Coleman Hawkins Essay Research Paper

Coleman Hawkins Essay, Research Paper

“I think he was the most interesting jazz musician I’ve ever seen in my life. He just looked so authoritative . . . I said, ‘Well, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.’”(DeVeaux, 35) Cannonball Adderley said these words when he first saw Coleman Hawkins with the Fletcher Henderson band at the City Auditorium in Tampa, Florida. Just as Hawkins influenced one of the greatest alto players in history, he has influenced many people to become phenomenal saxophone players. Lester Young and Sonny Rollins both give tribute to Coleman Hawkins as being the “‘proliferator’ of the tenor saxophone as a jazz instrument.”(Kernfeld, 506) Hawkins, unfortunately, is labeled as a swing musician though; and while he did begin his career during the swing era playing with such greats as Louie Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Wilbur Sweatman, and Ginger Jones, he continued his career later in life with players like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Milt Jackson – some of the best bop and modern jazz artists known to date.(Kernfeld, 505) This paper is devoted to the truthful portrayal of Coleman Hawkins, his life, his playing, and the art he helped create known as jazz.

Coleman Hawkins, also affectionately known as “Bean” and/or “Hawk”, was born November 21st, 1904 in St. Joseph, Missouri. The nick-name “Bean” came about due to his knowledge of music. Budd Johnson explained:

We called him Bean . . . because he was so intelligent about music and the way he could play and the way he could think and the way his chord progressions run. We’d call him Bean, instead of ‘Egghead,’ you know.(DeVeaux,65)

He began music at the age of five, having been taught piano by his mother – a school teacher and church organist. By about seven, he had moved on to cello, but was already asking his parents for a tenor saxophone, which he received on his ninth birthday. By the time he was twelve he was already being paid to perform at school dances. He then went to high school in Chicago for, at most, one year before dropping out to attend Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas. He studied for two years at Washburn at which time he learned about harmonies and composition; which would prove to be of utmost importance to him and his career in later life.

At seventeen, Hawk got his first regular gig in the spring of 1921 playing in the orchestra for the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City. That very summer, Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds performed at the theater Hawkins was working. After hearing Bean play, Mamie Smith offered him a job touring with her group. By March of 1922, the Jazz Hounds, now with Hawkins, were playing in New York at the Garden of Joy. Shortly afterwards, he appeared on his first recording with the group. Although his contributions are hardly notable throughout most of the album, he did get a reasonable solo with the tune, I’m Gonna’ Get You. Hawkins and the Jazz Hounds toured across the country reaching out to California, playing in the musical revue, Struttin’ Along. The Jazz Hounds’ act was a mix of vaudeville and blues, as were most primarily African-American groups in the twenties.(Sadie, 322) Hawkins role was a cross of the two styles in which he would slap-tongue his saxophone while lying on his back with his feet in the air.(DeVeaux, 48) After the show returned to New York, Hawkins left the group to become a free-lance musician. He continued to be a regular on the jazz circuit, playing the opening of the club Connie’s Inn with Wilbur Sweatman in June. The gig with Sweatman paid off for Hawkins, for when Fletcher Henderson heard them play, he hired Bean to record with him the following August. Hawkins also played with such notables as pianist Ginger Jones, trumpeter Charlie Gaines, and with Henderson under violinist Ralph “Shrimp” Jones. Henderson’s patronage turned out to be beneficial for Hawkins. When Henderson created a band to play at the Club Alabam in January of 1924, Hawkins was the natural choice for a lead tenor. Hawkins continued to be a member of Henderson’s band until March of 1934, gaining world renown and appearing on numerous recordings. His first memorable recorded solo – Dicty Blues (1923) – shows Hawkins emerging “authoritative style, big sound, and fast vibrato.”(Kernfeld, 505)

When Hawkins realized that he was as much a draw to see Henderson’s band as Fletcher himself, Bean knew it was time to move on. After a tour of Great Britain fell through with the Henderson band in early ’34, Bean contacted English impresario and band leader Jack Hylton about touring with local musicians on his own. Hylton took to the idea and invited Hawkins to be a guest in his and Mrs. Jack Hylton’s bands. Hawkins ended up staying in Europe until 1939, performing with the Ramblers in early ’35 in The Hague; with the Berry’s in Laren, Paris, and Zurich; and recorded with many other ensembles pieced together for studio sessions. Probably the most famous of those sessions, Bean was featured with Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter in Paris, 28 April 1937. On this recording Hawk is said to have played with “fervor and rhythmic drive . . . beginning his solo on Crazy Rhythm with repeated riffs.”(Kernfeld, 505)

