At 2pm on August 18, 1962 – a hot, summer Saturday – a 57-year-old man, wearing a dark suit, a pork pie hat and carrying an instrument case, walked into a small building on Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
He was early for an appointment but discovered that the man that he was meeting, an acquaintance of decades past, was already waiting.
And so Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington found themselves in a studio at last – a date which had been 20 years in the making. Ellington, for the record, had arrived early.
Over the following next six hours tenor saxophonist Hawkins would accompany Ellington and a small band of Duke’s regulars – Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard – on half a dozen or so songs. This would form the album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins.
The music was all Ellington, sweet and sharp and singing, but with a strain of melancholy throughout (their take on ‘Mood Indigo‘ is almost mournful).
Listening to it half a century later one hears two important figures in American music, if not at the height of their powers then in full, easy command of them. The recording they left on tape that afternoon still sounds and swings as fresh as it did on that August day.
We’re lucky it exists at all. The meeting of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins almost didn’t happen – and the background to it shows that even the greats are subject to the perils of procrastination.
In an interview published in the album’s liner notes Hawkins told how the album was two decades years in the making.
“Duke came to me twenty years ago…and said: ‘You know, I want you to make a record with me, and I’m going to write a number specially for you.
“‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I’m for it!’
“But we never did make it, although we sometimes spoke of it when we ran into one another.”
Twenty years after Duke’s offer Hawkins was still speaking of the long-fingered plan. After he referred to it in a magazine interview an outside force, legendary producer Bob Thiele, intervened.
By petition, cajolement or the promise of a payday he convinced Duke and Hawkins to make the trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey for an afternoon’s work.
Though their careers ran in parallel for four decades Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins was their only meeting – a lesson that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing, even if it takes 20 years to do it.
Stanley Dance‘s liner notes recall the pair’s farewell that evening.
“”After four hundred years, we made it!” Coleman said.
“You don’t think it was too soon?” Duke asked.
“Maybe we should have waited, but…”
“We’re leaving town for a week or so. I’ll call you when we get back. Maybe we can think of something else to do!””