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Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969)

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Coleman Hawkins Coleman Hawkins Coleman Hawkins.

Coleman Hawkins pictured at the height of his success as a jazz musician.

[Ad from Billboard magazine, June 30, 1945, p. 15. Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Coleman Randolph Hawkins was a musician whose innovative playing style helped bring the saxophone to prominence in jazz music. He was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 21, 1904, to William and Cordelia Hawkins. His mother, a pianist and organist, gave him piano lessons at age five, then started him on the cello. However, the sound of the saxophone had a special place in Coleman's heart. For his ninth birthday, his parents bought him a C-melody saxophone, which he practiced so much that he often forgot to come in at mealtime.

St. Joseph, Missouri St. Joseph, Missouri St. Joseph, Missouri.

This scene shows Felix Street looking east in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Hawkins was born in 1904.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (P0009)]

When Coleman was about twelve, he was hired to perform with a group at a local dance. He played so well that he was soon offered several other gigs. Coleman then attended a segregated school for blacks in Topeka, Kansas, called the Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute. He became well known for his performances with groups from nearby Washburn College. During school breaks, he was invited to play with local groups and theater orchestras in Kansas City. It was there that he got his first big break in the music industry.

By 1920 jazz
Jazz is a uniquely American form of music that first developed around the turn of the twentieth century. Heavily influenced by the rhythms and instrumentation employed by ragtime and blues, jazz meshed these African American musical styles with long-standing European American musical forms such as marching band music. Jazz set itself apart from other forms of music by its heavy use of improvisation—the musicians often made up their parts on the spot rather than performing compositions as they had been written. Jazz first became popular in New Orleans, then spread quickly throughout the country in the 1910s. The 1920s are often referred to as the "Jazz Age," because by that time it was the most popular form of music in American cities. Although originally associated with immorality and crime, jazz had become accepted by the mainstream by the mid-1930s. Jazz has changed greatly with each new generation of musicians, leading to a variety of different types over the years.
was becoming very popular. On tour after the success of her hit song "Crazy Blues," jazz and blues singer Mamie Smith stopped for a performance in Kansas City in 1921. Hawkins was asked to sit in for the night with Smith's band, the Jazz Hounds. Smith was so impressed with the sixteen-year-old that she asked him to join her band. His mother allowed him to join the next year after Smith agreed to act as his legal guardian. In 1922 Hawkins toured the country with the Jazz Hounds and played on his first recording, "Mean Daddy Blues." He played various saxophones, including the baritone and alto sax, before settling on the tenor sax as his instrument of choice.
Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.

Mamie Smith was the first African American artist to make a vocal blues recording with Okeh Records in 1920.

[thejazzlabels.com]
In 1923 Hawkins moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance
Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the stock market crash of 1929, a national cultural movement formed in urban African American communities aimed at drawing attention to racial injustice and highlighting the positive aspects of African American culture. African Americans had created vibrant urban African American communities in large northern and Midwestern cities, such as St. Louis, Chicago, and New York City, in the early 1900s. The most famous of these communities was located in Harlem, an area of New York City, and it was from this community that the national movement took its name. African American artists, authors, poets, journalists, playwrights, politicians, and musicians worked to create a more positive national perception of black people and black culture, and to develop national awareness of the legal, social, and economic injustices suffered by African Americans in the United States. Jazz music, the soundtrack to the Harlem Renaissance, became nationally prominent, and many important poems, books, and works of art came out of this movement.
. When not playing paid gigs, he honed his talent by taking part in long, informal late-night jam sessions with other musicians. In 1924 he married a dancer named Gertie and joined the band of pianist Fletcher Henderson, a swing
Early jazz tended to have a slower and simpler rhythm, and was generally played by small groups. In the 1920s a faster style of jazz, with a more complex rhythm suited to dancing, emerged and was called "swing." By the mid-1930s, "big band" jazz was popular. It was associated with swing and employed musicians on a wider variety of instruments that were divided into sections, including rhythm (often percussion, piano, and stringed instruments), reed (normally clarinet and saxophone), and brass (usually trombones and trumpets). Big bands often had so many instruments that they required a musical arranger. In the 1940s, a new form of jazz called "bebop" developed. Bebop used smaller groups. Therefore, individual solos became more important, and were often much longer than in earlier forms of jazz. Bebop had more complex melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and chord changes than earlier forms of jazz, and was more suited for listening than dancing.
music pioneer. Henderson adopted the improvisation and instrumental solos common in jazz groups from New Orleans, finding highly skilled technical players like Hawkins to perform them. Hawkins's playing reached new heights after the highly acclaimed trumpeter Louis Armstrong joined the band, although the two musicians did not get along well and only played together for a year.
Drawing in Two Colors Drawing in Two Colors Drawing in Two Colors.

"Drawing in Two Colors," a lithograph by Winold Reiss, depicts the feeling of the Harlem Jazz scene during the 1920s.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

The trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bass, and piano historically were much more prominent than the saxophone in jazz music. Tenor saxophones were usually played in short, rhythmic bursts, which reduced the quality of tone, and sax solos were normally only played on the beat. Hawkins worked to change this. Over time, he developed a unique, full-bodied tone and started employing long, rich, smoothly connected sets of notes that he often played independently of the beat. Henderson recognized Hawkins's innovative talent and gradually gave him a more prominent place in the band's performances. Hawkins's new style was fully developed by 1933. Three of his recordings from that year, "It's the Talk of the Town," "The Day You Came Along," and "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song," are now considered jazz classics.

