There aren’t many musicians whose career traversed the big band, swing and bebop eras. Coleman Hawkins did. He was one of the finest tenor saxophonists in the history of jazz. Born in 1904, Coleman Hawkins was around when jazz was born. His recording debut came in 1921, as a member of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. Then after a gap of twenty-four years, Coleman Hawkins’ solo career began.

His solo career began when he released his debut single Bean Stalking in 1945. Eleven years later, in 1956, Coleman released debut album, The Hawk In Hi-Fi. By then, he was fifty-two. However, he was determined to make up for lost time. Whether it was as a sideman or bandleader, Coleman was creating music that was ambitious, bold and cutting-edge. Soon, Coleman’s career took off. He recorded for labels like Prestige, Verve, H.M.V. and Crown Records who released The Hawk Swings in 1961. The Hawk Swings has recently been rereleased by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. before I tell you about The Hawk Swings, I’ll tell you about Coleman Hawkins’ career.

Coleman  Hawkins was born in November 1904, in Saint Joseph, Missouri. When he was nine, he started playing the saxophone. That wasn’t his first instrument. He was already able to play piano and cello before he picked up a saxophone. Already a talented musician, Coleman attended high school in Chicago, then Kansas. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was already playing with bands around Kansas. That was the start of Coleman’s career.

It was with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds that Coleman Hawkins made his professional debut. He was just seventeen, when he played on the recording of Got To Cool My Doggies Now in 1921. For the next three years, Coleman was a member of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. Then in 1924, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. This was a turning point in Coleman Hawkins’ career.

Coleman Hawkins was one of the stars of Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Audiences were mesmerized by Coleman’s ability to improvise at breakneck speed. This meant his tenor saxophone was at the heart of the Orchestra’s sound. He played with a fluidity that other tenor saxophonists marveled at. However, Coleman’s ability to play quickly and fluidly, was down to his ability to think quickly. 

With his talent, Coleman was treated as a star. When he wasn’t playing, Coleman enjoyed life. Realising he was a star, he lived life like one. He realized we aren’t just here for a visit, so enjoyed the finest cars and clothes. While this satisfied him for a while, eventually, Coleman became restless. So, he decided in 1934 to head to Britain, where he’d play with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra.

Originally, Coleman planned to play just a few concerts with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. However, he grew to like Britain and Europe. He ended up staying five years, touring Holland, Denmark, France, Sweden and Switzerland as a soloist. Coleman played and recorded with some of the biggest names in European music. Among them were Benny Carter and Stephen Grappelli, who he recorded with in Paris during 1937. Coleman also collaborated with legendary jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt. This was a meeting, of minds, of two pioneering jazz musicians. Coleman’s time in Europe had been time well spend. This five year adventure came to an end in October 1939, when Coleman returned home to make a landmark recording.

On his return home, briefly, Coleman joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Then he took up a residency at Kelly’s Stable, New York. It was there on October 11th 1939, that Coleman recorded the old standard, Body and Soul. This became a landmark recording of the swing era. An innovative recording, Coleman improvises, exploring the song’s subtleties and nuances. He eschews most of the melody, as he transforms the song. It’s almost a new song in the hands of Coleman Hawkins. Little did anyone know of the effects this session would have.

During the forties, Coleman’s residence at Kelly’s Stable, New York proved hugely important in the future development of jazz. With a band that variously included Miles Davis, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Pettiford, gradually, bebop evolved. Little did patrons at Kelly’s Stable realize the importance of what was happening. Coleman was leading the band that helped create one of the most important jazz genres, bebop. Having seen the big band and swing eras unfold, Coleman was central to the future development of jazz, as a new decade unfolded.

The fifties saw Coleman recognized as one of the innovators of jazz. Musicians looked up to Coleman, as if looking for guidance. He was much in demand as a sideman, collaborating with everyone from Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Red Gartland, and Thelonious Monk. As bandleader, Coleman recorded his debut album during the fifties.

In 1956, Coleman released debut album, The Hawk In Hi-Fi. By then, he was fifty-two. Determined to make up for lost time, The Hawk Flies followed in 1957. Then in 1958, Coleman released a trio of albums, The Saxophone Section With Coleman Hawkins, Soul and The High and Mighty Hawk. As the fifties drew to a close, The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins was released in 1959. 

As a new decade dawned, Coleman Hawkins released At Ease With Coleman Hawkins in 1960. At Ease With Coleman Hawkins was criticised as muzik rather than music. It neither challenged the listener, nor was perceived as groundbreaking music. Surely Coleman Hawkins wasn’t at a crossroads?

The same year, 1960, Coleman released the first of two albums for Crown Records, Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra. It featured a small, tight and talented band. This included bassist George Duvivier, drummer Osie Johnson, trumpeter Thad Jones and Eddie Costa on piano and vibes. With Coleman adding tenor saxophone, here was an album that saw Coleman Hawkins back to his bluesy, hard bopping best. After the disappointment of At Ease With Coleman Hawkins, it seemed Coleman was back. Not only was he back, but was back to doing what he did best. Would his next album for Crown Records, The Hawk Swings, match the music on Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra?

