There’s no sound in jazz quite like Coleman Hawkins‘ distinctive tenor saxophone with its softly quivering vibrato. Indeed, his horn’s seductively warm, breathy tone can convey intimacy and romance but also possesses a rugged lyricism and exudes a lively, hard-swinging athleticism; qualities that became pre-requisites for the legion of saxophone players that followed in Hawkins’ wake and were influenced by his innovations – everyone from Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
But more than his sound, it was what Hawkins, a mustachioed musician who had a penchant for wearing a trilby, did with the saxophone that put him into the history books. Together with another early saxophone innovator, soprano specialist Sidney Bechet, he established the instrument as a viable vehicle for extended improvisation. When Hawkins released an instrumental recording of the standard “Body & Soul” in 1939, it sent shockwaves through the jazz world because it consisted of something that had never been attempted before on record; a three-minute extemporized saxophone solo that only briefly alluded to the song’s notated theme. Coleman’s 78 rpm recording, though clocking in it at just over three minutes, changed jazz forever.
Coleman Hawkins didn’t invent the saxophone, of course, but he was responsible for creating the concept of the modern saxophone player as a star soloist. Before Hawkins arrived on the scene in the late 1920s, the saxophone – patented by its inventor, Belgian musician Adolphe Sax in 1846 – was deemed a novelty instrument. It had been used occasionally in classical music – the 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz was partial to its resonant sound – but in popular music prior to 1925, the saxophone was rarely heard. When it was used, it was employed mainly to supply low-frequency mooing noises and comic, flatulence-like sound effects. In short, it wasn’t taken seriously. And there certainly wasn’t a lineage of great players who could be role models to younger, aspiring musicians. Coleman Hawkins permanently changed the perception of the saxophone; from one of ridicule to intense desirability.
The sideman years
Coleman Randolph Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, a city in Missouri, in 1904 and his early interest in music led him to play both the piano and cello as a youngster before he gravitated to the saxophone at the age of nine. As a high school teenager, he also enrolled at Washburn College in Topeka to study harmony and composition. Around the same time, he started playing gigs around Kansas, and in 1921 at the age of 17, his music career received a major boost when he got a job playing in The Jazz Hounds, the band that accompanied the noted vaudeville singer, Mamie Smith, who a year earlier had scored a big hit with the million-selling song “Crazy Blues.”
Hawkins, who acquired two nicknames, “Hawk” and “Bean,” honed his skills in Smith’s band for a year, then moved to New York City in 1923 where he was offered a job by Fletcher Henderson, then one of the most significant bandleaders of the US jazz scene. During his 11-year tenure with Henderson – where he also played clarinet and the largely unfashionable bass saxophone – he appeared on “The Stampede,” a popular, high-energy dance number that allowed him to show off his tenor skills via a rangy 34-second solo spot.
Hawkins’ sensitivity as a ballad player was evidenced by his fluid, almost lyrical playing on a slow, processional march called “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,” which he recorded in 1929 as part of the Mound City Blue Blowers, a St. Louis ensemble formed by comb player Red McKenzie and banjoist Jack Bland. What was truly remarkable about the record was that it marked a rare coming together of both white and Black musicians, a rare occurrence at that time.
Coleman Hawkins in the 1930s and 40s
Though he stayed with Henderson until 1934, and also had a five-year spell living in London and touring Europe with the Jack Hylton Orchestra, Coleman Hawkins’ growing renown as a saxophone phenomenon inevitably led him to make records under his own name. After returning to America in 1939, he recorded what was considered not only the defining work of his career but one that also signposted the future direction of jazz via improvisation within a small group context. The record was “Body & Soul,” a show tune that Louis Armstrong had recorded in 1930. But unlike Armstrong, Coleman – who had frequently played the piece as an encore during his European sojourn – all but dispensed with the contours of the song’s original melody and instead embroidered an imaginative set of melodic variations.
Coming at the pinnacle of the big band era, “Body & Soul” was something of an anomaly; although it was credited to Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra, the sparse arrangement possessed the intimacy of a much smaller ensemble – and the way Hawkins improvised freely over its chord changes foreshadowed the melodic and harmonic progressiveness of bebop.
Hawkins became curious about bebop, the musical revolution initiated by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that shook up jazz in the mid-1940s. In fact, Hawkins was responsible for bringing about one of the first bebop recordings in the shape of 1944’s “Woodyn’ You,” a jaunty Gillespie tune that featured its composer playing trumpet in Hawkins’ orchestra alongside fellow beboppers Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach.
At the same time, Hawkins was still considered the doyen of swing, as the single “The Man I Love” showed; a bouncy cover of a George Gershwin number recorded by the Coleman Hawkins Swing Four featuring pianist Eddie Heywood, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Shelly Manne. Hawkins’ sax isn’t heard until well over two minutes into the song but, on his arrival, he produces a beautifully mellifluous improvisation that changes the character of the piece.
Hawkins was even more audacious in 1948, making history by recording an unaccompanied saxophone improvisation called “Picasso”; no one knows if it was intended as a musical etching of the famous Spanish painter or a self-portrait (the jazz producer Harry Lim famously dubbed Hawkins “the Picasso of jazz”).
