Monday, February 9, 2015

Coleman Hawkins and The Jazz Tradition

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

For whatever reason, lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with “the sweep of history” as it pertains to Jazz. Maybe it because the music is only a few years away from celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first recordings which the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made in 1918.

In this regard, I’ve turned to three books to satisfy my historical curiosity: [1] Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz; Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition and Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz which is now in its second edition.

For sake of simplification, Professor Stearns, the founder of the Institute of Jazz Studies, talks about stylistic developments in the evolution of Jazz; Martin Williams one of Jazz’s most distinguished authors, critics and reviewers focused on key figures in the shaping of the music over its first century while Ted Gioia, the award winning author, teacher and scholar tends to blend both approaches in his seminal work on Jazz history.

Having previously spent time on these pages with the noted essayist Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker Magazine feature on tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins which he simply entitled Bean [Coleman’s nickname among musicians], the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to return to the subject of the man who almost singlehanded “invented” the Jazz saxophone [apologies to Benny Carter], this time through the capable and insightful work of Martin Williams.

Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane are deservedly considered to be the titans of the contemporary style of Jazz saxophone, but Coleman Hawkins, [along with Lester Young] was The Main Man for many years.

As Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong: “No him, no me;” Sonny, Dexter and John could certainly say the same about Coleman Hawkins.

COLEMAN HAWKINS Some Comments on a Phoenix

“Periodically jazz musicians and listeners rediscover tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Even during the time of major changes in the mid-'forties, the avid bebop partisan accepted Hawkins as a part of the jazz scene, as he accepted no others of Hawkins's contemporaries of the 'twenties and few of his companions of the 'thirties. One might call Hawkins a thorough professional, but he was also a major performer and he belonged to a generation in which these two things might go together as a matter of course.

Periodically Hawkins also seemed to rediscover himself. He listened to everyone, but however much his own playing reflected what he heard around him, Hawkins remained Hawkins.

Probably everyone who knows Hawkins's work has a favorite, relatively late recording on which he feels the saxophonist played particularly well. My own is the Shelly Manne-Hawkins LP called "2 3 4." Not only did Hawkins remain an exceptional player for decades he also recorded prolifically. An exhaustive survey of his records would be a lengthy and perhaps pointless task. But it might be useful to suggest the nature of his early style, indicate the course of his development, and point out what seems to me some of his more durable performances.

Coleman Hawkins's contribution has been so comprehensive that it is impossible for any tenor saxophonist to avoid some reflection of his influence unless that player were to do a fairly direct imitation of Lester Young or perhaps Bud Freeman. Yet, when one listens to Hawkins on his very earliest records, one hears no promise of his stature as a player. One hears a young man performing with calculated and rather superficial raucousness, a slap-tongue tenor player with little more than shallow irreverence to recommend him.

However, one can note that this clowning soloist obviously knows his instrument, knows his chords, and has a sure sense of time and tempo. Thus the Coleman Hawkins heard on his 1923-24 solos with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. However, the Coleman Hawkins heard on Henderson's T.N.T., recorded in October 1925, is a very different player. The basis of the difference is quite apparent: rhythmically and melodically, Hawkins's brief solo is early Armstrong. The Stampede, made a few months after Armstrong's departure from the orchestra, is even more revealing. Cornetists Rex Stewart and Joe Smith burst forth with brass hyperboles, reaching for Armstrong's excitement. Coleman Hawkins follows Armstrong's lead too, but he treats his style not as a series of effects but rather as a series of definite musical ideas in a cohesive structure.

A year or so later, on Goose Pimples, the young Hawkins has become more himself, cutting through with the hard staccato phrases that characterize his playing of this period. However, on the 1928 version of King Porter Stomp we hear Hawkins still echoing the young Armstrong fairly directly.

The disappointing Hawkins of this period is the Hawkins of the twelve-bar blues. He is not a blues man, and he seems to have known it. But unlike some of the early stride pianists, he was not content merely to play the blues form without the feeling. And unlike, say, Earl Hines or Benny Carter, he was not prone to work out a personal and introspective style within the idiom. Hawkins set out to learn to play the blues with blues feeling. He did learn and he has played some very good blues, but to the end of his life he sounded as if the slow blues were, for him, something acquired.

Blazin’ from early 1929, seems to me one of the best early revelations of a developing Coleman Hawkins style, and in it we hear the increasing reliance on the vertical, on Hawkins's exact and growing knowledge of chords, and on spreads of arpeggios. From a sound, youthful grounding in music, especially in piano instruction, Hawkins knew the notes in chords and learned to form passing chords between assigned ones. He also had the clear example of jazz reed players like Jimmy Noone and Buster Bailey who played arpeggio styles. But it is interesting to learn that an encounter with the harmonic and embellishmental sophistication of pianist Art Tatum was a turning point in Hawkins's development.

