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Chronology: Coleman Hawkins Reaches New Heights in the Late ’50s and Early ’60s

Already a legend, the saxophonist's tone and attack gained additional muscle and nuance

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Coleman Hawkins in New York, 1960 (©Burt Goldblatt/CTSIMAGES)
Coleman Hawkins in New York, 1960 (©Burt Goldblatt/CTSIMAGES)

In spring 1963, when Coleman Hawkins was 58 and making some of the most astonishing music of his career, he gave a short but revealing interview to DownBeat. The virtuoso who invented jazz on the tenor saxophone in the 1920s notes that he had been recording recently with cats on the cutting edge like Max Roach, Eric Dolphy, and their ilk.

“You know, the young ones get confused about me being able to play with them,” Hawkins bellowed. “I don’t know why. … Hell, I was listening to Stravinsky when I was a kid. You got to. It’s not a question of being modern. It’s just music—adventure. That’s what music is—adventure. That’s the way I always felt, right from when I was a kid.”

Hawkins was an inveterate progressive. Solos on “The Stampede” (1926) and “Blazin’” (1929) with Fletcher Henderson helped establish the ground rules for playing jazz on his instrument. His iconic “Body and Soul” (1939) represents an apotheosis of swing-era improvisation that presages bebop linear invention and harmony (chromaticism and tritone substitutions abound). By the mid-’40s, he was hiring and recording with the emerging bop elite, among them Roach, Monk, Gillespie, Pettiford, McGhee, and Navarro. With Monk in 1957, Hawkins excises his rococo tendencies on “Well You Needn’t,” “Off Minor,” and “Ruby, My Dear,” relying on newly concentrated phrasing to match the pianist’s angular modernity. 

The Hawk ascended to yet another, higher plane of creative and emotional expression around 1959. For the next five years, his harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic ingenuity astounds. His tone and attack gain additional muscle and nuance. Hawkins always commanded the tenor saxophone with the authority of a five-star general, but even in the early ’60s, long after his years as a major influence had passed, he remained as protean a force as any tenor saxophonist on the scene. That includes John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Listen to the oft-bootlegged radio broadcast from Chicago’s London House recorded June 12, 1963. On “The Way You Look Tonight,” nearly everything Hawkins plays sounds contemporary: harmony, melodic rhyme, rhythmic variety, asymmetric phrasing, thematic development. Only his loping rhythmic gait betrays his generation, as beboppers and their progeny played their eighth-note lines more evenly than their elders.  

Motoring along, Hawkins can hardly wait to start improvising, embellishing his way through Jerome Kern’s melody. He launches into two brilliantly organized choruses in which his spontaneous and swinging ideas coalesce with Bachian fluency and logic into a mesmerizing gestalt. (Hawkins revered the Bach Cello Suites, and he devoured Western classical music on record, from the Three Bs to Bartók and operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner.) 

Sonny Rollins’ shadow hovers over “The Way You Look Tonight,” a reminder that he idolized Hawkins and absorbed key recordings like the 1943 sides “The Man I Love” and “Sweet Lorraine” with their lessons in theatricality, declarative attack, thematic continuity, passing chords, and rhythmic gamesmanship. Hawkins, his ears always alert, no doubt tracked Rollins’ growing mastery in the late ’50s and early ’60s. 

Hawkins was insanely prolific in these years. Between 1959 and 1963, he recorded some 20 LPs as a leader or co-leader, either with his working band of flexible modernists or with multigenerational pickup groups. There are jam sessions with swing-era veterans, Broadway-themed albums, ballad LPs, and summit meetings with Rollins and Duke Ellington. There are another 20 or so dates as a sideman, plus innumerable broadcasts and concert performances that have been released.

There’s hardly a dud in the bunch, but Today and Now (Impulse!) and Alive! At the Village Gate (Verve) offer rewarding overviews. Both were taped in 1962 with Hawkins’ suave and swinging all-Detroit working band: pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Major Holley, and drummer Eddie Locke. (The same trio backed him on the London House recording.) 

On Today and Now, the quartet transforms an unlikely Tin Pan Alley hit from 1909, “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet,” into a slinky torch song. Hawkins’ stentorian tone manhandles the beat for more than eight minutes, pushing ahead, pulling back, riding on top. He rhapsodizes. He growls. He shouts the blues. He tells one compelling story after another and never runs out of interesting things to say. He backs himself into rhetorical corners, squeezing odd numbers of notes into tight spaces, before escaping with the sly cunning of a trickster god. 

Alive! At the Village Gate captures the quartet in a relaxed, expansive mood. Near the end of Hawkins’ solo on a bouncy version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” his trills and arrhythmic flurries suspend time like an au courant postbopper.

 A peerless collection of romantic ballads and gentle swingers, At Ease with Coleman Hawkins (Moodsville, 1960) conjures images of moonlight strolls, nightcaps, and intimacy. Hawkins’ sound and elocution are miracles of variegated feeling: tender strength, gruff lyricism, sultry pleasures, bittersweet vicissitudes. Flanagan’s exquisite accompaniment, with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Osie Johnson, surrounds the saxophone with a halo of beauty.

Which brings us to Hawkins’ enigmatic 1963 tête-à-tête with Rollins, Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA). I do not know if Rollins’ avant-garde abstractions represent a kill-his-father imperative or a more generous desire to leave a wide berth for his hero. Perhaps both. But Rollins’ contrariness sometimes sounds self-conscious, especially compared to the glorious flow he generates on the airchecks with Hawkins from Newport shortly before the studio date. 

Yet the drama and dialogue on “Just Friends” and “Lover Man” is thrilling. Both saxophonists throw down. Some think Hawkins was knocked a bit off his game by Rollins’ broadsides and pianist Paul Bley’s looseness, but in truth Hawkins plays superbly. His improvisations are full of surprise and adventure—like life if you choose to live it that way.

Further Listening

Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse!, 1963)
Not everything it could be but indispensable for Hawkins’ operatic reading of “Mood Indigo,” Ellington’s sumptuous “Self-Portrait (of the Bean),” and the infectious “Limbo Jazz.”

Shelly Manne: 2-3-4 (Impulse!, 1962)
Distinctive, underrated LP. Hawkins gets loose on “A Train” and “Cherokee,” plays piano and tenor on a duet with Manne, “Me and Some Drums,” and burns on “Avalon.”

Coleman Hawkins: Night Hawk (Swingville, 1961)
Charismatic Tough Tenors session taped in 1960 with Hawk and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Collectors’ note: “Lover” from this session only appears on a 1968 reissue (Prestige 7671), re-pressed in 1972.

Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.