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Coleman Hawkins' "Picasso" pitch

Tuesday 12/27/22

He's been obscured perhaps with our persistent insistence on recency bias, and the tendency for people to mirror the stated predilections of those around them, but Coleman Hawkins was to the tenor saxophone as Babe Ruth was to the bat. He was the original architect and prime mover of the instrument's possibilities, a modernist with populist appeal, an avant-garde titan in the clothing of a swing musician and maker of dance party fun. And seventy-five years ago, in 1948, he did something no one else--excepting himself, after a fashion--had ever done, with his piece for solo tenor saxophone, "Picasso."

The name is apt, for the painter and the saxophonist were equally acquainted with risk and the understanding that to take a chance in one's work was the only way to create the work they both believed mattered most. Abstract Expressionism was at its height in 1948, but jazz music was a mix of swing and bop--bop especially. Bop had been going for a few years, its chief advancements already produced and digested. Hawkins was the rare jazz musician who excelled equally in both mediums--helped shape each medium--but with "Picasso," he was fashioning a medium of his own.

This was Free Jazz long, long before the official advent of Free Jazz. The sound was shocking at the time and it can shock us now, in a world where risk often produces shudders and aversion in those compelled, asked, or challenged to take one.

Hawkins ventured into the realm of the atonal, painting with his horn as the Abstract Expressionists did with their brushes, but Hawkins was the one utilizing this unique canvas, a canvas for the ears and not the eyes.

I'd like to call attention to the significance of the piece, and the forays that led up to it, including a proto-version released on a very small record label. "Body and Soul" is the famous Hawkins number, one of the six or seven touchstones of jazz, with a chord progression on which so much else was to be built. If ever a song birthed further portions and chapters and careers of the medium it was a part of, it was "Body and Soul."

But the latter didn't risk the way "Picasso" did, a number which is the sound of an artist going for it, as I think of it, without hesitation. There can be no hesitation in making music or art like this; it comes from an inner conviction, a certainty which is then manifested audibly. That is, it is given voice, and what a voice this is.


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