A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

DJ Sniff
Leonard Feather, Coleman Hawkins, + Budd Johnson, 1947 Courtesy of Mosaic Records

Post Hawk, ergo propter Hawk. Despite the flawed logic inherent in the original Latin (translated as “After this, therefore because of this”), the altered phrase nevertheless rings true with a dramatic, historic inevitability as it relates to the career of Coleman Hawkins. As everyone knows, along with Armstrong, Morton, and Ellington, Hawkins so influenced the sound and style of jazz as to be directly responsible for a permanent, fundamental perspective that simultaneously defined and liberated the music for future generations. He provided early instrumentalists – primarily, but not exclusively, tenor saxophonists – with a blueprint for improvisational strategies that not only refined and elaborated on the then-rudimentary (Louis Armstrong, of course, being the most important exception among non-pianists) rhythmic and harmonic properties of swing, but added a corresponding combination of authority, audacity, and intensity that revolutionized the jazz solo from its role as simple compositional ornamentation into that of a complex, personal, existential statement. In this regard, at this time, his only peers were Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Producer Norman Granz hit upon an apt artistic parallel when he titled Hawkins’ all-but-unprecedented 1948 unaccompanied improvisation “Picasso” – as innovators, and remarkably consistent executors of a radical vision through years of maturity, Hawkins and Picasso held comparable positions in their respective fields. The proof – at least the musical proof, allowing for some unfortunate, if unavoidable, gaps – can be found in the Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947, recently issued by Mosaic.

Before Hawkins, the tenor saxophone was widely considered an awkward, virtually novelty instrument, seldom employed in jazz or classical music (though invented for the latter). His own first recordings, especially those made while still in his early twenties as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, reveal the slap-tonguing and huffing, galumphing phrasing typical of pre-‘20s, largely vaudevillian, tenor sax technique. Critical consensus has it that Armstrong’s year-long residency with Henderson – late 1924 through ‘25 – was the inspirational example that pushed Hawkins to seek a more fluid, streamlined, sophisticated approach. It’s interesting that none of the Henderson recordings which feature both Armstrong and Hawkins are included among these eight CDs. The reason may have to do with record company contractual conflicts; that much of this material is available, legally or not, elsewhere; or that it doesn’t yet show off the advances that Hawkins was soon to achieve. Nevertheless, the 57 performances (masters and alternate takes) here with Henderson or renamed related groups, such as the Dixie Stompers or Connie’s Inn Orchestra, leading up to Hawkins’ departure in 1934, do plot a gradual but undeniable growth in his technical facility and conceptual breadth. In the 1927 “St. Louis Shuffle” he was showing hints of future harmonic escapades; the next year’s “I’m Feelin’ Devilish” finds his solo rhythmically aggressive and even more harmonically restless, eventually to lead to the shockingly asymmetrical and angular solo in the 1932 “Honeysuckle Rose.”

If Hawkins had remained a big band sideman all of his life, sticking with Henderson until that band’s demise, then moving on to the relative security of, say, Count Basie or even Benny Goodman (he guested with both bands, in 1941 and ‘34, respectively, due to the efforts of producer John Hammond), one may speculate that he might not have progressed any further than his heretofore fascinating but confined flashes of brilliance, and ultimately forged a solid, stable reputation along the lines of a Cootie Williams or Bill Harris. But several factors (possibly all aspects of the same psychological motivation) led him in another, more rewarding direction. One seemed to be a continual need for new environments; in fact, some of his most advanced work occurred outside of the big band arena during this time – witness the blossoming of his eloquent balladry in the famous 1929 “One Hour” and the new reliance on energy and tone to sustain a solo on “You Rascal You” from 1931, both with the Mound City Blue Blowers. Another was an insatiable musical curiosity, which soaked up ideas from various sources – modern jazz and classical music (his first instrument was cello, and over the years he collected and listened to classical recordings more so than jazz) – and continually broadened his creative outlook. For example,  as suggested above, Armstrong’s technical prowess and flamboyance may have provided an initial, essential impetus – and throughout his career Hawkins’ continued to partner with Armstrong-derived, albeit distinctive trumpeters like Red Allen and Roy Eldridge – but his stylistic single-mindedness, however sublime, was soon displaced by the  genre-stretching, harmonically rambunctious Art Tatum. Finally, Hawkins’ primary stimulus was, by all reports, an ego which sought the spotlight and fed a bruisingly competitive nature, pushing him to ever-greater creative efforts.

