Artist Biography by Scott Yanow
Coleman Hawkins was the first important tenor saxophonist and he remains one of the greatest of all time. A consistently modern improviser whose knowledge of chords and harmonies was encyclopedic, Hawkins had a 40-year prime (1925-1965) during which he could hold his own with any competitor.
Coleman Hawkins started piano lessons when he was five, switched to cello at age seven, and two years later began on tenor. At a time when the saxophone was considered a novelty instrument, used in vaudeville and as a poor substitute for the trombone in marching bands, Hawkins sought to develop his own sound. A professional when he was 12, Hawkins was playing in a Kansas City theater pit band in 1921, when Mamie Smith hired him to play with her Jazz Hounds. Hawkins was with the blues singer until June 1923, making many records in a background role and he was occasionally heard on instrumentals. After leaving Smith, he freelanced around New York, played briefly with Wilbur Sweatman, and in August 1923 made his first recordings with Fletcher Henderson. When Henderson formed a permanent orchestra in January 1924, Hawkins was his star tenor.
Although (due largely to lack of competition) Coleman Hawkins was the top tenor in jazz in 1924, his staccato runs and use of slap-tonguing sound quite dated today. However, after Louis Armstrong joined Henderson later in the year, Hawkins learned from the cornetist’s relaxed legato style and advanced quickly. By 1925, Hawkins was truly a major soloist, and the following year his solo on “Stampede” became influential. Hawk (who doubled in early years on clarinet and bass sax) would be with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra up to 1934, and during this time he was the obvious pacesetter among tenors; Bud Freeman was about the only tenor who did not sound like a close relative of the hard-toned Hawkins. In addition to his solos with Henderson, Hawkins backed some blues singers, recorded with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and, with Red McKenzie in 1929, he cut his first classic ballad statement on “One Hour.”