Coleman Hawkins played piano and cello as a young child. On his 9th birthday he was given a saxophone and was soon playing it with virtuosity.

In the mid 1930s Hawkins joined Jack Hylton's band in England. He stayed in Europe for five years, enjoying great success and cultural freedom. On his return to the United States, he recorded "Body and Soul" for RCA Victor in October 1939. This was to become his signature piece, and an example for countless other jazz artists in exploring harmonics in improvisation. No matter how often he performed "Body and Soul", in each performance he wove new phrases.

His sense of thematic development was nourished by his great love of opera.

His great contemporary Lester Young, ("the Prez") was known for a lighter, more linear touch. Hawkins was both more languid and rougher in approach.

His influence extended to John Coltrane who regarded him as his mentor and now to Branford Marsalis.

Coleman Hawkins: The Man I Love

In the early half on the century, there were, like now, certain players who always took what they played further then any other musician in their field. For example, Miles Davis and Gil Evens, with such albums as ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘Kind of Blue’ or John ColtraneA Love Supreme

Coleman Hawkins is one of these players, Born 1904, St. Joseph, Mo, Hawkins was certainly not the first man to play Tenor Saxophone, however he was the man that drove his instrument into a well know hard driving jazz instrument.‘The man that gave the Tenor Saxophone its first mature jazz personality, style, and Vocabulary.’

This relationship started a 50 year career for Hawkins (also know as The Hawk or, The Bean) in which he amassed a huge amount of albums and went to play with everyone and was big in the jazz world of his time.

The Hawk

Coleman Hawkins got his first gig with the ‘Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds’ which lasted for three years (1920-1923) and moved on to the ‘Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra’ and it was here in which he started to develop his soloing technique as a featured soloist for more then 10 years, however ‘Recordings of his early work with Henderson showed little promise of the greatness that was to follow in later years’. It was also around this time that 2 events occurred. Hawkins had started to use a slap tongue technique which was considered very ‘avant-garde’, indeed by this time, Hawkins and his playing was referred to in that pretence. The second event was Louis Armstrong joining the Henderson Orchestra for a year (1924-1925).

This very stay was very brief, however had a startling effect on the bands performance all round, and particularly Hawkins, ‘With Louis as an example, Hawkins learned to swing and to phrase like a Jazzman in a matter of two years.’

By the early thirties, Hawkins had now became the kind of player that could do just all aspects of jazz, he had a driving edge that could blast past most changes with ease, however he had also mastered the smooth flowing form that was so needed for the ballads which were as crucial as the hard driving swing that now entering the jazz scene. It was during the thirties that other players were starting to make them selves known to Hawkins and other people in the jazz world, in other words Hawkins and discovered that he now had some competition.

Lester Young who was born Mississippi in 1909 was one of Hawkins main contenders and in fact replaced the then flouring musician in the Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra when Hawkins left.‘Henderson’s Wife who force fed him Hawkins records in the hope he would some how develop a big and breathy sound set the pattern for a career littered with misunderstandings.’

However Young was not the only new tenor player rising in the ranks, Ben Webster and Hershel Evans were also graced by his presence and completely shocked Hawkins at their skill and dexterity on their instruments, they all met at the Cherry Blossom Club and proceeded to have a cut session with these players, ‘According to ear witnesses accounts by Mary Lou Williams and Jo Jones, Lester Young got the best of it. The Hawk had finally met a formidable rival!’

When Hawkins finally left the Henderson band in 1934 he had reached his peak, which signified change ‘In a way later repeated by Miles Davis and John Coltrane’. It was soon after this that Hawkins decided to move over into Europe and decided to live in England, ’It may not have been entirely a coincidences that soon after returning to New York from this trip to the Middle West, the Hawk decided to move to England. The official reason usually given is that Hawk was growing restless after ten years with Henderson’

This choice proved to be a good one, Hawkins spent most of his time playing and touring with the likes of Django Rienhardt and a fellow American, and the English Alto player Benny Carter. During this time most people over in the UK could hear Hawkins play with the Jack Hylton’s band, and also in the clubs where he would demonstrate Selmer Saxophones and play a tune for 30 minutes.

In the five years that happened, Hawkin’s often found him self in certain situations that were not friendly, due to the war starting up and Hitler invading most of Europe, Hawkin’s found himself being left behind on borders due to his race. ‘On some occasions, Hylton would take his band on tours of Hitler's Germany. Much to Hylton's discredit and much to the disappointment of the German Jazz fans, he would strand Hawkins at the border when Hawk was refused entry on racial grounds.’

Body and Soul

As Hitler decided to invade Poland, Hawkins decided that he would travel back to the US, it was when he got back that he was astounded at the reception he got, he was treated of that as an old master, however he soon discovered that there were many great tenor players now, all trying to take his crown away from him. Most of these seemed to be obvious Hawkins followers, but in the background there was the ever present Lester Young who had, in Hawkins absence refined his playing to a whole new style, and he was often referred to as Hawkins opposite and contender.

It was in the year of 1939, that Hawkins made his signature tune, without him realising it. That tune happened to be the standard ‘Body and Soul’ a timeless classic, but this recording was not planned and was in fact used to fill studio time, ‘The recording was made simply to use up some available studio time following a rather humdrum session. Hawkins himself didn't think there was anything outstanding about his Body and Soul saying "it was nothing special, just an encore I use in the clubs to get off the stand. I thought nothing of it and didn't even bother to listen to it afterwards".

However for the public eye, this wasn’t the case, in fact the tune proved to be a hot hit with fans and fellow musicians and even today it is still classed as the standard referred to with Hawkins.

By this time it was coming to the end of 1939 and Downbeat named Hawkins as their ‘Best Tenor Saxophonist’, And shortly after this he formed his own big band that played most of the clubs in New York such as ‘The Golden Gate Ballroom, The Savoy, and the Apollo Theatre and eventually went on tour. In 1941 he went back to small bands and for the next 2 years played in clubs around the Chicago area.

‘As the modern Jazz era unfolded, Hawkin's style remained firmly entrenched with players like Ben Webster and Don Byas. Lester Young's style, however, had a greater influence than Hawk's on progressive players like Charlie Parker

This seemed to be very true, while players such as Young were striving to change and take new chances, Hawkins seemed comfortable and more at home staying with his own traditional style of playing. However this is not to say that Hawkins didn’t like bebop, on the contrary, Hawkins being such the person that he is, took in just about every style of music that he could possibly lay his hands and never have a bad word to say about those different styles. And through all this Hawkins could still be musically intimidating, ‘He could be musically intimidating as well. During a session, a young modernist once said of Hawk aside to one of his older colleagues “He scares me, man! ". The answer: "He's supposed to scare you. That's what he's there for".

Hawkins continued through the 50s working regularly at jazz festivals all around the world and often as leader of a group with Roy Eldridge. In 1957 he joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour and played with them till 1958. It was around the mid 60s that Hawkins started to show signs of heavy emotional stress during the last two years of his life, this mostly due to his heavy alcoholism and finally in his last concert was on 20th April 1969 at the North Park Hotel in Chicago.

Converted from a Essay i wrote for my Jazz History Module at University last year!

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (edited by Barry Kernfield)

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