Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Balliet on Bean

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has long wanted to have a piece on the site in honor of the memory of Coleman Hawkins, the man most responsible for bringing Jazz to the tenor saxophone.  And what better way to do this for the man who was affectionately known to his peers as “Bean,” than with more of the writing of Whitney Balliett, this time from his anthology entitled Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz [Philiadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1962].

At the conclusion of Mr. Balliett’s essay, you will find a video tribute to Coleman Hawkins made with the assistance of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD. The audio track is Frank Foster’s “Juggin’ Around” on which Frank is joined on tenor saxophone by Gene Ammons and Frank Wess, along with Nat Adderley on cornet, Bennie Green on trombone and a rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Ed Jones and Albert “Tootie” Heath on piano, bass and drums, respectively. All three tenor saxophonists were heavily influenced by Bean.

© -  Whitney Balliet, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“IMPROVISATION, the seat of jazz, is a remorseless art that demands of the performer no less than this: that, night after night, he spontaneously invent original music by balancing‑with the speed of light ‑emotion and intelligence, form and content, and tone and attack, all of which must both charge and entertain the spirit of the listener. Improvisation comes in various shapes. There is the melodic em­bellishment of Louis Armstrong and Vic Dickenson; the similar but more complex thematic improvisation of Lester Young; the improvisation upon chords, as practiced by Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, and the rhythmic-thematic convolutions now being put forward by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. There are, too, the collective improvisations, such as, the defunct New Orleans ensemble, and its contrapuntal descendants, which are thriving in the bands of John Lewis and Charlie Mingus. Great improvisation occurs once in a blue moon; bad improvisation, which is really not improvisation at all but a rerun or imitation of old ideas, happens all the time. No art is more precarious or domineering. Indeed, there is evidence that the gifted jazz musicians who have either died or dried up early are primarily victims not of drugs and alcohol but of the insatiable furnace of improvisation. Thus, such consummate veteran improvisers as Armstrong, Dickenson, Hawkins, Buck Clayton, and Monk are, in addition to being master craftsmen, remarkable endurance runners. One of the hardiest of these is Hawkins, who, now fifty-four, continues to play with all the vitality and authority that be demonstrated during the Harding administration as a member of Mamie Smith's jazz Hounds.

Hawkins, in fact, is a kind of super jazz musician, for he has been a bold originator, a masterly improviser, a shepherd of new movements, and a steadily developing performer. A trim, contained man, whose rare smiles have the effect of a lamp suddenly going on within, he was the first to prove that jazz could be played on the saxophone, which bad been largely a purveyor of treacle. He did this with such conviction and imagination that by the early thirties he had founded one of the two great schools of saxophone playing. In 1939, Hawkins set down, as an afterthought at a recording session, a version of "Body and Soul" that achieves the impossible - perfect art. A few years later, he repeated this success with "Sweet Lorraine" and "The Man I Love." Unlike many other jazz musicians, who are apt to regard anything new with defensive animosity, Hawkins has always kept an ear to the ground for originality, and as a result he led the first official bebop recording session, which involved Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and the late Clyde Hart. Soon afterward, he used the largely unknown Thelonious Monk in some important recordings. Then his playing inexplicably began to falter and he went into semi-eclipse, from which he rocketed up, without warning, in the early fifties, landing on his feet with a brand-new style (his third), whose occasional febrility suggests a man several decades younger.

Hawkins's early style was rough and aggressive. His tone tended to be harsh and bamboo-like, and he used a great many staccato, slap-tongued notes. But these mannerisms eventually vanished, and by the mid-thirties he had entered his second and most famous phase. His heavy vibrato suggested the wing beats of a big bird and his tone halls hung with dark velvet and lit by huge fires. His technique had become infallible. He never fluffed a note, his tone never shrank or overflowed-as did Chu Berry's, say-and he gave the impression that he had enough equipment to state in half a dozen different and finished ways what was in his head. This proved to be remarkable, particularly in his handling of slow ballads.

Hawkins would often begin such a number by playing one chorus of the melody, as if he were testing it. He would stuff its fabric with tone to see how much it would take, eliminate certain notes, sustain others, slur still others, and add new ones. Then, satisfied, he would shut his eyes, as if blinded by what he was about to play, and launch into impro­visation with a concentration that pinned one down. (Hawkins's total lack of tentativeness ‑ the exhilarating, blind man tentativeness of Pee Wee Russell or Roy Eldridge ‑ suggested that he had written out and memorized his solos long before playing them.) He would construct‑out of phrases crowded with single notes, glissandos, abrupt stops, and his corrugated vibrato‑long, hilly figures that sometimes lasted until his breath gave out. Refilling his lungs with wind‑tunnel ferocity, he would be off again‑bending notes, dropping in little runs like steep, crooked staircases, adding decorative, almost calligraphic flourishes, emphasizing an occasional phrase by allowing it to escape into puffs of breath. He often closed these solos with roomy codas, into which he would squeeze fresh and frequently fancy ideas that bad simply been crowded out of his ear­lier ruminations. If another soloist followed him, he might terminate his own statement with an abrupt ascending figure that neatly catapulted his successor. When Hawkins had finished, his solo, anchored directly and emphatically to the beat, had been worked into an elaborate version of the origi­nal melody, as though be had fitted a Victorian mansion over a modern ranch house. At fast tem­pos, Hawkins merely forced the same amount of music into a smaller space. There seemed to be no pause between phrases or choruses, and this pro­duced an intensity that thickened the beat and whose vehemence was occasionally indicated by sus­tained growls. Yet for all this enthusiasm, Hawkins' playing during this period often left the listener vaguely dissatisfied. Perhaps it was because his style had an unceasing - and, for that time, unusual - intellectual quality, with the glint of perfection and a viselike unwillingness to let any emotion out, lest it spoil the finish on his work. One kept waiting for the passion beneath the surface to burst through, but it never did-until five years ago.

Hawkins can now be volcanic. His present style is marked primarily by a slight tightening of tone, which sometimes resembles the sound he achieved at the outset of his career; the use of certain harsh notes and phrases that, not surprisingly, suggest Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins; and an almost dismaying display of emotion. This exuberance has been costly. In his pursuit of pure flame, Hawkins sometimes misses notes or plays them badly, and he falls back, perhaps out of fatigue, on stock phrases of his own, such as a series of abrupt, descending triplets. When everything is in mesh, however, the results are formidable. …”

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