Born November 21, 1904, in St. Joseph, MO; died May 19, 1969, in New York, NY; mother was a pianist and organist; wives names were Gertrude and Delores; children: Rene (a son), Colette, Mrs. Melvin Wright. Education: Attended Washburn College.

Listen to recordings of any jazz saxophone player made in the last 50 years and you will be hearing the influence of Coleman Hawkins, the "Father of the Tenor Saxophone." During the early part of his career Hawkins was known simply as the best tenor player in the world; but he now has the rare distinction of being considered a revolutionary, virtuoso performer at a level attained by only a small collection of great jazz musicians. His legacy is a combination of dazzling live performances, a myriad of recordings that remain a vital component of our musical treasury, and innovations and tasteful creativity that continue to inspire musicians and listeners.

As an artist, Hawk's life contained many contradictions. In his younger days he redefined the role of the saxophone with bold and insightful solos, but in later years he hated to listen to his recordings from that period. He helped launch bebop but never fully embraced it and though he was the consummate jazz musician, he did not follow in the degenerative footsteps that led to early death or poverty for so many of his contemporaries. When Hawkins died in 1969, he was remembered at his memorial service by virtually every important jazz musician of the time, as well as a throng of admirers who lined up on the streets outside to pay homage to the great American musician, the man known affectionately as "Bean."

Hawkins was born in 1904 in the small town of St. Joseph, Missouri. His parents both loved music, especially his mother, who was a pianist and organist. When he was five years old, Hawkins began piano lessons and took up the cello, learning classical music, which would provide a foundation for his exploration into more modern music. As John Chilton stated in his book The Song of the Hawk, "He was well versed in the classics, as in popular tunes, but his destiny lay in granting form and beauty to the art of improvising jazz." Although Hawkins practiced piano and cello conscientiously, his mother insisted that he demonstrate even more effort and would entice him to play with small rewards. When young Coleman discovered the saxophone, however, he no longer needed enticement--he had found the instrument that would bring him international fame.

Hawkins landed his first professional gig when he was overheard trying out a new mouthpiece by a musician, who then gave the precocious 12 year old work in local dance bands. When famed blues singer Maime Smith came to Kansas City, Missouri, she hired Coleman to augment her band, the Jazz Hounds. The band was so impressed that they asked the teenager if he would like to join them on tour. Garvin Bushell, a reed player with the Hounds, recalled to Chilton that, despite his age, Hawkins was already a complete musician. "His sight reading and musicianship was faultless even at that young age," Bushell said of the young sax player.

Though she had encouraged her talented son to become a professional musician, Hawkins's mother deemed him too young to go out on the road. But when the Jazz Hounds returned two years later, they were still interested in recruiting Hawkins; so, in 1922--with the stipulation that Maime Smith become his legal guardian--Mrs. Hawkins relented, and Hawkins, billed by the Jazz Hounds as "Saxophone Boy," set out on his first long-term touring engagement.

In May of that year he made his recording debut with Smith on "Mean Daddy Blues," on which he was given a prominent role. Hawk learned a great deal on the tour and, playing everyday, developed a self-confidence that eventually enabled him to leave the band and set out for New York to play the Harlem cabaret circuit. These were good days for an accomplished musician like Hawkins, and there was no shortage of gigs or challenging after-hours jam sessions.

Eventually Hawkins was discovered by bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who recruited the young man for his big band, one of the most successful outfits of the 1920s. It wasn't long before Hawkins established himself as an exceptional talent, even among the exceptionally talented musicians already in the band. He was only 20 years old, but he was making good money and was carving out a reputation in and around New York as the king of the sax.

