Saturday, June 27, 2009

Body and Soul

by Chris O' Leary

It’s the first and only record I ever heard of that all the squares dig as well as the jazz people, and I don’t understand how and why, because I was making notes all the way. I wasn’t making a melody for the squares.

-Coleman Hawkins

“Body and Soul,” jazz standard of standards, turns eighty years old in 2010. It is jazz’s benchmark, warhorse, rite of passage, litmus test: I can’t think of a single major jazz musician, post-1930, who hasn’t taken it on, from Roy Eldridge to John Coltrane to Anthony Braxton, from Billie Holiday to Sarah Vaughan to Betty Carter, from Art Tatum to Thelonious Monk to Sun Ra. The fecundity, the sheer number, of its interpretations is staggering--in 1980 Gary Giddins estimated that some 3,000 versions of “Body and Soul” had been recorded, and likely at least a thousand more have come in the decades since.

Still, “Body and Soul” is a strange breed of eternal. It’s an odd song, with a melodramatic, sometimes clunky lyric (“my life a wreck you’re making”), a steeplechase harmonic structure with a wide range and a knotted string of key changes (the bridge alone is dizzying, starting a half-step above the home key of D-flat major, then dropping to a half-step below before it wends its way back to the chorus), and a ghost of a melody which sounds upon hearing it that you’ve dreamt it somewhere first.

The 22-year-old composer Johnny Green debuted the song in a 1930 Broadway show called “Three’s a Crowd”. The producers at first considered “Body and Soul” a dud, cutting it from a few tryout performances, while Robert Sour and Edward Heyman dashed out a series of lyrics in a bid to resuscitate it. (Frank Eyton, an arranger at the song publisher Chappell & Co., is also credited as a songwriter, though he’s there mainly for business reasons.) The final lyric, including the soon-to-be-altered line “my life a hell you’re making,” even got the song banned from a few radio stations in the early ‘30s.

Libby Holman made “Body and Soul” famous in “Three’s a Crowd” and the song’s dark, obsessive sentiments seem keyed to Holman’s brutal pageant of a life. A stage singer with a taste for younger women and men (including Montgomery Clift), Holman may have killed her husband, an heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. She first claimed he shot himself, and later that she had been so drunk she didn’t remember anything; she was indicted for murder but skipped sentencing because she was pregnant. After another of her husbands killed himself with barbiturates, she toured the world, sponsored Martin Luther King’s trip to India and befriended and bedded, respectively, Paul and Jane Bowles. One day in June 1971 her servants found her slumped in the front seat of her Rolls Royce, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Holman’s recording of “Body and Soul” was one of many first-wave versions rushed out during the last months of 1930, along with those from flapper singer Annette Hanshaw and Paul Whiteman’s and Ozzie Nelson (Ricky’s father)’s big bands. Louis Armstrong’s take, cut at the same time, was released two years later, where it served as the first of many revivals of the song. The Benny Goodman Trio’s elegant version from 1935 did the same.

Making Notes All the Way

It’s possible that “Body and Soul” would have faded over time, in the way Johnny Green’s other standards like “Out of Nowhere” did, into a cult song occasionally dusted off by an enterprising jazzman. And then on 11 October 1939 Coleman Hawkins reincarnated “Body and Soul” as a masterpiece of pure improvisation.

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Coleman Hawkins, 1939.
available on Body and Soul: The Complete Victor Recordings 1939-1956 Master Tapes

Hawkins’ version is a two-chorus tenor saxophone improvisation that discards the original melody after the first few bars, and some 100,000 copies of it sold in the first six months of its release. Hawkins recorded it in one take, having come into the studio after playing all night at the NYC club Kelly’s Stable. He later said doing ‘Body and Soul’ hadn’t even crossed his mind:

“That tune was the least of my ideas. There were other tunes I preferred…when I got back to America, maybe once in a while in the middle of the night I would play ‘Body and Soul.’ Every time I played it different and people seemed to like it enough.” Told that one of the label execs had heard him do “Body and Soul” live and wanted Hawkins to record it, Hawkins agreed to do one take. He took a swig of Cognac and told the pianist Gene Rogers to play an introduction. No rehearsal, no charts. Off he went. “I didn’t even have an arrangement on it,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t want to play it at all, so I just played it through once and made up the ending when I got to it. The ending, as it turned out, was one of the funniest things I ever played in my life. Like the way the horns came in on the last chord.” (From John Chilton’s The Song of the Hawk.)

The first time Hawkins heard his “Body and Soul,” on a jukebox in Harlem’s Fat Man Charlie Turner’s Rib Place, he was surprised at how good it sounded. His contemporaries were stunned. Chu Berry told Hawkins he was playing “the wrong notes” on the record, while Thelonious Monk couldn’t grasp its appeal to squares and “old folks” (“I could understand if you played melody, because that’s what they like. [But] there’s no melody in there, what are they listening to?” he later told Hawkins). Nat King Cole dragged people into a dive bar on Central Avenue in Los Angeles to hear it on the jukebox. The young John Coltrane played the disc over and over, trying to figure out Hawkins’ arpeggios. Randy Weston tried to work it out on his piano, breaking the solo down note by note.

