Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969), nicknamed "Hawk" and sometimes "Bean", was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. One of the first prominent jazz musicians on his instrument, as Joachim E. Berendt explained: "there were some tenor players before him, but the instrument was not an acknowledged jazz horn". Hawkins biographer John Chilton described the prevalent styles of tenor saxophone solos prior to Hawkins as "mooing" and "rubbery belches." Hawkins cited as influences Happy Caldwell, Stump Evans, and Prince Robinson, although he was the first to tailor his method of improvisation to the saxophone rather than imitate the techniques of the clarinet. Hawkins' virtuosic, arpeggiated approach to improvisation, with his characteristic rich, emotional, and vibrato-laden tonal style, was the main influence on a generation of tenor players that included Chu Berry, Charlie Barnet, Tex Beneke, Ben Webster, Vido Musso, Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, and Don Byas, and through them the later tenormen, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Ike Quebec, Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves, and Lucky Thompson. While Hawkins became known with swing music during the big band era, he had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s.
Hawkins's first significant gig was with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds in 1921, and he was with the band full-time from April 1922 to 1923, when he settled in New York City. In the Jazz Hounds, he coincided with Garvin Bushell, Everett Robbins, Bubber Miley and Herb Flemming. Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, where he remained until 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. Hawkins's playing changed significantly during Louis Armstrong's tenure with the Henderson Orchestra (1924–25). In the late 1920s, Hawkins participated in some of the earliest integrated recording sessions with the Mound City Blue Blowers. During his time with Henderson, he became a star soloist with increasing prominence on records. While with the band, he and Henry "Red" Allen recorded a series of small group sides for ARC (on their Perfect, Melotone, Romeo, and Oriole labels). Hawkins also recorded a number of solo recordings with either piano or a pick-up band of Henderson's musicians in 1933–34, just prior to his period in Europe. He was also featured on a Benny Goodman session on February 2, 1934 for Columbia, which also featured Mildred Bailey as guest vocalist.
After a brief period in 1940 leading a big band, Hawkins led small groups at Kelly's Stables on Manhattan's 52nd Street. During 1944, He recorded in small and large groups for the Keynote, Savoy, and Apollo labels. Hawkins always had a keen ear for new talent and styles, and he was the leader on what is generally considered to have been the first ever bebop recording session on February 16, 1944 including Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas, Clyde Hart, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach. On October 19, 1944, he led another bebop recording session with Thelonious Monk on piano, Edward Robinson on bass, and Denzil Best on drums.
Given his love of Bach and Pablo Casals and his own unquenchable thirst for self-expression, it was inevitable that Hawkins would move towards solo performances. During his European tour, he began surrounding his songs with unaccompanied introductions and codas. and about January 1945 he recorded Solo Sessions. Harry Lim, a Javanese jazz lover who came to America in 1939, first produced jam sessions in Chicago and New York and then founded Keynote Records, a premier small jazz label. In an article for Metronome magazine in May, 1944, Lim dubbed Hawkins the Picasso of Jazz.
In the 1960s, Hawkins appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. In 1960, he participated in the recording of Max Roach's We Insist! suite, part of the political and social linkages developing between jazz and the civil rights movement. At the behest of Impulse Records producer Bob Thiele, Hawkins availed himself of a long-desired opportunity to record with Duke Ellington for the 1962 album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins alongside Ellington band members Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and Harry Carney as well as the Duke. Sessions for Impulse with his performing quartet yielded Today and Now, also in 1962 and judged one of his better latter-day efforts by The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. Hawkins recorded in 1963 alongside Sonny Rollins for their collaborative album Sonny Meets Hawk!, for RCA Victor.
It was shortly after this busy period that Hawkins fell into the grip of depression and heavy drinking and his recording output began to wane. His last recording was in 1967; Hawkins died of liver disease on May 19, 1969, at Wickersham Hospital, in Manhattan. He was survived by his widow, Dolores, and by three children: a son, Rene, and two daughters, Colette and Mimi. Hawkins is interred in the Yew Plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.