The tenor saxophone was not generally considered a jazz instrument when Coleman Hawkins took it up at the age of nine. At that time, around 1915, swing music was a developing genre—jazz as a whole was a developing sound, for that matter.
Coleman Hawkins is a figure who drifts through the history of jazz as though he was there before it was written. By the time big band swing bands had reached their fullest potential, Hawkins had already made numerous appearances in the emergent bebop movement. His rise to power was silent, and his loudest career statement comes in the form of the tender and intelligent “Body and Soul.”
Exploring the trajectory of Hawkins’ diverse career leads to regions of jazz that are still today both novel and relatively unexplored. Beneath each recording and lineup is an ever-present freshness, a signature sound that escapes conventional classification. It is above all else the man who chose the tenor saxophone, the then-unconventional, and today ubiquitous sound of jazz.
From Big Bands to Soloist
Like all prominent jazz musicians through the 20s, Hawkins found stable work and creative potential in the swing movement. In fact, Hawkins spent nearly the entire first decade of his musical career with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, a prominent big band that featured the indisputable champion of swing music, Louis Armstrong.
Hawkins played alongside the already legendary Armstrong from the very start of his time with Henderson’s Orchestra. During this time, Hawkins grew in musicianship and style, and perhaps more importantly, in consciousness of jazz and its unexplored potential. Even after Armstrong’s departure in 1925, Hawkins recordings indicate that he was constantly considering the role of the individual in jazz music.
Body And Soul
Though he continued in the vein of swing music and big band up until the 1940s, Hawkins made an indelible mark on jazz music with the recording of his 1939 recording of “Body and Soul.”
As with many revolutionary moments in the history of jazz, the piece was recorded as somewhat of an afterthought, when there was no one to witness or command the trajectory of the music. Hawkins all but abandoned the recognizable melody, opting instead for a completely interpretive improvisation.
The result was a recording that many considered the next evolutionary step in jazz. For Hawkins, it was a recording that only confirmed the direction that he had been heading for quite some time.
Bebop and Beyond
Hawkins’ career took on a solitary note from 1940 onward. He gained a reputation for identifying early talent, including names such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Oscar Pettiford. Though never quite in the fore of the bebop scene, he can be found on some of bebop’s earliest recordings, including an early project with another preeminent bebop figure, Dizzy Gillespie.
Some of Hawkins later works delved into the experimental. Staying true to his pioneering instrumentalist work, Hawkins befriended and recorded alongside Milt Jackson, a player of the vibraphone. Incorporating such an unorthodox instrument into jazz combo music marked the transition into Hawkins later stage of his career, where fame and fortune came secondary to exploring new and untouched territory.
Paving The Way
Though Hawkins recorded late into life, he was eventually eclipsed by other prominent musicians of the era. Players that he had paved the way for—namely, tenor saxophonists—began moving the instrument from accepted, to preferred, to universal in all things jazz. Though he remained prolific in his recordings, most will remember Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” before they think of his Bossa Nova records.
No matter how far Hawkins travelled into the realm of the improvisational or experimental, he embodied one of the central tenants of jazz music. He taught the world of jazz to never settle for the established, to never follow the hum of the expected, and to never play it the same twice.