Coleman Hawkins and the Jazz Voice

Coleman Hawkins and the Jazz Voice

The following is an excerpt from my yet as unpublished manuscript 'Upward, Backwards and Free: A Journey Into Jazz' written during the summer of 2020. In this chapter I discuss the revelation that was hearing the magnificent Coleman Hawkins around the time of my sixteenth birthday. Writing that it seems incredible that thirty-one years have passed by since that milestone. Many things have changed in the interim but my love of Hawkins' music continues. Like John Coltrane or Tubby Hayes, he is one of those saxophonists whose playing has a never ending capacity to move me. And like those two later giants, his sound alone is enough to tell a story; a genuine 'speaking voice' on an instrument. In fact, it was hearing Hawkins all these years ago that made me realise that jazz is an art form that, codified as it now is, is effectively one of great individual sounds. In Coleman Hawkins case, it was a sound full to the brim with gravitas and authority, a sound that, in short, said 'this is how it is'. To this day, his remains one of the few actual 'tones' in jazz that can move me to tears and, I make no secret of the fact, that whenever I feel that life is a futile and thwarted exercise, it is Hawkins' music to which I turn to restore myself. There was never a sound like it, nor will there be again, It is, quite simply, a voice beyond compare.

* * * * * * * * * *

‘On the saxophone, sound is it. The whole thing is sound.’

Coleman Hawkins, Crescendo, January 1967

It marks a rite of passage. Indeed, there are things you cannot do – legally at least – up the very moment when you pass from age fifteen to sixteen, but which once having crossed this particular Rubicon you are free to indulge in at your leisure, safe in the knowledge that law is at last on your side. Besides the obvious freedoms – to get married, drink wine or beer accompanied by an adult and have consensual intercourse with others of the same age or above, all of which were of various levels of interest to me as I reached this magic number, there are a host of other less-often remarked upon liberties; you can change your name via deed poll, drive an invalid carriage or pilot a glider, none of which I had a burning desire to do in 1990, the year of my sixteenth birthday, and which, come to think of it, I still don’t.

Late in that year, and early in the autumn school term, sixteenth birthdays among my friends began to fall like nine-pins. Born on November 4th I was one of the earliest entrants into the coveted ‘junior adult’ club in my class, but while others I knew marked their passage with hedonistic and ill-thought through bouts of cheap cider drinking, or, voraciously gripped by an appetite for one particular post-fifteen indulgence, in dubious sexual encounters, or more generally in fulsome displays of pubescent idiocy, I slipped into young adulthood in much the same way I’d spent most of my childhood; a bit apart, a dreamer, happy with my own company and certain of my own tastes.

And so it was that, when asked what I’d like as a present to mark this auspicious event, I replied ‘these albums, please.’ Actually, I’m sure I wasn’t that polite.

By this time, my obsession with jazz was such that, through listening to it, reading about it and generally digesting anything I could about its historical outline and the colourful characters which charted its course, I was already beginning to grasp an idea of which record labels excelled at which end of the music. I knew imprints like Pacific Jazz and Contemporary were the pillars upholding the 1950s West Coast movement, and that Blue Note was the home of New York’s hard bop community. I even recognised that parts of the music that held little appeal to me – like the Sixties avant-garde – had enjoyed their own label affiliations with companies like ESP Disk and Impulse!

This being the early 1990s, the age in which relatively new CD technology had given all sorts of labels commercial cause to raid their back catalogues, I was also well familiar with which reissue programmes were documenting which famous bodies of jazz recording. Corporate buy-outs and takeovers – a central theme in the record industry since the late 1960s, reaching its peak thirty years later – meant that once proud independent labels like Pacific Jazz and Blue Note, which had operated on opposite seaboards of the United States with, appropriately, almost polarised musical identities, now came under the hold of Capitol Records (and in the UK EMI), a union that made these once diametrically opposed kinds of jazz albums now appear – in catalogue at least – to be somehow interlinked. Hindsight now tells us that the sharp dividing lines between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ jazz back in the 1950s were all a bit overplayed. Indeed, as that era retreats in the rear view mirror of living history, the music it spawned increasingly appears as a delightful, amorphous mass taking in everything from swing to free-jazz, these disparate styles strung together by their common acoustic tonalities. In my teens though, jazz looked like a series of separate encampments, with certain record labels representations of their particular part of the music more attractive than others.

