The first great tenor soloist in jazz history, Hawkins was, along with Lester Young, one of the two most influential saxophonists of the swing era. His huge, breathy sound, and his brilliant command of harmony ensured a perfect match of emotion and technique in his playing.
He continued to be an influential figure well into the bebop era, in which the new harmonies and ideas of modern jazz held no terrors for him. As a child he studied piano, then cello and finally tenor sax. At seventeen he played in a Kansas theatre before going on the road with blues singer Mamie Smith. From 1924-34, he was a member of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, during which time he established the tenor sax as a major solo instrument, notably on pieces such as The Stampede.
From 1934-9 he worked as a soloist in Europe, recording in several countries and developing his technique. On his return, he cut his finest disc, Body and Soul, which became one of the most celebrated of all jazz recordings. He led a series of small groups, and in the mid-40s recorded with several bebop players including Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Other members of his groups were also modernists including Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
In the 1950s he often appeared in Jazz At The Philharmonic tours, co-led a band with Roy Eldridge, and toured for much of the 1960s as a soloist. His prolific recording activity included discs with Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington, but throughout his life and in every context, he retained his highly individual sound and immediately recognisable tone.