“Picasso” (1948) Coleman Hawkins


Composed by Coleman Hawkins.

Recorded by Coleman Hawkins circa July-August 1948 as an unaccompanied tenor saxophone solo in New York.

The story:

The category “far out” at swingandbeyond.com exists so that the posts presented there will provoke us to ask fundamental questions about music. Of course the most fundamental question of all is: what is music?  I think we all can agree that what is music, among the public at large, is something that varies widely. This is undoubtedly because how each of us becomes cultivated musically varies widely. In each of our lives, we are drawn to various kinds of music for various reasons. Once someone goes to a certain kind of music, he or she may for whatever reason decide to probe more deeply into that kind of music. The result of that probing is cultivation or deeper understanding and/or appreciation of that particular kind of music.

My experience suggests that the deeper one probes into any music, the richer the musical experience one achieves with that music will become. This does not necessarily have to do with one’s understanding music in a technical sense. I know many people who know nothing about music who will, for example, listen to an incredibly sophisticated and subtle work of music, like Debussy’s Afternoon of a Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and react to it by saying simply: “I like that.” In my opinion, that is a valid reaction to that music. Similarly, I know musicologists who will listen to the same music and marvel at Debussy’s incredible and amazing artistry by explaining his use of harmony, voice-leading, dynamics, changes of key, instrumental blends etc. That is an equally valid reaction to the music. (Above right: Pablo Picasso’s 1921 painting Three Musicians.)

We are therefore more likely to find music in whatever we have gone to in the musical realm, and liked for whatever reason. But our inquiry here goes beyond that. The question now before us is: if we listen to something that is so far removed from what we may consider music, when does it cross the line and leave the realm of what is generally considered to be music, and become something else?

This question leads inevitably to our quest to understand abstraction, as it applies to music. When does something that appears to be abstract music cease to be music, and become something else?  In other words, how “far out” does a piece of music have to be before it is no longer music?

The most relevant definition of the word abstraction as applied in this context is: the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. (Above left: Picasso’s 1909 painting Young Woman.)

A wonderful example of what I regard as abstract music is “Picasso,” as recorded in 1948 by the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. There is, of course, a story behind the creation of “Picasso,” though to-date the telling of that story has been rather sketchy. I will try to put together some of the pieces of that story in this post.

I have found the summary of events presented in Ted Hershorn’s biography of jazz impresario Norman Granz (1) to be the most complete summary of how Coleman Hawkins’s “Picasso” came to be: “In the midst of a project that gave prominence to composers and arrangers (Granz’s 1949 set of records called ‘The Jazz Scene’), Coleman Hawkins’s unaccompanied solo ‘Picasso’ roared like a lion in its solitary majesty in a piece notable for its lack of easily discernable harmonic, rhythmic, or tonal themes. John Chilton, the saxophonist’s biographer, hailed Hawkins’s conception of ‘Picasso’ as ‘revolutionary,’ and the results positively avant garde. According to (music historian) Gunther Schuller, Hawkins influenced a new generation of saxophonists, notably Sonny Rollins, with his triumph ‘as a solitary soloist sans accompaniment of any kind, on a single-note instrument. ‘Picasso’ is one of the most visionary and personal, though thorny expressions.’

Hawkins tried to diminish the effort it took to record this difficult piece saying afterward that he had come up with the idea for ‘Picasso’ the morning he recorded it. (In reality) Hawkins and Granz had painstakingly worked out the construction of the piece on a piano in a recording studio for about two hours, and then spent another two trying unsuccessfully to record a satisfactory take. They reconvened in the studio about a month later, and Hawkins went through another four hour lead-up to the recording of a masterpiece.”(2)

Here are Brian Priestley’s notes on “Picasso” from the 1994 Verve 3 CD reissue of The Jazz Scene:(3)

“From many points of view, the pièce de résistance of the original Jazz Scene compendium was ‘Picasso.’ As it turns out, Coleman Hawkins had already (in 1945) recorded an unaccompanied solo. (‘Hawk or Hawk’s Variations’ was recorded for a tiny label run by the Selmer saxophone company.)(4) But ‘Picasso’ was the one that became famous (largely because it was a part of a very commercially successful set of records), and eventually inspired a number of follow-ups, from among others Sonny Rollins and Anthony Braxton. It also benefited from considerable musical preparation.” (Above left: Pablo Picasso in thought.)

