The Jazz Groove — Coleman Hawkins

Father of the Jazz Tenor Sax — Body & Soul

Coleman Hawkins. Photo: William Claxton

The history of jazz would have been very different indeed without tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, who effectively introduced the instrument to jazz, turning it into the pre-eminent, and perhaps one of the most expressive, instrument of the music.

I was lucky enough to hear Hawkins play at Birmingham Town Hall back in the 1960s, in fact just three weeks before he died in May 1969. It was one of the most moving artistic experiences of my life.

The concert in question was one of those Jazz At The Philharmonic things that were — thankfully for me and many like me — all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s, that managed to bring together some of the greatest American players of the preceding 40 years or so, players who very quickly turned the events into brilliant three hour jam sessions.

If memory serves me correctly the line-up back in 1969 included Louis Bellson drums, Buck Clayton trumpet, and Teddy Wilson piano, oh, and Vic Dickenson Trombone. There was another sax player but I can’t for the life of me remember who. On reflection it might have been Zoot Sims, but don’t hold me to it.

I remember it as a great concert too, although Coleman Hawkins didn’t appear until the last ten minutes.

And when he did it was a very dramatic moment, made even more so by a single spotlight picking out Teddy Wilson sitting at the grand piano. And then, if things weren’t dramatic enough, Coleman Hawkins entered (his somewhat battered sax suspended from his neck) supported by Louis Bellson, who gently placed him within the inward curving side of the piano. The spotlight widened, Hawkins looked up to his audience and, smiling, listened as Wilson played the introductory opening bars of ‘Body And Soul’ , the recording of which, thirty years earlier, had turned Hawkins into something of pop star. Then, a handful of bars in, Hawkins placed the mouthpiece of his Selmer gold-plated saxophone between his lips and began to blow. And how he blew: that wonderfully warm, yet slightly edgy, tone of his filling that beautiful building that had witnessed the first performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontious a couple of years before Hawkins was born.

Coleman Randolph Hawkins was born in St Joseph, Missouri, on November 21st 1904, and was named Coleman after his mother’s maiden name. He attended high school in Chicago, and later at the Topeka High School, Kansas, where his musical talent was nurtured. Whilst at Topeka High he began studying harmony and composition at Washburn College, Topeka. Although proficient on both the cello and piano at an early age it was the tenor saxophone that intrigued the young Hawkins with the consequence that at the age of nine he began to study that too. By the time he was fourteen he was playing the instrument in the school orchestra, and semi-professionally in several Kansas territory bands. Throughout the early 1920s Hawkins played with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. In the early 1930s Hawkins settled in New York, where his musicianship and ability to sight read any score put in front of him, ensured he was never out of work; and once he joined the top notch Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1934 his future was assured, as was his playing style — especially after Louis Armstrong joined the Henderson outfit — when Hawkins’ own solo spots became ( and I’m sure Hawkins saw Armstrong as a challenge) much more expressive and inventive, creating a blueprint for all future tenor players.

By 1937 Hawkins had moved to Europe, where he played with the Jack Hylton Band in London for a while, and for whom he wrote many arrangements; later that same year he played with the Benny Carter Orchestra in Paris, where, after hours, he also teamed up with guitarist Django Reinhardt.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Hawkins moved back to New York, where, on October 11, he recorded the aforementioned Johnny Green song ‘Body & Soul’, which quickly became a million-seller for Hawkins, and effectively his signature tune.

Which brings us neatly back to that concert at Birmingham Town Hall in 1969, and the utterly spell-binding rendition by Hawkins of that most well known of songs. Like most Coleman Hawkins fans I was familiar, very familiar, with that 1939 recording, and I suppose I thought what I might hear might turn out to be something of a pastiche. No way. Hawkins — although not well and sporting a large beard that was a contradiction of his usual sartorial elegance — created a totally new composition that built in effortless upward layers of sound that came out of that well travelled horn with an exquisite fullness that belied the man’s obvious fragility; and it was a fullness that overflowed with emotion — as if he knew he was nearing his end — that by the time Teddy Wilson gently played the last feathery chord, that went deliciously hand in hand with Hawkins’ last breathy kiss of the reed, I was in tears, and knew I’d heard something quite unique from a master artist of unrivalled brilliance, who, like Armstrong (and I’m sure Armstrong learned as much from Hawkins in the Henderson days) changed the way we hear music, in fact the way the 20th century was built artistically, socially, and emotionally.

In the years after World War II Hawkins took on the challenge of Bebop, where his truly inventive style, and technique, created a new blueprint for modern jazz that such players as Sonny Rollins took to heart.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Hawkins travelled the world as a freelance musician, and was constantly in demand at the recording studios where he made definitive albums with the likes of Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, and his old friend Roy Eldridge.

One of the albums he made in the late 1950s — the title of which heads up this feature — was with the Count Basie sax section, and called, not unsurprisingly, ‘Coleman Hawkins Meets The Sax Section’. And the second this most familiar of sax sections ( Marshal Royal, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Charlie Fowlkes) kicks off with ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ you know Coleman Hawkins is in good and friendly company, and where the ‘Bean’ is given the chance to blow an absolute storm.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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