GXB15223 Coleman Hawkins by George Sottung © Wind River Studios

Before Coleman Hawkins picked up the instrument, the tenor saxophone was considered a novelty. But after he had mastered it, few would disagree that the saxophone became an essential instrument in the realm of modern jazz. Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1904. By age four, he was studying the piano, and just three years later the cello. At nine, Hawkins began playing saxophone, the instrument that became his trademark. A professional musician from his teens, he joined the Fletcher Henderson big band in 1923. While with that group, Hawkins pioneered the full tone and heavy vibrato that soon became a standard sound in jazz. His reputation grew until he was considered the premier jazz saxophonist in the world. Leaving Henderson’s big band in 1934, Hawkins toured Europe until 1939. It was in that year, after returning to the United States, that he made his most famous recording of a tune called Body and Soul. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hawkins continued to remain popular years after the big band sound had passed from the leading edge of music. He was featured on the television program The Sound of Jazz as late as 1957 and was invited to participate in Titans of the Tenor, a production staged at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, in the middle 1960s. Hawkins died in New York on May 19, 1969.

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