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Coleman Hawkins: 1922-1947


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Few figures in jazz are as historically important as tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. While Louis Armstrong forged a radical new solo style in the 1920s, the trumpet giant generally stuck with his ingenious creation for much of his career. By contrast, Hawkins not only transformed jazz but also changed his own style multiple times, incorporating new approaches introduced by younger players in an effort to remain current, relevant—and on top. 

In this regard, Hawkins' mighty discography (555 recording sessions in all, from 1921 to 1968) is one of jazz's most revealing sediment cores. Like the stuff that comes up in those aluminum tubes archaeologists plunge into the earth to figure out what went on thousands of years ago, Hawkins' records evaluated over time tell us a great deal about jazz's developments and how the artist responded.

A long stem of this core is now available in Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions: 1922-1947—a new eight-CD box set from Mosaic Records. This set smartly avoids providing us with every single recording Hawkins made during this 25-year period. Instead, set producers Michael Cuscuna and Scott Wenzel have selected 190 tracks and alternates that best reflect Hawkins' development—how he changed as an artist, how he changed jazz's future, and how he handled new waves without giving up his singular identity.

I'm of the belief that all good box sets tell a dramatic story—just as great movies or plays do. The story here is of an ambitious and curious artist who boldly revolutionized the tenor saxophone, giving the instrument an auctioneer's voice and all but replaced the trombone and clarinet as the trumpet's main rival in big bands and small groups.

The number of musicians influenced by Hawkins is too long to fully list here. The hard-charging, hand-pump attack Hawkins deployed shaped the approach of Charlie Ventura, Flip Phillips, Sonny Rollins, Don Byas, John Coltrane, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis and many other standout soloists of the post-war period. [Photo of Charlie Ventura above by William P. Gottlieb]

Hawkins' rise takes nothing away from the importance of other tenor saxophonists like Lester Young, whose breezy, linear style had an equally dramatic impact on reedmen like Stan Getz, Brew Moore, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Dexter Gordon, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Stitt, Warne Marsh and many others.

But Hawkins' evolutions were more dramatic and more numerous than Young's, and there are several fascinating turning points in the new Mosaic box that illustrate his serial flowering. These turning points mark junctures when jazz itself changed—from a collective orchestral enterprise to swinging big bands and again to the rise of small groups of adventurous soloists who re-invented the genre. We also get to hear how Hawkins' own style changed—from gruff machinist to an insistent weaver of graceful, serpentine solos.

There are four distinct periods here: Hawkins' emergence as a primary soloist in the mid-1930s, Hawkins as an innovative soloist in the late 1930s, Hawkins' influence on bebop in the early 1940s, and the years between 1944 and 1947, when Hawkins was a poll-winning superstar of unrivaled innovation and ability.

The Mosaic box's curtain opens in 1922 with Hawkins as a member of Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds. From there, Hawkins—a restless freelancer—is heard with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (1923-27), The Dixie Stompers (1928), Clarence Williams' Jazz Kings (1928), McKinney's Cotton Pickers (1929), Mound City Blue Blowers (1929), Henderson again (throughout the 1930s), The Chocolate Dandies (1930), Connie's Inn Orchestra (1931), Count Basie (1941), assorted magazine-poll ensembles, and leader of his own orchestras and all-star groups.

The first turning point can be heard on Talk of the Town, recorded with Fletcher Henderson in September 1933, on which Hawkins takes a surprisingly modern, improvised solo. The Day You Came Along recorded the same month exhibits Hawkins' early tip-toe and glide style, on which he races forward with staccato notes and then sustains notes seamlessly. On Emiline in February 1934, Hawkins drops  the tip-toe aspect of his solos, adhering instead to long, flowing strokes.

The next turning point, of course, is Body and Soul in 1939, on which Hawkins improvised a new melody using the standard's chord changes. Body and Soul was a thunderous hit and established Hawkins as a nonpareil player.

On Serenade to a Sleeping Beauty (1940), we hear an introduction and riff lines that David Rose seemingly cribbed for his composition Holiday for Strings and Jerry Gray used for his arrangement of the song for Glenn Miller during World War II. The Basie sessions in 1941 exhibit yet another Hawkins entirely—a rhythmic player in an early R&B mode.

In December 1943, another turning point, Hawkins led a group with Eddie Heywood on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Shelly Manne on drums—a date that would ultimately establish Manne as a player with pedigree on both coasts. Here Hawkins is the father figure of 52nd Street—solid, sure and cockily blowing solos as if sending out thick, cigar smoke rings. Two months later, he would record on what is considered bebop's first recordings with Dizzy Gillespie for Apollo Records.

The final turning point is one of the box's gems—the Metronome All Star Band session of December 1946, which paired Frank Sinatra with Hawkins and Charlie Shavers (tp), Lawrence Brown (tb), Johnny Hodges (as), Harry Carney (bar), Nat King Cole (p), Bob Ahern (g), Eddie Safranski (b), Dave Tough (d) and Sy Oliver (arr).

Here we have the entire seven-track evolution of Sweet Lorraine, with false starts and alternate takes. What makes this meeting so fascinating is Sinatra's relaxed swing against the instruments of jazz giants. The two entities function almost as a singing duet. Hawkins' solos are majestic and supportive, and the failed efforts are just as fascinating as the master. One has Hawkins failing to wind down fast enough, leaving Cole a bit stuck on how to give Sinatra his re-entry cue. [Pictured above, clockwise from upper left: Sy Oliver, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney]

Hearing Sinatra and Hawkins together leaves the listener wishing they had recorded much more than one song. But in 1946, Sinatra was a heartthrob being steered into pop orbit where the national sales potential was far greater than the artsy jazz market. The other track recorded on the session was Nat Meets June, which starts with June Christy singing a slow blues followed by a rip-roaring instrumental jam session showcasing the piano of Cole. 

By 1946, Hawkins was in full command on songs like  April in Paris, Angel Face, Half-Step Down Please (a bop number) and I Love You, the final track. From 1922 to 1947, we hear jazz itself modernize and the saxophone adjust to the impossible standards set by Hawkins. As recording opportunities emerged in the '40s for jazz, and the demand for star soloists and small groups expanded with new technologies, Hawkins matured, focusing more on his phrasing and ideas than technique and speed. By then, Hawkins was listening to himself—and clearly enjoyed what he heard.

JazzWax tracks: Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions: 1922-1947 (Mosaic), an eight-CD set, is available here.

The 50-page, large-size glossy booklet features in-depth liner notes by Loren Schoenberg—artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, winner of two Grammy Awards for jazz notes and a tenor saxophonist who played with Benny Carter and Benny Goodman. The booklet also includes many rare photos of Hawkins during this 25-year period.

JazzWax clip: Here's Frank Sinatra, Coleman Hawkins and others on Sweet Lorraine in December 1946...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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