The 20’s were a turning point in the history of music, which coincides with a turning point in the mindset of African Americans, especially in large cities like New York. The black entertainment industry, up until now, had always been a white mans exhibition of the Negro for white audiences (Cooper). The Harlem renaissance and the idea of the ‘New Negro’ was a precursor for a wave of African American musicians and songwriters who would not be restricted to the same conventions which their predecessors were. Coleman Hawkins learned to play the piano at the age of 5, and two years later he moved on to the cello. At 9 he learned the saxophone and by the time he was twelve he was playing in the Kansas City Theatre Pit Band. Coleman Hawkins first inserted himself into the Jazz scene in 1921, at the very beginning of the Jazz age and the roaring 20’s. He played alongside the travelling blues and vaudeville star, Mamie Smith. After playing this background role for 2 years, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. This would reinvent Coleman Hawkins as a lead soloist and a big star of American jazz, a title that he retained for more than 40 years (Yanow). Hawkins should be included in this course because he was a major part of the swing jazz and big band movement, both in America and Europe, while reinventing the tenor saxophone as a Jazz instrument and an art form. His single, ‘Body and Soul’, was not only outrageously popular, but did so while defying many of the swing conventions of jazz music at the time. He was also one of the pioneers of early bebop and was a huge influence on later musicians such as John Coltrane and sonny Rollins.
Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra was one of the most popular and influential ‘Hot Jazz’ bands of the 20’s, and Coleman Hawkins was a full time member for 11 years and was considered the centerpiece of the band (Oxford). Their home was the Roseland Ballroom. This dance club would later be known as the best dance club in New York. (Oxford). They also frequented the Savoy Ballroom, the most popular Black and Tan dance club in New York. This club was influential because it was a mixed race club where both blacks and whites came to dance, and racial differences were largely left at the door. “The Savoy was a building, a geographic place, a ballroom, and the soul of a neighborhood. It personified a community and an era, and became a monument to the music and dance of ‘swing’” (Engelbrecht 3). Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra were likely the most influential swing group of the 1920’s. One measurement of this is how often Henderson and his band were recorded and broadcasted. “Henderson was the most frequently recorded black musician in the first decade of Jazz’s recorded history” (Magee 8). Jeffrey Magee also notes that his highest frequency of recordings took place between 1923-1927. During this time period Coleman Hawkins was a permanent member of Henderson’s Orchestra. “The Bands instrumental star was definitely Hawkins” (Chilton 26). In the years before and after Louis Armstrong was part of Henderson’s Orchestra, Hawkins was the main soloist. “Louis influenced the band greatly by making the men swing-conscious with that New Orleans style of his. That same effect that Hawkins had on reeds, that right down-to-earth swing, with punch and bounce” (Fletcher Henderson).
Coleman Hawkins had a unique style of improvisation on the tenor saxophone, which was copied by almost all tenors after Hawkins got big in the New York jazz scene. Coleman Hawkins way of playing the Tenor saxophone was his own, and was almost entirely different from anything previously heard on the tenor sax, which, in the early 20’s was still primarily a marching band instrument. “Hawkins arrived at his own [Musical] style without apparently being heavily influenced by anyone in particular”(Chilton 18). Hawkins, who is widely known as a modest and unassuming man (Chilton 27), made a statement saying that, “I guess its true that I...
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