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Hawkins hits the high notes in a storied swing career

Saturday is the 100th birthday of Erskine Hawkins, trumpeter and bandleader, “the 20th-Century Gabriel.” Named after Erskine Ramsay — a Birmingham, Ala., coal-mining magnate and educational philanthropist who eccentrically opened hundred-dollar bank accounts for such namesake children — Hawkins pursued a musical career shaped by educational opportunity, happenstance and institutional. Having tinkered with drums, saxophone, and trombone, Hawkins (inset) found his true calling at Birmingham’s storied Tuggle Institute (founded by activist Carrie Tuggle for the benefit of African-American children), courtesy of band director Sam Foster, himself a trumpeter nicknamed “High-C”: a note that Hawkins, too, would make his specialty.

At the historically black Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University), dance music was serious business. Starting in the junior-varsity dance band, the ’Bama State Revelers, Hawkins soon moved up to the ’Bama State Collegians, becoming a featured player. The Collegians toured as far north as Chicago and New York, making enough of a sensation that they decided to strike out on their own; Hawkins was convinced to lead the new ensemble. By 1935, they were playing at the mecca of swing-era dance bands, Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.


The Savoy Ballroom boasted a diverse clientele and two bandstands, the better to facilitate nonstop dancing. Hawkins’s Orchestra became famous for its solid, dance-friendly swing and the leader’s trumpeting, all mellifluous vibrato and piercing, tirelessly powerful high notes. (During his days with the Collegians, Hawkins would, as a finale, play a hundred high Cs as the band counted them off.) Hawkins and his orchestra made the Savoy their unofficial home until it closed in 1958. He fronted smaller groups, off and on, until his death in 1993.

His most famous song hearkened back to Birmingham. “Tuxedo Junction,” credited to Hawkins and two of his saxophonists, Bill Johnson and Julian Dash, began as a riff-based tag for the end of a set, signaling another of the Savoy’s bands to get ready to play. Worked into a complete number for a 1939 recording session, the song became a hit. Soon after, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra recorded their version: an even bigger hit. (Hawkins, collecting royalties, didn’t complain.)


It was his valet, Hawkins recalled, who suggested naming the song for the streetcar hub where the young Hawkins got off to play in summertime jam sessions, where Birmingham’s black nightlife was centered, now the (inevitably appropriate) location of Erskine Hawkins Park. As Hawkins’s valet told him, “That’s where you’re from.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.