Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hawkins, Erskine (Ramsey)

Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Erskine Hawkins led one of the most talent-studded bands of the Swing Era. He wrote and first released one of the banner hits of swing, Tuxedo Junction, and in later years built a foundation for the transformation of "Jump Swing" into "Rock and Roll."

Erskine Ramsey Hawkins was born on July 26, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the five children of Edward and Cary Hawkins. Edward died in France in World War I, which forced Cary, a schoolteacher, to move her children into a home with her parents, which was across the street from the Tuggle Institute. The school was founded by social worker Carrie Tuggle as a haven primarily for orphaned African-American boys. Hawkins made a second home out of Tuggle from the age of six until he went on to high school, excelling in academics, athletics and music. At Tuggle, where his classmates included the future Basie band drummer Jo Jones, Hawkins first played the drums, later trombone and saxophone before focusing on trumpet.

From 1928 to 1930, Hawkins attended Birmingham Industrial High School, a hotbed of music led by renowned music educator John T. "Fess" Whatley. Hawkins soon formed a band with childhood friends and schoolmates, including baritone saxophonist Haywood Henry and trombonist Bob Range, who would remain with Hawkins in his swing years. His young band performed in a few stylish ballrooms for blue-collar workers, who wore tuxedos rented from shops near a streetcar intersection known by locals as "Tuxedo Junction." The spot was Birmingham's nexus of African-American nightlife.

Erskine Hawkins by Ronald S. McDowell (courtesy of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame)

      Erskine Hawkins (artwork by Ronald S. McDowell)
            Courtesy of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame

At 16, Hawkins was accepted on a tennis scholarship at Alabama State Teachers' College in Montgomery. The school’s outstanding music program drew talent from all reaches of the South. Within weeks, inspired by the same childhood friends attending the college, Hawkins replaced tennis with music as his major.

He shot up through the school’s third and second dance bands, the Revelers and the Cavaliers and quickly became the star of the school’s top band, the 'Bama State Collegians where he rejoined Haywood Henry and Bob Range, developing long-term associations with them and others, like pianist Avery Parrish, trumpeter Wilber Odell “Dud” Bascomb and his older brother, saxophonist Paul Bascomb.

With a remarkable screech range for the times, Hawkins developed a substantial following that boosted the Collegians popularity throughout the region. In turn the band generated substantial money for the school on tours in the South and the Midwest, earning the acclaim of being the best college band in the US. After graduating in 1934, Hawkins opted to teach music and remain in the band.

Later that year, the band went north and was invited to play in New York City at the Harlem Opera House. They performed a set of arrangements by the era's hottest jazz bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Lunceford, and Earl Hines, and became an audience favorite. They went on to play the Apollo Theatre and other venues, perfecting a somewhat unpolished style into a swinging book of medium/fast tunes popular with dancers but smartly laced with ballads.

Basking in this sudden limelight, most of the band's members dropped their education and decided to remain in New York. Hawkins was invited to replace clarinetist and singer J. B. Sims as the bandleader, as Sims was under contract and had to return to the Teacher’s College. Emulating the example of trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong, Hawkins and the band delighted audiences with high-note riffs and with phrasing that allowed a tune to build to roaring climax. “Make it look as if it's hard for you to do. You're making it look too easy,” Armstrong said to Hawkins after hearing Hawkins imitate one his solos note for note.

The band changed its name to the 'Bama State Collegians featuring Erskine Hawkins, and recorded with the Vocalion label, which didn’t have the sales revenue to produce records of the quality purchased by the predominantly white market. Fortunately the recorded masters were good enough to rerelease after the band signed with RCA Victor under the Bluebird label in 1938. That release, Erskine Hawkins the 20th Century Gabriel and his Tuxedo Junction Orchestra,reached the top ten of the U.S. pop charts in 1939.

Hawkins's signature tune, "Tuxedo Junction," was actually co-authored with other band members, trumpeter Sammy Lowe, pianist Avery Parrish and it was arranged by saxophonist William “Buddy” Johnson and Julian Dash. The song was based on a riff used to signal when the next band needed to get ready to play.

"Tuxedo Junction" sold like hotcakes, and was a high-water mark for the mass popularity of African-American bands in the Swing Era. But the tune was soon rerecorded by the all-white Glenn Miller Orchestra in a slower, and to some jazz purists an inferior, version. Miller’s rendition climbed to the top of the charts in 1940 and remained a banner tune for his band throughout the War.

Because of the racial climate of his day, Hawkins had no legal recourse. To make matters worse, his band endured slams by white critics for poor musicianship and showboating. Yet in opposition to these claims, the Hawkins Orchestra remained one of the most popular bands of the Swing Era. They kept a large and extremely loyal following through the early 1950s, partly due to Hawkins’ stable business acuity and willingness to share center stage with band member instrumentalists and vocalists like Ida James, Billy Daniels, Delores Brown and Della Reese. And he even shared the trumpet slot. After all, it was Wilbur Bascomb who took the lead solo on the original recording of "Tuxedo Junction."

Headlining at the Apollo and Savoy throughout the 1940s, the band’s hits in the decade included After Hours, Someone’s Rockin’ in my Dreamboat, Hawk’s Boogie and Tippin’ In. When swing started to decline in popularity the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra managed to hold on longer than most, into the 1950s. But with emergence of small combo jazz, bebop and rhythm ‘n’ blues, Hawkins had no choice but to scale down.

At the heart of his smaller band was a decade-old relationship with the dance style known as boogie. On one hand, boogie was a precursor to rock ‘n’ roll, which had begun to overtake jazz in popularity. One the other hand, Hawkins’ bands of the mid-1950s had a sustainable rock overtone that kept them very much in demand. Coined “Jump Blues” by discriminating jazz fans, some of the earlier Hawkins’ recordings like After Hours and Hawk’s Boogie are now considered to be stepping-stones on the bridge from jazz to rock.

Eventually the decline of jazz took its toll on Hawkins and his ever-shrinking band. In the late 1960s he played a weeklong big band gig at the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains outside New York City, which led to him becoming a featured headliner there for the next two decades.

Among his lifetime achievements, Hawkins was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Alabama State Teachers College in 1947. He was also inducted in 1978 into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and received a Lifework Award for Performing Achievement by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1989. The city of Birmingham christened the area nearby Tuxedo Junction to Erskine Hawkins Park in the mid-1980, where every July the "Function in the Junction" is held in celebration of his career.

Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 in New Jersey at age 79. His remains are interred in Birmingham at the Elmwood Cemetery, the city’s most prominent burial place.

Select Discography

Erskine Hawkins / Tuxedo Junction, (1938-1945) re-released collection of original RCA Bluebird tracks; RCA 1991

Erskine Hawkins the 20th Century Gabriel and his Tuxedo Junction Orchestra, digitally mastered compilation of original tracks; Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion (UK) 2008

Jukebox Hits 1940-1950, compilation of original tracks; Acrobat Music 2005

Erskine Hawkins Quintet / The Hawk Blows at Midnight, Brunswick (UK) 1960

Live at Club Soul, Chess 1971

Contributor: Dave Krikorian