Coleman Hawkins Biography

Coleman Randolph Hawkins, 21 November 1904, St. Joseph, Missouri, USA, d. 19 May 1969, New York City, New York, USA. Coleman Hawkins (aka ‘Bean’ and ‘Hawk’) is a colossus of the tenor saxophone, and hence of jazz. He was the first to use the instrument as a serious means of expression and continued to be open to new developments for 40 years. Starting piano lessons at the age of five, he later learned cello and took up tenor saxophone when he was nine years old. Within a few years he was playing dances and appearing in Kansas and Chicago. He attended Washburn College in Topeka and toured as a member of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1921. He joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1924, a sophisticated New York dance band then coming to terms with the new jazz music - hot and improvised - that Louis Armstrong, who had also joined Henderson in 1924, had brought from New Orleans by way of Chicago. Released in 1926, ‘The Stampede’ featured Hawkins’ first notable solo.

In his 10 years with the band Hawkins transformed the tenor saxophone - previously a novelty instrument for blues and hokum records - from rather quaint imitations of Armstrong’s staccato style into a vehicle for the powerful and suave solos that were the essence of swing. ‘St Louis Shuffle’ (1927), ‘Sugar Foot Stomp’ (1931) and ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1934) are three brilliant sides that trace this evolution. By 1934 jazz had become a global music. Coleman Hawkins left Fletcher Henderson and travelled to Europe, where he was welcomed by the local players. He recorded with Jack Hylton in England. Excluded from a Hylton tour of Germany in 1935 by the Nazis’ new racial laws, he joined Theo Masman’s Ramblers Dance Orchestra and recorded with them for Decca Records. In 1937 he met up with Django Reinhardt and recorded some memorable music (Stéphane Grappelli was relegated to piano), and he also played with fellow exile Benny Carter.

When war broke out in 1939 Hawkins returned to the USA. There his supremacy on tenor saxophone had been challenged by the languid yet harmonically sophisticated playing of Lester Young, but his recording of the Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, Frank Eyton collaboration ‘Body & Soul’ (on 11 October 1939) was a massive hit and established him as a national figure, his confessional, tender-but-tough tenor the epitome of jazz. In 1940 he toured with his own 16-piece, appearing at premier New York jazz spots the Arcadia and the Savoy Ballroom, but the days of the big band were numbered. In December 1943 his small combo recordings - ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, ‘Stumpy’ and an irresistible swinger called ‘Voodte’ - represented the apex of swing, though the sense of headlong abandon was akin to the new music of bebop. Bebop was black America’s first avant garde art form, featuring innovations many established musicians felt moved to denounce, but Hawkins loved it. He led an early bebop recording session in February 1944 - featuring Don Byas, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. In 1943 he had formed a sextet with Thelonious Monk, Byas and trumpeter Benny Harris and a year later gave Monk his recording debut. Most of 1944 and 1945 were spent on the west coast with a band that included Sir Charles Thompson and Howard McGhee. As featured soloist on Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic tours, trips to Europe followed in 1950 and 1954.

The popularity of Stan Getz’s interpretation of Lester Young made Hawkins and his ripe sound unfashionable in the 50s, but his strength as a player - and his openness of mind - never left him. In 1957 Thelonious Monk repaid the compliment by inviting him to join his septet, and the application of Hawkins’ big, swinging tenor to Monk’s paradoxical compositions yielded wonderful results on tunes such as ‘Off Minor’. Playing next to young turks such as John Coltrane, Hawkins showed that he still had something to contribute. The classic The Hawk Flies High (1957) showed what Hawkins could accomplish in a mainstream setting, while a reunion with his ex-Henderson colleague Henry ‘Red’ Allen in the same year showed he could also shine in a more traditional context.

In the 60s Hawkins kept playing, recording with new tenor star Sonny Rollins. The list of his engagements in that decade is testament to the catholic taste that an established elder statesman can afford: Pee Wee Russell, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Tommy Flanagan, Eric Dolphy, even an appearance on Max Roach’s inflammatory We Insist! Freedom Now suite and at a 1966 ‘Tenors Titan’ concert that also featured Rollins, Coltrane, Zoot Sims and Yusef Lateef. He played on the last JATP tour (1967) and toured with Oscar Peterson in 1968, though by that point he was increasingly prone to bouts of depression and drinking, exacerbated by a refusal to eat. His death from pneumonia in 1969 marked the end of an era; he was a jazz master whose life work stretched across five decades of the music’s history.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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