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Love for Sale and Other Essays

Clifford Thompson By

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This article appears from the story "For Bean" Love for Sale and Other Essays by Clifford Thompson (Autumn House Press, 2013).

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a semi-detached brick house in Washington, D.C. The house from which it was not detached belonged to my aunt and uncle; my great-aunt and great-uncle lived in the house on the other side of them; and still another aunt and uncle were up the street. People seldom appreciate what they have when it's there, and it is only now, living in a New York apartment surrounded by neighbors I sometimes have trouble even recognizing, that I understand what I had as a boy. In those days my neighbors were family members, transplanted country folk, who often dropped by unannounced—a rarity today—and stayed to chat for half an hour, an hour, or more. These chats were not the polite, antiseptic exchanges of neighbors who understand that they will probably never be friends; they were full of the shared humor and allusions, the warmth—sometimes the heat—that grew among adults who had known each other all their lives. For a child there is nothing like such talk among adults, even if the child is not listening or consciously aware of hearing it. What is important is not so much the words as the tide of sound on which they reach the ear: the low, whiskey- and tobacco-tinged voices of the men, the knowing tones of the women—sounds that tell a small boy, as he plays on the floor with plastic soldiers, that while he may not understand the workings of the world, he is in the care of people who do.

There are many definitions of adulthood. One of mine is: a period spent alternately running from, and trying to recapture, childhood. Sometimes, when I am nostalgic for the adult voices of my youth—most of which can no longer be heard—I imagine I can hear something similar to them in the recordings of a number of jazz musicians, themselves gone, who often played together. The group includes the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, the drummer "Papa" Jo Jones, and others. At its center stands the towering figure of Coleman Hawkins.

Hawkins—nicknamed Bean—was the first important tenor saxophonist, the man who turned a horn previously relegated to circuses into the quintessential jazz instrument. His sound was mighty, its vibrato pronounced, like the tremblings of the ground as a giant makes its way across it; he awed, inspired, intimidated other sax players for forty years, from the era of the flapper to the sweltering days of the civil rights movement. If I fancy I can hear something like my relatives' voices in his playing, maybe it is partly because he was colorful and eccentric enough to have been one of them. Onstage, in contrast to Louis Armstrong, he was all business (a forerunner, in this way, of Miles Davis, who at one point took to playing with his back to his audiences). In person, though, he was a practical joker, who would set friends at odds by telling each he had been slandered by the other; someone who could talk knowledgeably about art, flowers, or automobile assembly; a sharp dresser; a frighteningly fast driver; a man whose distrust of banks was so complete that he would walk around with thousands of dollars in his pockets; a big, sturdy man who could drink staggering quantities of alcohol and then play flawless solos.

Hawkins was born a century ago, on November 21, 1904, in St. Joseph, Missouri. (He was fond of telling interviewers that he had been born at sea as his parents were returning from a vacation in Europe.) At his request, on his ninth birthday he received a tenor saxophone, and by the time he was twelve he was playing it professionally at school dances. Before his eighteenth birthday he had made it to New York, where he performed with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds. In early 1924 he began his decade-long stint with Fletcher Henderson's group, the first important swing band, with which he made many recordings and won worldwide fame.

The crowning achievement of the first half of his career was his three-minute 1939 recording of "Body and Soul," which would become his signature tune, one he recorded on a number of occasions. The original version of "Body and Soul," with music by Johnny Green and lyrics credited to no fewer than three others, is a rather simple affair ("My heart is sad and lonely/ For you I sigh, for you dear only"). Listening to what Hawkins did with it brings to mind the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart announces that he has written some variations on one of Salieri's compositions: "Funny little piece, but it yielded some good things." For the first eight bars, Hawkins is faithful to the original song, or as faithful as a great jazz musician knows how to be; after that, he abandons melody for harmony and for chord changes that were radical at the time, exploring interstices of the piece never suggested by Johnny Green. And while retaining the gentleness, the bittersweetness of the original, he also conveys a sense of relaxed might; this is not the thin, sentimental sound of one who can play no other way (Kenny G comes to mind), but the music of a colossus captured in a reflective mood.