Building a catalog in the 50s and 60s
The arrival of the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record in 1948 liberated jazz musicians from the tyranny of the three-minute single, allowing them to indulge in longer performances that were more in step with how they played in a live setting. Coleman Hawkins’ career blossomed in the LP era, especially in the 1950s when he was prolific, recording for a plethora of different record companies, including Decca, Capitol, Riverside, and Verve. He also enjoyed a short stint at RCA Victor in 1956 which yielded the classic LP, The Hawk In Hi-Fi, where his husky saxophone was framed by Billy Byers & His Orchestra’s widescreen arrangements and stood out on “The Bean Stalks Again,” an infectious slice of irresistible jazz swing.
The same year, Hawkins recorded a stunning version of the jazz standard “April In Paris,” making the song his own by imbuing it with a smoky feel that he created by accentuating his horn’s tremulous vibrato sound.
In 1957, Hawkins briefly signed with Riverside, which resulted in The Hawk Flies High, where his sidemen included several bebop-influenced musicians; among them pianist Hank Jones and trombonist J. J. Johnson, both relative youngsters compared with 53-year-old Hawkins. Nevertheless, the meeting between the venerable old master and the fearless young lions proved a noteworthy one. The nine-minute self-penned “Sancticity” was an epic toe-tapping swing workout that gave Hawkins the freedom to contribute a long, improvised solo while “Laura” – a 1940s pop song co-written by Johnny Mercer – allowed the saxophonist to express his musical sensitivity with delicately spun melodic lines.
On 1959’s “Through For The Night,” a mid-tempo blues taken from the Prestige LP Hawk Eyes, Hawkins played with the kind of unbridled passion associated with the hard bop style, then the prevalent idiom in jazz; and on another Prestige LP, Soul, he showed a delicate touch on a plangent rendition of the 16th-century traditional English melody, “Greensleeves.”
Though he could play with both fire and power, Hawkins’ ability to create tender musical moments was evidenced by the superb 1961 LP, The Hawk Relaxes, which produced a delightful take on the popular 1930s song “Moonglow” and a masterful interpretation of the ballad, “Under A Blanket Of Blue.” His supporting musicians included three youngsters who would go on to become legends in their own right; guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Andrew Cyrille.
Hawkins’ adaptability – arguably the key to his longevity – saw him turn to the bossa nova style in the 1960s when the new sound from Brazil began attracting American listeners. He devoted a complete album to the phenomenon and its Antonio Carlos Jobim-penned title song “Desafinado” showed how the veteran saxophonist, then 59, could sound fluent in a new musical language.
Coleman Hawkins’ key collaborations
Throughout the later stages of his career, Coleman Hawkins was a prolific collaborator; in the 50s and 60s there were duels with fellow hornblowers, like tenor saxophonist Eddie Lockjaw Davis, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Clark Terry, as well as musical comings-together with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and guitarist Kenny Burrell. But the collaboration that Hawkins valued most was his extraordinary 1962 summit with a jazz aristocrat which produced the classic Impulse! LP Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins. “I am very glad we were able to make the album together,” wrote Ellington in his 1973 memoir, Music Is My Mistress. “Coleman Hawkins was one of the real masters of the tenor saxophone.” Among the album’s highlights was “Limbo Jazz,” a jaunty Caribbean-tinged number with an earthy flavor and a sublime rendering of the Ellington evergreen, “Mood Indigo.”
Hawkins also enjoyed several fruitful studio alliances with another jazz giant; fellow tenorist, Ben Webster. Their 1959 Verve album, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster, is considered a masterclass in tenor saxophone playing and contained the percussion-propelled “La Rosita,” a haunting Latin melody with bluesy inflections that evolved into a swing number. An outtake from the same session was “Cocktails For Two,” where Oscar Peterson provided tinkling piano. “The session with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster was of monumental importance to me, not only as a person but as a player,” remembered the Canadian pianist in 1994. “I sat and watched these two behemoths of the music world jostling with each other for position.”
Another jazz deity with whom Hawkins collaborated was a surprising one, perhaps; the idiosyncratic composer/pianist, Thelonious Monk, who was considered a leading avant-garde figure when “Hawk” guested on “Ruby My Dear” from Monk’s Music, a 1957 album that also featured John Coltrane; unflustered by Monk’s notoriously tricky chord changes, Hawkins navigated his way through the piece with an insouciant yet soulful aplomb.
Another stunning collab is a reworking of the standard “Yesterdays,” taken from a 1963 album called Sonny Meets Hawk; a face-off between 59-year-old Hawkins and 33-year-old Sonny Rollins, a phenomenal improviser dubbed the “Saxophone Colossus.” Their encounter is good-natured rather than a harshly competitive one and defined by mutual respect.
Six years after his meeting with Rollins, Hawkins was dead; a hard drinker, he succumbed to liver disease at the age of 64. But in the five decades he was musically active, he proved to be a true pioneer: A bona fide revolutionary who gave the saxophone its unique voice. The rich legacy of recordings he left behind bridged the swing and bebop eras and helped to shape jazz as we know it today.