Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969), nicknamed "Bean," or simply "Hawk," was the first important tenor saxophonist in jazz. Sometimes called the "father of the tenor sax," Hawkins is one of jazz's most influential and revered soloists. An improviser with an encyclopedic command of chords and harmonies, Hawkins played a formative role over a 40-year (1925-1965) career spanning the emergence of recorded jazz through the swing and bebop eras.
Joining Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1924, Hawkins matured into the leading jazz saxophonist of his generation, establishing a expressive range and tone that freed the instrument from its earlier slap-tongued vaudeville usage. The emergence of bebop, or modern jazz, in the 1940s, demonstrated Hawkins' formidable musicianship and artistic sophistication. Hawkins' landmark "Body and Soul" (1938) is often cited as a turning point in jazz history, enabling jazz innovators such as Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie to explore a new, intellectually and technically demanding jazz vocabulary that emphasized improvisation and harmonic structure over melody.
Hawkins elevated the saxophone from the status of a marching band curiosity to that of the quintessential jazz instrument. While never achieving Louis Armstrong’s popular appeal, Hawkins acquired the status of an elder statesman among his peers.
Coleman Hawkins was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1904. Some early sources say 1901, but there is no evidence to prove such an early date. He was named Coleman after his mother Cordelia's maiden name.
He attended high school in Chicago, then in Topeka, Kansas, at Topeka High School. He later stated that he studied harmony and composition for two years at Washburn College in Topeka while still attending high school. In his youth, he played piano and cello. He started playing saxophone at the age of nine, and by the age of fourteen, he was playing around eastern Kansas.
At the age of 16, in 1921, Hawkins joined Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, with whom he toured through 1923, at which time he settled in New York City.
Hawkins then joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, with whom he played through 1934, occasionally doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. Hawkins joined the band during the brief but decisive tenure of Louis Armstrong, whose hot trumpet revolutionized the band. Hawkins’ style was not directly influenced by Armstrong (their instruments were different and so were their temperaments), but Hawkins’ transformation, which matched that of the band as a whole, is certainly to be credited to Armstrong, his senior by several years. When he first joined Henderson, Hawk’s tenor sounded much like a quacking duck, as did all other saxophone players in the early 20s. Within a short time, the jagged melody lines of his playing changed into a powerful staccato of overwhelming intensity that increasingly came to challenge the supremacy of the other horns. Hawkins became the main asset of a band that was filled with stars.
In 1934, Hawkins suddenly quit Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra and left for Europe, where he spent then next five years. In spite of the opportunities and the star status it had given Hawkins, the Henderson band was on the decline and Hawkins had begun to feel artistically restricted. During the mid to late 1930s, Hawkins toured Europe as a soloist, playing with Jack Hylton and other European bands that were far inferior to those he had known. Occasionally, his playing was affected by a lack of stimulating competition. But Hawkins also had the opportunity to play with first-class artists like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, as well as scores of visiting American jazz players. Even when playing with local bands, he would often produce remarkable solos.
The stay in Europe had another beneficial impact on Hawkins, as it did on other African-American musicians of that time. At home, they remained the object of racial discrimination, whatever their status in the world of music. In Europe, they were not only accepted but enthusiastically welcomed and almost treated like royalty by local jazz fans and aspiring musicians. Hawkins and his colleagues also had the opportunity to experience other aspects of European cultural life. Hawkins testified to this by entitling his groundbreaking 1948 unaccompanied solo, “Picasso.”
With the outbreak of World War II, Hawkins returned to the United States. In 1939, he recorded a seminal jazz solo on the pop standard "Body and Soul," a landmark equivalent to Armstrong's "West End Blues" and likened to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by jazz writer Len Weinstock: "Both were brief, lucid, eloquent and timeless masterpieces, yet tossed off by their authors as as mere ephemera."
The next decade was both one of fulfillment and one of transition. With his style fully matured and free from any affiliation to a particular band, Hawkins made a number of recordings in a variety of settings, both in studio and in concert. Hawkins briefly established a big band that proved commercially unsuccessful. He then mostly worked in a small combo setting (3 to 8 musicians), alongside other stars of classic jazz, such as Earl “Fatha” Hines and Teddy Wilson on piano, “Big Sid” Catlett and “Cozy” Cole on drums, Benny Carter on alto saxophone, and Vic Dickenson and Trummy Young on trombone, to name but a few. He developed a particularly close and lasting working relationship with trumpet great Roy Eldridge, himself a link between the world of swing and that of bebop. These recordings testify to Hawkins’ incredible creativity and improvisational skills, especially when several takes of the same piece recorded on the same day have been preserved (Coleman Hawkins: The Alterative Takes, vol. 1-3, Neatwork, 2001).
But the 40s were also the time when bebop emerged towards the end of World War II, ushering in a more serious, but also more tormented style that would lead to a partial divorce between jazz music and show business. The modern, often dissonant improvisational style would deprive jazz of the broad popular appeal it had enjoyed during the swing era. But a new generation of virtuoso musicians would also establish modern jazz as serious music, not just popular entertainment.
