First, November 21 is Coleman Hawkins’s birthday — not a national holiday, yet. But WKCR-FM, the jazz station of Columbia University, will play his music for twenty-four hours in his honor. And if you’re not within reach of an FM radio, you can hear it online at http://www.wkcr.org.
The letter printed below originally came from the esteemed player and thinker Phil Woods, making its way to Jon-Erik Kellso, who sent me a copy of it. I hope that no one minds my offering it here: I think it is an important document for reasons both musical and spiritual.
My Dear Mr. Hawkins,
Your recent performance at the ‘Village Gate’ was magnificent!! Quite aside from the fact that you have maintained a position of dominance and leadership in the highly competitive field of ‘Jazz’ for the time that you have there remains the more significant fact that such tested and tried musical achievement denoted and is subsidiary to personal character and integrity of being.
There have been many young men of high potential and demonstrated ability who have unfortunately not been ‘MEN’ in their personal and offstage practices and who soon found themselves devoid of the ability to create music. Perhaps these chaps were unable to understand why their musical powers left them so suddenly. Or perhaps they knew what actions were constructive as opposed to destructive but were too weak and not men enough to command the course of their lives. But certain it is that character, knowledge and virtue are superior to ‘Music’ as such. And that ‘success’ is relative to the evolution of those qualities within us all. That it has been positive and lasting for you Coleman is to the honor and credit of us, your colleagues, as well as to your credit. For you have ‘lit the flame’ of aspiration within so many of us and you have epitomized the superiority of ‘excellence of endeavor’ and you stand today as a clear living picture and example for us to learn from.
It has always been a task to explain in words those things which in nature are the most profound and meaningful. Now you have shown me why I thought so much of you for so long. Godspeed in your travels and may I be fortunate enough to hear you play the tenor saxophone again in person.
The letter is deeply moving, its individuality emphasized by Sonny’s sincerity, his eighteenth-century prose flourishes. Of course, it is a heartfelt expression of gratitude and admiration. But what moves me is that Rollins isn’t praising Hawk’s musical inventiveness. No, he pays tribute is to the maturity of character Hawkins showed; a moral tenacity displayed in his devotion to his art.
When Sonny praises Hawk for resisting the temptations that other, weaker players fell prey to, I suspect that he has Charlie Parker in mind and those players who fell under the spell of Bird’s music and his self-destructive persona. “Character, knowledge and virtue” — rare qualities in themselves or in such a combination.
We praise Hawkins for making the tenor saxophone into a true jazz instrument, for helping to continue and expand the jazz ballad tradition. He kept his own identity but he played alongside Mamie Smith in 1920 and with Monk, Coltrane, and Rollins forty years later, still immediately identifiable. But I think we should also praise Rollins for his humility and his willingness to honor his ancestors. Many of us might think some of the same thoughts about a person who has inspired us, but how many of us will write the letter?
Hawkins died in 1969, so he cannot hear our praise. But we can still honor him by reminding others of the celebration on Friday, by listeining to it ourselves, and by keeping his music in our ears whenever we can.