The Coleman Hawkins Jazz Society got its start in the late summer of 1998 when St. Joseph News-Press columnist Alonzo Weston visited that year’s Trails West! Festival. Lamenting the fact that every St. Joseph festival had something to do with the Old West or a famous bank robber, Alonzo wrote a column expressing his feelings. Why couldn’t Joetown find something or someone to celebrate that adds a touch of class to this fine city?
Then Editorial Page Editor Mark Sheehan of the same paper followed with a column that suggested St. Joseph would do well to celebrate the historic life of Coleman Hawkins, a bona fide jazz legend and Joetown native. The column included a challenge for all takers to show up at the News-Press on the next Saturday to start work on the festival. Alonzo’s lament worked better than anyone could have expected. More than 30 jazz fans showed up for the first meeting and immediately began work on the group’s first mini-festival that November. Success bred more energy and soon the new jazz society was working on the first official June jazz festival for 1999.
The Coleman Hawkins Jazz Society has grown in numbers and projects. In addition to the June festival, the group added a fall Blues Festival. During the jazz festival each year, the society offers the stage to two groups of young musicians. High School students from three states attending a five-day band camp at MWSU appear both Friday and Saturday. And student musicians from across St. Joseph schools work together to present a Saturday program. A portion of the festival proceeds is donated to the St. Joseph Public School’s “Music in the Schools” program, helping to provide instruments for youth otherwise unable to afford them.
The music festivals are held in Coleman Hawkins Park, downtown St. Joseph, where the society erected an 8-foot tall bronze statue of Coleman Hawkins beside the gazebo stage.