Black US jazz tenor saxophonist, also called ‘Hawk’ or ‘Bean’. He was one of the most influential saxophone players in jazz.
Born in St Joseph, Missouri, he studied music in Topeka, Kansas, making his recording debut in 1923. Until then, the saxophone had a moaning sound with comical connotations; as a member of the Fletcher Henderson band (1923–34), Hawkins played with a stiff reed in order to increase the volume so that he could be heard as a soloist over the band. He also developed a large deep rich tone, which he used as a means of personal expression. From 1934 to 1939 he resided in Europe. After returning to the USA he recorded ‘Body and Soul’ (1939), which is often regarded as the definitive summary of his style. For the rest of his life he freelanced with small groups, also touring the USA and Europe several times with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Hawkins was one of the few jazz masters who was always willing to listen to new ideas, playing and recording with younger men, such as Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins, twenty-five years his junior. For the last two decades of his life, Hawkins was one of the leading figures in mainstream jazz.