Hawkins, Erskine Ramsay

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Hawkins, Erskine Ramsay

(b. 26 July 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama; d. 11 November 1993 in Willingboro, New Jersey), trumpet player and composer who was one of the most successful African American big band leaders of the twentieth century.

Hawkins was one of five children. His mother, Cary Ann, taught at Birmingham’s Ramsay High School, and his father, Edward Hawkins, was killed in action in France while with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The young Hawkins began playing drums when he was seven years old and later turned to the trombone. At thirteen he started to play the trumpet.

The core of what came to be the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra consisted of a group of boys who attended Tuggles Institute and Industrial High School in Birmingham. Several of these youths were recruited by the president of the Alabama State Teachers College and offered scholarships, with room and board, to attend the Montgomery school. They entered college in 1930 and became the nucleus for the ‘Bama State Collegians, a dance orchestra that soon attracted considerable attention. A booking agent arranged for them to play at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom, and in 1935 the band got another break on its way to the big time when it played at New York City’s Harlem Opera House. At this time the college musicians received one dollar each for performing. The rest of the money they earned went to the school, helping to sustain it during the Great Depression.

Hawkins graduated in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree and accepted a position teaching music and drama for a year. In 1935 he married Florence Browning. They had no children. Hawkins then moved the band to a professional level. A showman and fine musician, Hawkins was prevailed upon to become the band’s leader, and the band adopted its new name. By 1937, when the manager-booker Moe Gale, who owned Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom, took them on as clients, Hawkins and his group were beginning to attain national recognition. In 1938 Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra made its first official appearance. That same year the band received a recording contract, and the sale of records helped to extend the group’s success, as did the use of a radio wire three times a week.

The most important influence on Hawkins himself was the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who met the performer for the first time backstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. From that time, whenever Hawkins was in New York City, Armstrong shared the Savoy’s stage with him.

The band’s popularity ensured that Hawkins could retain a regular personnel of musicians, including the baritone saxophone player Haywood Henry, who stayed with Hawkins until the band split up in 1953, the trumpeter Sam Lowe, and the pianist Avery Parrish. Lowe and Par-rish were two of the band’s major arrangers. Other members included Dud Bascomb on trumpet and Bob Range on trombone. Even through the mid-1940s, when many other big bands, both white and African American, broke up or shrank to a much smaller format, Hawkins’s organization stayed intact.

The band’s musical style was blues-inspired, down-home jazz, but it could still swing. In 1938 “Tuxedo Junction” was a great favorite of American servicemen during the early part of World War II. This number became the theme song that identified Hawkins’s orchestra but was also a hit for other bands. In 1940 “Tuxedo Junction” (the name taken from a Birmingham suburb that served as a mass-transit transfer point) was number one on the Billboard Magazine chart for the Glenn Miller Band, number seven on the chart for Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, and number fifteen for Jan Savitt. The Miller cover’s higher rank on the charts may well be explained by the aptness of the white public to more readily embrace a song performed by a white artist or group.

The opening notes of the song had for many years been used as a “sign-off by the bands at the Savoy Ballroom. According to one version of the song’s development, on an evening when the bandleader Chick Webb was late in coming on the stand, Hawkins and his group improvised on the notes, working them into an effective, swinging number. Another version has it that, in need of one more tune to fill out the allotted time in a recording session, the band took the sign-off tag and embellished it to reach the necessary length. Modern dance groups in the 1940s used the number, and in the 1980s, equipped with words, it became a hit song for the vocal group Manhattan Transfer.

Hawkins played several instruments but mainly the trumpet. He was given the nickname the “Twentieth-Century Gabriel” (after the biblical archangel who is to blow the trumpet on Judgment Day) because of his ability to play an astonishing number of consecutive high notes. He was also a composer, his credits including “Tuxedo Junction,” “Dolomite,” “Norfolk Ferry,” “After Hours,” “Tippin’ In,” and “Midnight Stroll,” some in collaboration with other band members. The music produced by the Hawkins band maintained a jazz emphasis but in its later years took on a rhythm-and-blues flavor.

In the 1950s, responding to financial pressures, Hawkins broke up his band. He continued to perform with a smaller group while occasionally assembling the big unit for special events. During the 1960s and 1970s he led small groups in New York clubs and hotels while also appearing at festivals. He visited Europe in 1979 and in 1986 sailed on the SS Norway for the Fifth Annual Floating Jazz Festival.

At the height of his career Hawkins helped other entertainers on their climb to success. These included the vocalists Delores Brown, Ida James, and Della Reese and the rhythm-and-blues pianist Ray Charles. In 1978 Hawkins was one of five inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1989 he received the Lifework Award for Performing Achievement from the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Typifying the expression, “jazz keeps you young,” Hawkins continued to play into the 1990s, spending a total of twenty-three years at the Concord Hotel in New York State’s Catskill Mountains. He died of heart failure at the age of seventy-nine. He is buried in Birmingham.

In a fashion similar to that of his contemporary, the trumpeter Harry James, Hawkins combined an outstanding performing technique with an understanding of the commercial demands of the business and a feeling for jazz. Hawkins retained the loyalty of his audience, even as its members changed over the years, by being moderately adaptable in the music that he played. Rarely seen without a trumpet in his hand, either playing it or conducting with it, Hawkins throughout his career put forth the same effort whether he was playing for a small or large audience. This attitude, coupled with danceable swing numbers, provided him with lifelong success and made him a role model for numerous trumpet players.

Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900–1950 (1974), contains ample biographical coverage and a discography. Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (1999), provides a lengthy biographical sketch, as does Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Rough Guide (1995). Gene Fernett, Swing Out: Great Negro Dance Bands (1970), contains a brief chapter on the Hawkins band. George T. Simon, The Big Bands (4th ed. 1981), contains good, brief coverage of Hawkins and a section on Moe Gale. Günther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), supplies an analysis of Hawkins’s style. An obituary by the music critic Peter Watrous is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1993). An Introduction to Erskine Hawkins: His Best Recordings 1936-1947, Best of Jazz: The Swing Era CD 4060, contains recordings of the ‘Bama State Collegians and the Hawkins orchestra. Erskine Hawkins: Tuxedo Junction, Masters of the Big Bands series, Bluebird CD 61069-2, features numbers originally appearing on the Bluebird label, recorded 1938–1945.

Barrett G. Potter

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