Unlike other jazz greats of the swing era like Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt, whose efforts at adapting to the new idiom were sometimes painful to hear, Hawkins was immediately at ease with the new developments. With the exception of Duke Ellington (and perhaps Mary Lou Williams), no other jazz musician has been able to remain creative from the early days of jazz until the advent of atonal music.
Hawkins led a combo at Kelly's Stables on Manhattan's famed 52nd Street, using Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, and Max Roach as sidemen. He was leader on what is considered the first ever bebop recording session with Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in 1944. Later, he toured with Howard McGhee and recorded with J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, Milt Jackson, and most emerging giants. He also abundantly toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic and kept playing alongside the old (Louis Armstrong) and the new (Charlie Parker).
After 1948, Hawkins divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous freelance recordings, including with Duke Ellington in 1962. In the 1960s, he appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. Hawkins was always inventive and seeking new challenges. Until late in his career, he continued to record with many bebop performers whom he had directly influenced, including Sonny Rollins, who considered him his main influence, and such adventurous musicians as John Coltrane. He also kept performing with more traditional musicians, such as Henry "Red" Allen and Roy Eldridge, with whom he appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
The younger musicians who had been given their first chance by Hawkins and were now the stars of the day often reciprocated by inviting him to their sessions. Beyond that intent to reciprocate, together they produced genuinely great music. After surviving numbers of artistic challenges and making repeated comebacks (not that he had ever really disappeared), Hawkins became somewhat disillusioned with the evolving situation of the recording industry. For this and personal reasons, his life took a downward turn in the late 60s.
As his family life had fallen apart, the solitary Hawkins began to drink heavily and practically stopped eating. He also stopped recording (his last recording was in late 1966). Towards the end of his life, when appearing in concerts, he seemed to be leaning on his instrument for support, yet could nevertheless play brilliantly. He died of pneumonia and liver disease in 1969, and is interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx next to Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and other jazz greats. Coleman Hawkins was one of the first jazzmen to be inducted into the Jazz at the Lincoln Center’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
Hawkins’ playing was inventive and harmonically advanced for his time. Remarkably, Hawkins developed two strikingly different styles concurrently towards the end of the 1930s. He had a soft, rounded, smooth, and incredibly warm sound on slow ballads. On faster, swinging tunes his tone was vibrant, intense and fiery. His collaboration with Ellington, in 1962, displays Hawkins’ classic tone and phrasing as well as anything he ever played, while in the his later years some of Hawkins’ studio recordings came dangerously close to easy listening music, suggesting how the lack of motivation due to life circumstances can make the difference.
It has been often emphasized that Hawkins played along “vertical” harmonic structures, rather than subtle, easy-flowing melodic lines like Lester Young. His mastery of complex harmonies allowed him to penetrate the world of modern jazz as easily, but in a different way from Young’s cool style.
Hawkins’ 1948 unaccompanied solo “Picasso” represents another landmark in his career and in jazz history. The improvisation is perfectly constructed and, though the saxophone alone tends to sound lonely, it easily fills the scene by itself. It is generally considered to be the first unaccompanied sax solo ever recorded, though Hawkins recorded the much lesser known “Hawk’s Variations I & II” earlier, in 1945. On occasion, Hawkins also experimented with other styles, including the Bossa Nova (Desafinado: Bossa Nova and Jazz Samba, 1962) and in sessions accompanied with strings, following the lead of Charlie Parker.
Practically all subsequent tenor players were influenced by Hawkins, with the notable exception of Lester Young. As Hawkins gladly admits, many have developed great sounds of their own, among them Ben Webster and Leon Chu Berry. Some like Don Byas and Lucky Thompson have primarily inherited Hawk’s complex melodic and harmonic structures. Others are more reminiscent of his tone. Sonny Rollins can rightfully claim to be the inheritor of Hawkins’ style in the setting of Hard Bop, though he never wanted to compare himself to his role model. Even Free Jazz tenor Archie Shepp immediately evokes Hawkins by his powerful, large sound. And Hawkins’ influence can also be felt in the play of baritone saxophone player Harry Carney.
Needless to say, Hawkins also remained open to the influence of others, including the much younger musicians he associated with later in life. Directly or indirectly, the two tenor greats of modern jazz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, have in particular left their mark on their master’s style without really altering its basic nature. Hawkins is also known to have listened chiefly to classical music during his off time, which certainly contributed to the maturity of his style.
Hawkins' stature as an artist and innovator is apparent in his overall attitude toward his role as a jazz musician. In The Birth of Bebop, Mark DeVeaux calls Hawkins the “first modernist,” while Sonny Rollins particularly emphasized Hawkins’ great dignity. "So, to me, Coleman’s carriage, a black musician who displayed that kind of pride—and who had the accomplishments to back it up—that was a refutation of the stereotypical images of how black people were portrayed by the larger society.”
According to Rollins, Hawkins' "ballad mastery was part of how he changed the conception of the “hot” jazz player. He changed the minstrel image…. He showed that a black musician could depict all emotions with credibility” (Ultimate Coleman Hawkins, 1998).
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