So cutting the professional cord and leaving Henderson to go to England and Europe in 1934, age 29, inspired, perhaps, by successful visits by Armstrong (in ’32) and Ellington (in ’33), was the most important decision of his musical life, his declaration of independence. He wasn’t going as an unknown; his reputation overseas had been established by eleven years’ worth of recordings with Henderson, a few sessions of his own for the British Parlophone label arranged by John Hammond, and his participation as featured soloist (alongside pal Benny Carter and the up-and-coming Chu Berry) in several 1933 dates led by British bandleader/arranger Spike Hughes. He stayed for five years, touring Europe, making London and Holland his primary centers of activity, and recording, as the whim struck him, with ensembles like The (Dutch) Ramblers, The (Swiss) Berries, French violinist Michel Warlop’s Orchestra, duos and trios with American expatriate pianist Freddy Johnson, and, most famously, a mixed American/European band that included Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, with arrangements by Benny Carter. Except for the latter, these recordings offer unusual repertoire and uneven accompaniments, but they show Hawkins gravitating towards a new persona; no longer a cog in a musical machine, he was now, like his favorite cellist Pablo Casals, a featured artist, a recitalist. Neither the Spike Hughes nor any of the European recordings are part of the Mosaic collection, which simply leaps from 1934 to 1939 – from Hawkins’ point of departure to his return to America. But although speculation was that Hawkins would lose his creative edge without the sound of American jazz to spur him on, it’s likely that having unlimited access to European classical music for five years sharpened his harmonic acumen even more. Exhibit A: “Body and Soul.”

Recorded, so the story goes, only as an afterthought, “Body and Soul” is the iconic Hawkins performance, a hugely popular hit and enormously influential on several generations of jazz musicians. Yet this was just the starting point; like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, it was a defining moment in the artist’s career, but pointed to years of further refinement, variation, elaboration, and contrast. Especially contrast. Hawkins’ greatness was only partially validated in the precedents he set before his European sojourn; his artistry emerged in the remaining thirty years of his life. Aside from a brief, failed attempt to front his own big band in 1940, Hawkins hereafter flourished as an improvising soloist within the interactive freedom of small groups. Again like Picasso, his mature style was multifaceted. Harmonic acuity and adventurousness was just part of the equation. He had devised a variety of nuanced tonal effects – a buzz, croon, bite, moan, growl, roar, and others – to affect the expressive nature of a solo, and had total control of the horn’s highest and lowest registers. His rhythmic phrasing was frequently controversial among critics who felt he relied too heavily on an alternate beat regularity (defined in poetry as trochaic meter: ONE two THREE four, with additive variations thereupon). Over time, this evolved into free verse in his exquisitely contoured ballad playing. And uptempo, the amazing power of Hawkins’ line was not as dependent upon beat placement as it was the relentless, audacious, passionate energy he could summon up at will and use to sustain melodic movement. (Carried to its extreme, such “energy” as a generating and governing factor of rhythmic shape took new form in the free jazz of the ‘60s.)

Post-Europe examples of Hawkins’ unique blend of craft, daring, and fervor can be found in “Meet Doctor Foo” from the same 1939 session that produced “Body and Soul;” the hot, driving, by now characteristic urgency on “The Sheik of Araby” and his wicked eruption in “Bouncing with Bean” with a 1940 all-star octet; the classic 1943 Swing Four session that gave us the chiseled wallop of “The Man I Love” (with a contorted Hawkins’ entry that anticipates Eric Dolphy) and mesmerizing “Sweet Lorraine,” the yin and yang of Hawkins’ musical personality; and the sleek, tense “Riding on 52nd Street” of the next year. As the 52nd Street reference implies, though an established star, Hawkins was always looking for fresh ideas, and began rubbing elbows with young, still-unproven talent like Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Thelonious Monk, Shelly Manne, J.J. Johnson, and others who would thrive in bebop and post-bop. Unlike fellow tenorman and temporary expatriate Don Byas, Hawkins flirted with but was never seduced by pure bebop, rather, he deftly adapted his methods of swing to suit the new rhythms. Even more interesting is the way in which he incorporated post-Christian (Charlie, that is) guitarists in his groups of the period; Jimmy Shirley, Remo Palmieri, Mary Osborne, Chuck Wayne, John Collins, and most excitingly, the whiplash-obsessed Tiny Grimes made crisp, pungent contributions and modernized the ensemble textures.

The Mosaic box concludes in 1947. Among the advantages to such a broad, deep collection are the unexpected or unavailable material to be found, the minor gems buried in an otherwise undistinguished session, and surprising details such as the bold playing of trumpeter Bobby Stark in the Henderson band, the Metronome All-Star aggregations, and Hawkins’ pre-“Picasso” venture into unaccompanied improvising, “Hawk Variations 1 and 2.” Presumably due to those annoying contractual dead ends, several crucial recordings from the chosen time period were not sampled in the Mosaic box, such as the Commodore date that finally united Hawkins with Art Tatum, and those for Keynote in 1944 and Capitol in 1945.  Moreover, Hawkins had more than twenty years of stunning work left in him – the underrated Prestige material of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Verve sessions alongside Ben Webster or Roy Eldridge, and a spate of live recordings, including those on European labels. Of course, early and late, there are some dogs mixed in – even Picasso had an off day now and then – but for the most part Hawkins’ classic recordings continued to the end of his life. Mosaic’s collection is not the whole story, but it’s a valuable first chapter.

Art Lange©2012

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