As a young man, even while he made his name in Henderson's band, Hawkins often found himself playing not only with other musicians but against them. His reputation preceded him in after-hours clubs across the East Coast, the South, and the Midwest, where saxophonists lay in wait, eager to test themselves against Hawkins in "cutting" contests, like Wild West gunslingers using horns instead of pistols; most of the time Hawkins literally blew them away. (I will come, in a bit, to the exception.)

Not all of Hawkins's encounters with younger musicians were antagonistic. He recorded with young players until the end of his career; he championed the odd-playing and odder-acting Thelonious Monk, for example, decades before Time magazine put the pianist and composer on its cover. But my favorites of Hawkins's recordings are those he made with his contemporaries, when all had reached maturity as men (for they were all men) and as musicians—when, seasoned by cutting contests, by world tours, by the trappings and traps of fame, by the indignities of traveling as blacks in segregated America, by simply having lived five decades and more, they sat down to play together as friends. The Verve label album Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, whose tracks were recorded from 1953 to 1959, showcases the two tenor players' stylistic similarities and differences, their mingled toughness and beauty, their artistic kinship; indeed, it is easy to image these big men as cousins—Webster's full, raw sound contrasting with Hawkins's equally full but more refined tone, the two together swapping tales like a country boy and his citified counterpart, on such tunes as "Blues for Yolanda," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," and the sublime "La Rosita."

For the tunes on Verve's Ben Webster and Associates, all recorded on April 9, 1959, Hawkins drops by Webster's house, you might say, where he also finds Roy Eldridge, Papa Jo Jones, Budd Johnson, Leslie Spann, Jimmy Jones, and Ray Brown. The first track, a twenty-minute version of Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," is a masterpiece—and a consummate example of jazz-as-conversation. A call-and-response between Jimmy Jones's coy piano and Brown's game, I'll-play-along bass serves as the intro; the head is a second call-and-response, with the horns of Hawkins, Eldridge, and Johnson supplying the theme in unison (this might be "Hey, Ben!") and Webster answering back ("Come on in, y'all!"). After these greetings comes the real talk—the solos. Each man has a tale to tell. Some are thoughtful, reflective; a couple begin that way, then become more insistent: Jimmy Jones plays single piano notes, gentle raindrops, before laying down chords, warming to what he is saying—a point echoed later by Eldridge, who begins his muted trumpet solo with low notes, progressing through his trademark long, fluid-filled notes toward the higher register. He is followed by Hawkins, who alone plays insistently from beginning to end, building on, furthering the more fiery statements made by Jones and Eldridge; I see him sitting with the others at a table, where he is the biggest man present, holding forth, telling a story that expresses anger, though not at those present (perhaps it is shared by them). A brief comment from Papa Jo's drums brings it back to Webster, who must acknowledge all that has been said, all the feelings conveyed—and in his solo the fire from Hawkins, the fellowship from all, dovetail before the final call-and-response, a reflection on the long, good evening that has passed, the shared respite from the world's dangers.

For there were dangers, and in the case of Hawkins, many took the form of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Born in 1909, nicknamed "the Pres-ident" (soon shortened to "Pres") by his soulmate Billie Holiday, Young was Hawkins's archrival; he couldn't top the sheer force of Bean's playing—nobody could—but he developed a very different style that some came to prefer to it. While Hawkins approached chords like an athlete training on stadium steps, going up, going down, hitting every note, Young—in his light tone—spun out haunting passages that were based on harmonies yet linear, merely suggesting the chords. So that whereas Hawkins was descended from the Thomas Hardy of The Mayor of Casterbridge, telling not only what happened but how it felt and what it meant, Young claimed as kin the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises, giving spare accounts and letting you imagine the rest for yourself. Which brings us to the cutting contest Bean didn't win. In a Kansas City club called the Cherry Blossom in 1934, while on the road with Fletcher Henderson, he encountered a number of horn players, Pres among them. According to some, Bean —underestimating the competition—tried in vain to top Young, until, with day breaking and Henderson's band having already left for a gig in St. Louis, he hurried to catch them, frying his new Cadillac in the process. In Puss Johnson's basement club in Harlem five years later, as some remembered it, Bean evened the score; others claimed that Pres repeated his victory. But if Hawkins was not able to "beat" Young, then neither was Young ultimately able to beat Hawkins—as proven, for me, even by those who say today that they prefer Young's sound; for the finality of some statements is undermined by the speaker's need to make them. (Who, today, feels the need to state a preference for Mozart's music over Salieri's?)
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