Jo Jones once told an interviewer that he was writing a book, THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE, a chronicle of musicians he was devoted to who had died too young. He recalled saxophonist Dick Wilson, hospitalized and on a no-salt diet, — begging his friends to bring him salt. Someone did and the thoughtless kindness hastened the saxophonist’s death.
But this post isn’t about excessive sodium. Today is November 21, 2011, and because it is Coleman Hawkins’ birthday — even though he is no longer here to enjoy the attention — radio station WKCR-FM plays his music for 24 hours.
I always think of Hawkins as being aware of his purpose. His playing reveals a strong, focused individual: neither tentative nor timorous. He seems to have known he was meant to be the king of the tenor saxophonists, whether he was competing with Lester Young or Sonny Rollins. Hawk was a gladiator, intolerant of limitations, a musician who would test others — asking a youthful Oscar Peterson to play IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — but in B natural. In photographs, Hawkins has the amused swagger of the man who knows he can back up anything he says. Yet late in his career he became indifferent to anything but his horn and cognac, the latter often taking precedence. To say only that he “was an alcoholic” is the most limited judgmental of assessments.
His contemporary (and his equal) Lester Young seems a man with an almost unbearable sensitivity, deeply wounded, carrying a lifetime of hurt — from being exiled from the family band to his victimization in the US military, to hearing his music taken over by younger copyists. I can see why Lester eventually did not care whether he lived or not.
But the mystery of Hawkins — a powerful man defeated — leads me to the question of why some musicians prevail and others succumb. Some players seem to be — and I write this without moral condemnation — eternal children, deeply in love with play to the exclusion of all else. Consider Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmie Blanton, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker. That sweetly intense focus is both their glory and their doom. No one can say that they were meant to live to be middle-aged or more.
Some musicians, surrounded early on by situations where alcohol is the common bond, expected reward, the needed stimulus, lose their balance. When once a drink or two was the impetus to be loose enough to improvise, to “get in the zone,” the servant becomes the master. At the ends of their careers, both Hawkins and Young had no interest in food. Too, some of these players seemed to cultivate relationships only with their instruments. They had friends and colleagues on the bandstand, yes — but not spouses or lovers. Monogamy has never been the universal panacea, but sympathetic intimate companionship can do a great deal to keep loneliness and despair at bay.
I cannot take Louis as my sole example (tempting as it is) but he was conscientious about his health, had a loving wife and a home, preferred marijuana to alcohol, and took joy in his existence and its simple pleasures. Perhaps we all need these balances in our life: to be grateful for simple things, to keep our pleasures from overwhelming us, to cultivate a sunny disposition. Then again, who knows what mixture of nurture and nature is at work? Perhaps I wish only that both Hawkins and Lester had been happier in their twilights. It is something I would wish for all of us, not just musicians.