Saxophone Jazz Artist:

Coleman Hawkins Known as the “Father of the Tenor ”?

by Michelle Inherst

Photo of Coleman Hawkins courtesy of Wikipedia. Why was Coleman Hawkins the father of the tenor saxophone?

Coleman Randolph Hawkins was known by a variety of nicknames. Some called him ‘Bean’ because of his innovative musical ideas and others called him ‘The Hawk’. The nickname Coleman Hawkins is greatly remembered for is being the ‘Father of the Tenor Saxophone’.

      Born November 21, 1904 in St. Joseph, Missouri to William and Cornelia Hawkins; Coleman was the youngest of two children. Hawkins’ older sister died one year before he was born. For this reason, Hawkins was considered to be an only child.

      Hawkins attended social functions at church where his mother frequently played the organ. Coleman’s family valued education and his exposure to music piqued his interest so he began learning music at an early age. He learned cello at age five and received his first C Melody saxophone by the time he was nine. Coleman Hawkins became a very educated musician. Hawkins credits fellow musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum as being his inspiration. For a time, Hawkins was considered a ‘Master of Comedy’ on the sax. After making some performances with Armstrong, Hawkins began incorporating  some of Armstrong’s improvisations into his own style.

     Hawkins began his career in the 1920’s; about the time jazz music was beginning to be recorded. In April 1922, Coleman started performing with Mamie Smith’s band; the Jazz Hounds. This was during a time when tenor saxophones were used as background instruments.

Hawkins was instrumental in bringing the sound of the tenor saxophone to the forefront.

He made his very first recording, Mean Daddy Blues on the C Melody saxophone.  He eventually traded in his C Melody saxophone for a tenor saxophone and in time, recorded Dicty Blues.

     Coleman Hawkins moved to and toured in Europe for a period of five years. He was received well and highly regarded in Europe due to the fact that his reputation preceded him. Upon returning to New York, Hawkins began sitting in on jam sessions at Harlem nightclubs where he would have a musical showdown with any musician willing to take him on. At the same time, Hawkins was known to ‘react positively to the work of his contemporaries.’

     During his career, Hawkins had always tried to stay on the ‘cutting edge’ with his musical style. He had a tendency toward taking risks in playing his sax. Hawkins also had a natural ability to adapt to change when it came to music and was constantly open to new ideas. His self confidence and sense of pride were legendary. He was known for always being well dressed and well kempt. He was paid top dollar for his performances as well.

      Toward the end of career though, Hawkins started drinking heavily and his appetite was not poor. He started losing weight and he let his hair and beard grow long and become unruly. By the late 1960’s his appearances became less frequent with final one being in Chicago’s North Park Hotel.

Coleman Hawkins; the man who had set the standard for other men who played the tenor saxophone and inspired many up and coming musicians, passed away in his Manhattan apartment May 19,1969. John Chilton was quoted as saying, “Some of his (Coleman Hawkins’) solos are considered Masterpieces by which other tenor saxophonists will be forever judged.

Works Cited

Extraordinary People in Jazz. Marvin Martin. Children’s Press. Copyright 2004.

The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia: Jazz & Blues. Julia Rolf. Starfire Books. Copyright 2007.

The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz Blues. Ted Drozdowski. Billboard Books. Copyright 2005.

A Century of Jazz. Roy Carr. Da Capo Press. Copyright 2007.