In addition to his playing, Hawkins stood out among his peers--who had nicknamed him "Bean" for the shape of his head--in terms of speech and manner. Always the sophisticate, he now made it a point to be stylishly dressed as well. This did not go unnoticed by the women in his circle, who generally found Hawkins a charming and irresistible companion. And if he were unable to charm some musical colleagues with his quiet personality, his horn playing usually did the job. Evidence of this came when Hawkins had a run-in with a club owner, who demanded that Henderson fire Hawk on the spot. But the band stood by their tenorman and threatened to walk if Hawk were ejected.

In 1924 the Henderson Band was joined by a young trumpet player named Louis Armstrong, who, though he never really got along with Hawkins, provided a musical challenge to the saxophonist, as well as an influence in phrasing and rhythm that Hawk would eventually--though he would be reluctant to acknowledge it--incorporate and expand on. "Armstrong's arrival brought new breadth to Hawkins' musical expressiveness," Chilton remarked, "and, more importantly, streamlined his phrasing."

This dynamic would be repeated; Hawkins later expressed disaffection for his chief rival on the tenor, Lester Young. Although with Armstrong it seemed to be a personal dislike--Hawkins never disparaged the trumpeter's playing--with Young he expressed on more than one occasion an inability to understand Young's popularity.

After engagements with the Henderson band, Hawk would regularly head uptown to the Harlem cabarets, where he would sit in on jam sessions and challenge other musicians, preferably other horn players. During these "cutting sessions, Hawk would routinely leave his competitors gasping for air as he carved them up in front of the delighted audience," reported Chilton. "When a young cat came to New York," Chilton quoted Hawkins as having explained in the magazine Cadence, "I had to take care of him quick."

Regardless of his undisputed position and popularity at the time, though, Hawkins hated looking back on this early period of his career. In the November, 1946, issue of Metronome, he told jazz writer Leonard Feather, "I thought I was playing alright at the time, too, but it sounds awful to me now. I hate to listen to it. I'm ashamed of it." In fact, Hawkins lamented in an interview with English journalist Mark Gardner, printed in liner notes to the Spotlight album Disorder at the Border: The Coleman Hawkins Quintet, that despite electrifying live shows, the Fletcher Henderson Band never recorded well. "I never understood why that band could never record," Hawk told Gardner. "Yet in person it was the most stompin', pushinest band I ever heard."

In 1934, after 11 years with Henderson, Hawkins left and went on a five-year sojourn to Europe, an experience so rewarding that he enthusiastically looked forward to returning in later years. He was originally scheduled to play only in England, but his dates there were so successful that he was quickly signed for a year-long European tour. In a 1962 issue of Down Beat, Hawkins recalled his first international exposure: "It was my first experience of an audience in Europe. And it was a huge stage. Just to walk out there was something. And then I was very well received."

After his work in England, Hawkins traveled to Scandinavia and the Continent, where he received consistent praise and adulation from audiences and reviewers alike. During his stay he developed lasting friendships, as well as an expanding admiration for the art, theater, and larger culture of Europe. He may have remained abroad longer, but the gathering of political storm clouds prompted his departure--and triumphant return to the States.

News of Hawkins's conquest of Europe quickly reached the U.S. and when he resumed his place on the New York jazz scene, it was not as a sideman, but as a leader; he formed a nine-piece band and took up residency at Kelly's Stable, from which his outfit received a recording deal.

On October 11, 1939, Hawk took his band into the studio and came away with one of the most famous records in the history of jazz. According to many jazz musicians of the time, the day after "Body and Soul" was released, "everyone" was talking about it. Hawk's solo on the tune was a lilting, dynamic, and incomparable work of art never before even suggested, and it would change the way solos were conceived and executed from that day on. As Chilton stated, "[With "Body and Soul"] Coleman Hawkins achieved the apotheosis of his entire career, creating a solo that remains the most perfectly achieved and executed example of jazz tenor-sax playing ever recorded." In 1957 pianist Teddy Wilson told Down Beat that it was "the best solo record I ever heard in jazz." Hawk's "Body and Soul" was also a huge popular success. "It's funny how it became such a classic," Hawk told Down Beat in 1955. "It's the first and only record I ever heard of, that all the squares dig as well as the jazz people ... I wasn't making a melody for the squares. I played it like I play everything else, and yet they went for it." Indeed, Hawkins played simply and from the heart, and the recording blazed a trail of new opportunities in jazz for creative expression. It would become not only his trademark, but a trademark for all of jazz as well.

