Coleman Hawkins

"Coleman Hawkins single-handedly created the idiom for the tenor saxophone in jazz" - Loren Schoenberg

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

Coleman Hawkins

“Coleman Hawkins instantly established authority when he took the stage, before he had even played a note. Though short of stature, he was a handsome, solidly built man, impeccably dressed, with an aura that commanded respect. And once he began to play, his sound alone sufficed to seduce or arouse the listener, depending on the mood and spirit of the music being made” – Dan Morgenstern, Living With Jazz

By Loren Schoenberg
Before Coleman Hawkins came to maturity, Sidney Bechet and Adrian Rollini had already taken giant steps on the soprano and bass saxophones respectively, establishing the idea that the saxophone could be used to make great jazz. It was left to Coleman Hawkins to process the innovations of Louis Armstrong in an intensely personal way, and fashion out of them his own voice.

There are very few musicians in any genre who remain protean figures for as long as Coleman Hawkins did. When he gave up the cello for the saxophone in the early 1920s, not only was his chosen instrument considered a joke at best, there was as yet no model for coherent jazz improvisation.

Miraculously, at the age of 35 he would have a hit recording, Body And Soul, that remains one of the most sophisticated and challenging items ever to come remotely near the bestseller’s list. And by the age of 59 Coleman Hawkins would more than hold his own in studio encounters with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins – both of whose careers would have been unimaginable without Coleman Hawkins’ precedent.

Body & Soul
October 1939

Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra: Tommy Lindsay, Joe Guy (tp), Earl Hardy (tb), Jackie Fields, Eustis Moore (as), Coleman Hawkins (ts, arr), Gene Rodgers (p, arr), Oscar Smith (b), Art Herbert (d), Thelma Carpenter (vcl), Hazel Scott (arr).

No matter how nonchalantly Coleman Hawkins tried to make the choice to record Body And Soul seem, it had long been his encore during his European years, and he had a lot riding on this session. Lester Young was at his zenith with the Basie big band, and virtually all of the other major bands had a Hawkins-styled tenor in a featured position.

The decades as a musical omnivore came to fruition as Coleman Hawkins signaled to pianist Gene Rodgers to make an introduction in Db. The sounds of Bach, Tatum, Armstrong, and the untold musicians who had filled his head and ears culminated in one of the greatest spontaneous set of variations ever recorded. – Loren Schoenberg

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

Coleman Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 21st, 1904. Young Coleman Hawkins was given classical music lessons on the cello and he continued to play the cello through his adolescent years but doubled on the C-melody saxophone with local dance bands.

Vaudevillian Mamie Smith came through Kansas City on a tour, supplementing her band with local musicians. The 16-year-old Coleman Hawkins immediately impressed her with his skills at both reading music and improvisation. The following year on the road with Smith’s troupe gave Coleman Hawkins a life’s worth of professional and personal lessons.

He soon came to the attention of bandleader Fletcher Henderson. 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 Coleman Hawkins full-time employment, and the saxophonist remained a featured member of the band for a decade.

The arrival of Louis Armstrong in the Henderson band in late 1924 for a year-long stint was to have a profound impact on the music world in general and on the 20-year-old Coleman Hawkins in particular. Hawkins was one of the first jazz artists to begin transforming Armstrong’s example into personal terms, but it would be a lengthy process. – Loren Schoenberg, liner note excerpt Mosaic Records: Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947

Hawk Variations
Solo Session

Probably January 1945

Given his love of Bach and Pablo Casals and his own unquenchable thirst for self-expression, it was inevitable that Coleman Hawkins would move towards solo performances.

During his European jaunt, he began surrounding his songs with unaccompanied introductions and codas. For all we know, he may have been doing this in theaters as far back as the Mamie Smith days.

Harry Lim, a Javanese jazz lover who came to America in 1939, first produced jam sessions in Chicago and New York and then founded Keynote Records, a premier small jazz label. In an article for Metronome magazine in May, 1944, Lim dubbed Coleman Hawkins the Picasso of Jazz.

The Picasso of Jazz

Harry Lim; Metronome magazine May 1944
“For an amazing number of years, Coleman Hawkins has been among the style-setters, not only for tenor-saxists, but for all horn players. This he accomplished by keeping ahead of the times, by going through several phases of self-imposed style changes, and with an inborn musical genius which is rare in any musician.

