Milt Jackson, and even recorded the first unaccompanied sax improvisation, “Picasso.”

With the advent of new bop innovations in the 1950s, Hawkins again stayed out front. He appeared at major festivals leading a band with Roy Eldridge, joined major tours in the United States and abroad, and was seen on television on The Tonight Show in 1956 and The Sound of Jazz in 1957, expanding to film appearances into the 1960s. A range of recordings for the Prestige and Impulse labels during this period included one with Duke Ellington, and collaborations with Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Sonny Rollins. Hawkins continued playing Greenwich Village jazz spots with a quartet, but deteriorating health due to alcoholism took its toll. He collapsed during performances twice in 1967, and had to cancel the last leg of a European tour in 1968. His final gig was in Chicago in 1969. Hawkins died that year of liver disease, leaving a legacy that every sax player and jazz fan knows: he was truly the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone.”


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