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February 28, 1998

Body And Soul -- A Song, A Movie, Or A Book?

Jerry Atkins

First it was a song and then it was destined to become both a movie and book title. Next to "Stardust" it may be the most recorded tune of all time both in the jazz and popular music world. The music was written by Johnny Green and the lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton. Who knows why it took three lyricists but the song is no picnic for a vocalist or instrumentalist. It was a mild hit in Britain when introduced by Gertrude Lawrence. Later rights were obtained to include it in a musical revue in New York called "Three's a Crowd." It was cut from the show but reinstated by a torch singer named Libby Holman and became her hit although the big seller belonged to Paul Whiteman's band. It has been sung in many movies and it was the first number recorded by the Benny Goodman trio in 1935.

The song truly entered the jazz players' repertoire in a version recorded by the famous saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins, for RCA on October 11, 1939. This single 78 rpm recording is one of the most often praised, transcribed, and analyzed solos in all of jazz. I remember when someone told me about it, I was obsessed to hear and own it. It was such a revolutionary thing for the time because it featured a saxophone from the beginning to end of its three minute limitation. Other musicians including Louis Armstrong had recorded it but most think that it was a version by Hawk's chief rival, Chu Berry, that inspired him to include this in his recording session. Hawk never admitted this and said "I never thought about it seriously as anything big for me at all. I used it as an encore just to get off the stage. "He further stated after just playing one take, "I didn't even bother to listen to it afterwards. I just packed my horn and left."

The public and most critics believed this but he caught a little flack from musicians. Some said he had played this tune regularly at his jazz venue, Kelly's Stables on 52nd Street. One writer said he heard him play as many as seven choruses.one night. All of this is a bit academic and the Hawkins ground breaking version is identified as the definitive version. It was a perfect tune to represent the harmonic transition that bebop would develop over the simpler swing era versions. Eddie Jefferson set words to Hawk's long and complex solo. Benny Carter voiced the entire solo for four saxophones. Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, and all the vocalists to follow have recorded great versions of this tune. No serious tenor man dared to ignore learning this song although Ben Webster said he hated to get requests for it. He thought Hawk had played everything that could be done to the tune. This has not proven true. Today it's played on all instruments and I marvel at the endless variations and ideas that come forth. I suspect that there are more than one hundred recorded versions now on CD just by tenor saxophonists. Unlike many songs that fade in and out of a musician's repertoire, this one has always been there.

The music is not harmonically or melodically simple. It has a roving pattern that travels through numerous key changes, and the standard key adapted for it is five flats with the bridge (or B section) going into sharps that make it extremely tough on an alto saxophonist. The development of standard keys for jazz songs proves that music is a true universal language. Who knows how long ago some of these standards were set but they generally stay the same. When the music is performed by saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and instruments that have a limited number of notes that can be played without real strain, it becomes necessary to adopt a key that doesn't take any instrument too high or too low. If it takes the saxophone beyond its bottom note then it simply can't be played. If it takes the brass instruments too high then both the player and listener feel distress. So you might say a happy medium has to be attained. Of course all of this changes to accommodate vocalists whose voice ranges vary from person to person. Not many tunes in the standard keys work for them so a comfortable key has to be set..I know that nothing distresses a vocalist more than to have to "wing it" in an unsuitable key. Now you probably know far more than you wanted to know but you can understand why it takes years for a practicing musician to store that mental data base required with melody, chords, and lyrics.

It wouldn't matter if a musician were playing with Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Frenchmen, or almost any nationality-- the same phenomenon occurs with the Great American Songbook. If they have studied and played the great songs then any of them can step on a band stand and just say "Body", holding up all five fingers on one hand. They may not can converse with each other but they all know it's to be "Body and Soul" in five flats. This actually happened for me when I played with a band on a cruise ship. They were mostly Spaniards but I think there was also a couple of Germans in the group. When they first looked at me I knew they were asking what I wanted to play. That was the most important thing of the moment. I said "Moon" and held up three fingers. It was immediately known by all that we were playing "How High the Moon" in the key of G which is three sharps. I then held up eight fingers meaning I wanted the rhythm section to play an eight bar intro before we came in with the tune. It always works with competent jazz musicians. What happens in the rock and contemporary pop world -- I don't know.

Back to "Body and Soul," I've heard many couples say "That's our song -- it was played at our wedding." It has a real message and who knows when the phrase was first used. The movie was about a boxer and his love, anguish and frustrations. The book was written about a piano prodigy who made it in the classical world but also loved to play jazz. Who knows what may come in the future - maybe a shampoo. No matter what, the song has brought one of the great jazz ballads to many listeners who didn't think they liked jazz. So what is jazz anyway? It's just a four letter word and it's our country's unique contribution to universal music. Let's have more great American songs that make sense and survive for sixty-six years and beyond.

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