For much of Coleman Hawkins' post-1940 career, the tenor
saxophonist fronted quartets, quintets and other small groups. When he did play with full-size orchestras, Hawk was typically the featured soloist, not a sit-down, chart-reading member of the reed section. So unfortunately you don't often get to hear how the flavor of a superb reed section might change with Hawk's mighty tenor as part of the mix.
Hawk also didn't play much with Count Basie's band. Which makes perfect sense, since Hawk and Lester Young, Basie's star tenor saxophonist, were intense rivals. Hawk recorded with Basie [pictured] on only a few occasions— in January 1941 as poll-winning members of the Metronome All Stars; with Basie's big band in April 1941 (Young was fronting his own band and working with Billie Holiday at the time); and in December 1957 for CBS' The Sound of Jazz, the noir TV jam session.
Long curious to know how Hawk's confident, cutting tone would sound within Basie's bluesy sax section, Savoy Records' producer Ozzie Cadena [pictured] proposed a recording summit in early 1958. Hawk agreed, and Basie gave his blessing. So on April 24, right after Basie's band returned from a Canadian tour and just before Hawk left for Europe with Jazz at the Philharmonic, nine musicians converged on Rudy Van Gelder's recording studio in New Jersey. Cadena oversaw the session for World Wide Records.
For the date, Marshall Royal and Frank Wess were on alto saxes; Frank Foster and Hawk were on tenors; and Charlie Fowlkes was on baritone sax. The only reed player missing was Billy Mitchell, who had just joined Basie months earlier on tenor and was the sax player dropped to make room for Hawk. The rhythm section featured guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Eddie Jones, both Basie-ites, and Bobby Donaldson on drums and Nat Pierce on piano. [pictured above]
To ensure that the session went off without a scoring hitch, Cadena turned to rock-solid Billy Ver Planck [pictured, right] for the swinging arrangements. Ver Planck, a trombonist, had written for the Jimmy Dorsey and Claude Thornhill bands, and in 1958 was recording for Savoy.
The result was Coleman Hawkins Meets the Saxophone Section, which was first released on World Wide to show off the label's newfound stereo capability. Recorded only in stereo (rather than mono and stereo), many jazz listeners passed on the LP, since the more expensive stereo format was relatively new technology and most people had only mono equipment. Ultimately, the recording also was released on Savoy as Coleman Hawkins Meets the Big Sax Section.
The five tracks recorded that day included three blues and two show tunes—I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face and There Is Nothing Like a Dame. The first track on the album, Ooga Dooga, is particularly fascinating given that Hawk does not solo. Instead, you get to hear how the section sounds with Hawk as one of two tenors reading down Ver Planck's charts. The standards also are stunning swingers, with Hawk tearing in and out of Frederick Lowe's loping Face and Richard Rodgers' charging Dame.
This CD is a must own. It's a big 12-cylinder date from start to end, and you can hear Basie's reeds stepping up their game as Hawk bears down hard to impress the smoothest sax section in the business. You almost get the feeling on several tracks that Hawk was sending a message to the tenor star who wasn't in the studio that day—Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis [pictured].
Davis had left the Basie band just months earlier to work with organist Shirley Scott, but his dominant flavor still lingered. Just listen to Hawk's blowing on the alternate take of Thanks for the Misery. He's certainly taking Lockjaw to the woodshed. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hawk figured he might as well set Jaws straight.
For my money, Coleman Hawkins Meets the Saxophone Section may be one of the best and most robust reed-themed albums ever recorded. Every track lives up to the album's title, and you get everything you expect, from the sauciest blues to street-smart standards. There isn't a bad note on the album. It's just a shame that another five tracks weren't captured that day, 50 years ago last month.
JazzWax tracks: Unfortunately, Coleman Hawkins Meets the
Big Sax Section (Savoy) isn't available as a download at iTunes or Amazon. However, you can buy the disc used here. Or you'll find the tracks on this Hawkins compilation here.
Hawk's April 1941 recordings with the Basie band, Feedin' the Bean and 9:20 Special, can be downloaded from The Essential Count Basie Volume 3 at Amazon here.
The January 1941 Metronome All Stars recording of Bugle Call Rag and One O'Clock Jump featuring Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie are on a splendid CD called Summit Meetings: Metronome All Stars and Esquire All Stars (1939-1950) here.
To hear Hawkins and Basie playing Dickie's Dream and I Left My Baby in 1957, you can buy The Sound of Jazz CD here. To see Basie, Hawk and this monster all-star band in action during a rehearsal, go here. This footage remains among the most exhilarating in jazz history. Dig Billie Holiday casually chatting with the Count in the middle of the session, as if he were just doing the dishes rather than driving the most swinging band ever assembled. You can buy the DVD of the rehearsal and CBS program here.