Benny Goodman Benny Goodman Benny Goodman.

Benny Goodman shown playing at the 400 Restaurant in New York City in 1946. Goodman was a clarinetist and popular band lander who was known as the "King of Swing," during the 1930s.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, William P. Gottlieb, photographer]

When he was not playing with Henderson, other acts, including Benny Goodman's group, which was one of the most popular bands in America, sought Hawkins out for recording sessions. Hawkins also led a band alongside trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen. He spent so much time away from home performing, recording, and playing in late-night jams that it led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Hawkins left Henderson's group in 1934. For the next five years he toured and recorded with several acts in western Europe. His most notable collaborations were with pianist Jack Hylton and guitarist Django Reinhardt. After returning to New York in 1939 to escape World War II, Hawkins formed his own big band
Early jazz tended to have a slower and simpler rhythm, and was generally played by small groups. In the 1920s a faster style of jazz, with a more complex rhythm suited to dancing, emerged and was called "swing." By the mid-1930s, "big band" jazz was popular. It was associated with swing and employed musicians on a wider variety of instruments that were divided into sections, including rhythm (often percussion, piano, and stringed instruments), reed (normally clarinet and saxophone), and brass (usually trombones and trumpets). Big bands often had so many instruments that they required a musical arranger. In the 1940s, a new form of jazz called "bebop" developed. Bebop used smaller groups. Therefore, individual solos became more important, and were often much longer than in earlier forms of jazz. Bebop had more complex melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and chord changes than earlier forms of jazz, and was more suited for listening than dancing.
. That year, Coleman Hawkins's Orchestra recorded a cover version of a popular song, "Body and Soul." This recording is widely regarded as the most innovative masterpiece of Hawkins's career. He played almost independently of the melody throughout his performance, improvising, playing off the beat, and harmonizing in a manner that influenced the emerging bebop
Early jazz tended to have a slower and simpler rhythm, and was generally played by small groups. In the 1920s a faster style of jazz, with a more complex rhythm suited to dancing, emerged and was called "swing." By the mid-1930s, "big band" jazz was popular. It was associated with swing and employed musicians on a wider variety of instruments that were divided into sections, including rhythm (often percussion, piano, and stringed instruments), reed (normally clarinet and saxophone), and brass (usually trombones and trumpets). Big bands often had so many instruments that they required a musical arranger. In the 1940s, a new form of jazz called "bebop" developed. Bebop used smaller groups. Therefore, individual solos became more important, and were often much longer than in earlier forms of jazz. Bebop had more complex melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and chord changes than earlier forms of jazz, and was more suited for listening than dancing.
style.

In 1941, Hawkins married Dolores Sheridan, with whom he had three children. His big band disbanded the same year. However, unlike many other early jazz musicians, Hawkins was able to change his playing to fit the times. He was a bebop pioneer in the 1940s, and still had a successful recording and touring career in the 1960s in both America and Europe. During this period, Hawkins regularly worked with the most talented and influential jazz musicians of the era, such as trombonist J. J. Johnson, percussionist Max Roach, saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Lester Young, pianists Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, and trumpeters Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Fats Navarro, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis.

Hawkins and famous jazz trumpeter Miles Davis played together at the Three Deuces in New York City in 1947.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, William P. Gottlieb, photographer]

After years of heavy drinking, Hawkins's playing and health began to decline by the mid-1960s. A bout of pneumonia claimed his life on May 19, 1969, about a month after he played his last show. Coleman Hawkins helped take the tenor saxophone from the sidelines to the center stage of jazz music. He left behind many classic recordings, and his original playing style has influenced generations of jazz musicians. An annual jazz festival in Hawkins's honor is held in St. Joseph every June in a park bearing his name, near a statue erected in his honor.

Text and research by Todd Barnett

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References and Resources

For more information about Coleman Hawkins's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Coleman Hawkins in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.


  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • "Crowd of Five Hundred Hears Fletcher Henderson." Kansas City Call. December 22, 1933. p. 11.
    • "Celebrating the Hawk." St. Joseph News-Press. November 13, 2004. p. 11.
  • Books & Articles
    • Dicaire, David. Jazz Musicians of the Early Years, to 1945. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.  [REF 920 J339]
    • Driggs, Frank. Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop—A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. [REF H128.71 D832]
    • Hodeir, André. Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975. [REF 785.42 H66 1975]
    • Russell, Ross. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. [REF H128.71 R917]
  • Manuscript Collection

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
  • Chronicling America
    This website contains two articles concerning Coleman Hawkins:
  • Coleman Hawkins Jazz Society of St. Joseph, Missouri
    This website contains a short biography of Hawkins and information on local jazz events in St. Joseph, including the annual jazz and blues festivals named after Hawkins.
  • Coleman Hawkins: Tenor Saxophone, Front and Center
    This blog entry from NPR Music, a division of the National Public Radio website, contains a biography of Coleman Hawkins, including audio clips of many of his most popular recordings.
  • Smithsonian Jazz
    This website from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a searchable database with links to several articles and interviews that reference Coleman Hawkins.


Historic Missourians : Coleman Hawkins
Coleman HawkinsColeman Hawkins.

[Quotesgram.com]

Coleman Randolph Hawkins

Born: November 21, 1904
Died: May 19, 1969 (age 64)
Category: African Americans, Musicians
Region of Missouri: Northwest, Kansas City
Missouri Hometown: St. Joseph
Related Biographies: Charlie Parker