Thursday, January 7, 2010

Comments on a Phoenix Called Hawk!

He is not only his own soloist, but his own harmonist and his own rhythm section as well. He is Coleman Hawkins!

--> -->

Jazz is a vast kingdom (though it is essentially a democratic republic) with many entrance gates, one of them, adorned with tenderness of brass is Coleman Hawkins' gate, and it's not a secret that it is my favorite gate indeed. Like many people from too-late-born generation, I started "diggin’" jazz by listening to modern
masters like Miles or Trane, but my guide to the true spirit of this music was no one but Coleman Hawkins. Hawk reminds me of that Mowlana (or as some says, Rumi, the Persian mystical poet - 1207-73) conception, that we all have been Adam’s children and we all have heard these tunes that mesmerize us, some times before we were born in Eden. And that’s the truth about Coleman Hawkins and his heavenly sounds. It's quite familiar in every note, like we have heard them before, long before birth, and at the same time it has the pleasure of discovering a totally new thing. So everybody in the jazz world must sooner or later come to Hawk. And everybody his his or her own way of discovering his sound. He was musician’s musician. Every new jazz fad came, Hawk was standing there like a tower. Even during the time of major changes in the mid-forties, the avid bebop partisan accepted Hawkins as a part of their world. "One might call Hawkins a thorough professional, but he was also a major performer and he belonged to a generation in which these two things might go together as a matter of course. Periodically Hawkins also seemed to rediscover himself. He listened to everyone, but however much his own playing reflected what he heard around him, Hawkins remained Hawkins," says Martin Williams about the first decades of Hawk's musical life.

Someone to watch over me
Howard McGhee (tp)/Coleman Hawkins (ts)/Sir Charles Thompson (p)/Allen Reuss (g)/John Simmons (b)/Denzil Best (d); Los Angeles, March 9, 1945

A couple of months ago we talked about Hawk’s homecoming from Europe and how Herschel Evans’ death hit him pretty hard. Mr. Williams also talks about this critical period when Hawk became the tenor saxophonist we know today: “When Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe in 1939, he entered his great period as a jazz soloist. He had continued to expand his basic harmonic techniques. He had come to terms with his own lush and sentimental temptations, which means that he had learned to sustain a true lyric mood and therefore no longer needed the sometimes forced and usually brittle edge to his tone that he had apparently found necessary before. The sharpness of vibrato heard on One Hour cannot be heard on Body and Soul.

Body & Soul

Body and Soul (1939) is the accepted Hawkins masterpiece. The record reveals not only Hawkins's knowing use of increasingly sophisticated techniques but his brilliant use of pacing, structure, and rhythmic belief. He saves his showiest arpeggios, opening melodiously and introducing implied double-time along the way. He uses arpeggios and cyclical patterns of harmony, much as they were J. S. Bach's in certain moods.

From mid to late career of Hawk, he succeed in combining the robustness of his early work with a sophisticated melodic sense and a touching, almost nostalgic lyricism. The choruses seem also to have been highly influential: they outline the essentials of the style used by Herschel Evans and his associates and successors, Buddy Tate and Illinois Jacquet. It is possible that this so-called Southwest tenor style was first expounded by Coleman Hawkins in a New York recording studio!

Hawkins in the fifties is my Hawk. During that period he seems to me at the pick of his artistic creativity. Straight masterpieces like I Never Knew and La Rosita from Hawk Eyes (1959); September Song from The Hawk Returns (1954) are few among so many. His Hawk flies high LP with Idrees Sulieman is one of the most lasting musical companions I ever had. Every moment of Night Hawk (1960) is a revelation, if we don't talk about his majestic encounter with Sonny Rollins in 1963. Not long ago listening to a live recording from 1962 [Bandstand 18003] changed my life once more. There was a 14-minute long Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho who made me cry and another 21-min mind-blowing jam, Disorder at the Border. His right arm on this live session was Roy Eldridge who Martin Williams identifies his sound as a synthesis of Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, plus the youthful challenges of Beiderbecke and Red Nichols.

I'm absolutely in tune with Williams when he says: "probably everyone who knows Hawkins' work has a favorite, relatively late recording on which he feels the saxophonist played particularly well. My own is the Shelly Manne-Hawkins LP called 2 3 4. Coleman Hawkins' contribution has been so comprehensive that it is impossible for any tenor saxophonist to avoid some reflection of his influence unless that player were to do a fairly direct imitation of Lester Young or perhaps Bud Freeman.”

In Martin Williams' view, and after a not so favorable (or even fair) examination of Hawk’s musical career, he names the maestro a “dramatic player”:

“The standard term for Hawkins's sensibility is romantic. Terry Martin has suggested, however, that, if Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster were romantic saxophonists, then Hawkins's work was by comparison both too ornate and too detached to be called romantic, and that it would be better to describe his talent as dramatic. I am inclined to agree, and I further suggest that the best critical touchstones and analogies for Hawkins's kind of drama lie outside jazz. His sense of drama was like that of the great aria and lieder singers, the special declamatory drama of the concert singer and the concert stage, a tradition which Hawkins himself deeply admired. One might call Ben Webster a player of great natural musical instincts, and Hawkins a player of great, natural musical curiosity making use of the techniques that his innate curiosity led him to acquire and assimilate. Thus Hawkins survived more than four decades, a player whose commitment to improvisation was essential.”

Maestro's 106th birthday special update, November 21, 2010.

All Martin Williams' quotations from Comments on a Phoenix, Jazz Tradition, published by Oxford University Press.


  1. Thank you for this article!
    I love reading about Hawk and I always appreciate meeting anyone, who loves him and admires him as much as I do!
    Keep me posted on anything connected with the Hawk and check out my blog, if you like, I've got some stuff on Hawk myself!
    Take care,

  2. I have another very extended Hawk post that is coming in a month or so. Thanks Martin!