Jazz has been around long enough for us to see it's most respected practitioners become gray, paunchy, and venerable. The precocity of a Wynton Marsalis already famous by the age of twenty-three is startling. But during the swing era, youth was the norm and the advent of middle age a potential symptom of stagnation.
Nearly all the prominent jazz musicians active in the 1930's (with the notable exception of Duke Ellington, born in 1899) were born in the twentieth century. Most had established their reputations before they reached thirty and steadily rose in their field even in the midst of depression.
One of those masters were Coleman Hawkins, nick named "Hawk" and "Bean". Born November 12, 1904, in St. Joseph, MO. He was taught piano from the age of five by his mother, a school teacher who played organ. He took cello at about the age of seven, then requested a tenor saxophone, which he received on his ninth birthday. By the time he was 12 he was performing professionally at school dances. He went to high school in Chicago, then attended Washington College in Topeka, Kansas, for about 2 years, during which time, he studied harmony and composition.
Hawkin's first regular job, beginning in the spring of 1921, was playing in the orchestra of the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City. That summer Mamie Smith performed at the theater, and offered Hawkins a position touring with her group the Jazz Hounds. By March 1922 Hawkins was working with Smith at the Garden of Joy in New York. He made his first recordings with her shortly afterwards, but his contributions are frequently indiscernible, a notable exception being on "I'm gonna get you".
Early in 1923 he toured with the Jazz Hounds as far as California, where the group performed in the revue "Struttin' Along", but left after it returned to New York in June.
In 1924 he joined Fletcher Henderson for ten years, and instantly became a star: with his roller coaster speed he was one of the team of omnipotent Henderson "Killers" that included his old idol Buster Bailey and trombonist Jimmy Harrison, who became a close friend.
Hawkins dressed in the most expensive clothes, drove the fastest cars on Henderson's tours and quickly established himself as the Attila of Jazz saxophone, ruthlessly cutting down anyone rash enough to challenge him.
His contributions to the unbridled stomping power of Henderson's orchestra was mighty, as demonstrated by an early classic "Stampede". In spare moments the killer also arranged for Henderson's band, including a Bert William's pastiche of "Singin' In The Rain" for Jimmy Harrison, which he admitted, "sounded a little different!"
By 1934 he had become disillusioned with Henderson and was asked to join Jack Hylton, London, England. He played the London Palladium with Hylton's band and for the next 5 years was to work not only in England but in Holland, France, Denmark (his favorite) Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere. Away from the American downgrading of his race, Hawkins could cut the dash he felt he deserved, but in 1939 he made his leisurely way back to Chicago. "Fletcher was playing. He knew I was in the audience and sent a waiter with a note saying, "Don't you think it's about time the leave of absence is over? And signed his name at the bottom!"
While he was re-establishing his saxophone supremacy at Kelley's Stables on 52nd Street in 1939,Hawkins recorded the side forever to be most associated with his name. "Body And Soul", which he used as a ten-chorus feature at Kelly's, was recorded in a two-chorus abbreviation for RCA Victor, and the record- a prototype of jazz sax, with subtly amended changes, graceful swooping improvisations and faultless execution-became a jazz classic to place Armstrong's "West End Blues".
Hawkin's involvement with bebop in the years that followed was confident, swift, and all-embracing. Where other musicians, such as Dave Tough or Roy Eldridge, felt inadequate and bruised by the revolution, modern jazz supplied Hawkins with the new harmonic challenges he needed.
By 1943 he led a sextet with Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, and trumpeter Benny Harris, and he took an interest in the careers of young musicians such as Fats Navarro, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie.
He was also regularly with Norman Grantz's Jazz At The Philharmonic from 1946 (with Lester Young),led a quintet with frequent colleague Roy Eldridge and continued to forge a solo career which never declined.
Even in the fashion conscious 1950's, when Hawkin's heavy toned gruff saxophone seemed to take a second place to young turks such as Stan Getz or Zoot Sims, there was never any serious doubt that he was still the finest exponent of his instrument.
Coleman Hawkins was more than a stylist. He is a great stylist, of course, but he was also a very, very good musician. He played jazz, and he also played the instrument the way it should be played. If he were to be placed among symphony musicians he would command their respect. You might say the secret of his success was that he has a natural gift and he took trouble to develop it, just like Duke.
In terms of durable artistic accomplishment and growth, the only parallel to Hawkins' career is provided by that of Duke Ellington. Hawkins has been challenged by different styles several times in his long career, but his supremacy was soon be reasserted. Basic to this, and his ability to go on adding creatively, is his sound.
There have many approaches, but for the majority of musicians and listeners, the Hawkins tone has consistently represented the ultimate. The tones of some others have been appealing, permissible deviations, though they often have suggested loyalties split between alto and tenor. Others again have sought to match Hawkins tone, but they have never quite attained its full, rounded power and authority.
Hawkins was a brilliant musical thinker who was remarkably open to new developments in jazz as well as classical music; this was reflected in both his personnel and the repertory of his groups.
Young saxophonists continue to find aspiration in Hawkins' recordings. His influence has certainly endured.