Some of the best jazz reissues of the late Eighties and early Nineties were those issued by RCA’s Bluebird arm. Founded in the early 1930s the Bluebird label had originally been the part of RCA-Victor dealing in cheaply produced jazz and blues – all manner of artists from Glenn Miller to Big Bill Broonzy had been signed to it at one point. In the 1970s – a golden era for reissues of big band swing – the name was resuscitated to compile definitive surveys of the likes of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and other big leaders of the period, all of whom recorded seminal work while signed to Victor. By the time these activities were being considered for simultaneous release on the new CD format - around 1986 - these archival sorties were mining not just swing and old big band music, but all sorts for jazz and jazz-related gems from the RCA (and affiliated labels) vaults.

Having bought the Sonny Rollins/Coleman Hawkins entry in the series pretty early on in my jazz listening, I then wrote away for the complete Bluebird reissue series catalogue. When it arrived – some time in the summer of 1990, as I remember – I went through it with a fine toothed comb, reading Brian Priestley’s helpful précis for each release, ticking off those I fancied (Rollins, Mulligan, Goodman and so on) and marvelling at players and bands I’d never heard of. Who I wondered were Air? What would Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral sound like? And could there ever be a more off-puttingly formal name for an album than The Sextet of Orchestra USA Play The Theatre Music of Kurt Weill?

My Dad had done something similar to this back in the 1950s, telling me how the old Vogue label catalogue had fascinated him with its myriad UK releases of music licensed from American labels like Contemporary and Good Time Jazz, each cover reproduced in miniature. It was, he believed, a great way not only to work out albums you’d like to hear but to also get a handle on new names and the pattern of their recorded activity.

There were three albums in the Bluebird catalogue I wanted to get hold of toot sweet. The others, tangentially fascinating things by the likes of Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Oliver Nelson and Art Blakey, would have to wait. The first was by Sonny Rollins, unsurprisingly enough; The Quartets, a useful compiling of the entire RCA-taped output of the band the saxophonist had led featuring guitarist Jim Hall in the early 1960s. It sounded like a mouthwatering proposition. The second was an album I’d already heard – borrowed on vinyl from my parents friend Adrian – Paul Desmond’s Late Lament, again another ‘complete’ issue of all the material the Dave Brubeck-associated altoist had taped for Victor with string orchestra accompaniment in 1961/62. The borrowed vinyl copy had whetted my appetite – Desmond’s genuinely moving account of the done-to-death My Funny Valentine enough to make him a favourite – but it had been all crackles and pops (late eighties LP pressings were never that hot, no matter how big the company issuing them) marring the near-clarinet purity of Desmond’s sound. The CD had bonus tracks too, another plus.

Then came what I then thought a bit of left-field choice – a compilation of recordings by Coleman Hawkins, whose importance I’d learned of both through the album he cut with Rollins and through watching the re-run BBC-TV Jazz 625 show the great tenor patriarch had taped back in 1964, shown with a newly filmed introduction by Courtney Pine. Surveying Hawkins’ career from 1939 to 1956, traversing the road from swing to bop and beyond to the category-redundant classicism of mainstream, Body and Soul sounded like a magnificent way to get better acquainted with his genius.

There was a fourth album too, only this was not on Bluebird; John Coltrane’s seminal Giant Steps, which I’d again borrowed from my Dad’s mate on vinyl, but which I really wanted to own myself. It may sound odd to report it now but back in the late eighties and early nineties an album as important as this was actually rather hard to find, in high street record shops at any rate, probably owing to the company who issued it – Atlantic – not having a very proactive UK distribution partner. These days, almost every HMV will have it in stock, if not on its original label (now owned by Warner Bros.) then on a cheap as chips public domain issue. It’s everywhere and it deserves to be – it’s a sensational record in every sense and no jazz fan should be without it.

