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Coleman Hawkins Made the Saxophone a Modern Instrument

The first paragraph of the 1969 obituary of Coleman Hawkins in The New York Times puts him right where he belongs: Alongside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.

Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins’ impact and influence cannot be overestimated. Here is what Len Weinstock wrote about him at The Red Hot Jazz Archive (which, by the way, is a great site): “From the Classic Jazz period to the Swing Era one player had a virtual monopoly on the tenor sax, that man being Coleman Hawkins, a.k.a., the Hawk or the Bean. Hawkins (born 1904, St. Joseph, Mo.) was not the first Jazzman to play the tenor but he was the leader in transforming it into a fully expressive, hard driving Jazz instrument.” Click here or on the image for information on a four-CD set that covers the years from 1945 to 1957. That collection doesn’t seem to be available at iTunes, so here is an album featuring Hawkins and Duke Ellington.
The obit says that before he came along, the saxophone “essentially was a comic instrument” in jazz bands. It even started that way for Hawkins, who was born in 1904 in St. Joseph, Missouri. Starting in the mid-1920s, Hawkins “created the first valid jazz style on the tenor saxophone.” The first stop in his elevation of the instrument was at Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom between 1924 and 1927.

Hawkins, who was known as The Hawk — had a rich and full sound. That developed, he is quoted in the obituary as saying, because he needed to play very loud to be heard of over the other horns. Hawkins continued to evolve. Eventually, his style became a bit lighter and he made silences an integral part of his solos.

A clear theme of the bios and profiles of Hawkins is that he never allowed himself to become dated. In the 1940s, he was an influential player in the development of be-bop, according to AllMusic. Hawkins apparently anticipated – perhaps at a subconscious level – the vital next phase of jazz. Hawkins, the profile says, “did not need to adjust his harmonically advanced style in order to play with them.”

In the early 1950s, Lester Young’s saxophone style had become more influential, the profile says. Hawkins enjoyed a resurgence during the middle part of the decade. Hawkins formed an influential duo with Roy Eldridge. The profile mentions the wide variety of partnerships and types of music he played during 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Hawkins faded during the middle part of the decade and passed away in 1969.

Above is “Body and Soul.” Below is “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

(Credit: Len Weinstock of The Red Hot Jazz Archive was quoted in the blue box.)

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