Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Hawkins was the first important jazz musician to use the instrument. As Joachim E. Berendt explained, "there were some tenor players before him, but the instrument was not an acknowledged jazz horn". While Hawkins is most strongly associated with the swing music and big band era, he had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s.
Lester Young, who was called "Pres", in a 1959 interview with The Jazz Review, said "As far as I'm concerned, I think Coleman Hawkins was the President first, right? As far as myself, I think I'm the second one." Miles Davis once said: "When I heard Hawk I learned to play ballads." Hawkins was nicknamed "Hawk" and sometimes "Bean".
Learn more about Coleman Hawkins, and listen to his music, free from the Red Hot Jazz website.
Early life and the Swing era
Hawkins was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri in 1904. Some out-of-date sources say 1901, but there is no evidence to prove an earlier date. He was named Coleman after his mother Cordelia's maiden name.
He attended high school in Chicago, then in Topeka, Kansas at Topeka High School. He later stated that he studied harmony and composition for two years at Washburn College in Topeka while still attending THS. In his youth he played piano and cello, and started playing saxophone at the age of nine; by the age of fourteen he was playing around eastern Kansas.
Hawkins joined Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds in 1921, whom he toured with through 1923, when he settled in New York City. Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, where he remained until 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. Hawkins's playing changed significantly during Louis Armstrong's tenure with the Henderson Orchestra during 1924-25. In the late 20's, Hawkins also participated in some of the earliest interracial recording sessions with the Mound City Blue Blowers. During the time with Henderson, he became a star soloist with an increasing amount of star solos on record. While with the band, he and Henry "Red" Allen recorded a series of small group sides for ARC (on their Perfect, Melotone, Romeo, and Oriole labels). Hawkins also recorded a number of solo recordings, with either piano or with a pick-up band of Henderson's musicians in 1933-34, just prior to his European trip.
In late 1934, Hawkins accepted an invitation to play with Jack Hylton's band in London, and toured Europe as a soloist until 1939, memorably working with Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter in Paris in 1937. Having returned to the United States, on October 11, 1939 he recorded a two chorus performance of the pop standard "Body and Soul", which he had been performing at Kelly's Stables. A landmark recording of the Swing Era, recorded as an afterthought at the session, it is notable in that Hawkins ignores almost all of the melody, only the first four bars are stated in a recognizable fashion. In its exploration of harmonic structure it is considered by many to be the next evolutionary step in jazz recording from where Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" in 1928 left off.
The Bebop era
After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a big band, he led a combo at Kelly's Stables on Manhattan's 52nd Street with Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, and Max Roach as sidemen. He was leader on what is generally considered the first ever bebop recording session with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach in 1944. Later he toured with Howard McGhee and recorded with J. J. Johnson and Fats Navarro. He also toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
In 1948 Hawkins recorded Picasso, an early piece for unaccompanied saxophone.
After 1948 Hawkins divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous freelance recordings. In the 1960s, he appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.
Hawkins directly influenced many bebop performers, and later in his career, recorded or performed with such adventurous musicians as Sonny Rollins, who considered him as his main influence, and John Coltrane. He appears on the Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Riverside) record. In 1960 he recorded on Max Roach's We Insist! - Freedom Now suite.
He also performed with more traditional musicians, such as Henry "Red" Allen and Roy Eldridge, with whom he appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, and recorded Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster with fellow tenor saxophonist Ben Webster on December 16, 1957, along with Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Alvin Stoller (drums). In the 1960s, he recorded with Duke Ellington.
What was up to date in jazz changed radically over the decades. When record collectors would play his early 1920s recordings during Hawkins's later years he would sometimes deny his presence on them, since the playing on the old records sounded so dated.
In his later years, Hawkins began to drink heavily and stopped recording (his last recording was in late 1966). He died of pneumonia in 1969 and is interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
A biography of Hawkins, The Song of the Hawk (1990), was written by British jazz historian John Chilton.