Coleman Hawkins

Photo of Coleman Hawkins
  • Born

    November 2, 1904
    St. Joseph, Missouri
  • Died

    May 19, 1969 (age 64)
    New York, New York

A mas­ter of the tenor sax, Coleman Hawkins was one of the most im­por­tant jazz fig­ures of the 20th Century. His un­usual sense of im­pro­vi­sa­tion al­lowed him to reach heights of ex­pres­sion­ism that few other artists of his era had reached. Hawkins’ solo on his 1939 ver­sion of Body and Soul” is con­sid­ered a mas­ter­piece and a true clas­sic of American mu­sic. Nicknamed both Hawk” and Bean,” he was also one of the few mu­si­cians of the golden jazz age to make the tran­si­tion to be-bop.

Hawkins stud­ied pi­ano and cello as a child. He took up the tenor sax­o­phone at age nine and was per­form­ing for school dances by the time he was twelve. Growing up in Chicago and at­tend­ing col­lege in Topeka, Kansas, Hawkins wound up in Kansas City in 1921 play­ing for a the­ater or­ches­tra. Mamie Smith heard him per­form one evening in 1922 and of­fered him a spot in her Jazz Hounds. Hawkins trav­eled with the group to New York, where he made his first record­ings, then across coun­try to California and back to New York again.

Hawkins left the Jazz Hounds in mid-1923 and worked free­lance around the New York area un­til join­ing Fletcher Henderson in 1924. He had pre­vi­ously worked with the band­leader dur­ing his ear­lier stay in the city. Hawkins stayed with Henderson for ten years. During this pe­riod the band was cre­at­ing the sound that even­tu­ally be­came swing, and Hawkins be­came an in­te­gral part of that de­vel­op­ment.

Hawkins left Henderson in 1934 when a planned tour of England fell through, feel­ing it time to move on. He con­tacted English band­leader Jack Hylton, who brought him to England to play with his or­ches­tra. Hawkins stayed be­hind in con­ti­nen­tal Europe af­ter an ex­ten­sive Hylton tour there ended, and for the next four years he played and recorded with many European and ex­pa­tri­ate American jazz greats, in­clud­ing a now fa­mous 1937 ses­sion with Benny Carter and Django Reinhardt.

Hawkins re­turned to England in March 1939 and to New York in July of that same year. American au­di­ences had heard lit­tle of his European record­ings and were gen­er­ally un­aware of his tal­ent. He formed a nine-piece out­fit with which he recorded his fa­mous ver­sion of Body and Soul.” The song be­came a huge hit, and Hawkins was voted Tenor Sax of the Year by Downbeat mag­a­zine.

With that suc­cess un­der his belt, Hawkins de­cided to form his own big band. He soon lost in­ter­est in the or­ches­tra, though, and was of­ten ab­sent from it, pre­fer­ring to work with smaller groups and de­velop his in­ter­est in bop. The or­ches­tra con­tin­ued as a unit into the mid-1940s, set­tling into Kelly’s Stables on 52nd Street in New York. Thelma Carpenter was vo­cal­ist from late 1939 to early 1943.

In 1944, Hawkins hired Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie as part of his quar­tet. He also worked with a young Miles Davis. From 1946 on, Hawkins’ was di­vid­ing his time be­tween work­ing with his small groups in New York, tour­ing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and tour­ing in Europe. By 1950, the in­no­va­tions of younger bop mu­si­cians had made Hawkins’ style seem out­dated. In the early 1950s, he made a more com­plete tran­si­tion to be-bop, work­ing with Roy Eldridge through­out most of the decade. By the late 1950s, he was in de­mand once again, play­ing nu­mer­ous jazz fes­ti­vals and record­ing with such artists as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington.

Hawkins bat­tled al­co­holism through­out his life, spend­ing his last two years strug­gling with con­stant ill­ness. He passed away in 1969 from liver dis­ease.


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  • She's Funny That Way
    Coleman Hawkins (Thelma Carpenter), Bluebird (1939)

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