About the only fault I’ve found with the Coleman Hawkins collection that Mosaic released this year is the absence of any of the material he recorded in Europe in the mid-‘30’s. Mosaic drew exclusively on recordings made for 20 different labels that are now under the umbrella of Sony, and a handful of others in the public domain. Hawk’s European sides are owned by EMI and thus were beyond the scope of this set which contains 160 masters and 30 alternate takes recorded between 1922-1947.
November 21 is the 108th anniversary of the birth of Coleman Randolph Hawkins in St. Joseph, Missouri. The tenor saxophonist has compelled my attention ever since I purchased RCA’s reissue of 16 Hawkins titles in its Old Wine-New Bottles series. Remember those? Man, what treasures! In Hawk’s case, they included several gems he was featured on with Fletcher Henderson, and such period outfits as The Mount City Blue Blowers, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, the Chocolate Dandies, the Metronome All-Stars, and the Esquire All-American Award Winners. Ten percent of the present collection is about all I could have absorbed as a 16-year-old first encountering Hawk, but I've become something of a completist since then so I'm delighted to have everything on these eight discs of superbly remastered recordings. Let's hope the EMI's get similar treatment soon.
The Mosaic box takes us from 18-year-old Hawk’s first major apprenticeship, a 1922 tour with “Crazy Blues” legend Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, on through to his 1947 session with the young beboppers Fats Navarro and Max Roach. Hawkins’ singularity among the first generation of jazz giants extended to his embrace of the modernists, which included hiring Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Pettiford in the mid-‘40’s. His headlong attack as a saxophonist underscored the omnivorous and adventurous nature of his art; more than almost any other player of his generation, he constantly pushed the boundaries of jazz harmony and raised the bar in every setting he worked in, right down to his late career encounters with Lockjaw Davis, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, who in this letter praised him for lighting "the flame of aspiration within so many of us."
Cannonball Adderley spoke of a young saxophonist who said that Hawk made him nervous. Adderley replied, “He’s supposed to make you nervous! Hawkins has been making other players nervous for 40 years!” Speaking of which, are Charlie Parker's grin and eye roll in this 1950 film borne of nervousness, impishness, or respect for Hawk? I'd say a bit of all three.
Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions spans the first 25 years of Hawk's 45 year-long career. (He died in 1969.) Beginning in 1923, Hawk spent a decade with Fletcher Henderson’s groundbreaking orchestra and early on came under the influence of another Henderson sideman, Louis Armstrong. As he gradually established a style for the tenor saxophone as an instrument capable of serious musical expression (not the freakish tonal effects it was then deployed for), Hawk became a player of enormous impact. The set’s expert annotator, saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, has this to say about his playing on a 1929 session with McKinney’s. "[‘Wherever There’s a Will, Baby’ contains] a Hawkins solo that must have made saxophonists' heads spin with its unstoppable forward motion, opening finger twists and sheer confidence. This is nothing less than the reinvention of the instrument."
By the early ‘30’s, Hawkins was earning $150 a week with Henderson, recording prolifically, and garnering international acclaim in the pages of Melody Maker. In March 1934, with the Henderson orchestra’s fortunes in decline, he telegraphed the English bandleader Jack Hylton about coming to Europe. The following day, Hylton replied in the affirmative and asked only one question: “How much money do you want?” They settled on the English equivalent of $200 per week, and Hawk set sail on March 23, 1934 for an anticipated six-week tour. As it happened, he found adoring crowds and continental life an agreeable match for his sophisticated tastes, and spent five years abroad.
From Holland, here's a beautifully-filmed, 1935 performance of “I Wish I Were Twins,” complete with Hawk’s spoken introduction.
Hawkins made a couple of robust sessions with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1935 and '37. The “Stardust" they recorded at their first meeting finds Hawk displaying remarkable fidelity to Hoagy Carmichael’s melody on his opening chorus. But following Django’s inventive solo, he returns with a chorus of variations that's more typical of the harmonic imaginativeness he employed on "Body and Soul" and countless other recordings in the ensuing years.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, Hawkins sailed for New York on July 9, 1939. The Mosaic set picks up with a September 11 date that was relatively unspectacular given its illustrious personnel. Led by Lionel Hampton, the band boasted Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Charlie Christian, and three of the four giants of Swing Era tenor saxophone, Hawkins and his disciples Chu Berry and Ben Webster. The missing tenorist was Lester Young, who’d already locked horns with Hawk in a legendary jam session in Kansas City in 1933. Mary Lou Williams, who witnessed the all-night battle (Herschel Evans and Ben Webster took part too), maintained that Lester was the victor and that "Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men." Not surprisingly, Young was recruited by Henderson to replace Hawk a year later, but Lester’s lighter tone won only disfavor with Henderson’s sidemen, and it remained for Count Basie’s springboard rhythm to launch Pres later in the decade. As for Hawk, his playing on Hamp's all-star date sounds too combative for his own good on "When Lights Are Low" and his ballad feature, "One Sweet Letter From You."
A month later, however, Hawkins formally announced his return from Europe and reasserted his dominance with the session that produced Body and Soul. Ted Gioia's new volume, The Jazz Standards, focuses on Hawk's "Body and Soul" in his assessment of the Johnny Green tune that he calls "the granddaddy of jazz ballads." Gioia writes, "The tenorist barely hints at the melody, and instead plunges into an elaborate improvisation, heavily reliant on tritone substitutions and built on phrases that are anything but hummable. The intellectual component here was daunting, yet for once the general public rose to the challenge." Hawkins himself was puzzled by its popularity. "It's the first and only record I ever heard that all the squares dig as well as the jazz people, and I don't understand why or how." Schoenberg, who teaches in Juilliard's Institure of Jazz Studies program and directs the Jazz Museum of Harlem, regards Hawk's most heralded performance as an ongoing challenge. "Playing this solo, from memory, should be a requirement for entrance into any music conservatory in the world, regardless of instrument or genre."
Here's a rare and wonderful television clip from 1958 of Hawkins and Young playing "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid." Hawk's in great form, and Young sounds especially good less than a year before his death at age 49. Watching Bean (Count Basie's nickname for Hawk, short for "best and only") and Prez together hearkens back to the night 26 years earlier when they first met at the Sunset Club in Kaycee. Lester's tribute to disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin also features Pee Wee Russell, Charlie Shavers, J.C. Higginbotham, and Willie 'The Lion" Smith.
We’ll hear Hawkins in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, including highlights from the Mosaic collection; his bluesy encounter with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in 1960; and selections from the Riverside recording, The Hawk Flies High, a 1957 session that reunited Hawk with several players whom he'd first embraced in the ‘40’s, including Hank Jones, Oscar Pettiford, and J.J. Johnson.