Returning to England on March 11, 1939, Hawkins continued his tour of the country, now sponsored by the Selmer music company, with local musicians at each performance. Upon the end of his tour, Coleman Hawkins returned to New York in July of 1939. He wasted little time after returning to the U.S. forming a nine-piece band to open at Kelly’s Stable on October 5th of that year. His musical and commercial success to the masses came a few days later when he recorded a two chorus solo on his tune Body and Soul, a momentous move that reinstated his importance in the jazz scene.(Sadie, 322) This recording got him voted “best tenor saxophonist” by readers of Down Beat magazine in the end of 1939. Hawkins then went on to form a big band and played at the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Savoy, and the Apollo Theater. His dance band also toured some, but did not last long. Hawk resumed working in the small group genre in ’41. The next two years he devoted to playing mostly in Chicago and the Midwest until retuning to New York in ’43. Between the demise of his dance band in ’40 and the three years following, Bean appeared in only one commercial recording session. However, in the thirteen months from December, 1943 and the end of ’44, Coleman Hawkins recorded nearly one hundred tunes on two dozen separate recording sessions and nine different labels. On nearly all of these sessions he was listed as band leader, and on all of them was prominently featured as a soloist.(DeVeaux, 306)

In 1945, when Bop was beginning to surface heavily on the East coast, Hawk was in California performing and recording with Howard McGhee and 23-year-old Oscar Pettiford. Hawk had immersed himself in the bebop style by this point. He was well known for “div[ing] in with all four feet,” as one musician put it.(DeVeaux,308) A Down Beat reporter once followed Bean on a stereo-shopping expedition and remarked:

“Hawkins usually thinks about something new a long time before he acts. Then when he does, he acts so rapidly and with such economy of announcement or motion that others sometimes mistake it for haste or lack of proper consideration.”(DeVeaux, 308)

Hawkins’ sudden change of style was nothing out of the blue. He had apparently been thinking about the state of jazz for some time. Leonard Feather, a reporter from Esquire magazine wrote in 1944: “Today you may find a tenor sax man in Joe Deakes’ band who can make music just as great as anything Coleman Hawkins did in 1929.” While it may have been quite satisfying to Bean that his contemporaries had just then caught up with what he was doing in 1929, he had spent the past fifteen years ensuring that the Hawk of ’44 had left the Hawk of ’29 far behind.(DeVeaux, 63) This reality must have been as depressing as it was flattering though, for Coleman Hawkins had always been one for progress. Hawkins once commented on progress in music stating:

It’s the only field where advancement meets so much opposition. You take doctors – look what medicine and science have accomplished in the last twenty or thirty years. That’s the way it should be in music – that’s the way it has to be.(DeVeaux, 42)

So, when he got off the boat from Europe, he had been looking for a younger crowd attuned to a harmonically more advanced style, which he had found by 1944. In fact, in February of ’44, Bean led a band that included Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Budd Johnson, Clyde Hart, and others in what are considered to be the first bop recordings.(Kernfeld, 506) Bean also included Thelonious Monk, in what was Monk’s first recording, on an album later that year. When asked about bebop in an interview in 1956, he responded, “That’s what they should’ve been playing when I came back in ’39!”

After breaking up with Pettiford and McGhee (who as an ensemble appeared in the film The Crimson Canary) over some money issues – apparently Hawkins had been hording the money made from gigs which McGhee found out about via some documents in an open briefcase during a gig at Billy Berg’s (DeVeaux, 406) – Bean eventually returned to the East Coast in late 1945. Bean then joined a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour which took him right back to California in April of 1946. Amidst the next five years, Hawkins would routinely join these tours for at least a few concerts, spending most of his time with his own groups in New York.

Hawkins returned to Europe in May of 1948, late in ’49, in 1950, and again in 1954 as part of Illinois Jacquet’s tour of U.S. service bases.(Kernfeld, 505) He also made many individually triumphal return trips to Europe. On one such trip, Hawk responded disdainfully to a reporter’s questions about his embracing of bebop:

Bop? Man, I ain’t never heard of bop! What is bop? . . . I don’t know any bop music. I only know one music – the music that’s played. There’s no such thing as bop music, but there is such a thing as progress. What you are talking about is probably a commercial phrase, huh? A phrase that has been used to make something sell . . . It’s just music, and we go along with it.(DeVeaux, 447)

Hawkins continued to lead recordings with such relative new-comers as Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, Hank Jones, and Milt Jackson. Around 1948, Bean recorded the amazing unaccompanied solo, Picasso, a feat way beyond most of his contemporaries and successors.