By this time the big band era was at its height, and Hawkins, buoyed by the success of "Body and Soul," began an engagement at New York City's Savoy. But Hawk was never an aggressive or well-organized businessman; as a result, his band never reached the wild popularity of Duke Ellington and Count Basie's. After the Savoy engagement ended, Hawk found gigs becoming more scarce. In 1944 he went to Chicago to headline a big band at Dave's Swingland. While in Chicago he made some recordings for the Apollo label that have since been hailed, according to Chilton, "as the first recordings of Bebop." In Down Beat in 1962, Hawkins explained his relationship to bebop and two of its pioneers--saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie: "Charlie Parker and Dizzy were getting started, but they needed help. What they were doing was 'far out' to a lot of people, but it was just music to me."

Despite repeated efforts by critics and fans to associate musicians with a style or "school," Hawkins never felt comfortable being pigeonholed into any single category, including bebop. As much as jazz was his medium, he remained passionately devoted to classical music, playing it at home--mainly on the piano--and maintaining a formidable collection of classical music and opera. He particularly enjoyed the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and would often cite it as an example of true musical genius. He rarely bought jazz records, preferring instead to revel in the vitality of live performances.

By 1947 the once-thriving 52nd Street scene in New York was beginning its decline and Hawk, finding gigs less available, packed up and left for Paris, where he was received warmly by those who had remembered him from his prewar visits. For the next several years Hawk divided his time between Europe and the States, often playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, which featured many jazz legends, among whom Hawk was always a headliner. As was his way, during this period Hawkins often found time to sit in on recording sessions; his recorded output is indeed extensive.

Whether playing live or in the studio, Hawkins was popular not only with the public, but with that more demanding group, his fellow musicians, who always respected the master. Many musicians, regardless of their instrument, had listened to "Body and Soul" over and over until they had memorized Bean's solo, and they continued to listen to his flowing and lyrical tenor for new gems that they could employ. "Bean," said saxophonist Sonny Stitt in Down Beat, "set the stage for all of us." In a conversation with Song of the Hawk author Chilton, pianist Roland Hanna expressed his admiration for Hawk's musicianship, revealing, "I always felt he had perfect pitch because he could play anything he heard instantly. He was the complete musician; he could improvise at any tempo, in any key, and he could read anything."

Hawk explained his own theories on solos and improvisation in Down Beat: "I think a solo should tell a story, but to most people that's as much a matter of shape as what the story is about. Romanticism and sorrow and greed--they can all be put into music." To be sure, throughout his life, Coleman Hawkins told many stories with his flowing and lyrical style. To this day, jazz musicians around the world have been telling and retelling those stories.

by David Waldstein

Coleman Hawkins's Career

Began playing professionally in local dance bands, 1916; performed with Maime Smith and the Jazz Hounds as "Saxophone Boy" and made recording debut, 1922-23; performed with Fletcher Henderson Band, 1923-34; performed and recorded in Europe, 1934-39; formed own band and recorded "Body and Soul," 1939; led own big band at Dave's Swingland, Chicago, 1944; returned to Europe for series of engagements, 1947; played on 52nd St., New York City, late 1940s-early 1950s; continued to record and perform, U.S. and Europe, late 1950s, 1960s.

Coleman Hawkins's Awards

Numerous first-place honors in Esquire best tenor saxophone poll.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Hawkins was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

This is an excellent site, and an excellent introduction to Hawkins. I did not know that Mamie Smith was appointed Hawkins' legal guardian. I wonder what kind of musical influence Smith had on the young Hawkins?