And so these were my choices; four albums by four quite different saxophonists which I’d asked for for my birthday. I got them too, ordered by Dad from Mole Jazz. Forget teenage rites of passage; the arrival of these records was life-changing. And even now – some thirty years later – I somehow cannot fail to regard them as a sequence, each poured over in my bedroom, each telling me something specific and personal about the saxophone, its great players and its possibilities.

For some strange reason I’ve never quite been able to work out, birthday presents in our house were always gifted the evening before the actual birth date itself. I can’t really think why, although it might possibly stem from the fact that I was not always the most patient of beings as a small child and there may have been an ameliorative aspect to this early bath thinking, keeping me quiet through tea-time rather than having me rampaging, cap-gun firing, through my elder siblings pre-school routine on the morning of the actual birthday. Anyway, for whatever reason, the tradition was still standing as I reached my late teens. Therefore it would have been on the evening of Saturday November 3rd that my keenly-awaited tranche of jazz gold arrived.

To be honest, I can’t remember much about the weekend that followed save for the fact that, as was often the case in these early days of jazz madness, I did more playing along with the albums than straight, wisdom-imbibing listening, which is of course what I ought to have done. I shudder to think of how awful this must have been; me on my basic, leaky and barely held-together Czechoslovakian tenor blowing noisy pentatonic nonsense over things like Naima and John S.

I can’t ever recall attempting to play along to (or rather against) Coleman Hawkins but my sessions with Paul Desmond are still lodged inside my brain, as painful as a bit of inoperable shrapnel. In fact, it shames me to admit how they went down. Beguiled by the white plastic mouthpiece I’d seen employed by Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and others in lots of vintage jazz photographs, I decided I’d paint both those on my tenor and my alto, which were moulded in regulation black plastic. Worse still, the alto mouthpiece I used was actually that of a clarinet, my bottom lip finding a normal sax ‘piece simply too tingly to handle. Unfortunately, there was no tenor equivalent so I couldn’t repeat the trick there. Imagine therefore, if you dare, the sight of a teenaged boy attempting to reproduce the limpid tone of Paul Desmond on a mouthpiece still tacky with Dulux’s finest gloss white. The thought that paint might prove toxic didn’t occur to me. Nor did it cross my mind that Desmond could get his sound without first flushing his instrument through with bathwater. I was not only blissfully unaware, I was blissfully stupid. If anyone I’ve ever taught the saxophone is reading this then please forgive me.

Over the next few months or so though, these four albums – Rollins, Hawk, Desmond and Coltrane – became something of a soundtrack to my days. Indeed, I remember listening to them at all times of the day – before school, after tea, when doing my homework, all weekend – each playing increasing both my love of their varied contents and their stylistically diverse creators and my awareness of what made good jazz. The merits of Giants Steps and The Bridge have been discussed many times elsewhere by others, and while I consider Paul Desmond to be one of the key inspirations for my permanently abandoning the trombone in favour of the saxophone, I have to admit that of all these albums it was the Hawkins’ Body and Soul compilation that I found the most enlightening. Not only do Dan Morgenstern’s evocative sleeve notes set the scene perfectly, providing enough of his subjects back story and enough personal reminiscence to draw the reader into further exploration, the album itself is just as well judged an introduction.

The classic 1939 Hawkins’ title piece is present – in all its two-chorus glory – as are some intriguing mid-1940s sessions on which the leader helms a band full of young boppers (Fats Navarro, J. J. Johnson, Max Roach et al.) through a series of charts by Tadd Dameron, providing all the proof necessary that his was a style able to move without too much change throughout broad swathes of the music. I loved all these things, but it was the final tracks on the album that really caught my attention, pulled from the 1956 LP The Hawk In Hi-Fi, on which the veteran tenor sat atop both a booting Basie-style big band comprising New York’s finest session men and a sumptuous-sounding string orchestra, both scored by trombonist Billy Byers.

Jazz ‘with strings’ has long divided listeners. Some love it, hearing things much like the soloist on the session must have heard them; as an opportunity for a jazz instrumentalist to act like a great vocalist in the most opulent of settings. Others think such efforts cloying, sentimental and wholly corrupting misuses of signal improvisational talent.

