BW: Well two ways. Indirectly the first saxophonists that I really was inspired by, really my heaviest inspirations were Sonny Rollins and [Eddie] "Lockjaw Davis, who were two Coleman Hawkins disciples. I started buying this music when I was thirteen years old. I would go to a record store, back in the days when they let you listen to the record, and I wore out a couple I never bought! ...Anytime, I bought everything I could afford and find by Sonny and by "Lockjaw with Basie and other guys that played with Basie.
And then at Christmas time, my mother bought me a record and I opened it up and it was a Coleman Hawkins record. I put it on the player and thought this isn't hip, this isn't Sonny Rollins. And I didn't get it. And then a little bit later when I got a little older, I got to thinking about the sound of the saxI realized this guy has probably the best tone that anybody ever got on a saxophone. I just started studying that tone and I would buy anything by Coleman Hawkins I could find with ballads on it where he was really opening up his sound. Of course it was different in different periods and it was always the best.
AAJ: What changed about it?
BW: Well, of course, when you hear the earliest recordings, you'd never know it was Coleman Hawkins. And then when he was playing with Fletcher Henderson, when he would play fast, it would be almost like what today would be a modern sound, very compact and centered. But then when he recorded that first ballad, "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight [in 1929] with Glenn Miller and Pee Wee Russell if I'm not mistaken, that's when that ballad sound was first revealed to me. All through the '30s and '40s he kind of developed in one direction. He was using an old Otto Link mouthpiece and mostly Selmer saxophones. When he was recording those ballads like "Body and Soul and "Sophisticated Lady and "How Deep is the Ocean, the stuff in the late '30s and '40sunbelievable!
Then towards the end of the '40s, he switched to a Berg Larsen mouthpiece. It was a different sound, a deeper sound. ...And I always hear a real relationship between his saxophone playing and the cello. First of all, he's not what you would call a blues-based player. Now it's politically correct to say it's not jazz unless it's coming from the blues... Hawkins doesn't come from the blues.
AAJ: Where did he come from?
BW: From my years of listening to him, the seed of Coleman Hawkins is the Bach cello suites. ...Listen to the record he plays, "I Thought About You on a Kenny Burrell record [Bluesy Burrell (OJC, 1962)]...they start out with Burrell playing the melody, well Hawkins plays the introduction and then plays these obbligati behind Kenny Burrell. He doesn't directly quote Bach cello suites, but structurally there's just such a relationship. ...I used to know a guy at Sam Goody's. And Coleman Hawkins would come in there and he never went to the jazz section, he was always in the opera section. One day my friend asked him, "Would you like to come look at our jazz records? Hawkins said, "No, I make those. [laughs] You really hear a real European classical influence in his playing.
AAJ: What makes your playing linked to him and also different?
BW: I don't think that any serious jazz saxophonist isn't linked to him. Even Lester Younghe was linked to it by being the antithesis of it! [laughs] But he was still linked to it. I love a lot of saxophone players. If you look at my record collection, there are so many saxophone players that I've been influenced by and love, all of them eventually directly or indirectly come from Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young...and Louis Armstrong in a sense. And Hawkins comes in a sense from Louis Armstrong, and they played together with Fletcher Henderson.
AAJ: What other kinds of things, aside from this project have you been up to lately?
BW: I'm the Artistic Director for a new non-profit up here in Connecticut called Back Country Jazz. And we're producing jazz concerts. The original idea was to produce jazz concerts like chamber music concerts, where there's little or no amplification in a nice acoustic setting where you can really hear the instruments. And I'm hiring my favorite musicians.
The formal idea is to perpetuate the music of the artists that are the present day state of the evolution of jazz. By that I mean people that really invoke their own personal statements from the tradition. We're not bringing in the best guy imitating whoever's dead, or no repertory stuff... I'm bringing up the people who I think are the masters. The ones I can afford anyways. The ones that are nice enough to do it...we're doing one on Dec. 2nd, which is Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, Peter Washington, Herlin Riley and myself.
AAJ: This is in Greenwich, Conn.?
Bennie Wallace, Disorder at the Border: The Music of Coleman Hawkins (Enja-Justin Time, 2007)
Bennie Wallace, Moodsville (Groove Note, 2001)
Bennie Wallace, Bennie Wallace (Audioquest, 1998)
Bennie Wallace, Twilight Time (Blue Note, 1985)
Bennie Wallace, Plays Monk (Enja, 1981)
Bennie Wallace, The Fourteen Bar Blues (Inner City-Enja, 1978)
Courtesy of Bennie Wallace