“Soft Winds” (1940) Erskine Hawkins
Composed by Benny Goodman? Fletcher Henderson? Charlie Christian?, arranged by Sammy Lowe.
Recorded by Erskine Hawkins (The Twentieth Century Gabriel) and His Orchestra
for RCA-Bluebird, November 6, 1940, New York City.
Erskine Hawkins, trumpet, directing: Sammy Lowe, first trumpet; Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb, Marcellus Green, trumpets; Bob Range and Edward Sims, trombones; William “Bill” Johnson, first alto saxophone; Jimmy Mitchelle, alto saxophone; Paul “Bad” Bascomb and Julian Dash, tenor saxophones; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone and solo clarinet; Avery Parrish, piano; William McLemore, guitar; Leemie Stanfield, bass; James Morrison, drums.
The Story and Music:
The melody to “Soft Winds” emerged from the Benny Goodman Sextet of late 1939, which included the electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. Christian, in addition to being one of the first and greatest exponents of the electric guitar, was a brilliant jazz improviser whose jazz solos often included melodic kernels of music that later would grow into full-fledged tunes. It is unclear who actually composed “Soft Winds,” but a likely candidate is Charlie Christian. Speculation about how the great arranger/bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s name became associated with this tune center around him “taking down,” that is writing out the line of this melody either for Christian, or doing it without Christian’s assent, after hearing it played by the guitarist. (Henderson was filling in temporarily on piano in the Goodman band in late 1939. Christian himself was new to the Goodman band then, having met Benny only a few months before.) Goodman’s name as a composer almost certainly was the result of his decision to record the tune, regardless of who wrote it, thus ensuring that it would be widely heard. BG for all his greatness as a bandleader, clarinetist and jazz improviser, was not noted as a composer.
In this performance, we hear the wonderful band of Erskine Hawkins (pictured below right) in action.This band, which emerged from a group of friends and musical associates from Birmingham, Alabama who went to New York in the mid-1930s, initially achieved success there as the “‘Bama State Collegians.” As Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, it was one of the better big bands on the scene from the late 1930s through the 1940s. Their base of operations in Manhattan was the Savoy Ballroom, located on 140th St. and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. In order to be successful at the Savoy Ballroom, a center of Afro-American dancing where the best dancers in Harlem went, a band had to play danceable music.
The Hawkins band’s music, no matter what the tempo, was danceable. Here the Hawkins men start off in a relaxed groove. The five-man Hawkins sax section, under the robust lead of Bill Johnson, take the melody, such as it is, playing with admirable unity and swing. (The melody appears to be 16 bars long, then the jazz solos follow the 12 bar blues form.) Tenor saxophone soloist Julian Dash (pictured below left) played a very tasty jazz tenor saxophone, as his 24-bar solo here demonstrates. Dash’s edgy, robust tone, good jazz ideas and strong swing were admired by many. Listen also for the pointillistic syncopated brass backgrounds Dash solos against. (Jazz giant Coleman Hawkins, who was an admirer of the Erskine Hawkins band, was asked so many times if he was related to Erskine [they were not], that he eventually began answering this question as follows: ‘Yes, he is my older brother.” Coleman Hawkins was born in 1904; Erskine in 1914.)
Notice the electric guitar played by William McLemore in the first chorus, then in the transition into Julian Dash’s tenor saxophone solo, and then again in the closing bars of this performance. (The electric guitar was still something of a novelty in 1940.) The Hawkins musicians no doubt met and in all likelihood jammed with Charlie Christian who frequented the after-hour jazz joints in Harlem, and indeed lived there. Christian’s influence on all guitarists in the early 1940s, and indeed for decades after, was enormous.
The next soloist is tenor saxophonist Paul Bascomb’s younger brother, trumpeter Wilbur Bascomb, known to all as “Dud.” Wilbur Bascomb was certainly not a dud as a jazz trumpet soloist. In fact, he was quite capable in that regard, and took almost all of the jazz trumpet solos in the Hawkins band. Here he plays two nice blues choruses against the riffing reeds. People often ask: why did Erskine Hawkins, who was a terrific trumpet soloist, let Dud Bascomb play so many jazz trumpet solos in his band? The answer is that Hawkins’s specialty was his high-note work. Although he was indeed an excellent first trumpeter and flashy high-note artist, he was not a great jazz soloist. Most of his solos were worked out beforehand and notated. Also, Hawkins chose not to wear himself out playing solos other than his high-note specialties, which were quite demanding.
Clarinetist Haywood Henry is the next soloist.He starts out in his low register, and flutters his way up throughout his solo, with the riffing reeds and now the brass also gradually becoming more intense behind him. The climax is reached and sustained when the brass leap up an octave, and Hawkins appears, dramatically scattering trumpet high notes over the ensemble. Don’t miss first trumpeter Sammy Lowe and his section-mates Marcellus Green and Dud Bascomb’s high register shakes behind Hawk’s solo. This type of hot playing would bring the Savoy’s jitterbug experts much joy.
This beautifully paced arrangement was written by Sammy Lowe (pictured at left in 1935 when he joined Hawkins), who in addition to being an excellent first trumpeter, wrote most of the arrangements in the Hawkins book over many years. In his post-Hawkins career starting in the mid-1950s, Lowe wrote many hit arrangements for vocalists like James Brown and Nina Simone, and vocal groups like The Platters, The Four Seasons and The Tokens.
I am now writing a detailed piece on the Erskine Hawkins band called “Band of Brothers.” I will share it with you at the “Swingscapes” category of this blog when I have finished writing it.
Digital remastering and sonic restoration by Mike Zirpolo.