“Body and Soul”
Composed by Johnny Green; “Head” arrangement.
Recorded by Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on October 11, 1939.
Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone, directing: Tommy Lindsey and Joe Guy, trumpets; Earl Hardy, trombone; Gene Rodgers, piano; William Oscar Smith, bass; Arthur Herbert, drums.
Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969), was one of the giants of jazz. His pioneering use of the tenor saxophone brought the instrument into common use in dance and jazz bands throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. (The only other distinctive performer on tenor saxophone then was Bud Freeman.) Beyond that, Hawkins’s virtuoso playing of that instrument, and his continuing questing in the realm of harmony, allowed him to be a constantly relevant and inspired force in jazz for decades. His playing remained creative and powerfully expressive until shortly before his death.
Hawkins came to music at an early age. He started to play the piano at five, then played the cello. By age nine, he was playing the tenor saxophone. He worked with Mamie Smith’s Jazz hounds in 1922-1923, and came to New York with that group. There, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band, remaining for over a decade. It was with the Henderson band, which included many pioneering jazz musicians (including Louis Armstrong), that Hawkins began moving beyond instrumental virtuosity into the realm of creative jazz improvisation.
In 1934, Hawkins, tired of the many frustrations of working with an Afro-American band in Jim Crow America, being under-employed as a result of the Great Depression and racial discrimination, went to Europe to work. Initially he was presented as a specialty act with English bandleader Jack Hylton’s band, but eventually worked in many places, usually with small combos playing jazz, on the Continent. His stay in Europe ended in 1939 a month before the beginning of World War II there.
Hawkins’s sojourn in Europe heightened his cultivation in many ways. He was a thoughtful man who studied and appreciated symphonic concert music and opera, dressed well, and enjoyed the finer things in life. He conducted himself as an artist, albeit one who enjoyed alcohol.
Upon his return to the U.S.A. on July 31, 1939, he found the jazz scene somewhat changed. By then, many new and exciting jazz soloists had emerged on tenor saxophone including Ben Webster, Chu Berry, and most notably, Lester Young. Hawkins’s playing had not remained stagnant while he was in Europe. In fact, it had progressed substantially, being influenced by contemporary concert music, especially as that music was exploring harmony. He was eager to display his then-current jazz sensibilities to those who understood such things–his fellow musicians. A head-to-head jam session featuring Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young took place at Puss Johnson’s Tavern in Harlem, probably in late August 1939. According to the September 1939 issue of Down Beat; “The two aces tangled for an hour in a carving contest, and according to members of Fats Waller’s band, it stopped because Lester said he’d had enough.” A slightly different report appeared in the October 1939 issue of Down Beat, which contained these comments by Billie Holiday, who also witnessed the event: “Young really cut the Hawk, and most everyone who saw them tangle agreed on that.”(1)
Thus began the endless controversy over the comparative merits of the tenor saxophone playing of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. My take on this is that they both were magnificent jazz musicians, but each approached his craft from a different place. Hawkins was undoubtedly the more accomplished and advanced jazz improviser in terms of his massive sound, and his rhapsodic, exploratory approach to harmony. Young’s light, floating sound, unsurpassed swing, and often startlingly creative use of a less harmony based improvisatory language made his playing a strongly individualistic alternative to Hawkins’s. Both musicians have left a rich jazz heritage that continues to amaze and inspire jazz fans to this day.
As was so often the case during the swing era, incredible performances happened and were captured quite unexpectedly. When Coleman Hawkins and his six sidemen entered the Victor recording studios on East 24th Street in Manhattan on October 11, 1939, they were scheduled to record a forgettable pop tune, “Meet Doctor Foo,” a light-weight riff tune, “Fine Dinner,” and a slightly more worthwhile song with a vocal by Thelma Carpenter, the now semi-standard “He’s Funny That Way.” After recording these, Hawkins later recalled: “Leonard Joy (the recording supervisor) called me over and said, ‘Do us a favor. One of the guys called up from Trenton (2). He said he heard you do ‘Body and Soul’ at the club (Kelly’s Stable, on 52nd Street in NYC) and would like to hear it on a record.’ I said ‘I have another song I’d rather do,’ but he said ‘You could do that one some other time. Let’s just make one take of ‘Body and Soul.'” (3)
The pianist on the date, Gene Rodgers, provided the rest of the story: “I remember Coleman, just as if it happened yesterday. He reached over some place and got a bottle of cognac and he took a healthy sip, laid it down and then he got right under the middle of the microphone and he said: ‘make an introduction on ‘Body and Soul.’ So I made the introduction that became a part of the legend with the record. I don’t know where it came from, I just put my hands down and it came out.”(4) After this, it is all Hawkins–two thirty-two bar choruses of marvelously rhapsodic improvisation that builds slowly to a powerful climax. The few supporting chords added by the horns throughout Hawkins’s solo are basically irrelevant.
The influence of this recording on saxophonists soon after its release was immense, and continuing. Indeed, the influence of Coleman Hawkins’s recording of “Body and Soul” continues to inspire players of all instruments who wish to understand more about improvising using (and expanding) the harmonic structure of high-quality popular songs as a point of departure for their improvisations.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Song of the Hawk, by John Chilton, (1990) page 162.
(2) I think Hawkins meant to say “Camden” instead of “Trenton,” because Victor’s central office was in Camden, New Jersey at that time.
(3) Song of the Hawk, ibid.
(4) Ibid. page 163.