Coleman Hawkins was one of the most influential saxophone players of all time. He was one of the first prominent jazz musicians on the saxophone, and also had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s. He has been called the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone.”
Hawkins was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1904 and was named Coleman after his mother Cordelia’s maiden name. He attended high school in Chicago, then in Topeka, Kansas, at Topeka High School. In his youth, he played piano and cello, and started playing saxophone at the age of nine; by the age of fourteen, he was playing around eastern Kansas.
His first major gig was with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1921. Hawkins later joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, where he remained until 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. During his time with Henderson, he became a star soloist with increasing prominence on recordings. While with the band, he and Henry “Red” Allen recorded a series of small group sides for ARC on their Perfect, Melotone, Romeo, and Oriole labels).
After his failed attempt at trying to start a big band, he led a combo at Kelly’s Stables on Manhattan’s 52nd Street with Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, and Max Roach as sidemen. After 1948, Hawkins divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous freelance recordings. In 1948, Hawkins recorded “Picasso,” an early piece for unaccompanied saxophone.
Hawkins directly influenced many bebop performers, and later in his career, recorded and/or performed with adventurous musicians as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, who considered him as his main influence. Hawkins died in 1969.