Monday, May 18, 2015

A Portrait Of Coleman Hawkins

During the formative years of jazz, when various attempts to infuse classical music and jazz fell through, the idea seemed abandoned for a while, until the string recordings became fashionable. Out of that, but more importantly thanks to serious studies in jazz, a new interest in such fusion revived in the 1960s, particularly when the Orchestra U.S.A. came to existence.

Formed by John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, and Harold Farberman, this classical jazz orchestra recorded a handful of albums in the first half of the 1960s, all pointing out possibilities of jazz for going Third Stream. One of the most curious of these recordings, Jazz Journey (Columbia), features, on its opening track, an extended piece of narrative music, a format often used in the history of jazz by composers from Duke Ellington to George Russell without necessarily meeting satisfactory results. This time, it works well.

Spoken by Skitch Henderson and written by Nat Hentoff , A Journey Into Jazz is a charming fable, "based on real events", something on which Wes Anderson could have made a fabulous film. (Speaking of films, this piece makes a great alternative to misrepresenting of jazz in Whiplash.)

The story of the piece is about a boy, Edward Jackson, who learns about jazz by discovering a bunch of musicians in a cellar next door, led by a mystified tenorman.

Journey Into Jazz (composed by Gunther Schuller & Nat Hentoff)

In retrospect, it's hard not think that the tenorman wasn't meant to be Coleman Hawkins, who joined the Orchestra for a recording session (to be included on the same album) on June 29, 1964.

The Orchestra U.S.A. had already rehearsed two compositions featuring Hawkins, one of which a portrait of the veteran tenorman, A Portrait Of Coleman Hawkins, and the other, Duke Bey. They had even performed it live in a concert from March 1964 at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. (Interestingly, one other piece performed at the BAoM concert was Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, one of the first prominent examples of incorporating the jazz language into classical music.)

So the Hawk was ready to fly.

A Portrait Of Coleman Hawkins, presented below, is a great recording and a documentation of the performing abilities of a Coleman Hawkins who was by then deemed to be all worn-out and in decline.

To everyone's amazement, Hawkins, living on a diet of soup and brandy, continued to play for another 5 years, but in a sad coincidence, on the same day that the portrait of the architect of tenor saxophone was recorded, June 29, 1964, one of Hawkins' pupils and an Orchestra U.S.A member, Eric Dolphy, died in a Berlin hospital.

A Portrait Of Coleman Hawkins (composed by Benny Golson)

The backing band consists of Jerome Richardson (as), Ray Shanfeld (baritone sax), John Lewis (p) with Harold Farberman conducting the Orchestra. 

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