At some point during the next 24 hours, every saxophone player on earth ought to get down on his or her knees and thank God for bringing Coleman Hawkins into the world. He was a true revolutionary -- "The Man Who Invented The Saxophone," as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) put it nearly 50 years ago.
William P. Gottlieb: Portrait of Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1944. William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress), on Flickr.
Hawkins was already one of the giants of jazz, when William Gottlieb made this photo (which, by no coincidence at all, includes a trumpet player who who someday equal Hawkins in stature). To quote Baraka, again:
It was Bean [Hawkins] who first made the sax a respectable instrument, as far as jazz musicians were concerned. Before his appearance, the instrument was used largely for its novelty effect in dance bands and those hotel or theater groups know as "Mickey Mouse" bands. Hawkins took the horn, and, inspired by Louis Armstrong's trumpet technique, developed a huge tone and a smooth, on-the-beat approach to saxophone phrasing that brought the instrument into its own as a jazz solo voice. And for a long time after Hawkins almost anyone who played the instrument sounded like him... there was just no other way.
That's not an isolated opinion. Writing a few years earlier than Baraka, Leonard Feather said that...
...Hawkins role as a pioneer in his field was one of incomparable importance. He brought to this hitherto-ignored instrument a full-blooded warmth of tone, a buoyancy of rhythmic feeling that put him head and shoulders above the handful of tenor artists who attempted to challenge his dominace....
One performance above all had sealed Hawkins' reputation -- "Body and Soul," recorded on October the 11th, 1939.
Coleman Hawkins' classic recording of Body and Soul.
"Body and Soul" was both a blessing and a curse. Hawkins' solo is one of the most famous in all of jazz. It made him a star. Today, as in 1939, many jazz musicians and fans can sing it note-for-note. During his lifetime, however, audiences often expected him to play it just as he had on the record -- in effect, to imitate himself.
For a time, Hawkins' big, "full-blooded" tone went out of fashion, and many tenor players adopted the lighter, more fluid style of Lester Young. Today, 40 years after his death, we recognize him as the consumate artist and revolutionary that he was.
Coleman Randolph Hawkins, born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on this day in 1904.
* * *
In some ways, William Gottlieb was to jazz photography as Hawkins was to the jazz saxophone. You can read about Gottlieb's life and see more of his photos, here.