In my estimation Coleman Hawkins stands alone as the finest and most important individual musician on today’s jazz scene, irrespective of instrument. That is true, I think, even taking into consideration the present-day playing capabilities of men like Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and a few others, whom we consider the greatest and most significant musicians as far as the present and future of jazz are concerned…

The most amazing thing about this man is the fact that he rises above his surroundings. He can be put with the worst rhythm section in the world and yet play some of the most magnificent stuff ever heard…Hawk develops his choruses as a logical sequence of beautiful phrases. The second chorus follows the first one naturally. This then, friends, is the difference between Coleman Hawkins and an ordinary “chorus blower” whose ninth chorus has absolutely no relation to the tenth.

Many critics who cling so desperately to the old “pure Fletcher Henderson Hawk” complain about the reedy buzz tone he has been using since coming back from Europe, but Hawk uses this device only as a climatic effect, this in contrast to his imitators, who use it till they empty the joint in which they’re playing.

You can take this for a fact: Hawk is a jazz musician who is still continuously advancing his playing, whose harmonic ideas become more daring with every subsequent recording date. In fact, the time has come when a jazz musician of Hawkins’ status should be taken in hand by a prominent concert promoter and a serious concert tour be mapped out for him. When an American composer, familiar with jazz and the classics both, should write a modern concerto for tenor sax and orchestra with Coleman Hawkins in mind.

He’s an ardent classical music fan, has a fine personal music library of classical discs. On a recording session we had not so long ago he confided to me that he would like to make an unaccompanied solo record, on the order of the cello records of Pablo Casals.

Yes, it is with musicians like Coleman Hawkins that the future of jazz lies”.

Coleman Hawkins
Live Performance 1935

Accompanied by pianist Leo de la Fuente, Coleman Hawkins announces and plays “I Wish That I Were Twins”. Filmed at Pulchri Studio, Lange Voorhout, The Hague, Netherlands.

“It was unnerving how intently Coleman Hawkins could listen. You’d be playing and suddenly you’d be aware of someone standing off to your right. If you looked over, you’d see him with his arms folded and his head down just a little, watching and listening to everything. He did that for as long as I knew him.”
George Duvivier

Coleman Hawkins

Selected Jazz Albums

By Scott Yanow

Rainbow Mist (Delmark):

Coleman Hawkins was very busy in the recording studios during 1944. In addition to appearing at the Esquire All-American concert on a few numbers with Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum (which were later released on LPs), he led nine sessions of his own and appeared as a sideman on four dates by Cozy Cole, two by fellow tenor Walter “Foots Thomas,” and on one session apiece led by Georgie Auld, Leonard Feather, Charlie Shavers, George Wettling and Mary Lou Williams.

His most historic recordings of the year are arguably the six selections that he recorded on Feb. 16 & 22, 1944 which is considered the first bebop record date. For the project, Hawkins invited some of the up-and-coming young beboppers who impressed him including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Clyde Hart, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, and such saxophonists as Leo Parker, Don Byas and Budd Johnson. While some of the performances are ballad features for Coleman Hawkins (including “Rainbow Mist” which is based on “Body And Soul”), “Bu Dee Daht,” Coleman Hawkins’ catchy “Disorder At The Border,” and particularly Gillespie’s “Woody’n You” look towards the future.

Bean And The Boys (Prestige):

While Coleman Hawkins was not thought of as an important talent scout (unlike Fletcher Henderson, Art Blakey and Miles Davis), he was the first to recognize and record with Thelonious Monk. His four quartet numbers with Monk from Oct. 19, 1944 show that the pianist already had his unique and immediately recognizable style together.

The Bean and the Boys album is also noteworthy for a Dec. 1946 octet date that utilizes such young and modern talent as trumpeter Fats Navarro, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Hank Jones, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and drummer Max Roach. One cannot imagine any other alumnus from Mamie Smith’s band excelling on “I Mean You” and “Bean And The Boys.”

