Career Stages in Music Are Rubbish: Coleman Hawkins’ Later Work

Yesterday, would have been the 111th birthday of the great tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins. He is in many ways the father of jazz tenor saxophone in that he is considered the first to take extended improvised solos on the instrument. Hawkins paved the way from early jazz to bebop. One famous example of his early work is his 1939 solo on the song Body and Soul.

WKCR (Columbia U. radio) did one of their wonderful 24 hour birthday broadcasts in his honor, and one of the DJs focused for a couple hours on Hawkins’ later work with younger musicians and rightfully pointed out that Hawkins continued to develop as an artist and make great music well after that early period in which he is generally known for being an innovator. One great example of this is his contribution to We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Two easily recognizable attributes which depart from Hawkin’s earlier music is that this is more harmonically adventurous, with a bit more use of tension and dissonance than may have been tolerated twenty years earlier, and with the civil rights movement peaking the music is politically charged in a way that wasn’t happening much earlier in Hawkins’ career.

I will end by saying that the way we generally talk about the stages in musicians’ careers is bullshit. People are over-inclined to pick what they perceive as culminating moments in artist’s careers, such as Coltrane’s Love Supreme, at the expense of diminishing other parts of that artist’s life work. More broadly, the way we talk about progress in music is utter rubbish. There is no such thing as progress in music, and perceiving some kind of linear development – whether it’s from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis, or from acoustic to electric, or from folk to classical to jazz to rock to hip hop – is to give in to the illusion that there will be some kind of ultimate music at some point that will negate the significance of everything that came before it. There is no final destination of any kind, other than utter oblivion and dusty death. This type of thinking can especially infect the minds of cocky young musicians who in a fog of hubris think of themselves as being part of the development of music as a whole. Personally, I am working on music to colonize Mars with. How about you? Anyway, next time you are checking out some music, try not to think of its place in the progress of music as a whole or its place in the culmination of an artist’s development and just try to appreciate its merit as another speck in the ongoing soundscape humans continue to produce throughout the millennia.