Born Erskine Ramsey Hawkins, July 26, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama; died November 12, 1993, in Willingboro, New Jersey; son of Edward and Cary (a teacher) Hawkins; married Florence Browning, 1935 (marriage ended); second wife's name, Gloria Dumas. Education: Attended Alabama State Teachers' College.

At the peak of his popularity during the golden age of swing, Erskine Hawkins's trumpet mastery earned him the nickname "The Twentieth Century Gabriel." The group of musicians that made up his orchestra produced some of the big band era's finest and most influential music. Ironically, it took another artist, Glen Miller, to make a true smash hit out of Hawkins's most famous composition, "Tuxedo Junction." Nevertheless, while swing was king, Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra was among the handful of big bands that defined the sound of the era, and its popularity approached that of bands led by giants like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Hawkins was surrounded by music during his youth. His father was killed in France in World War I. Along with his three brothers and one sister, Hawkins was exposed to music early by his mother, a schoolteacher. Initially a drummer, Erskine learned to play several other instruments as well, including baritone saxophone and trombone, before turning his focus to trumpet at age 16.

Several members of Hawkins's first serious professional ensemble had been childhood friends. After high school, Hawkins enrolled at State Teachers' College in Montgomery, a hotbed of jazz performance and study. Hawkins got into the school on an athletic scholarship. Within a few weeks, however, it was clear to all that music was his true calling. A number of his musical pals from the neighborhood were also students at the college. After a brief stint with the 'Bama State Revelers, the college's second tier jazz ensemble, Hawkins quickly became the star of the school's top jazz band, the 'Bama State Collegians. At State Teachers' College, Hawkins quickly developed a sizable following. His most important asset as a trumpet player was his tremendous range. Solos by Hawkins invariably featured squeals higher than could commonly be coaxed from that instrument.

Along with classmates and bandmates Haywood Henry (clarinet and saxophone); Avery Parish (piano); Bob Range (trombone); the Bascomb brothers, Wilbur "Dud" (trumpet) and Paul (saxophone); and others, the Collegians became immensely popular throughout the region. The band would play out several nights a week, bringing their textbooks along to study between sets. Its leader at the time was J. B. Sims, a singer in the Cab Calloway mold. In 1934, the Collegians made their first trip to New York City, where they played the Harlem Opera House, the Apollo Theater, the Ubangi Room, and other bustling jazz venues of the time. The group's reception in New York was so good that school soon became more or less an afterthought. The balancing act between career and scholarship became untenable, and all of the band's members gave up on academics.

Like countless trumpet players of the time, Hawkins was profoundly influenced by Louis Armstrong. From Armstrong, Hawkins learned how to dazzle an audience with flourishes in the upper register, frequently ending songs with bursts of high notes. It was this showmanship, not to mention his ability to emulate Armstrong's solos, that made Hawkins the natural choice to take over as leader when Shims left the band in 1936. The band made its first recording that year, under the name "Erskine Hawkins and His 'Bama State Collegians." Their first recordings, mostly cheap and scratchy, did not sell particularly well. Record sales to white listeners were practically nonexistent.

Hawkins et. al. began reaching a wider audience around 1938. That year, Hawkins hooked up with Moe Gale, a well-connected booking agent and majority-owner of the Savoy ballroom. Gale negotiated a recording contract with RCA Victor, and the band began releasing records on the company's Bluebird label. The band became a regular attraction at the Savoy, and Hawkins became the de facto house bandleader. Gale also booked national tours for the group, which was now known as "Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra," since the "'Bama State Collegians" moniker had to be returned to the college's next generation of jazzers.

"Tuxedo Junction," the song for which Hawkins is most frequently remembered, was ironically recorded as last-minute filler at the end of a 1939 recording session. The tune, named for an area in Birmingham, became the unofficial theme song of both the Hawkins Orchestra in its various forms and the Savoy itself. The song was co-written by Hawkins and bandmates Bill Johnson and Julian Dash. It is also interesting to note that the song's most memorable trumpet solo was not played by Hawkins, but by Dud Bascomb. It was actually quite common for Bascomb to take the more sophisticated, jazzier solos, while Hawkins's delivered his customary onslaught of high-not pyrotechnics. Hawkins's playing style did not always endear him to the critics. He was frequently taken to task for "showboating," a criticism that was occasionally leveled at Louis Armstrong as well. While his playing style wa certainly designed to grab attention, Hawkins was not a spotlight hog. A large part of the band's success stemmed from the virtuosity of all its soloists, and each was given ample opportunity to show off his chops.

Hawkins's next big hit, "After Hours," was recorded the following year. Composed by pianist Avery Parrish, the tune was also largely created on the spot in the recording studio. Several more successful songs were released over the next few years, and the band graduated from the Bluebird label to Victor, the label of RCA's bigger jazz names. 1941's "Someone's Rockin' My Dreamboat" in 1941 and "Tippin' In," recorded in 1945 were among the more successful songs released by Hawkins and company during its peak years of popularity. During the second half of the 1940s, the Hawkins band was a fixture in New York City, performing frequently at the Savoy and the Apollo. Annual tours to the Midwest and the South were also sprinkled into the group's schedule book, as were occasional trips to California. Hawkins's recordings were also received enthusiastically in Europe.

Hawkins's popularity gradually waned through the first half of the 1950s. By the middle of the decade, the Savoy had gone out of business, symbolic of the overall decline of the big band music. As bebop, played by smaller combos, became the predominant form of jazz, the venues became smaller, and Hawkins decided to strip his orchestra down to an eight-piece ensemble, mostly out of financial necessity. He shuffled through record labels, signing with Decca in 1954. The band continued to shrink, consisting of six members when it recorded an LP for Decca in 1961. Eventually Hawkins was leading a quartet, sometimes adding a female singer to the lineup.

In 1967, Hawkins signed on for a week-long engagement at the Concord Hotel, a resort in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. The Concord proved to be an ideal setting for Hawkins's old fashioned swing. Assuming the role of venerable jazz master, he ended up playing there regularly throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Throughout this period, Hawkins worked primarily with a small band behind him, although occasional jazz festivals and cruise ship gigs would find him again fronting a full big band like those of his glory years.

No real consensus exists among jazz historians as to what position Hawkins holds in the annals of the genre. Critic Barry Ulanov wrote the Hawkins band off as the "most slavish imitator" of the Lunceford Band, a swing group popular with black audiences. He contended that the Hawkins band "leave[s] an impression of crude strength and undeveloped talent...." French writer Hugues Panassie, on the other hand, listed Hawkins as the leader of one of the best dance bands around from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Perhaps the existence of such divergent opinions is the best evidence of an artist's importance.

by Robert R. Jacobson

Erskine Hawkins's Career

Led and performed with local bands in Birmingham, Alabama as a teenager; 'Bama State Collegians, Alabama State Teachers's college, 1930-34, became leader in 1936; toured as Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, 1938-c. 1957; performed regularly at Savoy ballroom, 1936-c. 1954; RCA Victor recording artist, 1938-50; recorded "Tuxedo Junction," 1939; led band at Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, NY, 1967-89; numerous festival appearances, including 1979 Nice Jazz Festival.

Erskine Hawkins's Awards

Honorary Doctorate in Music, Alabama State Teachers' College, 1947; Lifetime Work Award for Performing Achievement, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, 1989.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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