Hollywood Stampede (Capitol):

The mid-1940s were a prime period for Coleman Hawkins. In addition to touring with Norman Granz’s  Jazz At The Philharmonic (an occasional association that continued through 1960), he led one of his finest combos, a sextet with trumpeter Howard McGhee, pianist Sir Charles Thompson, rhythm guitarist Allan Reuss, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Denzil Best.

While not thought of as a major composer, during that period Hawkins wrote a series of catchy and swinging riff tunes that put new melodies on top of chord changes taken from standards. Hollywood Stampede has the dozen selections by the group with McGhee; trombonist Vic Dickenson is added on four songs.

On such Hawkins’ originals as “Rifftide,” “Stuffy,” “Hollywood Stampede,” and “Bean Soup,” the tenor and McGhee prove to be a mutually inspiring team, playing music that falls between swing and bop. Also included on this CD are four songs from a 1947 session that has Hawkins leading a septet that includes Miles Davis and trombonist Kai Winding.

Body And Soul Revisited (Decca):

As one of the few swing giants to not only accept bebop but fully embrace it, Coleman Hawkins was a father figure to the movement. His 1948 unaccompanied tenor performance of “Picasso” (recorded as part of Norman Granz’s multi-artist project The Jazz Scene on Verve) was considered a bit revolutionary and would be an inspiration for Sonny Rollins a decade later.

But with the rise of cool jazz and the dominance of Lester Young as an influence among young tenor-saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins found himself considered a bit out of date by the early 1950s. While he was as advanced harmonically as nearly any jazz artist, his phrasing, which was frequently on-the-beat on uptempo tunes (unlike his more adventurous phrasing of the mid-1930s), and his large tone were thought of as being part of an earlier style. Although the wiser musicians knew better, some of the younger ones generally overlooked Coleman Hawkins, thinking of him as a historic figure rather than a contemporary artist.

Coleman Hawkins recorded less frequently during 1950-56 and, while some of his dates could be easy-listening, he was capable of greatness at any time. Body & Soul Revisited has a cross-section of the tenor’s better recordings from 1951-58 including numbers with a string section, a big band, an unaccompanied “Foolin’ Around” from 1955, a hot combo led by Cozy Cole, and three numbers that team Coleman Hawkins with the cool-toned clarinetist Tony Scott.

The Hawk In Paris (Bluebird):

Coleman Hawkins, a lover of classical music, had always wanted to record a full project with strings. The Hawk In Paris from 1956 was his chance and it is surprising in ways. The tenor recorded a dozen songs having to do with Paris and France (including “April In Paris,” “Mimi,” “La Vie En Rose,” and “I Love Paris”) while joined by an orchestra performing arrangements by Manny Albam.

What is surprising is that Hawkins does not merely embrace most of the melodies but plays with a lot of passion, sometimes taking heated double-time lines as on “My Man”. Unlike on many other jazz with strings projects, Albam’s arrangements do not weigh the music down but inspire Coleman Hawkins to play with creativity throughout.

The Hawk Flies High (Original Jazz Classics):

In 1957 Coleman Hawkins made a “comeback” although, as the cliché goes, he had never been away. At 53 he was far from a senior citizen but, because his career went so far back, some thought that he might be a bit over-the-hill; that is until they heard him play.

The Hawk Flies High really started the momentum in Hawkins’ later years. Teamed with much younger players (trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones, guitarist Barry Galbraith, Oscar Pettiford and Jo Jones), Coleman Hawkins is in exuberant form throughout the set, particularly on his joyful and gospel influenced “Sanctity,” easily holding his own with his sidemen and showing that he was far from finished.

Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge: At The Opera House (Verve)

During a time when Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were the new voices on the tenor and Lester Young was still capable of greatness, Hawkins seemed to be everywhere.

In 1957, Coleman Hawkins recorded Hot Swing/Dixieland with the Red Allen All-Stars (appearing with them on the classic Sound Of Jazz telecast) and more modern music with his former sideman Thelonious Monk on a session that included John Coltrane. He also co-led an album with Ben Webster (who always considered Hawkins to be his main influence), recorded remakes of early swing charts with the Fletcher Henderson All-Stars, and did well on an album with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.

That year he began playing regularly with the fiery and competitive trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Their concerts were invariably quite exciting. At that year’s Newport Jazz Festival (in a set recorded by Verve), they took explosive solos on “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me.”

