Coleman Hawkins (nicknamed the “Hawk” or the “Bean”) was born in 1904 in St.Joseph, Missouri. He began his musical life playing the piano and the cello before receiving a tenor saxophone for his ninth birthday. By the time he was 12, Hawkins was performing regularly at school dances.
Beginning in 1921, Hawkins performed both as a freelance player and in a variety of groups. The group he played with for the longest period of time was Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. He was a member of this group from 1923-1934, during which time he had brought the tenor sax to a new level of popularity. In 1933, however, Hawkins’ dominance of the instrument ended when Lester Young’s popularity began to rise. In 1934, Hawkins decided to go to England. He played on his own and with his friend Jack Hylton and was treated like royalty. This special treatment did not carry over into Nazi Germany, however. When Hylton took the group there to perform, Hawkins was stranded at the border when he was refused entry. Hawkins used this time to perform with musicians from France and Holland.
In 1939, Hawkins returned to the United States, where he was welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, from the mid 1940s through the 1950s, his influence in the Jazz world declined. Even so, Hawkins continued performing regularly. During the last two years of Hawkins’ life, he showed signs of emotional distress due to his alcoholism. His last recording was done in 1966. Hawkins died of pneumonia in 1969.
Hawkins’ early style was nothing extraordinary. He played with the somewhat comical slap-tongue style that was common at the time. However, after spending a couple of years playing alongside Louis Armstrong, Hawkins learned to swing and to phrase in a proper Jazz style. Shortly after, he had mastered both the hard-driving explosive riff and the smooth flowing ballad form that were important tenor sax styles. Because of these changes in his playing style, Hawkins was able to bring the tenor sax to a new level of popularity. People began to see that it could be a lead instrument and not just a back-up instrument. Though he was able to play ballads in a smooth, warm style, Hawkins was really known for the loud, fiery tone he used on swinging tunes. He was also known to be a great improviser. Hawkins influenced a number of young tenor sax players, except for Lester Young, whose relaxed style was a direct contrast to that of Hawkins. Hawkins is quoted as saying, “Music should always be an adventure”. This sense of adventure allowed him to bring his instrument to new heights, forever changing its place in history.
This is a clip of Hawkins playing Art Ford’s “Jazz Party” episode aired on 25th September 1958: