Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hawk: Creating a Classical Art Form

Burnett James, who is the writer of Coleman Hawkins entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, has a small and out of print book on Hawkins, published in 1984, en many Hawk recordings were out of public reach in pre-digital age. And in this book, in the tradition of best British jazz writers, he has a very good, and positivist introduction to the man and his music that worth repeating here:

"If, as the late Roland Kirk put it, jazz is 'black classical music', some interesting consequences follow. For one thing, it requires not only classic performances but also classic performers; performances, that is, which stand the test of time (and not simply the test of passing fashion), and performers who make a genuine advance in both styles and technique. Without such figures and such performances, no art form can develop and therefore no classic art can emerge.

In jazz there are few records that perpetuate unquestioned classic performances. One is Louis Armstrong's West End Blues; another is Coleman Hawkins's 1939 Body & Soul. There are others, but rather less that may at first be suspected. The classic artist is a rare phenomenon; the artist who both creates the conditions for the emergence of the classic and then proceeds to produce it himself (or herself) is rarer still. Armstrong, Hawkins, Charlie Parker certainly come into this category, Sidney Bechet and Lester Young probably, and of course Duke Ellington although in a slightly different sense and context.

Coleman Hawkins did not of course invent the saxophone in jazz. He did not even 'invent' the tenor saxophone. There were other saxophonists around during his youth - each making a contribution, as he himself admitted freely, and even asserted against exaggerated claims made on his own behalf - semi-legendary figures like Stump Evans, Happy Claudwell, Prince Robinson. But he also agreed when pressed that he did evolve a genuinely new style and was already playing in a manner quite different from the others. Exactly what that manner was and how it emerged and matured must be the primary task that any study of him has undertake. He and his work became classics of jazz, his influence stronger and more widespread than any but Louis Armstrong's, at least until the coming of Charlie Parker. As the late Paul Gonsalves, for twenty years Duke Ellington's featured tenor, once said, as quoted by Stanley Dance in the World of Duke Ellington:

Coleman Hawkins was my main influence. There was something in his music that coincided with Duke's that for me donated class. Apart from his musicianship, there was something about him personally - the way he held his horn, the way he dresses. I call him "the Duke Ellington of the saxophone". His style seemed more musical that that of other tenors, a kind of classic way of playing. I admired Lester Young, but Coleman Hawkins was it for me."

To see, or hear, how he was (and still is) the best, listen to three solos in a same piece: Hawk, Gonsalves, and Stan Getz in The Way You Look Tonight (Verve MGV 8225)- see how Hawk chops everybody.

By the way, where is mister Burnett James?


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