As Michael Gray reminds us, last week saw the 40th anniversary of the death of Coleman Hawkins, who did more than any other musician to give the tenor saxophone its place as a preeminent jazz instrument. As the star performer in Fletcher Henderson’s big band, Hawkins perfected a powerful style characterized by long, flowing solos in which every note was surprising and inevitable at the same time. His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul,” which you can hear above, is considered a landmark in the development of jazz. The popular tune had long been a favorite with jazzmen because of its surprisingly complex chord changes. The Hawk’s version, recorded as an afterthought at the end of a session, briefly states the melody and then dives deep into the very harmonic structure of the song, moving with such elegance that the recording became a commercial success.
Below, Hawkins leads a 1958 performance of “Indian Summer.”
The Hawk made his bones during the swing and big-band era of jazz, but despite his traditional orientation he kept his ears open and his mind working. This endeared him to the young turks of bebop, and Hawk’s sidemen included such young boppers as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom cited him as a crucial influence. (Miles Davis, for one, said he learned to play ballads by studying Hawkins.) The Hawk was happy to join in when the young turks started leading sessions of their own in the Forties and Fifties: he went toe to toe with John Coltrane on one of Thelonious Monk’s finest records, and when drummer Max Roach composed his watershed We Insist! Freedom Now suite in 1960, the Hawk provided some blistering horn parts. The story goes that when Hawkins listened to the playbacks, he kept leaning over to Roach and asking, “You wrote this? My my!”
Here is the Hawk trading parts with none other than Charlie Parker on “Ballade.”
The Hawk’s technique began to decline as drink took its toll, and he ceased recording in the mid-Sixties. He died in 1969 at the age of 64.