Before Coleman Hawkins, few musicians took the tenor saxophone seriously as a jazz instrument. Once Hawkins hit the scene, everyone clamored for it.
Hawkins was born in 1904 in St. Joseph, Missouri, and grew up mostly in Topeka, Kansas. His mother, who played piano and organ, made sure he started music lessons very young. By the time he got his first saxophone at age nine, he could already play piano and cello. By age 12 he was gigging at dance halls around Topeka and jamming with music students at a local college. During breaks from school, he would go to Kansas City to show off his chops.
During one of those Kansas City visits, he got a chance to play for blues singer Mamie Smith. She was so impressed that she tried to hire him on the spot, but Hawkins’ mom said he had to wait a year, until he turned 17. It was during his 1922 tour with Smith, playing alto, tenor, and baritone sax, that he decided tenor was the one he liked best.
The Harlem Renaissance was blossoming when Hawkins moved to New York City in 1923. He soon landed a job in the band of Fletcher Henderson, who was doing innovative work combining tight arrangements with the improvisational tradition from New Orleans.
Defying the accepted focus on clarinet, piano, and trumpet as solo instruments, Hawkins worked on his tenor sax tone until it was rich and expressive enough to garner solo turns. Everyone in the industry noticed, and he was soon in demand as a solo musician for the likes of Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt. He appeared on dozens of albums on many different labels until his death in 1969.
Enjoy these eight tracks by Coleman Hawkins.
- Track: “Midnight Sun”
Album: The Hawk Talks
This recording of the Lionel Hampton/Sonny Burke number “Midnight Sun” is a great introduction to the Coleman Hawkins sound. His melodic lines are densely textured, with clear phrasing. He also had a habit of applying wide vibrato when he’s “singing” a lyrical tune, even on shorter notes. This might have been his response to the general opinion early in his career that the sound of a tenor sax as “flat” or “rubbery,” so he developed his vibrato to enliven the tone. It’s quite a different timbre from that of Coltrane, for example, who came into the jazz world when tenor sax was already acceptable.
This recording features Danny Mendelsohn on celesta, an appropriately vibe-like instrument to include on a Hampton tune. Mendelsohn also arranged and conducted on this album.
- Track: “His Very Own Blues”
Album: The Hawk in Hi-Fi
Label: RCA Victor
Bill Byers arranged and conducted this tight, jumping Hawkins-penned tune, “His Very Own Blues.” Hearing Hawkins play at a faster tempo, you can really appreciate the astonishing control Hawkins had over his horn. It’s more than just being able to play all the notes accurately with apparent ease; just listen to the range of textures he produces, from sweetly thin to a humorous wet blatting, all at high speed.
The big band-style Coleman Hawkins Orchestra took many of its stylistic cues from the energetic piano work of Hank Jones. And the blended sound of five trumpets, five saxes, and four trombones hits you square in the chest.
- Track: “Tangerine”
Album: Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster
- Year: 1957
Singers Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly had made this Victor Schertzinger/Johnny Mercer number a hit with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in 1942, and it had been recorded by other crooners, including Sinatra. But this two-tenor-sax rendition of “Tangerine” by Hawkins and fellow sax master Ben Webster is something special.
And while since were gathering jazz greats anyway, they made the rhythm section out of the best in the world: Oscar Peterson on piano (who opens this track with his usual elegance), Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Alvin Stoller on drums. As for the sax solos, Hawkins crafts some beautiful ornaments in his opening solo, and then Webster lays out the tune in his signature breathy tone.
- Track: “I Want to Be Loved”
Album: Coleman Hawkins with the Red Garland Trio
Not only is the playing on this track worthy of inclusion here, but “I Want to Be Loved” is also a rare example of a swing-era jazz tune by a woman composer, the singer Savannah Churchill. Hawkins clearly loved the song, having recorded it several times.
The album is a collaboration by Hawkins and the Red Garland Trio (pianist Red Garland, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Specs Wright). Hawkins takes on a tone breathy enough to be a tribute to Ben Webster.
- Track: “Night Hawk”
Album: Night Hawk
Another great Hawkins collaboration is this one with fellow tenor sax player Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. “Night Hawk” is a wistful, bluesy composition by Hawkins, evoking the wee hours of the morning. You can practically smell the wet city sidewalks after an overnight rain shower. (The only other song I can think of that captures that scene so well is Frank Loesser’s “My Time of Day,” from the stage version of Guys and Dolls.) Tommy Flanagan, who often played piano with Hawkins gets the spare, lonesome sound just right.
- Track: “28th and 8th”
Album: Jazz Reunion
Pee Wee Russell was a jazz clarinetist of the same generation as Hawkins, known for his tireless musical curiosity and ability to play in any style. Jazz Reunion pairs his clarinet with Hawkins’ sax. It’s always a treat to hear these two single-reed instruments – so similar and yet so different – work together, especially in such expert hands.
The gentle bop tune “28th and 8th” was composed by Russell and Nat Pierce, who plays piano on the album. Milt Hinton makes an especially dynamic contribution with his ceaseless walking bassline.
- Track: “The Man Who Has Everything”
Album: The Jazz Version of No Strings
This is an unusual idea for a recording, the Hawkins quartet playing an arrangement of the songs from the of Richard Rodgers Broadway show No Strings. The musical was Rodgers’ first after the death of his collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II. None of its songs are well known today, but Hawkins arranged eight of its fifteen songs into a classic instrumental album.
Hawkins would have been introduced to “The Man Who Has Everything” through this rather twee recording from the original Broadway cast album:
Yet somehow Hawkins makes it cool, with help from Tommy Flanagan (piano), Major Holley (bass), and Eddie Locke (drums). The offbeat arpeggios are an interesting touch, more classical than jazz in style.
- Track: “O Pato (The Duck)”
Hawkins tried his hand at Latin jazz on the album Desafinado, named after an Antonio Carlos Jobim tune and meaning approximately “Off Key” in Portuguese. The song “O Pato (The Duck),” by Jayme Silva and Neuza Teixeira – they had developed it with João Gilberto -- was already a crossover hit thanks to a recording by Woody Herman’s big band.
Hawkins’ group has only one Latino player, Willie Rodriguez on percussion, yet this ensemble of swing and bebop specialist does a nice, laid-back bossa nova. It may lack the energized syncopation associated with Latin jazz, but Hawkins’ eighth-note figuration around the melody in his opening solo is some fine work.