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Coleman Hawkins

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Randolph; Bean; Hawk (1904-1969) Tenor saxophonist

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Coleman Hawkins
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Hawkins' A Retrospective, 1929-1963 (RCA/Bluebird).

Coleman Hawkins
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Coleman Hawkins was taught piano from the age of five by his mother, a schoolteacher who played organ. He took up cello at about the age of seven, then requested a tenor saxophone, which he received on his ninth birthday. By the time he was 12 he was performing professionally at school dances. He went to high school in Chicago, then (by his own account) attended Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas, for about two years, during which time he studied harmony and composition.

Hawkins's first regular job, beginning in the spring of 1921, was playing in the orchestra of the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City. That summer, Mamie Smith performed at the theater and offered Hawkins a position touring with her group, the Jazz Hounds. By March 1922, Hawkins was working with Smith at the Garden of Joy in New York. He made his first recordings with her shortly afterwards, but his contributions are frequently indiscernible, a notable exception being on I'm Gonna Get You. Early in 1923, he toured with the Jazz Hounds as far as California, where the group performed in the revue Struttin' Along, but he left after it returned to New York in June.

Audio Feature Charlie Haden, musician
On the freedom of Coleman Hawkin's improvisation
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Hawkins then worked as a freelance player with various musicians, including Wilbur Sweatman, whose group opened the new club Connie's Inn in June 1923. Fletcher Henderson heard Hawkins with Sweatman and employed him to record with his band the following August. During this period, Hawkins also joined the pianist Ginger Jones and the trumpeter Charlie Gaines at the Garden of Joy, and played with Cecil Smith and Lou Hooper at the Renaissance Casino. Both Hawkins and Henderson appear to have played under the violinist Ralph "Shrimp" Jones at the Bamville Club near the end of that year. The association with Henderson proved decisive for Hawkins, as Henderson engaged him when he formed a band to play at the Club Alabam in early January 1924. Hawkins remained with the group until March 1934, making numerous recordings and attracting worldwide notice. In his first substantial recorded solo, on Dirty Blues (1923), he reveals an authoritative style, big sound, and fast vibrato.

Until the end of 1930, Henderson's band spent most of each year at the Roseland Ballroom, although it played occasionally at other venues in the New York area, particularly the Savoy Ballroom. It also traveled widely throughout New England, the East Coast, and the Midwest, and made a tour of the South during the first two weeks of 1933. Finally, when a tour of Great Britain fell through in 1934, Hawkins contacted the English bandleader and impresario Jack Hylton and arranged to tour the country on his own with local groups. He had clearly become the star of the Henderson group and felt it was time to move on. Hawkins arrived in England on March 30, 1934 and toured as the guest of Jack Hylton's band and Mrs. Jack Hylton's band. His success was such that he decided to stay in Europe, performing with the Ramblers early in 1935 in The Hague, and then playing freelance in Paris, Laren, Zurich (with the Berry's), and elsewhere. He also made numerous recordings with the Ramblers, the Berry, and other groups assembled for studio sessions. Perhaps the most famous of these sessions was one in Paris on April 28, 1937 that included Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter; Hawkins played with fervor and rhythmic drive, even beginning his solo on Crazy Rhythm with repeated riffs.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On Hawkins' taking the sax from clownish to artistic
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Hawkins returned to England on March 11, 1939 and commenced a tour sponsored by the Selmer instrument company, where he was accompanied by local musicians at each performance. He finally returned to New York in July 1939. American musicians, generally unaware of Hawkins's European recordings, anxiously awaited his return. He formed a nine-piece band and opened at Kelly's Stable on October 5. At the end of a studio session a few days later, he improvised two choruses on Body and Soul, a recording that was a commercial and musical success, and which reestablished his importance to musicians while introducing him for the first time to an American mass audience. At the end of 1939, readers of Down Beat magazine voted Hawkins "best tenor saxophonist." He then formed a big band and played in New York at the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Savoy, and the Apollo Theatre, and he also went on tour. In 1941, he resumed working with small groups, however, and for the next two years played mostly in Chicago and the Midwest before returning to New York.

Hawkins spent most of 1945 in California, performing and recording with a group that included the modernists Howard McGhee and Oscar Pettiford (this ensemble also appeared in the film The Crimson Canary). He returned to the East Coast, then joined a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour which took him back to California in April 1946. During the next five years, Hawkins usually joined these tours for at least a few concerts, while spending most of the year with his own groups in New York. He returned to Europe in May 1948, in late 1949, in 1950, and again in 1954, the last as part of Illinois Jacquet's tour of American service bases. He continued to lead recording groups with such new talented players as Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J. J. Johnson, and Milt Jackson. Around 1948, he recorded a fascinating unaccompanied improvisation, Picasso, a feat that was still beyond many of the younger generation.

During the late 1950s, Hawkins continued to appear at all the major jazz festivals, often as leader of a group with Roy Eldridge. He joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of 1957, the Seven Ages of Jazz tours in 1958 and 1959, traveled to Europe for brief engagements, and played on television in The Tonight Show (1955) and The Sound of Jazz (1957). He also recorded prolifically during this time, beginning with a series of albums for the subsidiaries of Prestige in 1958 and followed by several for Impulse, including his only collaboration with Duke Ellington (1962). During the 1960s, he appeared in films and on television. He often recorded and performed at the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard with a quartet comprising Tommy Flanagan, Major Holley, and Eddie Locke. Hawkins began to exhibit signs of emotional distress during the last two years of his life and was seriously affected by alcoholism. He collapsed while playing in Toronto in February 1967, and again in June while on the last tour of Jazz at the Philharmonic. He traveled to Europe with Oscar Peterson's trio and played for a month at the end of the year in Ronnie Scott's club in London with an English rhythm section, but a tour of Denmark at the beginning of 1968 was canceled owing to his ill health. His last concert was on April 20, 1969 at the North Park Hotel in Chicago.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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