(Above: Joseph Sanders, left, and Carleton Coon.)
By Joel Francis
The music Carleton Coon and Joseph Sanders made for a dozen years together helped put Kansas City jazz on the map. Their Nighthawk Orchestra may have broken up in 1932, but it’s two bandleaders have been silently reunited for 40 years at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.
Coon and Sanders first met at a downtown Kansas City music store in 1918. Tall, handsome and quick-tempered Sanders, was an amateur baseball player on leave from the Army. He was practically the antonym of the pudgy, extroverted Coon. Despite their physical and temperamental differences, both men quickly found they shared a love of jazz and complementary tenor voices.
The following year, when Sanders got out of the Army, the two teamed up, formed a jazz combo and started booking gigs around Kansas City. With Coon handling business, Sanders writing songs and city boss Tom Pendergast ignoring prohibition with his “wide open” bars, clubs and brothels, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra was soon one of town’s in-demand outfits.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, 1922, the orchestra was booked to play on radio station WDAF. The success of that performance helped launch their weekly show, broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. When the announcer let slip that “anyone who’d stay up this late to hear us would have to be a real night hawk,” thousands of listeners spread across Canada, Mexico and most of the United States let him know that they were proud to be “night hawks.”
Sanders quickly penned a theme song “Night Hawks Blues” and the pair rechristened their ensemble the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra. In 1924, they recorded for the Victor record label in Chicago and agreed to let burgeoning Chicago promoter Jules Stein book a four-week tour. Stein parlayed his profits from that tour into his own booking company, which he called Music Corporation of America, or MCA.
On the strength of that tour, the Night Hawk Orchestra relocated to Chicago where their performance opening the Balloon Ballroom of the Congress Hotel was broadcast on KYW. Two years later, they moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant where fan Al Capone frequently left $100 tips for the band. On the strength of WGN radio broadcasts and reputation built playing around Chicago (including Capone’s Dells supper club in Morton Grove, Ill.), the Coon-Sanders Orchestra relocated once again in 1931.
Broadcasting weekly from Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker on CBS radio, Coon and Sanders found themselves in the same Big Apple circles as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. Coon loved the night life, frequenting the Cotton Club and other Harlem jazz clubs, and making friends with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Sanders, on the other hand, was less enamored. He longed for the Midwest and made his sentiment plain the final number recorded by the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra, “I Want to Go Home.”
Unfortunately, circumstances forced the bandleaders’ hands. Popular taste was shifting away from the Caucasian stylings of Coon and Sanders and toward all-black ensembles like the Ellington, Calloway and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten orchestras.
These circumstances, coupled with the Great Depression, forced the Night Hawks back to Chicago in April, 1932, for an engagement at the College Inn. Sander’s delight to be back in familiar territory was tempered when Coon was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. He died a few weeks later from blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.
Coon’s 1932 funeral was one of the largest Kansas City had seen. Although his procession carried on for miles, his band’s legacy did not stretch so far. Less than a year after Coon’s death, Sanders dissolved the group and moved to Hollywood to write movie scores. Although Sanders was active in music for the rest of his life, he never regained the popularity he found with the Nighthawk Orchestra. In 1965, he died after having a stroke and was buried about 200 yards sound of his friend, Carleton Coon, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery.
Today, the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra is a footnote in the Kansas City jazz story that includes big bands lead by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann, and soloists like Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page and, of course, Charlie Parker. But Coon and Sander’s early triumphs helped paved the way for all who followed them out of Kansas City.
Ironically, the Night Hawks are most celebrated in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans’ Bash has been held on the weekend after Mother’s Day for 39 years.