Born: November 21, 1904 | Died: May 19, 1969 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Coleman Hawkins single-handedly brought the saxophone to the prominence in jazz that the instrument enjoys. Before he hit the scene, jazz groups had little use for the instrument. One player (forgot who) said, with all due respect to Adolph Sax, Coleman Hawkins invented the saxophone. Hawkins, or Bean, as he was known as, started playing cello at a young age before switching to the saxophone. He was a lifelong listener of classical music, and as a result, his knowledge of music theory was far ahead of his peers. Whereas Louis Armstrong improvised his solos based on the melody, Hawkins based his on the harmony and had a strong sense of rhythm.
Hawkins hit New York at the age of 20 and quickly established himself, as he became the star of the Fletcher Henderson band. His mature style (both fast and slow) emerged in 1929, and Hawkins has been credited by some to have invented the Jazz ballad. He left Henderson's band in 1934 and headed for Europe. He returned in 1939 and recorded his commercial and artistic masterpiece Body and Soul, and established himself, once again, as one of the pre-eminent soloist. The song features one of the greatest saxophone solos ever and is the standard by which all other jazz ballads are measured.
He fronted his own big band until 1941, and then went back to the New York clubs and the small group surroundings. When bebop hit the scene in the early 40s, Hawkins was one of its early supporters and in 1944, he led the first bebop recording, featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Bebop upset many older musicians, but Hawkins was sympathetic because he understood it. He hired young sidemen, such as Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, and Howard McGhee, which further identified him with the movement. In the 1940s, he toured with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, all the way into 1967. His music remained strong, as did his tone, which was also very strong and large. A young tenor sax player complained once to another tenor player (in the 1950s, when Hawkins was around 50 years old) that playing next to Coleman Hawkins frightened him. The other player responded with, Coleman Hawkins is supposed to frighten you.
Toward the end of his life, he neglected his health and drank much more. This robbed him of his wind, and he couldn't play the long, flowing solos that he had established earlier in his life, but he could still summon up the magic. He died in 1969.