Coleman Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri and went to school in Kansas City, Missouri. In his youth he played piano and cello, and started playing sax at age 9; by age 16 he was playing professionally. He joined Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds in 1921 with whom he toured through 1923, at which time he settled in New York City. Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, which whom he played through 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. Hawkins' playing changed significantly during Louis Armstrong's tenure with the Henderson Orchestra.
During the mid to late 1930s, Hawkins toured Europe as a soloist, playing with Jack Hylton, Django Reinhardt and many other groups until returning to the USA in 1939. He then recorded what some feel is the seminal jazz record "Body and Soul".
He then led a band at Kelly's Stables in New York, then toured around the USA and then returned to Europe in 1948.
Hawkins thereafter divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous feelance recordings, including with Duke Ellington in 1962. In the 1960s he appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.
During his long career "Hawk" always played in an inventive up-to-date style. What was up to date in jazz changed radically over the decades. When record collecters would play his early 1920s recordings during Hawkins' later years he would sometimes deny his presence on them, since the playing on the old records sounded so dated.
Coleman Hawkins died in New York City.