After Hawkins, “Body and Soul” had two lives. Subsequent generations of jazz players took Hawkins’ cue and used the genetic material of “Body and Soul” for their own ends, as the basis for a series of extravagant self portraits. Some of the finest include Jimmy Blanton’s 1940 take, a phenomenal bass solo that is first bowed and then, after a Duke Ellington piano interlude, plucked as if Blanton had adamantine fingers; Boyd Raeburn’s fusion--part Schoenberg, part Science Fiction movie soundtrack--from 1946; James Moody’s wistful dream, from 1949; Serge Chaloff’s baritone sax reverie, recorded while Chaloff was in a wheelchair due to spinal paralysis in 1955; Sonny Rollins’ a cappella bravado from 1958; Monk’s spiky, burrowing take from 1962, in which he seems to be trying to test the patience of the “old folks” that bewildered him years ago; John Coltrane’s stately version from 1960; Dexter Gordon’s multiple charges up the mountain. Hawkins himself recorded a tune called “Rainbow Mist” in 1944 which uses the same chord sequence of “Body and Soul”; it’s the closest he ever came to doing a sequel.

"Rainbow Mist" mp3
by Coleman Hawkins, 1944.
available on Rainbow Mist

The singers, however, kept up “Body and Soul”’s parallel existence, as a torch ballad that seems to disregard the basic rules of romantic songs. The singer doesn’t seem to really care about his or her lover except as an object of obsession—the singer is reduced to offering only physical release, and doesn’t seem concerned whether the lover responds in kind, saying only that they will keep up the pursuit until they’re satiated or something worse happens.

Its ominous, moonstruck sentiments were captured by singers like Sarah Vaughan, who recorded an elegant trio version in 1954, or Holiday, who took it on twice, a honeyed love song in 1940 (listen to how sweetly she sings a line like “my days have grown so lonely”), and a weary reminiscence in 1957, or Frank Sinatra, whose 1947 take offers the song in its purest form.

Why has “Body and Soul” captivated so many for so long? Perhaps it’s not as much of a mystery as it may appear. Musicians can’t get enough of that melody, and there’s so much bounty in Johnny Green’s elaborate composition that one can tap it for a long time without going dry. And perhaps it’s finally become a self-generating machine—the more the finest jazz players take it on, the more their ambitious successors try to best them at it. A fractured ray of moonlight, a stalker’s set of artless sentiments, “Body and Soul” has persisted far beyond the ambitions of its distracted makers. Listen to the tracks here, revel in them, and know that you’ve scarcely scratched the surface.


"Body and Soul" mp3
by Louis Armstrong, 1930.
available on The Big Band Sides 1930/32

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Benny Goodman Trio, 1935.
available on After You've Gone

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Django Reinhardt, 1937.
available on Django Rheinhardt Anthology 1934-1937

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Billie Holiday, 1940.
available on Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton, 1940.
available on Complete RCA Victor Recordings

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Charlie Parker, 1942.
guitar: Efferege Ware
available on Bird in Time 1940-1947

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Ben Webster, 1944.
available on Tenor Men: Titans of the Sax

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Roy Eldridge, 1944.
available on After You've Gone

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Lester Young, 1945.
available on The Complete Aladdin Recordings

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Boyd Raeburn, 1946.
vocal: Ginnie Powell
available on Boyd Meets Stravinsky

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Frank Sinatra, 1947.
available on A Voice in Time: 1939-1952

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Sarah Vaughan, 1954.
available on Swingin' Easy

"Body and Soul" mp3
Sonny Rollins, 1958.
available on Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Charles Mingus, 1960.
available on Reincarnation of a Lovebird

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Eric Dolphy, 1960.
available on Candid Dolphy

"Body and Soul" mp3
by John Coltrane, 1960.
available on Coltrane's Sound

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Sun Ra, 1960.
available on Holiday for Soul Dance

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Thelonious Monk Quartet, 1962.
available on Monk's Dream

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Dexter Gordon, 1970.
available on The Panther!

"Body and Soul" mp3
by Anthony Braxton, 1974.
available on In the Tradition, Vol. 2

"Body and Soul" mp3
Charlie Haden, 1986.
available on Quartet West

For more versions of the standard, visit the always formidable and awesome Locust Street. [ed.]


Derek, Edinburgh said...

Great post.
I had no idea that Body & Soul had been covered by so many of the jazz and vocal greats.
Taking all of these on holiday.

Unknown said...

That's a lot of Body and Soul. I remember hearing this song for the first time as a young teen, when I bought the Louis Armstrong version on an LP compilation. It was one of the songs that hooked me on jazz.

Steve Pick said...

Jeeminy Christmas - once more there is a treasure trove of delights to be found on the ol' Boogie Woogie Flu, and a whole lot of interesting facts and tidbits. Thanks for posting.

Don in Sheffield said...

Well God bless you,sir! A truly magnificent post and a decent act of Jazz scholarship. Just discovered your blog and will be a regular passer by from now on. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, but I'll take exception to :

"It’s possible that “Body and Soul” would have faded over time, in the way Johnny Green’s other standards like “Out of Nowhere” did, into a cult song occasionally dusted off by an enterprising jazzman."

Anonymous said...

As played by the composer

Anonymous said...

I saw Esperanza Spalding sing and play it last week on TV. It was a recording of her set at Coutances a year or two ago. She did "Body and Soul" as an encore and it was both the highlight of the show and quite different from what had preceded it. She sang "my life's a hell you're making", which I knew was wrong, but which makes a kind of sense and may actually be an improvement of the line.

I have two piano trio performances of the song on my Walkman -- by Martial Solal and Enrico Pieranunzi respectively. I keep meaning to play them one after the other but I haven't got around to it yet.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, that Braxton performance is a refreshing surprise. Apparently, he was standing in for Dexter Gordon. I'll shamefacedly admit that I hadn't previously heard of the pianist Tete Montoliu; I must find more by him.

John Cooper said...

The Manhattan Transfer did a good vocalese verion of his solo.

First line -

"Don't you know
he was the king
of saxophone..."

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Thanks,


kamholj said...

What an excellent posting, with a terrific top-note. Thanks for all the work.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

great post, made me listen to the song in a really new and exciting way. many many thx! AK