Jazz Tenor

The Great Jazz & Blues Tenor Saxophone Players

To many people the tenor saxophone is synonymous with jazz. If it hadn’t been for jazz, would the saxophone have survived? A Belgian, Adolph Sax, invented it in 1841, but it never really caught on as a symphony instrument, possibly due to his unpopularity  among the right circles.

Herschel Evans - Eddie Miller - Lester Young tenor saxophone
Herschel Evans, Eddie Miller & Lester Young

The saxophone featured very little in early jazz. The first significant jazz saxophonists did not play the what are today’s most popular size instruments, the alto or tenor. One of it’s first outings was as a bass instrument in the Goofus Five – played by Adrian Rollini.

Others included Frankie Trumbauer (C melody) and Sidney Bechet (soprano). The range of the soprano naturally provided an alternative to the role played by the clarinet in dixieland jazz. By the 30s jazz evolved and there arrived on the scene a tenor player whose enormous sound and dexterity is still held in awe by saxophonists today: Coleman Hawkins.

The rest is, as they say, history. After Hawkins there have been several other tenor players of note who brought about either innovations – or at the very least significant changes to the genre – including: Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins.

Since the 1960s, although there have been some amazing breakthroughs in technique by players such as Michael Brecker, it is hard to name a truly innovative mainstream jazz tenor saxophone player. Howewer if  you include jazz fusion, funk and smooth jazz, perhaps you could add the names Wayne Shorter and King Curtis.

Coleman Hawkins

Father of the modern saxophone

Coleman Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1964) was born in St. Joseph, Missouri and attended high school in Chicago. He then moved to Topeka High School in Kansas and took classes in harmony and composition at Washburn College. His parents could tell he loved music at a very young age and encouraged his enthusiasm. After learning to play the piano and cello, he started playing the tenor saxophone at the age of nine. By 1921 he was already playing in his first major gig with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. During this time he settled in New York to focus on playing with the group. Soon, he was playing with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra where he stayed until 1934 and gained his reputation as the best saxophone player and became known as ‘The hawk’ .

He was playing and collaborating with artists such as Garvin Bushell, Herb Flemming and the legendary Louis Armstrong. Recordings included groups such as the interracial Mound City Blue Blowers and ARC. He went on a European tour as a solo act in 1934 and played with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra in London, Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter in Paris.

When he came back in 1939, he recorded Body and Soul as a two-chorus performance. This song became a standard in the history of jazz and an evolutionary step to the modernization of this musical form. In the years during and after the second World War, while never losing his hard swinging lyrical roots, Hawkins embraced the new bebop movement and could be found working with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis as sidemen for his combo performances at 52nd Street.

He continued touring with artists like Howard McGhee and Jazz at the Philharmonic. In 1948, he recorded Picasso, an unaccompanied saxophone piece which many consider as one of the first in that style. He spent the latter part of his years  recording and playing and performed regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.

One of his famous quotes was, “I made the tenor sax – there’s nobody that plays like me, and I don’t play like nobody else.” Lester Young considers him as the first president of the tenor saxophone. In 1969, Coleman Hawkins died after succumbing to the effects of pneumonia at age 64 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery at the Bronx. Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist says that Coleman was his greatest influence in his music. He was indeed beloved by many and an inspiration to all musicians.

Significant Instruments/Equipment

  • Otto Link Master Link and Four**** (Hawkins Special)
  • Selmer Balanced Action 1936 – 1954
  • Selmer MKVI 1954 – 1964

Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson playing live

Lucky was born in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16, 1924 and raised in Michigan. As a boy, he loved the sax so much that he would run errands just to buy an instructional book. Lucky taught himself how to read music even before he ever touched a real instrument by carving holes and practicing the fingering techniques on a broom.

His mother died while he was young so he had to work in order to help raise his siblings. On finishing high school in 1942, he joined Erskine Hawkins’ band, the Bama State Collegians, then went onto play for Lionel Hampton in New York. While there, he became the replacement saxophonist for Ben Webster at the 3 Deuces where he established himself as a formidable and talented tenor player.

After a stint with Count Basie, Dizzie Gilliespie hired him to replace Charlie Parker, and so became one of the biggest tenor names in the new bebop movement. He veered more towards the Coleman Hawkins style at a time when Lester Young’s had become more fashionable, however he definitely formulated his own unique elegant and soulful way of playing.

He also played the yet to become (once again) fashionable soprano saxophone. During the 1950’s he worked with Milt Jackson and Stan Kenton, both in the US and in Europe, but then in the 60s he became disheartened with the jazz scene and went into semi retirement, with occasional work in New York and Europe but then in the 70s settled down and taught music at Dartmouth University until he recorded his last session, I Offer You in 1973.

Lucky Thompson was a notoriously outspoken perfectionist on the tenor saxophone and he alienated both musicians and producers. He hated music publishers and agents for having unfair power over their artists. The latter years of his life are a bit shady. All that we know of him is that he relocated to Georgia and that he went on to work as dentist. In 1994, after a time that he was practically homeless, he checked into Seattle’s Columbia City Assisted Living Center and died there in 2005.

Significant Instruments/Equipment

  • New York Metal Otto Link 4 series J
  • Selmer MKVI soprano
  • Selmer MKVI tenor
Lester Young
Lester Young the Prez

Lester Young – The Prez

Known as the “Prez,” Lester Young was born on August 27, 1909 to a musical family from Woodville, Mississippi. His father, Willis, taught Lester how to play musical instruments such as the violin, trumpet and the saxophone.

He started off touring with the Young Family Band, which included his brother, Lee, as drummer, however he soon left when he became fed up with segregation laws in the South. After a few years on the road, he settled in Kansas City in 1933 where he got his big break with the Count Basie Band.

Lester Young’s technique was smoother more relaxed in comparison to the gruff direct style of Coleman Hawkins. His playing would eventually influence such greats as Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon on tenor as well as the one and only Charlie Parker on alto.

He ushered in a new era with his techniques and lightness of tone that placed him as an equal to the great Coleman Hawkins. In fact he went on to replace Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Hawkins’ Orchestra. Consequently he worked with Billie Holiday who gave him the nickname “Prez.”

He was then drafted into the military in 1944 during World War II. He faced a court-martial for being found in possession of drugs and alcohol followed by a dishonourable discharge in 1945 after serving a year in detention. It was this experience that drove him to compose “D.B. (Detention barracks) Blues.”

During the postwar years, Young went on to play for the Jazz at the Philharmonic group. He had more recordings with Nat King Cole under Aladdin Records and Norman Granz’s Verve Records. This was the most financially successful time of his life, though many critics consider his playing became somewhat patchy, mainly due to his alcohol and drug abuse, though others prefer the more emotional slant to his playing of this period.

He had coined the term “repeater pencil” to less creative describe players who relied on stock licks. However later on people accused him of just that. Even with his health failing and having survived a nervous breakdown, you could still see him sitting in on Count Basie’s band from time to time and went on a European tour with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1956. After appearing with Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins on Sound of Jazz in 1957, he became increasingly ill. Lester did his final performance in Paris in March 1959 before passing into legend.

Significant Instruments/Equipment

  • Otto Link Master Link, Brilhart Ebolin mouthpieces
  • Conn New Wonder, Conn 10M saxophones


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