Signed in as:
Signed in as:
"I think a solo should tell a story... Romanticism and sorrow and greed—
they can all be put into music."
Coleman Hawkins told quite a story with his flowing, lyrical style and his choice of instruments. Unflattering descriptions like “Mooing,” “belching,” “raucous,” “crude,” and “just a substitute for the trombone” in military marching bands summed up what people thought about the tenor saxophone before the “Hawk.” Referred to as the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone, Hawkins elevated the once lowly background instrument. In his hands, the once ridiculed sax was placed center stage—a position it still holds in the jazz world today.
The child prodigy was born in St. Joseph's, Missouri to a family of music lovers: His mother was a pianist/organist and Hawkins grew up going to concerts at the Topeka, Kansas auditorium, where his parents held season tickets. His mother taught him both the piano and cello, and by the time he was nine, he had mastered both instruments. His studies in European classical music would later provide a foundation for his exploration into more contemporary music. Although Hawkins practiced piano and cello painstakingly, his mother felt he needed to spend even more time learning his instruments and enticed him with small rewards, but the young genius yearned to play the saxophone and when his parents bought him one for his ninth birthday, he never had to be bribed to practice again. He was so enthralled with playing the instrument that he often forgot to eat. Many thought the nine-year-old Hawkins had certainly made a grave error in choosing the saxophone because it was not considered “refined,” but he not only refined the instrument, he elevated it to be the star of the bandstand. The once-maligned instrument became worthy of jazz and changed the genre’s story forever.
A musician overheard Coleman Hawkins trying out a new mouthpiece and was so impressed by the precocious pre-teen that he hired him for local dance band gigs. At just twelve years old, he became a professional musician and had quite a following among a variety of audiences in Eastern Kansas.
Popular blues singer, Mamie Smith, hit the music circuit in Kansas City, Missouri and hired Hawkins to enhance her band, the Jazz Hounds. The band was so captivated by his talent that they invited him to join their tour. But the consummate musician was only 16 years old and although his mother supported and encouraged him to become professional, she felt her talented son was just too young to go on the road. Plus he was a member of the Topeka High School band and also studied at Washburn College although he was still in high school. Two years later, the Jazz Hounds returned to Kansas City, and their interest in Hawkins was still strong. In 1921, Mrs. Hawkins conceded to let her son go on tour, with the stipulation that Mamie Smith become his legal guardian.
Billed by the band as “Saxophone Boy,” Hawkins began his first long-term touring engagement, performing almost every day during his year-long tenure with the Jazz Hounds. He learned a great deal about showmanship. Years later, band member and reed player, Garvin Bushell, recalled the genius of the teenage Hawkins, saying, “His sight reading and musicianship was faultless even at that young age.” The hectic schedule and constant playing improved the young man’s self-esteem, and he developed the confidence to set out on his own for New York City to join the Harlem cabaret circuit. Hawkins became a Harlemite in 1922 and in May of that year, he was prominently featured in Smith’s “Mean Daddy Blues,” which was his recording debut. There was no shortage of jobs for the accomplished musician and Hawkins enjoyed many challenging after-hours jam sessions, too.
Fletcher Henderson, leader of one of the most successful bands of the era, recruited the young man to play with him and soon Hawkins established himself as an exceptional talent, even among the most prestigious musicians already in the band. He was only twenty years old, but he was making good money and was carving out a reputation in and around New York as the “King of the Sax.
Nicknamed “Bean” by his friends for the shape of his head, Hawkins was always stylishly dressed. His manners and speech were polished and sophisticated. He was considered charming, although quiet, and if his colleagues were not taken in by his charisma, his horn playing made him irresistible. One time Hawkins had a disagreement with a club owner, who demanded that Henderson fire Hawk on the spot. The entire band threatened to follow Hawk out the door if was ejected. His virtuosic, dignified technique of improvisation, his impassioned interpretations and his sumptuous vibrato-laden tones coaxed out tunes that were opulent, smooth, and unforgettable.
In the late 1920s, Hawkins was featured on some of the first interracial recording sessions with the Mound City Blue Blowers. Hawk’s techniques were sought after by some of the most popular groups, including Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Band. Hawkins toured Europe as a soloist with the London-based Jack Hylton Orchestra from 1934 until 1939. In an interview, Hawkins recalled his first international exposure: “It was my first experience of an audience in Europe. And it was a huge stage. Just to walk out there was something. And then I was very well received.” During Hawk’s time away, other tenor saxophonists like Lester Young, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster garnered attention and popularity on the U.S. jazz scene. However, after Hawk returned to the Harlem, he quickly regained his fame by adding innovations to his earlier style.
Almost as soon as he returned to the States,
he Hawk once again changed the jazz story when he recorded a two-chorus performance of "Body and Soul.” Although it was the swing era, the innovative horn player departed from the well-known song by ignoring almost all of the melody. He played the first four bars in a familiar fashion and then took the recording into an unrecognizable zone. Many credit the performance as the beginnings of the bebop jazz style, but Hawk never really claimed it. He said, “It’s the first and only record I ever heard of, that all the squares dig as well as the jazz people... I wasn’t making a melody for the squares. I played it like I play everything else, and yet they went for it.”
Hawkins was famous in the jazz world, but was hyper critical of his musicianship, particularly of his early career. In the November 1946, issue of Metronome, he told interviewer Leonard Feather, “I thought I was playing alright at the time, too, but it sounds awful to me now. I hate to listen to it. I’m ashamed of it.” In his liner notes to the Spotlight album, “Disorder at the Border: The Coleman Hawkins Quintet,” he shared his disappointment that despite its thrilling live shows, the Fletcher Henderson Band never made a good recording. “I never understood why that band could never record. Yet in person it was the most stompin’, pushinest band I ever heard.”
The “Father of the Tenor Saxophone” has the rare distinction of being remembered as a revolutionary, dazzling, fearless performer at a level achieved by only a few great jazz musicians. He led his own big band, played with vocalists like “The Queen of Jazz” Mildred Bailey, who was a Coeur d'Alene Native American, and “dueled” with many a horn player (rendering them breathless and defeated). Coleman Hawkins’s legacy is a treasure trove of Black music. His striking live performances, numerable recordings, and his innovative and stunning creativity continue to inspire musicians and enthrall listeners. He said, “If you don't make mistakes, you aren't really trying," which describes his bold attitude that helped him to change the story of American music.