His solos on the Mound City Blue Blowers' Hello Lola from 1929, and Henderson's Chinatown from the following year, show some of the dangers of his new approach. It is as if in making all the chords, Hawkins also became determined to make all the beats, and he made them in a more or less regular, heavy/light/heavy/light pattern. At faster tempos, once he was past his entrance, Hawkins's phrasing settled into a rhythmic regularity, and an almost brilliant articulation of proper notes sometimes trails off into a kind of rhythmic mutter. The risks involved became increasingly obvious in later performances: his knowledge of harmony, his regularity of rhythm, and his hardness of tone could lead him to mechanically formed solos delivered with a forced emotion.

On New King Porter Stomp, Underneath the Harlem Moon, Honeysuckle Rose, and other pieces from 1932, Hawkins found a temporary rhythm solution. He would assume a momentary rhapsodic stance: triplets and more complex phrases flutter and curve away from the beat, apparently without intending to swing. Although the ideas in these solos are fine, the rhapsodic phrases are delivered with an earnestness that is almost affected. He was using the same approach as late as 1937 on the justly celebrated recordings of Honeysuckle Rose and Crazy Rhythm done with Benny Carter in Paris.

Hawkins's early celebrated ballads, One Hour with the Blue Blowers (1929) and Talk of the Town with Henderson (1933), are both exceptional and both indicative of the mood that would yield his later masterpieces. But both are imperfect in revealing ways. Talk of the Town is a good improvisation weakened by lush effusiveness. One Hour is a better solo, a combination of lyric ideas and traditional jazz phrases; it makes all the chord changes properly and it is showy without being untidy. But Hawkins's tone is still especially hard and brittle, as if his only protection against sentimentality were to take on the mask of toughness.

A blues man might not have had problems with excess of tone and emotion because he might not have had sentimental temptations. Not that the Hawkins of this period had no emotional protections. On Wherever There's a Will, Baby, with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, he combines a fine sense of musical fun and hokum with firm musical ideas. [1. On Henderson's Sweet Music (1931) and I Wanna Count Sheep (1932), however, Hawkins momentarily returned to Armstrong and, remarkably, the mature Armstrong of 1928-33].

One should also mention Queer Notions that Hawkins made with Henderson, on which the increasingly sophisticated Hawkins provided himself with just the sort of challenging medium-tempo vehicle he wanted. As one would expect, the challenge is largely harmonic. But I think that Hawkins's two choruses on Hokus Pokus from 1934 are probably the best of all his solos with Henderson. They are perhaps not typical, being more directly melodic and less arpeggiated, but they combine the robustness of his early work with a sophisticated melodic sense and a touching, almost nostalgic lyricism. The choruses seem also to have been highly influential: they outline the essentials of the style used by Herschel Evans and his associates and successors, Buddy Tate, Illinois Jacquet, and (most recently) Yusef Lateef. Of course it is possible that Hawkins, as a constant listener, may have picked up such phrases as these touring the Southwest with Henderson, but it is also possible that this so-called Southwest tenor style was first expounded by Coleman Hawkins in a New York recording studio.

When Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe in 1939, he entered his great period as a jazz soloist. He had continued to expand his basic harmonic techniques. He had come to terms with his own lush and sentimental temptations, which means that he had learned to sustain a true lyric mood and therefore no longer needed the sometimes forced and usually brittle edge to his tone that he had apparently found necessary before. The sharpness of vibrato heard on One Hour cannot be heard on Body and Soul.
Rhythmically, however, there sometimes seems to have been no solution, and Hawkins's double chorus on The Sheik of Araby, recorded in January 1940, fails almost as it succeeds. It is a tour de force of the sort which dazzled and delighted his fellow musicians, yet Hawkins's swift, knowing harmonic disentanglements are nearly lost in a predictably regular accentuation. In such moods Hawkins is in effect attempting to be not only his own soloist, but his own harmonist and his own rhythm section as well. However, he does build these choruses gradually, both emotionally and technically, without resorting to bathos or musical banality. Other solos from the same period show Hawkins's final and best rhythmic solution. His chorus on Dinah, recorded with Lionel Hampton a month earlier, is another harmonic delight. Rhythmically it frankly sets up the expectation of more or less regular heavy/light/heavy/light accents and varies them just briefly enough, often enough, and obviously enough to relieve any encroaching monotony.

