Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Coleman Hawkins, Geoff Keezer, Charlie Johnson and Red Norvo’s “Dance of the Octopus!”

November 21

Lord knows there is far too much hyperbole in jazz writing, but there cannot be enough encomiums for the contributions of Coleman Hawkins, born on this day in 1904 in St. Joseph, MO. As the JMIH’s artistic director Loren Schoenberg writes in his illuminating liner notes for “The Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions: 1922-1947” (Mosaic Records), “Coleman Hawkins single-handedly created the idiom for the tenor saxophone in jazz.” He was the primogenitor of Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Sonny Rollins and a thousand other saxophonists (rivaled in influence only by Lester Young’s arrival in the 1930s).  Before Hawkins’s arrival with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds (1922) and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (1924), the saxophone (particularly the tenor; Sidney Bechet had made great jazz on the soprano) had been used primarily as a novelty instrument, the circus clown of the orchestra. Within a few short years, “Hawk” (one of his nicknames) had elevated it to royal status, the source of almost all post-Armstrong jazz innovation. Unlike virtually all other musicians, Hawkins had no models and mentors; he had to invent his instrument from scratch. Moreover, his robust tone, densely propulsive lines and harmony-centric approach to improvising would cast a wide net of influence over several generations of musicians (not just saxophonists; trumpeter Roy Eldridge, among others, claimed that he modeled his conception more on Hawkins than Louis Armstrong or any other trumpet player). Adding to Hawkins’s interest in harmony and counterpoint (he loved classical music and Bach in particular) was a ceaseless musical curiosity and competitive temperament. Hawkins welcomed young musicians with new ideas. He embraced the “bop” generation and gave Thelonious Monk his first recording gig in the early 1940s, and in the 1950s and 1960s held his own with cutting-edge musicians such as multi-reed player Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little. Finally, Hawkins recorded one of the most indelibly unforgettable improvisations on record, his 1939 interpretation of the Green-Heyman torch song, “Body and Soul.” Miraculously, it became a hit, despite the fact that Hawkins never once states the melody! Listen here:

Hawkins made hundreds of recordings over his 45-year career, many of them exceptional. One of the more offbeat is 1946 Metronome (magazine) All-Star Band session, co-starring alto great Johnny Hodges, fellow Ellingtonian/baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, pianist/singer Nat Cole and here, singing “Sweet Lorraine,” none other than Frank Sinatra. Whoever said that “the Voice” wasn’t a jazz singer? See if you can bring yourself to disagree here:

Pianist Geoff Keezer is born in 1970 in Eau Claire, WI. By age 18, Keezer was holding down the piano chair with Art Blakey’s Messengers. He received more musical apprenticeship from composer/saxophonist Benny Golson and bassist Ray Brown, among others, and came into his own as a sought-after player by David Sanborn, Chris Botti and singer Denise Donatelli, with whom he made several Grammy-nominated albums. Keezer also has incorporated Hawaiian, Okinawan and Afro-Peruvian folk traditions into his music. In recent years, Keezer has focused on solo piano, so in that vein, listen–and watch–Keezer tackle Wayne Shorter’s classic tune, “Footprints” in “E-minor, to make it a little harder” (than its original key, C-minor):

Charlie Johnson spent years in paradise: Small’s Paradise Ballroom in Harlem, to be exact. Johnson, a pianist, led the Paradise Ten, an excellent Jazz Age dance band that featured masterful talent including trumpeter Jabbo Smith, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/composer/arranger Benny Carter who, years before he was named the “King” of the musicians, made his first recordings with Johnson’s orchestra. Johnson, who was born in 1891, led his extremely popular ensemble until 1938 and made it to the rock ‘n’ roll era, dying in 1959. You can listen to a host of the band’s recordings here:

or you can don your bearskin coat, pull out that hip flask and grab the nearest flapper (or if you’re into extereme fitness, sit on the nearest flagpole) while you dig this one, Carter’s first recorded composition, “Charleston Is the Best Dance After All,” here:

1933: Xylophonist/composer Red Norvo records “Dance of the Octopus,” one of the earliest examples of what one might call “chamber jazz,” with Benny Goodman on bass clarinet.