Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A review of John Chilton’s “The Song of the Hawk: The Life & Recordings of Coleman Hawkins”

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter Fall 1991 (Vol. 9, #4),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

Never mind what you may have heard about Adolphe Sax — it was Coleman Hawkins who invented the tenor saxophone. Sax invented a strange hybrid between brass and reed instruments which became very popular in military bands, due to its sound and power. The instrument that Hawk invented became arguably the definitive horn for jazz expression — as Ornette Coleman put it, “the best statements Negroes have made of what their soul is have been on tenor saxophone.” Coleman Hawkins was the daddy of it all, the first to play meaningful jazz on the tenor.
John Chilton’s new critical biography, The Song of the Hawk: The Life & Recordings of Coleman Hawkins, is a thorough, knowledgeable, and worthy discussion of the Hawk’s music. Hawkins fathered the warm, full-bodied, rhythmic approach that became the first standard for anyone striving to learn the tenor sax, and any genealogy of the horn leads inescapably back to him — you can’t name a tenor player who wasn’t somehow influenced by the Hawk. Chilton chronicles the Hawk’s development: his early days in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he studied piano and cello; his first work with Mamie Smith and Fletcher Henderson; his life as an expatriate living in Europe; his masterpiece performance of “Body & Soul,” which solidified his reputation; and on through many triumphs, some failures, and eventual decline.
Chilton’s comprehensive knowledge of Hawkins’s approach, along with his thorough research into the stories behind Hawk's various recordings, help to provide a context for the Hawk’s work that made me hear new things in some old favorite albums. Chilton is no fawning biographer, either — he sets very high standards for performances (which is appropriate when dealing with a monumental figure like Hawkins), and often, in his criticisms, he doesn’t cut Hawk much slack.
Hawkins was a strange man, a glamorous, sophisticated individual who was somehow at the same time a miserly loner. Interestingly, considering his extroverted approach to the horn, Hawkins revealed little of his thoughts even to his friends. Chilton struggles against these difficulties to provide a sense of Hawkins the man. He’s not entirely successful in this regard, but to be fair I don’t know how any biographer could unravel the personality of a man who could be a mystery even to those who knew him well.
A larger shortcoming in an otherwise excellent book is the lack of a discography, which can make it difficult for the interested reader / jazz fan to track down the recordings discussed. Discographies invaluably aid in understanding an artist’s chronological development, and in tracking the various individuals an artist has performed with. In a book like this one, a discography is a must. In spite of that omission, however, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a more complete understanding of one of the jazz titans.

You can find The Song of the Hawk here:
The Song of the Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (The Michigan American Music Series)
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