Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 21, 1904, Coleman Hawkins learned how to play the piano at age 5, the cello at 7, and the tenor sax at age 9. Chiefly known for his association with swing music and the big band era, Hawkins toured the world with various bands and had a role in the development of bebop, recording what is considered the first record of the genre in 1944.
Coleman Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1904, and his mother began teaching him how to play piano when he was just 5 years old. He started playing the cello around age 7 and tenor saxophone at age 9. He attended high school in Chicago and then went to Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas, studying harmony and composition.
The spring of 1921 marked Hawkins’ first professional gig—playing in the orchestra of the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City. By March 1922, Hawkins was working with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds in New York, making his first recordings with her shortly thereafter. The year 1923 was a busy one for Hawkins, as he toured with the Jazz Hounds across the country, recorded his first substantial solo (on “Dicty Blues”) and teamed up with musicians such as Fletcher Henderson (with whom Hawkins formed a band that stuck together until 1934), Ginger Jones and Charlie Gaines on studio recordings and live shows.
The remainder of the 1920s and early 1930s found Hawkins and Henderson playing in and around New York City together, at venues such as the Roseland Ballroom and the Savoy. They also toured throughout New England, the East Coast, the Midwest and later the South. By 1934, Hawkins was the featured member of the group, and he set out on his own, touring the country with various local backup bands. He also toured Europe in Jack Hylton’s band in 1934 and, finding success there, toured with the Ramblers the next year. Hawkins’ travels took him from The Hague to Paris to Zurich and beyond as he toured Europe as a solo performer until 1939.
Hawkins returned to the United States in the summer of 1939 and by the fall had recorded “Body and Soul,” which introduced him to a wide American audience and was a huge success for Hawkins (so much so, in fact, that readers of DownBeat magazine voted Hawkins best tenor saxophonist of the year). For the next several years, Hawkins toured the United States with various bands, either his or those formed by other musicians, made studio recordings and returned to Europe for tours in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1954.
Later Life and Legacy
During the late 1950s, he continued to appear at major jazz festivals and recorded prolifically, and when the 1960s rolled around, Hawkins could be found making film and television appearances and performing at New York’s Village Gate and Village Vanguard with his quartet. By the mid-1960s, however, Coleman Hawkins was seriously affected by alcoholism and general ill health, collapsing a few times onstage.
His last concert was on April 20, 1969, at the North Park Hotel in Chicago, and he died just a month later from pneumonia. He is remembered as one of the originators of the bebop style (with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach) and as a huge influence to jazz giants such as Lester Young and Miles Davis.
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