Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HAWKINS, Coleman

(b 21 November 1904, St Joseph MO; d 19 May 1969, NYC) Aka 'Hawk', 'Bean'. Tenor saxophonist; also played other reeds in early years. He studied music in Topeka KS, made his first recordings with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds '23, also played with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, then Fletcher Henderson '23-34. With Henderson (influenced as they all were by Louis Armstrong) he overcame the tubby, moaning sound of the tenor; playing loud and with a stiff reed in order to be heard solo over the band he developed a large, deep, rich tone. He began c'1926 to improvise on the chord structure of a tune rather than the melody, and established the tenor sax as one of the most important voices in jazz, remaining its foremost authority for 40 years.

Among dozens of solos with Henderson: 'The Stampede' '26, 'St Louis Shuffle' '27, 'Queer Notions' '33 (his own tune, with adventurous harmony), 'Hocus Pocus' '34. He also recorded with the Mound City Blue Blowers and McKinney's Cotton Pickers '29, Chocolate Dandies dates '29-30; the classic and lovely small group sides co-led with Henry 'Red' Allen '33 have been compiled on an excellent Hep CD. He also played on the famous big-band date with Spike Hughes '33, then went to Europe '34; recorded with Jack Hylton and many others including a famous date in Paris '37 arranged by Benny Carter, two alto saxes, two tenors and Django Reinhardt in the rhythm section.

Back in the USA '39 he formed a band and recorded his classic 'Body And Soul': virtually a solo with rhythm section on a technically interesting song, the record was a summary of his style: the harmonic commentary on chords became lovely strings of arpeggios, with controlled passion from the urgency of getting it all in and from dividing the beat into unequal parts: most jazz musicians did this, but Hawk imparted further forward motion by 'swallowing' the second part of the beat until it almost disappeared. 'Body And Soul' was good for romantic dancing, a big hit and an enduring jazz milestone. Always lyrical rather than a bluesman, he did play some fine blues later in his career (e.g. 'Bird Of Prey Blues' on Verve), but his most famous records are ballads: 'I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me', 'I Surrender Dear' (from a Dandies date with Roy Eldridge '40); 'The Man I Love', 'My Ideal' (from separate '43 sessions); 'I Only Have Eyes For You' ('44 with Eldridge and Teddy Wilson). The Complete Recordings 1929-41 was a six-CD set on Charly UK of nearly everything the work with Henderson.

He encouraged the bop pioneers and hired them for record dates (Bean And The Boys '46); sextet tracks made in Hollywood '45 have a strong bop flavour (with Howard McGhee, Denzil Best, etc, on a Hollywood Stampede CD from Capitol). The Big Three on Signature compiled '43-6 tracks by Hawkins, Lester Young and Webster; Rainbow Mist on Delmark had '44 Apollo sides; The Complete Coleman Hawkins On Keynote compiled several superb lineups from '44 on four Mercury CDs. There were fewer records late '40s-early '50s as jazz fell on hard times, but he was first to record an unaccompanied saxophone solo: his own composition 'Picasso' '48 (later on Verve) displayed the result of his studies; he never stopped listening to everything.

At the centre of the mainstream '50s-60s, he toured with JATP several times '46-68 and played on 'all-star' dates with Buck Clayton. Thelonious Monk's Monk's Music, reunions with Allen on Warhorses (dixieland chestnuts) and Standards (later combined on Jass), Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (acolyte Webster, only four years younger, called Hawk 'the old man') and a joyous big-band reunion of Henderson alumni were all recorded '57-8. Further Hawkins highlights included reed rapture: Meets The Big Sax Section '58 on Savoy, arranged by Billy Ver Planck, re- creates the famous '37 instrumentation (with Freddie Green instead of Django), and Benny Carter's own Further Definitions '61 on Impulse does it again. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins '62 is another of the more beautiful albums of that era, also on Impulse, as is Hawkins's own Desafinado '62 (one of the more beautiful examples of bossa nova) and Today And Now '63 with Tommy Flanagan on piano. Sonny Meets Hawk '63 with Rollins, two great tenors 25 years apart in age and an era apart in style, was reissued on Rollins's Bluebird CD All The Things You Are. Hawkins is one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz, or indeed of 20th-century popular music; The Song Of The Hawk by John Chilton is a thorough study of his life and work.