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Coleman Hawkins: Tenor Saxophone, Front And Center

Coleman Hawkins in 1946.
William Gottlieb
/
The Library Of Congress
Coleman Hawkins in 1946.

When tenor saxophonist John Coltrane recorded his composition "Giant Steps" in 1959, he created something that changed the way musicians thought about improvisation and harmony. Decades earlier, the man who took the first leaps and bounds with the tenor sax in jazz was Coleman Hawkins.

Before Hawkins arrived on the jazz scene with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the 1920s, the tenor sax was basically an ensemble instrument — as opposed to a improvisational instrument — mainly providing a link between the clarinets and brass instruments in military bands and big bands. Hawkins had different ideas, and through his virtuosic playing, he put the instrument front and center in the development of jazz. Hawkins' approach to music would later serve as a bridge from the era of big band swing to later developments like bebop.

Put simply, Hawkins was a musical pioneer, one of the most versatile and accomplished soloists in jazz history. Here are five samples of his genius.

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