The American jazz musician Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) transformed the tenor saxophone from a comic novelty into jazz's glamour instrument. He was one of the music's all-time preeminent instrumental voices.
Coleman Hawkins was born on November 21, 1904, in St. Joseph, Missouri. His mother, an organist, taught him piano when he was 5; at 7, he studied cello; and for his 9th birthday he received a tenor saxophone. By the age of 12 he was performing professionally at school dances; he attended high school in Chicago, then studied harmony and composition for two years at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas.
His first regular job, in 1921, was with singer Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, and he made his first recording with them in 1922. Based in Kansas City, the band played the major midwestern and eastern cities, including New York, where in 1923 he guest recorded with the famous Fletcher Henderson Band. A year later he officially joined Henderson's band and remained with it until 1934.
The first half of his tenure with Henderson served as a valuable apprenticeship, and by 1929, inspired by Louis Armstrong's improvisational concepts, Hawkins had developed the hallmarks of his mature style—a very large tone, a heavy vibrato, and a swaggering attack. Hitherto the tenor saxophone had been regarded as a novelty instrument serving chiefly for rhythmic emphasis (achieved by a slap-tonguing technique) or for bottoming out a chord in the ensemble, but not as a serious instrument and certainly not as a serious solo instrument. Hawkins' artistry singlehandedly altered its status.
Fame on Two Continents
The Henderson band played primarily in New York's Roseland Ballroom, but also in Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, and made frequent junkets to New England and the Midwest. As a result, Hawkins' fame grew as much from public appearances as from his showcase features on Henderson's recordings. When he finally left the band, he was a star.
From 1934 to 1939 Hawkins lived in Europe. He was guest soloist with the celebrated Jack Hylton Band in England, free-lanced on the Continent, and participated in a number of all-star recording sessions, the most famous of which was a 1937 get-together with the legendary Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and the great American trumpeter-alto saxophonist Benny Carter.
In a move very likely prompted by the imminence of war, Hawkins in 1939 returned to the United States, where he formed a nonet and played a long engagement at Kelly's Stables on New York's jazz-famed 52nd Street. The highlight of that year, however, was his recording of "Body and Soul, " illustrating in three masterful choruses his consummate melodic and harmonic command—a stunning performance that had the jazz world buzzing. That year Down Beat voted him #1 on tenor saxophone, the first of many such honors. Late in 1939 Hawkins formed his own big band, which debuted at New York's Arcadia Ballroom and played at such other locales as the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the Savoy Ballroom. In 1941 Hawkins disbanded and reverted to small groups, including in 1943 a racially mixed sextet (a rarity in that era), which toured primarily in the Midwest.
Most of Hawkins' contemporaries bitterly resisted the mid-1940s bebop revolution, with its harmonic and rhythmic innovations, but Hawkins not only encouraged the upstart music but also performed frequently with its chief practitioners. As early as 1944 with modernists Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Oscar Pettiford he recorded "Woody'n You, " probably the first bop recording ever. In 1945, a watershed year for the new music, he performed and recorded in California with modern trumpeter Howard McGhee.
His long tenure, begun in 1946, with the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) tour brought him inevitably into musical contact with virtually all the top-flight younger players. Also, as a leader on his own American and European engagements in the late 1940s and early 1950s he enlisted the talents of such outstanding young musicians as trumpeters Fats Navarro and Miles Davis, trombonist J.J. Johnson, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Hawkins' democratic acceptance of the newer jazz idiom is admirable and somewhat surprising considering the difficulties he had in adapting his own sharply-defined style to it. There is frequently a rhythmic stiffness in his attempts to integrate his sound with theirs, and he thrived best in that period when he collaborated with his fellow swing era stalwarts, playing more traditional material.
In the 1950s Hawkins teamed often, both in and out of JATP, with swing era trumpet giant Roy Eldridge. He made television appearances on "The Tonight Show" (1955) and on the most celebrated of all television jazz shows, "The Sound of Jazz" (1957). His working quartet in the 1960s consisted of the great pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Major Holley, and drummer Eddie Locke, but his finest recording of the decade was a collaboration with a small Duke Ellington unit in 1962.
By the late 1960s Hawkins' chronic alcoholism had resulted in a deterioration of his health. He collapsed in 1967 while playing in Toronto and again a few months later at a JATP concert. In 1968, on a European tour with the Oscar Peterson Quartet, ill health forced the cancellation of the Denmark leg of the tour. Despite failing health, he continued to work regularly until a few weeks before his death. He appeared on a Chicago television show with Roy Eldridge early in 1969, and his last concert appearance was on April 20, 1969, at Chicago's North Park Hotel. He died of bronchial pneumonia, complicated by a diseased liver, at New York's Wickersham Hospital on May 19, 1969.
The Man and His Music
Hawkins, despite the snappy nicknames "Hawk" and "Bean, " was a private, taciturn man, and an attentive listener to all kinds of music: among his favorite recordings were those of opera singers, whose rhapsodic quality he captured in his own fiercely passionate playing. A married man with three children, Hawkins' consumption of alcohol seemed to be his only vice.
Hawkins is perhaps overly identified with "Body and Soul." Masterwork though it certainly is, it is only one of a great number of sublime performances. A partial listing of his best work would include: "Out of Nowhere" (1937, Hawk in Holland); "When Day Is Done" (c. 1940, Coleman Hawkins Orchestra); "I Surrender, Dear" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" (1940, The Tenor Sax: Coleman Hawkins and Frank Wess); "I Only Have Eyes for You, " "'S Wonderful, " "Under a Blanket of Blue, " "I'm Yours, " and "I'm in the Mood for Love" with Roy Eldridge equally featured (1944, Coleman Hawkins and the Trumpet Kings); "April in Paris, " "What Is There to Say?" and "I'm Through with Love" (1945, Hollywood Stampede); "Say It Isn't So" (1946), "Angel Face" (1947), and "The Day You Came Along" (1956, Body and Soul); "La Rosita" and "Tangerine" in tandem with tenor great Ben Webster (1957, Tenor Giants ); "Mood Indigo" and "Self Portrait of the Bean" (1962, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins); and "Slowly" and "Me and Some Drums" (1962, Shelly Manne: 2, 3, 4).
Further Reading on Coleman Hawkins
There are many treatments of Coleman Hawkins' art, but not many on the life of this private man. The most valuable articles are Humphrey Lyttleton's in The Best of Jazz and Stanley Dance's in The World of Swing. The first full-length study is British critic Albert J. McCarthy's Coleman Hawkins (London: 1963). British trumpeter and critic John Chilton has written a landmark biography, The Song of the Hawk: The life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (1990).
Additional Biography Sources
Chilton, John, The song of the Hawk: the life and recordings of Coleman Hawkins, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.
James, Burnett, Coleman Hawkins, Tunbridge Wells Kent: Spellmount; New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984.