One could wage an endless argument as to which instrument best characterizes the jazz sound. Anyone citing the saxophone as the signature instrument of jazz would have a strong case. A quick glance at our Jazz in America resource list of essential jazz instrumentalists down through history clearly suggests the instrument’s dominance, given the sheer numbers of saxophonists represented. At roughly age 160, the saxophone is one of the youngsters among the preeminent instruments prominent in modern music. Perhaps more than any other lead instrument, the various nuances and innovations on the saxophone have been primarily the province of jazz musicians. The tenor saxophone is the daddy of the saxophone family, and Coleman Hawkins is well-noted as the father of the tenor saxophone in jazz.
The saxophone’s dominance in jazz is all the more surprising when one considers that in its earliest incarnations the jazz band generally did not feature the instrument. Instead the clarinet represented the reed instruments. From his first professional work, in the early 20s with blues singer Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, Hawkins was exceptional. He rose to prominence once he joined the Fletcher Henderson band. Thereafter he became the quintessential itinerant saxophonist, once touring Europe under the auspices of the Selmer company, thereby spreading the glory of the instrument overseas. As a bandleader his various pick-up bands were star-studded, as his voluminous, slightly gruff tone and brilliant facility demanded only the top accompaniment and interplay. His signature solo was struck for all-time on October 11, 1939 when he recorded a classic improvisation on “Body and Soul.”
Despite his early jazz and swing pedigree, Coleman Hawkins relished opportunities to lock horns with modernists, standing alongside Dizzy Gillespie, engaging Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, Howard McGhee, Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris in his groups, and jamming with young acolytes like Sonny Rollins. Perhaps his most musically fruitful modernist encounter came when he employed pianist Thelonious Monk, later returning the favor and recording with Monk’s band.
Coleman Hawkins plays Disorder at the Border with his Quartet in 1962.