As bebop declined rapidly in the early fifties, Hawkins found it difficult to find gigs and personal satisfaction in the regular work he did find in the United States and Canada. In 1954, as he turned fifty, he complained that while the musical language of jazz continued to progress, the public’s understanding failed to follow: “The state of the music business now is just as bad as, or even worse, than it’s ever been. The musicians today are fine . . . but I don’t think we have a listening public.”(DeVeaux, 448)

By the late 1950s, Hawkins had hardened his tone and developed a fierce approach to the blues. His playing had gradually become more harsh, a transformation vividly shown by his “extraordinarily violent solo in Marchin’ Along from Tiny Grimes’ Blues Groove,”(Sadie, 322) and culminating in his “rhythmically complex treatment of Body and Soul in 1959.”(Kernfeld, 506) Hawkins continued to appear at all the major jazz festivals began in the mid-fifties, often leading a group with Roy Eldridge, if the money was right. Eldridge later complained: “That man’s done me out of a lot of work. If Hawk don’t like the bread, he won’t take the gig. And he don’t know no word but thousand dollars!”(DeVeaux,448) Other than the festivals, Hawk found a substitute for the 52nd street of days gone by in the Metropole, a noisy midtown Manhattan bar that ran an all-day jazz program. The venue was a strange set-up with a narrow stage so that the band had to play ranged in a straight line; but the intermission time was nice for Bean, giving him plenty of time to relax at a nearby neighborhood tavern and enjoy his whisky or brandy.

During the sixties, Coleman Hawkins appeared in films and on television. He had now become a regular playing at the Village Gate and the Village Vanguard with a quartet consisting of himself, Tommy Flannigan, Major Holley, and Eddie Locke.(Kernfeld, 506) Hawkins began to dislike the direction the jazz scene had begun to turn in the previous few years though. He complained about the avant-garde movement saying, “I don’t hear anything in what they’re playing, just noise and crap.”(DeVeaux, 449) The avant-garde movement of the 1960s had brought about an attack on the very principles of the craft of “precise playing” he had based his career for four decades. What the journalists were calling the “New Thing” made little sense in direction compared to the obvious step from swing to bebop. Bean commented in 1964: “They’re playing ‘Freedom’ and they’re playing ‘Extensions’, whatever they are. Man, I don’t know what they are. These guys are looking for a gimmick, a short cut. There is no short cut.”(DeVeaux, 449) This disconnectedness from the jazz scene may have been what drove Hawkins to begin his destructive drinking binge, or as biologists call it, intropunitive behavior: “a ‘self-destructive process’ triggered when an individual is excluded socially from a group.”(DeVeaux, 449) Perhaps, if he had not begun to self-destruct he could have slipped into the field of pedagogy. In 1967 – the very year he collapsed while playing in February in Toronto and again while on the last tour of Norman Ganz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic in June – he even mused, “Some kind of way I’ve got to teach these boys how to play.”(DeVeaux, 449) Unfortunately, Coleman Hawkins had begun systematically drinking himself to death by the mid-1960s. By the end, 19 May 1969, friends who had not seen Hawk in years barely recognized his frail and unkempt frame. The once proud and ferocious artist had decayed to an unsatisfied and tragic end. To quote the last paragraph of DeVeaux’s epilogue:

Yet many individual lives in jazz – in American culture – are unsatisfying and incomplete, even tragic. For every Dizzy Gillespie, basking in later years in the autumnal glow of a life well led, there is a Charlie Parker, leaving behind a tangle of unfulfilled ambition. Coleman Hawkins’s story reminds us that jazz itself is unfinished business, undergoing the painful process of outliving its own time and watching its social and aesthetic meanings drift into new, unfamiliar formations as the original context for its creation disappears. As Gary Taylor has recently argued, cultural memory begins with death: the death of the creator. The search for meaning is left up to the survivors. It is up to us to decide how to tell the story, how best to represent the struggle and achievement of artists whose lives belong to the past but whose music continues to live in the present. In the process, we will decide what “jazz” will mean in the century ahead.

DeVeaux, Scott. Birth of Bebop, The.

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1997



Kernfeld, Berry. New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, The. Vol. II

London: The MacMillan Company, 1988

Sadie, Stanley. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, The. Vol. II

New York: The MacMillan Company, 1928


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