Coleman Hawkins played piano and cello as a young child. On his 9th birthday he was given a saxophone and was soon playing it with virtuosity.

In the mid 1930s Hawkins joined Jack Hylton's band in England. He stayed in Europe for five years, enjoying great success and cultural freedom. On his return to the United States, he recorded "Body and Soul" for RCA Victor in October 1939. This was to become his signature piece, and an example for countless other jazz artists in exploring harmonics in improvisation. No matter how often he performed "Body and Soul", in each performance he wove new phrases.

His sense of thematic development was nourished by his great love of opera.

His great contemporary Lester Young, ("the Prez") was known for a lighter, more linear touch. Hawkins was both more languid and rougher in approach.

His influence extended to John Coltrane who regarded him as his mentor and now to Branford Marsalis.