For The Hawk Swings, Coleman Hawkins penned the five tracks, Cloudy, Almost Dawn, Stake Out, Cross Town and Shadows. He then took the same band that played on Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra into the studio. This included a rhythm section of bassist George Duvivier and drummer Osie Johnson. They were trumpeter Thad Jones and Eddie Costa on piano and vibes. With Coleman adding tenor saxophone, would The Hawk Swings be a return to form from the Hawk?

Cloudy opens The Hawk Swings. Drums give way to a standup bass which, with the horn section and piano propels the arrangement along. The band are as one. A tight unit, they play with a fluidity. Soon, it’s time for the solos. Coleman unleashes a blistering, blazing horn solo. It’s a mixture of speed, accuracy and fluidity. When it drops out trumpeter Thad Jones gets a chance to shine. His performance is spellbinding. Pianist Eddie Costa is next up. Light and airy describes his solo. After that, Coleman and Thad step forward. What follows is like a game of daring do. Driving each other to greater heights, they bring out the best in each other. The result is a blistering slice of hard bopping jazz.

Almost Dawn has a real late-night feel. You can imagine the sun rising and unveiling the Brooklyn Bridge. Stragglers adjust their eyes as they leave a smoke-filled jazz club. Providing the musical backdrop and Coleman and his band. On this piano lead track, rhythm section provide the melancholy heartbeat, before the gently rasping horns enter. There’s a much more understated sound. Think cocktail jazz and you’re not faraway. Coleman doesn’t unleash any lung-bursting solos. Instead, he plays with a tenderness. So do the rest of the band. They leave space within the music, allowing this melancholy, late-night slice of delicious smokey jazz to breath and shine.

As this Stake Out begins, it has an understated, subtle sound. Just the standup bass takes centre-stage. Soon, the horns enter, driving the arrangement along. They play with an urgency, ensuring the song swings. Coleman and Thad are in a groove and become one. That’s until the solos begin. Thad’s solo tugs at your heartstrings. He plays with similar a fluidity to Coleman. So when Coleman picks up the baton, the changeover is seamless. Coleman plays as if he’s been inspired by Thad. His fluidity becomes urgent and emotive. Not once does he miss a beat. Neither does pianist Eddie Costa. When he plays he leaves space. Just like the pregnant pauses left by bassist George Duvivier, they add a sense of pathos and prove poignant. Then when the band unite, they ensure the songs swings to its dramatic crescendo.

Dramatic. That describes the introduction to Cross Town. A braying, soul-baring tenor saxophone solo is accompanied by drum rolls. After that, Coleman and his band deliver a heartbreakingly beautiful track. Coleman’s tenor saxophone, the piano and bass play leading roles. The tempo is slow, the arrangement variously moody, broody, sultry and heartbreaking. There’s a real late-night sound, as drummer Osie Johnson marks time and pianist Eddie Costa add dramatic flourishes. As for the horns, they add to the emotion, sadness and heartbreak during this soul-baring opus.

Shadows closes The Hawk Swings. Again, the tempo is slow and the track has a late-night sound. There’s a cinematic quality to the music. Much of that is because of Coleman’s tenor saxophone. It’s as if he’s unburdening his troubled soul. This musical confession is cathartic. The rest of the band play around him. They play with care, as if wary of overpowering what’s one of his best solos. Emotive, the saxophone’s plaintive cry is full of pathos. When Coleman’s saxophone drops out, Eddie Costa adds a memorable vibes solo. It’s as if Eddie’s trying to cheer Coleman up. That doesn’t work. It’s as if a shadow has cast a burden over Coleman. Nothing it seems will lift these Shadows, which seem to loom large in Coleman’s life. His pain and hurt can be heard in his playing, which is akin to a window into his very soul. This makes Shadows a truly moving way to close The Hawk Swings.

Four decades after his career began, Coleman Hawkins released his second album for Crown Records, The Hawk Swings. That’s a a fitting title. After all, The Hawk Swings and then some. Other times, it’s as if he’s unburdening his troubled soul. For Coleman, his playing sounds cathartic. It’s akin to an act of confession, as if this will cleanse his soul. The result is, music that’s deeply moving and beautiful. With fives songs that variously swung, or were beautiful, moving and heartfelt, Coleman Hawkins’ career it seemed, had been briefly rejuvenated. Before he’d signed to Crown Records, his career was struggling. Sadly, the rejuvenation of Coleman Hawkins’ career didn’t last long.

For the next few years, Coleman’s health continued to suffer. So did his music. It was a vicious circle. For a man who’d been a pioneer of jazz, coping with this must have been hit him hard. As a result, and just like so many musicians in similar circumstances, Coleman Hawkins took to drinking heavily. For the next few years,  Coleman Hawkins’ output was mixed. There were fleeting moments of genius, mixed in with some mediocre music. The Hawk Swings proved to one of Coleman Hawkins’ last great albums. Thankfully, Boplicity, a subsidiary of Ace Records, have rereleased Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Swings. Released in 1961, forty years after he made his recording debut, The Hawk Swings finds Coleman Hawkins, one of the pioneers of jazz back to his hard bopping best.


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