As as sub-genre, there have been several notable triumphs within the format, Charlie Parker with Strings being the most famous. Others who took flight in the setting included Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster, Paul Desmond (as we’ve seen) and Stan Getz (his 1961 Focus album is something quite separate from the usual ‘horn as vocalist’ efforts made within the genre, at which Getz was also a master). Then there are equally worthy entries in the canon which few ever seem to note; Zoot Sims’ gorgeous Waiting Game or Illinois Jacquet’s 1964 album of Cole Porter, on which Benny Golson provided the arrangements.

Yet no matter how convinced the players themselves were with the concept, there was always nay-sayer. Jazz with strings records often get a bad rap from critics and similarly there are fans who actively avoid them, no matter how fierce their allegiance to a said soloist may be otherwise. Once, after playing a truly stunning Tubby Hayes and a string orchestra version of the Frank Sinatra-associated ballad Nancy With The Laughing Face (taken from a broadcast tape) for a jazz society who’d invited me to play some of my favourite tracks, the silence of a room lulled into romantic reveries by Hayes’ caressing tenor was suddenly broken by a woman’s voice spitting ‘sentimental rubbish.’ I didn’t argue the toss; you can’t reason with a robot.

Even as a young man I was utterly charmed by the idea of jazz musicians working with string ensembles. Indeed, my Dad had introduced me to the notion via Parker and strings, and also through lesser-known examples like the 10” LP altoist Bud Shank recorded (for Pacific Jazz) with Bob Brookmeyer and a string quartet in 1954. I loved it straight away. But whereas that album was based (much like the later and better-known Focus) on the idea of a jazz arranger – in this case the eventually to be Oscar-winning Johnny Mandel - adding a small string ensemble to interweave with the featured soloist, the majority of the jazz and strings albums I loved were of the unashamedly lush full orchestral variety. Part of what appealed to me was their expression of romance, something I as a shy teenager had no real outlet for, the same sentiment which kept me glued to the bed listening on headphones to Fifties LPs by Sinatra and Julie London, idly dreaming of girls, love and forever afters. These days we might now lump all this music – vocal and instrumental – into the category of Easy Listening, which it undoubtedly is, but, for me, there is a fundamental flaw with such a reduction. When Sinatra sang out one of his ridiculously long-lined ballad phrases over a sighing string accompaniment, the world swooned at the seductive majesty of it all. When a soloist like Charlie Parker did the same, many of those who’d hitherto sung his praises thought he’d lost the plot. Wasn’t a soloist as fecund as Parker wasting his time playing three minute pop songs with a bunch of long-hairs?

What these detractors were missing was the craftsmanship of a Parker or a Clifford Brown or a Zoot Sims in such a setting. As any musician who had reached more than reasonable level of competence can tell you, to play a written melody line with good phrasing and, most importantly of all, a good tone is by no means easy. To do so requires total control and that only comes at the price of hours of painstaking (sometimes mind-numbing) basic groundwork, learning to breath correctly, and to project properly, spending days, months, years ensuring that what is actually very difficult now looks easy. And so it follows that if a Stan Getz or a Paul Desmond could do this out front of a huge string orchestra and create sounds that come as close as is possible to a human voice, singing songs with huge emotional scope and masterful command, then why are their efforts dismissed by so many?

Part of the problem lies with the idea that a jazz soloist accompanied by strings is like a caged beast, unable to tear into the meat of his favourite meal – improvisation. Again, this notion misunderstands the aim of most soloist with strings projects, which are in general intended to showcase the player in question outlining familiar melodies with his or her signature sound. One can’t help but think double standards are being applied here; one jazz fan will heap deserved praise on Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin for its melancholy marriage of inimitable vocal phrasing and Broadway popular song, never once dismissing it for containing not one ‘improvised’ solo by its nominal headliner. They will then contentedly tear into a record like, say, Julian Cannonball Adderley and Strings, because its led by a horn player who doesn’t in this instance play expansive improvised choruses and, as everyone knows, that’s what a jazz horn player is ‘supposed’ to do.