Body and Soul (1939) is the accepted Hawkins's masterpiece. The record reveals not only Hawkins's knowing use of increasingly sophisticated techniques but his brilliant use of pacing, structure, and rhythmic relief. He saves his showiest arpeggios, opening melodiously and introducing implied double-time along the way. His second recorded improvisation on the Body and Soul chords, originally called Rainbow Mist (1944), is not quite the equal of the original but his absolute sureness and ease at what he is about, and his ability to let the performance build, are the work of a great musician.

They are also the work of a great improviser. I have heard Hawkins's work deprecated as "just arpeggios," and the complaint has been lodged that in his solos he leans heavily for a sense of order on the fact that the modifying chords in popular songs repeat in relatively short cycles. But arpeggios and cyclical patterns of harmony are Hawkins's means, much as they were J. S. Bach's in certain moods, never his end. Anyone who has heard him replay a standard Hawkins piece, or heard him play the same piece successively, will understand the committed creativity with which Hawkins approaches his means.

I would say that the great period that began in 1939 for Hawkins continued through 1944. That latter year was a prolific one in records for an always prolific player, and itfound Hawkins present on several very good sessions and two excellent ones. One of the finer sessions was with players who had also been outstanding in the mid-'thirties, Teddy Wilson and Roy Eldridge, and produced I'm in the Mood for Love. The other excellent session produced Sweet Lorraine, Crazy Rhythm, and the superb The Man I Love by Hawkins and a rhythm section.

Sweet Lorraine, the one slow ballad recorded on the date, shows Hawkins forming his chord-spreads into meaningful melodic phrases. Rhythmically he glides easily from one heavy beat to the next, variously curving around the light ones. His tone is firm but not harsh. Hawkins's decision to play The Man I Love at medium tempo, but with the soloists taking it in "long" meter, set up a dramatic basis for exploring Gershwin's chord changes. Hawkins plays with uncompromising involvement and a plentitude of ideas. A variety of traditional-sounding riffs and blues phrases interplay in surprising cohesiveness with showy arpeggios. Brief phrases which break up Hawkins's regular accents are placed with great effectiveness, and the performance is perhaps Hawkins's masterpiece of relieving rhythmic contrast.

The fact that the years 1939-44 found Hawkins at a peak had a more than personal importance, for in these years most young saxophonists were under Lester Young's influence, and Young often overrode harmony in the interests of melody and his original rhythmic ideas. After 1944 Hawkins fell in easily with the young modernists because his knowledge of chords, both theoretical and pragmatic, allowed him to. Rhythmically, he continued to live in the early 'thirties —  but, again, with more regular accents than many players of that period. Hawkins also did not seem out of place, I expect, because younger players like Dexter Gordon had arrived at a synthesis of Hawkins and Young.

Hawkins did begin to sound dated harmonically by the mid-'fifties. On a Thelonious Monk date, made in 1957, he was momentarily intimidated by some of the thick complexity Monk gives to his chords. However, Hawkins's quick solution, to go ahead and play what he knows, is the solution of a mature man, and his solos show it. Hawkins continued to listen: later he used simple scalar embellishments in his solos that echoed the more complex ones of John Coltrane.

Among Hawkins's more direct pupils, one thinks most particularly of two men. The most brilliant is Don Byas, but Byas was never as successful as Hawkins in varying his phrasing; even the staggeringly sophisticated techniques of finger and harmony on Byas's I Got Rhythm or Indiana are phrased and accented with freight-train regularity. Perhaps the greatest pupil Ben Webster, was almost Byas's opposite. Long an exceptional soloist, Webster became a great one, I think, after he accepted the limitations of his fingers and embouchure and became a simple and eloquent melodist.

The standard term for Hawkins's sensibility is romantic. Terry Martin has suggested, however, that, if Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster were romantic saxophonists, then Hawkins's work was by comparison both too ornate and too detached to be called romantic, and that it would be better to describe his talent as dramatic. I am inclined to agree, and I further suggest that the best critical touchstones and analogies for Hawkins's kind of drama lie outside jazz. His sense of drama was like that of the great aria and lieder singers, the special declamatory drama of the concert singer and the concert stage, a tradition which Hawkins himself deeply admired.

One might call Webster a player of great natural musical instincts, and Hawkins a player of great natural musical curiosity making use of the techniques that his innate curiosity led him to acquire and assimilate. Thus Hawkins survived more than four decades, a player whose commitment to improvisation was essential.”

The following video features Coleman Hawkins with Hank Jones on piano, George Duvivier on bass and Shelly Manne on drums performing Avalon.

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