The first great tenor sax player, Coleman Hawkins is the father
of the jazz saxophone...

Coleman Hawkins was the first great swing sax player. He starred in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra; played with the European stars of the 30s; and, made the first bop recording in New York. He influenced everyone who played sax after him.

Coleman Hawkins, "Hawk" and "Bean", (November 21, 1904 - May 19, 1969) was the first great tenor sax player in jazz history. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri he began piano lessons at age 5 and cello at age 7. When he was 9 years old he asked for and received a tenor saxophone. He started playing professionally at age 12 at school dances and got a job in the theater band in 1921. Mamie Smith played that theater in the summer of '21 and offered "Bean" a job touring with her group, the Jazz Hounds. Hawkins played and recorded with Smith until the middle of 1923.

The "Hawk" was free-lancing different gigs in 1923 when Fletcher Henderson heard him in June, 1923 and offered him a job recording with an orchestra. When Henderson formed a club band in 1924 he was asked to join it. "Bean" played in Henderson's orchestra until 1934. At the time he joined Henderson, Hawkins was a very good, but not remarkable saxophonist.

Louis Armstrong also joined the new Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and Hawkins' playing was greatly affected by Armstrong. Hawk dropped the slap tongued staccato style popular on the sax and began to play a legato style. He also moved off the beat and his playing began to swing much more. With these changes and his robust tone and knowledge of chords and changes, Hawkins developed in to the premier sax player in jazz during his tenure with Henderson.

In 1934 Hawkins moved to Europe where he stayed until 1939. He first played with the Jack Hylton Orchestra. After that he freelanced throughout Europe recording many times with Benny Carter and Django Reinhardt among others. His best known recording during this time was made in 1937 with Benny Carter, Alix Combille, Andre Ekyan, Django Reinhardt, and Stephane Grappelli.

In 1939, Hawk returned to the United States and formed a nine piece band with whom he recorded his most famous piece, "Body and Soul". He improvised two choruses in what is considered to be one of the greatest solos ever played on the tenor saxophone. This recording was also a commercial success, establishing him forever as a jazz legend.

In 1940 He established a big band and toured and recorded with it for about 2 years before he returned to combo playing. He was an early admirer of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and led a combo in New York which included Thelonious Monk on piano and Gillespie on trumpet. He also led the first official Bop recording session with an all-star line-up. Coleman Hawkins moved easily and naturally from being the leading tenor sax in big band swing to helping introduce bop! In the late 40s and early 50s Hawk continued to lead small combo recording sessions that included such musicians as Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson and Milt Jackson.

At this point Lester Young's style of sax playing had become more influential then Coleman Hawkins and more young sax players were sounding like Lester Young . But Hawkins kept playing and recording and experienced a resurgence in popularity in the later 50s. He recorded with Duke Ellington in 1962 and greatly influenced Sonny Rollins. In the early 60s he kept progressing and even played some free or progressive jazz with John Coltrane. Hawk's last good year playing was 1965 and he died in 1969, the father of the modern jazz saxophone and an all-time great.

Recommended:

The Complete Recordings 1929-1941;

Body and Soul (1939-56);

Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (1959)


Return from Coleman Hawkins to Saxophone History


Return from Coleman Hawkins to Jazz Music History

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