Coleman Hawkins, whose 1939 version of Body and Soul would forever define the sound of the tenor saxophone, not only in jazz but in all music, is one of the most profoundly important musicians of the 20th century. And one of the most rightly heralded, he even got his own stamp.
But in the conventional wisdom that is often the lie that becomes truth, most especially in telling the story of American music, he is often remembered as a traditionalist. As the star of the Fletcher Henderson band, we hear the sad tale of his replacement– Lester Young. Henderson’s wife would constantly play Hawkins records whenever Prez was around, in hopes that Prez would start to play more like Hawkins (aka Bean). Hawkins played with a fat tone, plenty of vibrato, and a gutsy sound. Lester Young of course founded his own school of playing, with a light, vibrato-less tone, in the airy upper register he often sounded like he was playing an alto sax, and soon Henderson shipped his ass back to Kansas City where he could play the way he liked as the star of the up and coming Count Basie band. This has little to do with Hawkins himself, who was always a forward looking (and playing) musician, and if he never bothered attempting to use Lester Young’s harmonic innovations in his own playing, he certainly appreciated them. He once burned out the motor of a brand new car to make a jam session with Young that was hundreds of miles away. Hawkins did use the innovations of musicians who would come in Young (and Art Tatum’s) wake to create what would be called be-bop. In fact, the very first session that employed these young “bop” musicians would be recorded under Hawkins guise. On Feb. 16, 1944 Hawkins cut a session for the Apollo label using Dizzie Gillespie, Leo Parker and Max Roach, it would be the first waxing of the new music that would cause such a rift in the jazz world. Eight months later (Oct. 11, 1944), Bean who was then working on 52nd St. brought his small band in the studio for the Joe Davis label to cut four tunes. It would be the first session for the already legendary pianist and composer Thelonious Monk who played piano on these sides along with Edward Robinson on bass and Denzil Best on drums. These four tunes, sometimes used to fill out various Prestige compilation CD’s, are in my mind one of the greatest jazz sessions of the era, a pivotal moment where through the music the listener can look (or hear) the future of jazz, or just kick back and say– “How come music doesn’t sound this good anymore”?
Monk was already well known amongst fellow musicians, holding down the piano chair at the jam sessions at Mintons (see the Charlie Christian posting), and his songs were beginning to make the rounds, but he was considered too weird, too eccentric for listeners to get, and work was hard to come by for the young Monk. Coleman Hawkins recognized his talents and hired him for his first downtown gig on 52nd Street. And brought him into the studio for the session that is our subject for today.
The most striking thing about these recordings are how much Monk sounds, well, just like Monk. His style is fully developed, listen to the intro on Drifting On A Reed, it could have been recorded at virtually any time in Monk’s career, he emerged with his style fully formed (there are many musicians, to this day, who think Monk was a crappy pianist, including my pal Mathew Shipp, one of the finest players in the world today, who once told me he couldn’t stand to hear Monk play piano). On the same tune we hear Hawkins incorporate the new ideas into his sound with an ease that is hard to describe. He never changed his style either, but he never stopped growing, he had huge ears, he could take inspiration for anywhere, and he had huge ideas, and the talent to turn them into jazz. Flying Hawk, the only uptempo number recorded, gives Monk plenty of space. On The Bean catches Hawkins in a swinging mood, he gives Monk a short solo in the middle eight, and responds to Monk’s quirkish chording with authority and ease. Recollections, a ballad, captures everything Hawkins did best, his lyricism, his soulfulness, and his technique (the double stop triplets on the first solo) all come together for a two and half minute piece of mood sculpture, I can just imagine coming in out of the rain and fog to a half empty club on 52nd St. to be met with that sound wafting through the doorway, as if to say– you’re in the right place. 52nd St isn’t there anymore. Well, there’s a 52nd St, but every building that housed a jazz joint has been bulldozed and replaced by ugly, modern high rise office buildings and hotels.
Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk are long gone, no one could ever replace them.
And jazz, like R&B and rock’n’roll is something that used to be great, it exists, but modern audiences are too dumb to understand it, too lazy to develop on ear for it. It’s safe to say the best of it it is long gone, and we’ll never see anything like what happened in American music in the 2oth Century again….