Listening to the History of Recorded Jazz: Two Ways to Play Tenor Sax

By Mark Montesano

Early in the history of jazz, the trumpet was most often the lead instrument. Its tone was brassy and loud and could be heard easily in the days before microphones and amplifiers. With the widespread use of recording equipment, records, and amplification, other instruments began to take on more important roles. The tuba was replaced by a string bass and the saxophones—up to this time used for background color—came out of the shadows and began to take solos. The tenor sax, in particular, soon became the strongest voice and eventually the most dominant solo voice in jazz.

The first major tenor saxophone soloist was Coleman Hawkins (known as “Hawk” or “Bean”).

coleman_hawkinsHis first major job was with blues singer, Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds from 1921-1923. After that he joined Fletcher Henderson’s big band until 1934. During his time with Henderson, he developed a solo style strongly influenced by the playing of Louis Armstrong, who played with Henderson from 1924-25. (Listen to Armstrong’s influential soloing on “West End Blues”—1928).

Perhaps Hawkins’ most famous recorded solo based on “Body and Soul” from 1939, where he only refers to the melody briefly at the beginning, and takes a complex and beautiful solo which became that became a major influence on other aspiring musicians. This recording established Hawkins, not only as a major jazz star, but the tenor saxophone as the most popular jazz solo instrument.

From 1934-39, Coleman Hawkins spent much of his time in Europe touring with Henderson’s band. While he was gone, other major tenor sax players emerged to challenge his dominance: Ben Webster, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra; Chu Berry with the Cab Calloway Big Band (both heavily influenced by Hawkins); and most unique, influential and controversial of all, Lester Young, who made his mark with Count Basie’s band and opened the way for the transition from swing to “modern jazz” in his use of harmony, tone, and his habit of phrasing behind the beat.

lester-young-life-1944Lester Young (known as “The President”, or “Pres”) was born in New Orleans and began playing in his family’s band.

By 1933 he had moved to Kansas City and joined Count Basie’s Orchestra. But his style was so different than Coleman Hawkins that many thought he was ‘wrong’. In a brief stint with Fletcher Henderson’s band, Henderson’s wife was said to play Coleman Hawkins records to show Young how the tenor was supposed to sound. He never did change. Instead of being influenced by Armstrong, he claimed that his main influences were white saxophone players such as C-melody sax player, Frankie Trumbauer. altoist, Jimmy Dorsey (his solo on “One o’Clock Jump”, a song that Young also played on begins at 2:47), tone was lighter and their phrasing more smooth, compared to Hawkins heavier tone and more rapid fire notes.

Here’s Lester Young on “Lester Leaps in” is a good example of his light tone and the way his phrases flowed differently than Hawkins.

Saxophonist, Brew Moore said ‘anyone who doesn’t play like Young is wrong‘. shows the strong influence of his playing on generations that came during and after him. With the coming of Hawk and Pres, the history of jazz saxophone was launched and continues to this day as one of the richest traditions in any music. Next month, I’ll continue the history of the tenor sax starting from the late 30’s until the mid-1950’s.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.