Coleman Hawkins: Centennial Collection

Coleman Hawkins
Centennial Collection

Unlike other jazzmen represented for well or ill in this series, Coleman Hawkins really had no extensive or valuable connection with RCA/Victor Records. He cut his most famous recording For that company (whose archives supplied the recordings for this disc), 1939’s “Body and Soul”, which was a definite hit with the general public. People with some grounding in harmony suggested there were wrong notes, but Hawkins knew a great deal about harmony, and Dan Morgenstern’s notes do indicate that Hawkins’ longtime nickname “Bean” actually meant “Brains”. All at once he had done what people with even more complex theoretical awareness of music had been trying to do for years: use that knowledge to produce widely recognisable beauty.

Victor had also recorded earlier revelations from the Bean, two amazing 1932 titles (“One Hour” and “Hello, Lola”) on which he unfolds a harmonic awareness second at the time only to Art Tatum’s. Using sheer intuition, Louis Armstrong discovered an approach to improvisation which the somewhat more schooled but not much younger Hawkins followed to an audible extent in quite a number of earlier Hawkins recordings. Then he visited Toledo, heard Tatum, and studied more harmony. This marks one difference between what he does on the beautifully loping “Hocus Pocus”, with the 1934 Fletcher Henderson band, and the 1929 recording featuring Hawkins as one of the jewels encrusting the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers Band, organised and arranged for by Don Redman. (Redman’s spoken vocals are one of the unknown miracles of jazz, and there’s one on “Wherever There’s a Will…” on this CD.)

Hawkins was one of the few dozen very best musicians roped into the studio by Victor, and played in one or more of the ad-hoc groups recorded in the late 1930s under Lionel Hampton’s leadership. Two sessions featuring Hawkins are represented here, one track each. I’d not think the rest of the mixture on this CD justifies picking them up in this form.

There’s a 1946 track on which the alto saxophonist is sloppily credited as James Brown. Well, during his career he was always known as Pete Brown, and known as one of the major individuals always worth hearing on the horn. Before that there’s a track from a 1940 session with Benny Carter and Danny Polo (great clarinetist, died far too young). Along with the session of December 11, 1947, the sessions already mentioned (even without the Hampton) would make a lovely selection. The 1947 “Angel Face” is — I grant — a ballad masterpiece. “I Love You” is a pretty good ballad too, and the third of more than three fiery bop tunes recorded on that date with Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson.

Suddenly it’s not 1947 but 1956, and Hawkins is recording with big ensembles led by Billy Byers, with Charlie Shavers playing a very nice trumpet on an adaptation of the Hawkins staple “Feedin’ the Bean”. The band gets loud; Hawkins doesn’t but still manages to build tension. This is interesting. The same LP had tracks with lots of fiddles and string tracks: “There Will Never Be Another You” has too much backing. The non-stringed Byers ensemble returns on “His Very Own Blues”, a decently storming performance after passages of combined fire and tenderness which may remind those who have engaged in it of that other activity to which Hawkins likened creating a jazz solo.

On “April in Paris” the Hawkins tone sounds strangely cardboard over another set of strings, and on “I Love Paris” the sound one hears too much of is Muzak. The whole CD becomes a ragbag with “Love Me or Leave Me”, featuring a rough jamming band led by the triumphant Henry “Red” Allen and including the vituoso clarinetist Buster Bailey (who, with Hawkins and Don Redman, used to perform all-dancing clarinet-playing trio routines for Fletcher Henderson — later, when reminded of the period, Hawkins would simply snort). Oddly, Bailey isn’t mentioned among the personnel here!

The rhythm of that track is a little agricultural, but fine when you sit down to listen to a set in context. You get no such chance here. In comes the sample track from Sonny Meets Hawk, on which Hawkins fronted a quintet with Sonny Rollins. I think I settled into that one half-way through, when the two men were interacting and swapping and overlapping passages. The jump from the track before hurts the taste. Was this compilation selected with any thought of it being listened straigth through?

I didn’t play through the mediocre arrangement of “Body and Soul” from the 1940s which concludes this programme. It was with Billy Byers again, only the personnel details omit his name: presumably not from the carelessness that botched Pete Brown’s and missed Bailey’s, but to add a false sense of symmetry.

Given the existence of balanced, properly programmatic and non-strings-encumbered Hawkins CDs, only the accompanying DVD could win this any recommendation.

I have an old vinyl recording of the soundtrack to the 1950s TV show stuff with Willie “The Lion” Smith and Lester Young. There’s Henry Allen, who turned up on TV in 1957 with Hawkins and played “Wild Man Blues”. There’s also a TV pilot with Hawkins playing “Lover Man”. It does all seem scrappy, and a shade too reminiscent of the fact that Hawkins got pretty miserable and disenchanted about music after the slurs he received in the 1950s (regarded, as Bob Wilber writes, as “just another black saxophone player”). He was the daddy of hundreds of tenor saxophonists, and if this CD was intended to mark his centenary (which does indeed fall in 2004), this was one clumsy and cloth-eared way of going about it. Sorry!