As Jazz evolves, tastes in instruments also change. For example, while there were dozens of brilliant clarinet players in the Classic Jazz and Swing periods, the instrument has all but faded from the scene in the Bop Era. The tenor sax, on the other hand, rose from mere comic novelty status in the 1920's to a principal spot in the front lines of most modern Jazz combos. Jazz, as Joachime Berendt stated, has been tenorized.
From the Classic Jazz period to the Swing Era one player had a virual 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. Following a ten year period of getting the hang of that confounded contraption, the Hawk went on to a fifty year career filled with near flawless playing as leader of his own groups as well as with an amazing variety of other combos. He was an inspiration to dozens of top notch Jazz tenor men.
Hawkins career started as a sideman with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds (C.1920-1923)
and continued to develop as a featured soloist with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra (1923-1934). Recordings of his early work with Henderson shows little promise of greatness that was to follow in later years. Although he was considered avant-garde at the time, he employed a slap-tongue style that was closer to vaudeville than Jazz. After Louis Armstrong's tenure with the band ( 1924- 1925) things started to improve rapidly, however. With Louis as an example, Hawkins learned to swing and to phrase like a Jazzman in a matter of two years. Indeed, Louis even transformed the entire Henderson Orchestra from a tight, ricky-ticky novelty band into a hard-swinging Jazz unit.
Hawkin's technique and style continued to develop and by 1933 he had already mastered two important Jazz tenor styles: the hard-driving explosive riff and the smooth flowing ballad form. It was also in 1933 that Hawkins encountered the first real threat to his monopoly of the tenor sax. Late in that year he played with Chu Berry and, during a December stand of the Henderson band in Kansas City, Hawkins got the shock of his life on meeting local players Lester Young, Ben Webster and Hershel Evans. Hawkins had a "cut session" with these early masters of the sax at dawn at a place called the Cherry Blossom Club. The entire musical community of KC showed up for this session! According to earwittness accounts by Mary Lou Williams and Jo Jones, Lester Young got the best of it. The Hawk had finally met a formidable rival !
It may not have been entirely a coincidence that soon after returning to New York from this trip to the Middle West, the Hawk decided to move to England. The official reason usually given is that Hawk was growing restless after ten years with Henderson. Early in March of 1934 he telegraphed popular bandleader Jack Hylton simply stating "I want to come to England". The next day Hylton wired an offer to Hawkins and on March 23 he sailed for England on the Ile de France. Hawkins had once again become the center of attention and the only tenor in town. He was idolized and treated like visiting royalty by the British and Continental Jazz Intelligentsia.
During his five year stay in Europe Hawkins had the opportunity to play and record with all of the prominent European Jazzmen like members of the Hot Club of France , Django Reinhart and Stéphane Grappelli, the Ramblers of Holland as well as other American visitors and expatriots, Benny Carter, Joe Coleman and Arthur Briggs. The circumstances surrounding these encounters were not always entirely pleasant. On some occasions, Hylton would take his band on tours of Hitler's Germany. Much to Hylton's discredit and much to the disappointment of the German Jazz fans, he would strand Hawkins at the border when Hawk was refused entry on racial grounds. It was during some of these periods when Hawk, on his own, played and recorded with the prominent European Jazzmen in France and Holland. Germany's loss was our gain.
Just before Hitler attacked Poland, Hawk returned to the United States in July 1939 to find that there were plenty of contenders to his tenor crown. There was not only Chu Berry, Don Byas, and Ben Webster, all of whom were plainly Hawkins followers but also one of his former musical adversaries from Kansas City, Lester Young, who had by now refined a whole new tenor style. Hawkins and Young were musical opposites. The Hawk was mainly a vertical improvisor who liked to run the chord changes. He used a full tone and rich vibrato as he played with strong on -the -beat intensity. Young employed a horizontal style and worked mainly with the melodic line using an airy alto-like, vibrato-free tone as he floated above the beat. The battle lines for tenor dominance were well defined.
The story goes that Hawk recorded his magnum opus Body and Soul in October, 1939 as an intentional move to reclaim his tenor crown. Such was not the case, however. The recording was made simply to use up some available studio time following a rather humdrum session. Hawkins himself didn't think there was anything outstanding about his Body and Soul saying "it was nothing special, just an encore I use in the clubs to get off the stand. I thought nothing of it and didn't even bother to listen to it afterwards". But the solo, two choruses of beautifully conceived and perfecly balanced improvisation, caused an immediate sensation with musicians and the public. It is still the standard to which tenorists aspire. A parallel can be drawn between Hawkins'Body and Soul and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address . Both were brief, lucid, eloquent and timeless masterpieces, yet tossed off by their authors as as mere ephemera.
As the modern Jazz era unfolded, Hawkin's style remained firmly entrenched with players like Ben Webster and Don Byas. Lester Young's style, however, had a greater influence than Hawk's on progressive players like Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon and on the group of Cool players that followed, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and many others. Hawkins had no problem with the idea of Bop, however, even though he never actually played it. He had long been in the habit of absorbing everything musical that came his way. Hawk not only encouraged many young modernists but as early as 1944 hired many of the young revolutionaries likeThelonious Monk, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. Hawkins was the leader on record dates of some of the earliest Bop experiments. This was in sharp contrast to the attitudes toward Bop of most other older musicians like Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. They shunned the new music and were even belligerent toward it. Armstrong, for example called Bop "Chinese music", revealing a marked lack of understanding.
From the mid 1940's through the 1950's Hawk's influence as a major Jazz soloist diminished, though his playing remained at a high level and he comfortably co-existed with the changing musical scene. He even lived to see his original style regain prominence in the late 1950's in the work of Sonny Rollins and Rollins' disciple, John Coltrane. Even as Hawkins aged, he continued to be an awe inspiring figure to young tenor players right to his last days in 1969. He could be musically intimidating as well. During a session, a young modernist once said of Hawk aside to one of his older colleagues " He scares me, man ! ". The answer: "He's supposed to scare you. That's what he's there for".
Hawkins was not only a pioneer on his instrument who set the stage for all he others. He belongs in the Pantheon of Jazz soloists together with Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Parker, Bechet and Young.