Home » A Hawk In Swingtime

A Hawk In Swingtime

“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) Being a big Coltrane fan, I was drawn to Hawkins because of the aforementioned fact. I’m always interested in learning about where my favorite artists’ roots lie. 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 portrayal of Coleman Hawkins, his life, his playing through the swing era, 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 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 where 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. 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 and it gave Hawkins the bulk of his early swing exposure.

When Henderson created a band to play at the Club Alabama 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, Hawkins knew it was time to move on.

After a tour of Great Britain fell through with the Henderson band in early ’34, Coleman 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. In probably the most famous of those sessions, Hawkins 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. The solo highlighted Hawkins vertical soloing style. An arpeggiotic style that many tenor saxmen after him would immulate. 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, Hawkins 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) 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 Hawk, 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.

Hawkins 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.

Hawkins first made his major moves during the swing era but by the end of his life had made a much more profound affect on the world of jazz. My own understanding of how jazz has progressed over the years has been greatly enhanced through the research of the artist. His career spanned some four decades during which time the artform was pushed and evolved tremendously. He saw, participated in, and helped to develop major steps in the growth of jazz. From Blues stylings, to swing, to bebop. And arguably his most important contribution is his placement of the tenor saxophone on the jazz map as an integral instrument in the artform.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.