The music:

According to Norman Granz: “When we recorded ‘Picasso,’ Hawkins sat down and for two hours worked it all out on the piano. He then recorded it on tenor saxophone for another two hours. Always the perfectionist, he still wasn’t satisfied. So a month later we recorded the piece again, and finally, after another four-hour session, got the take we wanted.”

Unfortunately, none of the preliminary takes survive — otherwise they would be available to scholars to examine. As to what Hawkins was so painstaking about when he was making his recording of “Picasso,” there are two schools of thought. According to Gunther Schuller (in his book The Swing Era), “Picasso” “is a free-form, free-association continuity” consisting of phrases; according to John Chilton (in The Song of the Hawk, his biography of Hawkins), it is “unconnected by harmonic progression or tempo.”

Listeners have often compared “Picasso” to Coleman Hawkins’s classic 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” because the implied chordal background of “Picasso” is a chorus and a half of the 1931 song “Prisoner of Love,” which itself is similar to “Body and Soul,” but with a different key-change for the secondary bridge melody. Any doubt about this explanation will be dispelled by listening to Hawkins’s 1957 Verve recording of “Prisoner of Love,”(4) which is in the same key and at roughly the same speed as his performance of “Picasso.” Indeed, although it begins out of tempo, you can snap your fingers to most of “Picasso,” at about seventy-eight beats per minute, in order to feel the underlying tempo, and appreciate Hawkins’s rhapsodic departures from it.

All of this is fine and dandy (to borrow the title of a delightful song from 1930 by Paul James and Kay Swift)  – as far as it goes. But it covers only one-half of the musical equation. Where people find music is an extremely subjective, indeed personal issue. Given that, the question that must be asked is: how do you hear Coleman Hawkins’s “Picasso”?

My take on Coleman Hawkins’s “Picasso” is that it is indeed a provocative piece of abstract music. In it I hear some quintessential Hawkinsisms, but nothing else that that would relate it to any other piece of music, or indeed to anything else, musical or otherwise. To my ears and musical sensibilities, it is far out, it is abstract, but I still hear music. But that is just my take.

The answer to the question how “far out” does a piece of music have to be before it is no longer music… depends on who is listening to it.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Links and Notes:

(1) Norman Granz …The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice by Ted Hershorn (2011), 137. Hereafter Hershorn.

(2) Hershorn, Ibid. Although record producer Harry Lim first referred to Coleman Hawkins as “the Picasso of Jazz” in Metronome May 1944, I suspect that the title “Picasso” was given to this performance by Norman Granz. Granz had a life-long fascination with the paintings of Pablo Picasso. Indeed, Granz invested in works by Picasso, met Picasso, and named a record label “Pablo” after Picasso. (Below: Picasso and Granz -1970.)

(3) The Jazz Scene is a 1949 compilation album produced by Norman Granz, featuring recordings by Ralph Burns, Duke Ellington, George Handy, Coleman Hawkins, Neal Hefti, Machito, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Bud Powell, Willie Smith, Billy Strayhorn and Lester Young. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and New York City from 1946 to 1949, and released by Mercury Records as a $25 6 LP limited edition deluxe box set the week before Christmas 1949.

(4) Here is a link to the two-part “Hawk’s Variations” recorded in 1945 that is a precursor to “Picasso”:


And here is a link to his iconic 1939 recording of “Body and Soul”:


(5) And here is the superlative 1957 recording presenting Coleman Hawkins, with his musical son, Ben Webster, playing “Prisoner of Love.” The video that accompanies the recording is a visual celebration of film actress Lauren Bacall:


The personnel for this recording: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster (tenor saxophones); Oscar Peterson (piano); Herb Ellis (guitar); Ray Brown (bass); Alvin Stoller (drums). Recorded in Hollywood on October 16, 1957 for Verve.

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