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Coleman Hawkins

leader of the first ever bebop recording session

Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 21, 1904. He was taught piano from the age of five by his mother, a schoolteacher who played organ, took up the cello at seven, and the tenor saxophone at nine. By the time he was twelve he was performing professionally at school dances. He went to high school in Chicago, Illinois, and Topeka, Kansas, and then spent two years studying harmony and composition at Washburn College in Topeka.

Hawkins' first regular job, beginning in the spring of 1921, was playing with Jesse Stone and his Blue Serenaders at the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1922, Mamie Smith performed at the theater and offered Hawkins a position touring with her group, the Jazz Hounds. Hawkins stayed with Smith until 1923, playing with her group at the Garden of Joy in New York City, New York, and appearing on some of her records.

After leaving the Jazz Hounds, Hawkins worked as a freelance player with various musicians, including Wilbur Sweatman. In 1924, he joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, with which he stayed for the next ten years. Henderson's band spent most of those years playing at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, although it did occasionally play other area clubs. It also toured throughout the Midwest and New England, and all along the East Coast. In addition to his work with Henderson, he recorded with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and with Red McKenzie's Mound City Blue Blowers in 1929.

In 1934, Hawkins moved to Europe, where he played first with Jack Hylton's Orchestra in England and then traveled and recorded as a freelance musician and soloist throughout the continent. In 1935, he performed with the Ramblers in The Hague, The Netherlands, and on April 28, 1937, he did a recording with Benny Carter, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. In 1939, as World War II was starting, Hawkins decided it was time to return to the United States.

Upon his return to New York, Hawkins formed a nine-member band and, on October 5, 1939, opened at Kelly's Stables on Manhattan's famed 52nd Street. Notable members of that band included Thelonius Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. In 1940, Hawkins recorded a version of Body and Soul that became his most famous record and introduced him to the American mass audience.

One of the few "traditional" jazz musicians to make the transition to bebop in the forties, Hawkins led the first ever bebop recording session in 1944, with Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas. Later he toured with Howard McGhee and recorded with J. J. Johnson and Fats Navarro. Between 1946 and 1951 he did a few concerts a year with Jazz at the Philharmonic. After 1948 he divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous freelance recordings, including a 1962 collaboration with Duke Ellington, and appearing at all of the major jazz festivals. In the 1960's he appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.

By the early 1960's, Hawkins was showing signs of emotional distress and physical debilitation due to alcohol abuse. He made his last recording in 1966, and his last concert was held at the North Park Hotel in Chicago in 1969.

Coleman Hawkins died in New York on May 19, 1969; he is interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

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This page was last updated on 05/23/2018.