Coleman Randolph Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 21st 1904. There were many variations in African-American life during the early 20th century, though all too often the sort of poverty that Louis Armstrong experienced in New Orleans is thought to be endemic of how all black jazz musicians were raised at the time. Hawkins’ childhood was a comfortable and stable one, lived in relatively middle-class comfort.
Young Coleman was given classical music lessons on the cello and also played the piano before settling on the saxophone as a teenager. The attractive tone of the cello and the harmonic world made explicit by the piano would greatly benefit him over the next decade and a half as he moved toward musical maturity. He continued to play the cello through his adolescent years as a student at the Industrial and Educational Institute in Topeka, Kansas, and doubled on the C-melody saxophone with local dance bands and in theater orchestras in nearby Kansas City.
Vaudevillian Mamie Smith was reveling in the acclaim generated by the huge success of her 1920 recording Crazy Blues when she came through Kansas City on a tour, supplementing her band with local musicians. The 16-year-old Hawkins immediately impressed her with his skills at both reading music and improvisation. Although Smith’s first attempts to take him on the road were rebuffed by Hawkins’ grandmother, his mother eventually granted permission several months later – only too happy to have a good excuse to force her son to part company with a certain local girl. The following year on the road with Smith’s troupe gave Hawkins a life’s worth of professional and personal lessons. He was by now concentrating mostly on the tenor saxophone, and though still a teenager, his incontestable mastery of the instrument made him a standout by the time he settled in New York in the summer of 1923. He soon came to the attention of bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who hired him for a series of recording sessions.
The early 1920s was a burgeoning time for jazz, and a virtuoso like Hawkins could make an excellent living by freelancing in nightclubs, playing theatre dates and recording. Henderson was eventually able to offer Hawkins full-time employment, and the saxophonist remained a featured member of the band for a decade. - Loren Schoenberg, liner notes