Coleman Hawkins could read music before the printed word. He began piano lessons at five, learned the cello, and picked up the C melody saxophone at nine. He played his first paying gig at twelve, and when he was thirteen his parents sent him from St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was born in 1904, to Chicago to attend high school and study music. Playing sax in a pit band there, he was discovered by singer Mamie Smith. In 1922 he joined her Jazz Hounds, playing sax and doubling on cello.
After leaving Smith, Hawkins freelanced around New York in 1923 with Fletcher Henderson’s band which eventually included a young Louis Armstrong. He was making good money and, although he was frugal, he dressed expensively and drove fine cars. He stayed with Henderson until 1934 when he took a leave of absence to work in England for band leader Jack Hylton. The initial two-month stay turned into six years with Hawkins traveling the Continent to perform and record, variously basing himself in Denmark, Holland, and Belgium.
He returned to New York on July 31, 1939, with a contract to take a nine-piece group into Kelly’s Stable. In October the nonet went into the studio. The last of the four tunes they recorded was “Body and Soul.” In his book The Song of the Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins, John Chilton describes the session. “Hawk decided to treat the song informally, making it a two-chorus ballad feature for himself.... Backed by what was the simplest of arrangements, Coleman Hawkins achieved the apotheosis of his entire career, creating a solo that remains the most perfectly conceived and executed example of jazz tenor-sax playing ever recorded.”
Hawk led a short-lived big band in New York before moving to Chicago in 1941 and leading a small group. He returned to New York in 1942 and a spate of recording dates through 1944 before establishing a long residency on New York City’s famed 52nd Street.
Hawkins had always been a keen observer musicians, spending his time off checking out other groups, listening to records, and encouraging young musicians. He was fully aware of bebop. Chilton quotes him as saying, “Wherever there’s good musicians you’ll always find me.... I don’t think about music being new or modern. Music doesn’t go seasonable to me.” “Hawkins,” says Chilton, “made no secret of the fact that he was in favour of new developments in jazz, but this didn’t mean that he abandoned his previously held values, nor did he condemn veteran musicians whose work didn’t incorporate modernisms.”
In 1945 Hawkins took a quintet which had originally featured Thelonious Monk on piano into Billy Berg’s club in Los Angeles which led to an association with Norman Granz’s JATP in 1947, followed by an extended European tour. When he returned to New York in 1950, Stan Getz was leading the polls. “The young stars of bebop had established themselves and so too had the ‘cool’ jazzmen...” says Chilton.
Hawkins kept busy for the next decade touring Europe, recording as an in-demand sideman, gigging regularly at New York’s Metropole, and playing festivals. But by 1966 years of alcohol abuse were showing up as Hawk’s robust frame became frail and his dapper appearance became disheveled. By 1969 it was apparent that the saxophonist was ill although he refused to see a doctor. He performed in April but was soon hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia and died on May 19, 1969.
In assessing Hawkins’ contribution to jazz in his book American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett says, “Hawkins invented the tenor saxophone in the way Richardson invented the novel: he took an often misunderstood instrument and made it work right for the first time.... It took Hawkins ten years to figure out completely what the instrument was capable of. He hit upon using an unusually wide mouthpiece and a hard reed, and by 1933 he had developed a tone that had never before been heard on a saxophone.”