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Paul Hawkins, a D.C.-born percussionist, bandleader, and dancer who was for decades a mainstay of Washington’s Latin jazz scene, died on Feb. 9 of congestive heart failure in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He was 79.
A life-long D.C. resident, Hawkins was involved in the D.C. music scene from the 1950s—-when he was winning dance contests at Turner’s Arena—-through decades of drumming with Latin dance music and jazz ensembles into this century. In the early 1960s he became the first African-American dance instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. Although Hawkins never released an album as a leader, he played congas on Ramsey Lewis‘ Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns, sat in live locally with Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente, and played countless gigs with his own bands. He regularly played for school audiences and in D.C.’s summer in the parks series.
“Like Chuck Brown was an icon for go-go,” says Sam Turner, Hawkins’ bandmate and a longtime percussionist, “Paul was for Latin jazz.”
Although she didn’t meet him until the ’70s, Hawkins’ widow Patti Stewart heard many stories of Paul’s time winning jitterbug contests at pre-integration, black Maryland resorts like Sparrow’s Beach and Carr’s Beach as well as in the city. Hawkins told the Washington Post’s Eric Brace in 2000 that he became a regular dancer on the Capital Caravan TV show that was filmed during the ‘50s at the Caravan Ballroom, now the 9:30 Club. Hawkins, who was not Latino, was enamored by the Latin mambo music and dance that was gaining popularity at that time. Hawkins joined fellow dancer and bandleader Roland Kave in his group Los Diablos as a conga player. They began regularly performing at the Casbah, a mambo dance club at 1211 U Street NW, next to a pool hall that became Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958.
Once at the Casbah, Hawkins found a club employee named James Alexander hitting his conga drum. “Instead of getting angry or upset, he asked me if I wanted to learn how to play the drums and he taught me the congas,” Alexander says. “I learned and we became friends.” The two had another connection as well. They both danced the cha-cha-cha and started doing a side-by-side routine together (that was the common method for male dancers at the time). Alexander notes that “as time went on I started teaching Latin dance in the Casbah. He was also a dance instructor there. The instructors of the Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire dance studios would always come by the club with their students and they would see the routine that Paul and I were doing. They liked what we were doing and as weeks and years went by, they offered us jobs working in their dance studios. Paul became the first black instructor for Arthur Murray and I became the first black instructor for Fred Astaire.” Alexander believes this was in 1961 or 1962.
“Back then in the nightclubs, when the Latin music was playing you’d never know the problems we had in this country,” Alexander says.”You’d see black, white, Latino, Asian. The majority of Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray’s clientele was all white and they’d come to U Street to this club owned by a black.”
Hawkins left Kave’s band and, according to Brace, started leading his own bands in the ’60s—first Los Tropicales and then Orquesta Siglo Viente. Sam Turner says that Hawkins’ groups were modeled after the frenetic, percussion-led styles of Tito Puente and Machito, with Hawkins playing the timbales. Stewart recalls Tito Puente telling the story about how word of Siglo Viente first reached New York. “Tito said, ‘who is this guy? I’ve never heard of a Latin guy called Paul Hawkins before.’” But they became friends, and with Siglo Viente, Hawkins opened for Tito Puente at the legendary Palladium Ballroom in New York City. Hawkins also began sitting in with Puente when he came to D.C. including a 1996 tribute at the Smithsonian. Stewart recalls that at Sparrow’s Beach, Hawkins sat in with another of his idols, Dizzy Gillespie. Until Dizzy’s death Hawkins would play congas with him regularly when he came to town.
Hawkins also toured with Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Mann, The Temptations, and Barry White. In 1967 he and his group opened for Jimi Hendrix at one of his shows at the Ambassador Theatre in Adams Morgan. Turner notes that Hawkins was also one of the owners of Bohemian Caverns for a time. Turner says, “He hosted people when they came to town—Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente. He befriended them. When they came to Washington they gave him a call.” Referring to Puente and Patato Valdes, Stewart says, “they took him under their wing and taught him things about the drums.” Alexander recalls that Hawkins hosted parties attended by the likes of Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nancy Wilson. Rudy Morales, who played bongos with Hawkins, says “Anytime any Latin bands were in town they all knew Paul and they’d gather at his house and eat dinner. I guess that’s how he picked up Spanish. A lot of people thought he was Hispanic.” Alexander remembers that in 1969 as part of D.C.’s “Summer in the Parks” program they played in nearly every park, from Anacostia to Kalorama to Meridian Hill Park.
In the mid-’70s Hawkins and Alexander joined with acclaimed local sax player Buck Hill for the Afro-Cuban inspired group Speed Limit. In the ’90s Hawkins formed a group called La Jazz that performed on and off until around 2009. According to Morales, the group used the music, charts, and arrangements of Hawkins’ friend, African-American piano player Maria Rodriguez (born Jean Butler) who also played in the group and helped pioneer Afro-Latin music in D.C. The ensemble, which also later included Hawkins’ old dance buddy Alexander, played at locations including Blues Alley, Carter Barron, Kennedy Center, education workshops at high schools, Alexandria’s Fleetwood’s, embassies, and the Smithsonian Folklife festival.
Morales says Hawkins was “like my second father. Paul showed me a little bit on the congas and timbales. When you went to Paul’s rehearsal it was like going to school.” Onstage, Morales says that “Paul was a very good showman and MC. He always got the crowd involved. Kind of a jokester. He’d get you to dance and if you didn’t know how, he’d give you free mambo lessons. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
“When it comes to Latin music, Paul Hawkins was on top of the list” of great D.C. musicians, says Alexander. “He was one hellafied musician—good conga, timbales player, singer. He had that persona, people would migrate to him, a friendly-type person. He was always happy-go-lucky.” Even after two strokes in recent years, Hawkins still wanted to play his drums, Stewart says. “Right before he passed he was playing [pretend] drums in the air with his cupped hands,” she says.”Right to the very end.”
The Hawkins family is planning a memorial service and celebration of Hawkins’ life in the D.C. area sometime in March. When we have details, we’ll pass them along.
Photo of Paul Hawkins and the photo of Paul Hawkins (left) wth Carlos Patato Valdes (right) courtesy Jim Byers