I’m fighting shy of stating that unless you play a wind instrument you really can’t judge effectively what such records are all about, or indeed truly comprehend how magnificent a display of total instrumental mastery they are, but maybe I ought to. Better still, I could just direct you to Coleman Hawkins’ 1956 versions of Have You Met Miss Jones, There’ll Never Be Another You and Dinner For One Please, James, - contained on that Bluebird compilation I’d received for my sixteenth birthday - which are all performances wherein the idea of ‘horn as voice’ is fully and successfully integrated into the string setting. In fact, I can still picture being halted when doing my homework by Hawkins’ arrestingly purred entry on Miss Jones, a moment that retains the power to arouse the hair on the back of my neck some three decades after hearing it for the first time.

As one of the great balladeers in jazz (who with his 1939 reading of Body and Soul really set the template for the tenor ballad) Hawkins was a shoo-in for the ‘with strings’ idea. He was also a former cellist and a keen classical fan, both assets fuelling suspicions that the idea of recording in an orchestral setting was actually an ambition he’d held since his earliest days, when a career in classical music itself was a dream too far for many black Americans. He tried the idea several times; the most successful being the 1956 date mentioned above, the reprises gradually watering down the concept to such an extent that 1957’s The Gilded Hawk and 1963’s The Hawk and The Hunter, lovely records though they are, are just a tad too syrupy, a fault that can be laid firmly at the door of their respective arrangers, Glenn Osser* and Frank Hunter, neither of whom was really attuned to Hawk’s identity.

*Osser had written for Paul Whiteman and was for many years the musical director of the Miss America Pageant. I rest my case.

Today, thirty years after his granite-hewn tone had stopped me in my school boy tracks, Coleman Hawkins remains an inspiration. The sheer daring of his work in the 1930s, the opulence of his period as jazz’s most fecund harmonic mind (the early to mid-1940s), the mainstream years of the Fifties and the inconsistent and at times harrowing music he made in his valedictory recordings have all at one time or another fascinated me to the point of obsession. Throughout this rise and decline he remained one of the great voices upon his instrument; instantly recognisable, boldly individual, and hugely inspirational.

Indeed, he’s one of those players in whose playing I find answers to virtually every kind of technical question the tenor can pose, making him a sort of animated Haynes Manual For Jazz Tenor Saxophone, a remarkable achievement if you consider he made his first appearance on record nearly one hundred years ago (in the 1960s Hawk would delight in telling people how young lions like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins would call him up for advice).

In sum, he is a definitive master of his craft, a pacesetter, a genius. Some have compared him to the great cellist Pablo Casals, who he certainly admired, others even to Albert Einstein, Hawkins a similarly curious soul asking questions about the fabric of his world the answers to which have radically advanced the general understanding of what is possible within jazz. If all this makes him sound a little academic then it’s a false flag. Whatever Coleman Hawkins did, and however he did it, he played with one hundred percent passion and commitment, the two guiding elements found in all truly great musicians, irrespective of idiom. When he played people listened. It was like the roar of a mighty lion or the words of a wise elder. Indeed, in his later years, when a flowing beard made him look a like a religious icon, his sound became so close to a speaking voice that it really did sound at times as if God himself were talking. And the things he was saying were very profound, so profound in fact that they might just change you forever.

If you think I’m in any way exaggerating, then I’ll offer just one example of his capacity to move the listener in a very deep and almost spiritual way. Many years after I first heard Hawkins play, I chanced upon his 1963 recording of the love theme from the 1954 Burt Lancaster movie Apache (on the album Here and Now, Impulse!). It’s almost unbelievably moving; as elegant and heartfelt and full of melancholy poise as anything by Coltrane (think Alabama). To this day I cannot play it without succumbing to tears, Hawkins’ clear-eyed and yet tremulous-toned delineation of the melody – itself little more than a piece of fluff – causing something deeply secreted to well within me.* My love of that sound – and my understanding of the concept of the saxophone having the capacity to be a genuine ‘voice’ began with Hawkins. No bad thing to realise aged sixteen.

*Hawkins’ 1958 reading of, of all things, Greensleeves (on the Prestige album Soul) had a similar effect on me. Maybe it’s something to do with that ‘voice’ being applied to such simple melodies as these?

Photo: in there somewhere: Coleman Hawkins shows his chops, circa. 1966


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