The Opera House CD (which is actually music drawn from two concerts, one apiece in Chicago and Los Angeles) offers a strong example of the Coleman Hawkins/Eldridge team. While there are concise ballad statements, it is the uptempo tunes (including “Bean Stalkin” and “The Walker”) that are most stirring. The CD also includes a lengthy version of Coleman Hawkins’ “Stuffy” by the Jazz At The Philharmonic All-Stars with Eldridge, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Lester Young and Oscar Peterson.

The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins (Verve)

This project could be called Coleman Hawkins meets the Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One. Recorded during his great year of 1957, Coleman Hawkins is joined by Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Alvin Stoller.

The tenor stretches out on a set of some of his favorite swing standards with the CD reissue adding some alternate takes that show that Hawkins was constantly improvising. Because Peterson was such a remarkable soloist, it is sometimes forgotten how talented and tasteful he could be as an accompanist. Although they did not play together that often, on this album Coleman Hawkins and Peterson sound as if they had worked together every night for years.

Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse):

1962 resulted in this gem. Hawkins always admired Duke Ellington’s orchestra and, although he never had an opportunity to record with the full group, this set is a delight. Coleman Hawkins plays with a septet drawn from the Ellington band, taking his solos next to cornetist-violinist Ray Nance, trombonist Lawrence Brown, altoist Johnny Hodges, baritonist Harry Carney, and Duke himself on piano. Highlights include “The Jeep Is Jumpin,’”  “Limbo Jazz,” “Self Portrait Of The Bean” and Coleman Hawkins’ feature on “Solitude.”

Today And Now (Impulse)
Desafinado (Impulse)
Back In Bean’s Bag (Columbia)

After the success of the Ellington album, Coleman Hawkins was signed by Bob Thiele to the Impulse label where he recorded most of his last significant albums. Today And Now, a quartet date with Flanagan, Holley and Locke, has Hawkins excelling on some unusual material including “Go Lil Liza,” “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” and “Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet.” He takes the simple melodies for extended rides, giving those folkish themes definitive jazz treatments.

The unexpected success of the Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd Jazz Samba album had recently launched a bossa nova craze in the U.S. Coleman Hawkins, who sounded nothing like Getz, seemed like a particularly unlikely candidate for a bossa nova album but on Desafinado, while accompanied by two guitars, bass, drums, percussion and Tommy Flanagan’s claves, Coleman Hawkins sounds very much up for the challenge. His versions of “Desafinado,” “I’ll Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover,” “One Note Samba,” and “O Pato” are surprisingly effective.

Also from that fertile year of 1962, Back In Bean’s Bag was Coleman Hawkins’ only full-length collaboration with trumpeter-flugel hornist Clark Terry. C.T.’s perennial good humor and brilliant playing always inspired musicians and that is certainly true in this case. One can hear the joy in Coleman Hawkins’ playing on “Just Squeeze Me,” and the rollicking “Feedin’ The Bean.”

Wrapped Tight (Impulse):

During the first half of the 1960s, Coleman Hawkins gave listeners the impression that he would last forever. He was a living history of jazz who had been a major part of the scene for 45 years, not by merely recreating past glories but by eagerly collaborating with adventurous musicians from each era, Coleman Hawkins had even survived an avant-garde album with Sonny Rollins and Paul Bley; Rollins purposely tried to trip up his idol by playing free. He always looked ahead. When confronted by his earlier recordings with Fletcher Henderson and Mamie Smith, he insisted that the primitive saxophonist was not him but his father or his grandfather!

Wrapped Tight from Feb. and March 1965 was Coleman Hawkins’ last worthy recording. Performing with the Barry Harris Trio and sometimes trumpeters Bill Berry and Snooky Young and trombonist Urbie Green, Coleman Hawkins is warm yet explorative on the ballads and still hard-charging on the faster material.

Coleman Hawkins’ reinvention of the melody of “Out Of Nowhere” is particularly impressive, hinting at John Coltrane and the avant-garde while never revealing the fact that he had matured back in the 1920s.

Hawk Flies High
Orrin Keepnews (Producer)
Discusses the Session: March 1957