Coleman Hawkins: The High and Mighty Hawk

Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) is largely pioneered with largely reinvented the tenor sax a as a jazz instrument, as well as being on the pioneers of be bop.

Hawkins was a musical prodigy, playing piano, cello, and saxophone since childhood, and taking college courses in harmony and composition when still in high school. (He was from the midwest: born in St. Joe, raised in Topeka and Chicago). He was 17 when he started playing with Mamie Smith’s band. He joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in the mid 20s, remaining there for almost a decade. In the early years he played Louis Armstrong; the fertile environment of the Henderson, and Henderson’s own serious approach surely reinforced Hawkins’ already ambitious inclinations. During these years, he also played for a time with the Mound City Blue Blowers, in one of the first integrated combos in the country. From 1934 to 1939 he played with outfits in Europe including those of Jack Hylton, Django Reinhart, and Benny Carter. His time overseas allowed Lester Young and others to get a foothold in the States as saxophonists.

With the advent of war in Europe. Hawkins returned to America, appearing regularly at nightclubs, cabarets and festivals, and releasing scores of record albums over the next quarter century. In 52nd street clubs in the ’40s he played with peers like Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, etc. developing be bop. His status as a jazz star is trumpeted (ha) in the titles of his records, often shortened to his nickname “The Hawk”, as though he were a musical superhero. In the ’50s you could also see him on television shows like those of Steve Allen and Nat King Cole, and culturally themed series like The Seven Lively Arts and Jazz Party.

Unfortunately, the bottle got the better of him in the end. His liver gave out in 1969, when he was 64 years old.

For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.