COLEMAN HAWKINS: A DOCUMENTARY
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A GREAT JAZZMAN, NEWLY RECORDED IN HIS OWN WORDS
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
Here Is Coleman Hawkins' own story. On these two long-playing records are
the highlights of his life and career, his thoughts on jazz and memories of men he
has known and worked with during more than three decades as a major contributor
to American music, making up a frank, unique and fascinating document.
This is a new kind of jazz record album. Among other things, it does not include
a single note of music. Its nearly two hours of time are devoted almost entirely to the
voice of one man (there are also occasional leading questions by two other voices;
nothing more). But if the album has even partially succeeded in its aims, it can safely
be described as every bit as important an addition to the full story of jazz as any body of music you can name.
The purpose here can best be put in terms of the situation the recording seeks to set up: it is as if Coleman Hawkins were sitting in your living room, talking casually, freely answering whatever questions might come to your mind, and using those questions as keys to open his vast personal storehouse of opinion and reminiscence.
We at Riverside have long been aware of the comparative scarcity of full-scale direct documentation in jazz. There has of course been a fairly considerable amount of research (of varying degrees of scholarship); there have been numerous magazine interviews (of varying degrees of frankness; and almost all, by reason of the obvious space limitations of magazines, rather fragmentary). There have been autobiographical (sometimes pretty blatantly pseudo-autobiographical) books, usually strait-jacketed by the formalities of publishable prose and over-polished by the neat hands of professional ghost writers.
But, with a single exception, there have been no attempts to make use of the vast opportunities offered by the phonograph record as a medium for documentation. Even the one exception - Jelly Roll Morton's colorful and extensive talk-fest for the Library of Congress - was not done with any thought in mind of distributing it to the public. It is true that, under earlier recording conditions, the idea was a rather unfeasible one. But such recent developments as the LP and tape recording made it more than feasible. They made it, we finally decided, necessary.
So began the project of which this album is the first specific product (other documentaries are now in preparation). There is certainly no shortage of living jazz figures of sufficient importance to warrant this approach. But there are few with as strong a set of credentials as Hawkins. A musician of major stature since the '20s, he is literally the man responsible for the role of the saxophone in jazz. No one else has ever combined the positions of both pioneer and dominant influence on a basic jazz instrument. And few, if any, jazzmen have moved with (or ahead of) the times as consistently and surefootedly as "Bean" - who has worked with pianists from, say, Fats Waller to Thelonious Monk, with trumpet men from Armstrong to Gillespie. All of which helps make him an exceptionally fitting first choice.
Consequently, on one evening early in the Summer of 1956, Coleman Hawkins was seated in a comfortable chair in Bill Grauer's living room, with the recording equipment set up as inobtrusively as possible. The switch was flipped on and, except for reloading of fresh reels of tape, wasn't turned off for more than four hours. There was no prepared script. There was, deliberately, no attempt at anything approaching a formal "interview". There were merely questions briefly interposed, at intervals, with the intention of triggering the Hawk's memory and encouraging him to ho on at will about events and people and opinions.
This finished product represents the core of the evening's words. What has been edited out involved, primarily, such matters as pauses for thought, questions to which the answer alone were self-sufficient, occasional repetitious and excessively minor digressions, and irrelevancies (like: "Is that clock right? Is it really that late?).
Hawkins spoke of many things - from why the Fletcher Henderson band sounded so much better in person than on records, to his first impression of Charlie Parker. But to this writer one of the most fascinating, and possibly even the most significant, aspect of the material is the absence of any hyper-dramatics. Jazz writers tend to add exclamation points in carload lots to their recreations of jazz history. Hawkins does not; and the difference in perspective and emphases is amazing. His 'historic' joining up with the Henderson band was just another job; his decision to go to England in the mid-'30s was completely impromptu. His most celebrated recording was something of an accident; the advent of modern jazz was, to him, nothing earth-shaking. What critics and listeners can so easily forget is that the names sprinkled through this album (Henderson, Waller, Ellington, Armstrong, Chu Berry, Basie, Jimmy Harrsion, Jack Teagarden, Monk, and so many others) are not "giants of jazz" or any such thing to men like Hawkins. Instead, and much more importantly, they are human beings, friends, co-workers.
It is on its pointing up of such truths as these, as well as its presentation of an unstrained self-portrait of one of the truly key figures of jazz, that this album can base its claim to being a vital addition to the record library of anyone with more than a passing interest in this music and its people.
Produced and edited by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Interviewers : Paul Bacon and Bill Grauer
Cover photograph: Paul Weller; cover designed by Paul Bacon.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street, New York 19, N.Y.