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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins


Coleman Hawkins Tenor Saxophone
Courtesy of Enja Records

November 21st, 1904 in Saint Joseph, Missouri


May 19th, 1969 in New York City

Also Known As:

  • Hawk

King of the Tenor Saxophone

Coleman Hawkins studied piano and cello as a kid, but fell in love with the saxophone when he was nine years old. He began playing the C-Melody saxophone, but switched to tenor soon after. According to his own account, he studied music theory and harmony at Washburn College while attending Topeka High School in Topeka, Kansas.

Hawkins’ first regular gig was with a vaudeville act called Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, which he joined in 1921. Life on the road brought him to New York, where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1924. As a featured soloist in Henderson’s band, a residency that lasted until 1934, Hawkins became one of the most influential musicians in jazz.

Signature Sound

Early in Hawkins’ career with Henderson, Louis Armstrong joined the group for a short period between 1924 and 1925. Armstrong’s pursuit of a unique improvisatory voice had a great effect on Hawkins, who sought to develop his own personal style.

Hawkins strove to combine lyricism with a high technical command of the tenor saxophone. His vibrato emulated that of vocalists, and his gruff and raspy tone made the tenor saxophone a respected instrument in jazz. Before Hawkins, it was considered a marching band instrument. Hawkins’ understanding of harmony also freed him from the restraint of playing linear melodies. He worked arpeggios into his solos, outlining the chord changes on which songs were built.


In 1934, Hawkins was a star, and in an effort to build his career he moved to England. There he toured with Jack Hylton, a famous dance band leader. Hawkins made a name for himself in Europe, and recorded with the likes of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. In 1939, however, just as war was breaking out in Europe, Hawkins returned to the United States. That year he recorded “Body and Soul,” and reached a pinnacle of commercial and artistic success.

Beginnings of Bebop

By the 1940s, swing music was falling out of favor with American audiences, and young jazz musicians were experimenting with smaller ensembles that focused more on virtuosic improvisation than on arrangements that were meant to inspire dancing. Many musicians who played bebop, as the style came to be known, referred to older swing musicians who were unwilling to embrace new trends as “moldy figs.”

Late Career

Hawkins however, welcomed the changing tide, and performed with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. He continued to frame his signature style in the present jazz contexts throughout the 1950s and 60s. Towards the end of his life, however, his battles with alcoholism became too great for him to manage, and he died of liver failure in 1969.

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