Listening, Party For Two: Coleman Hawkins, 'Body And Soul'

Coleman Hawkins. i i

hide captionColeman Hawkins and company in 1960: Man, whatchu looking at?

Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Coleman Hawkins.

Coleman Hawkins and company in 1960: Man, whatchu looking at?

Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

The last time — and the first time — that the Boss Lady and I IM-ed each other, we listened to recordings featuring Lester Young. So I thought it important to feature that other great early tenor saxophone master, Coleman Hawkins. This week is as good a time as any to listen to "Body And Soul" — Hawk would have been 105 this Saturday.

"Body And Soul," from Coleman Hawkins, Body And Soul (Bluebird). Original Issue Bluebird 10523/mx. Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; with Joe Guy, trumpet; Tommy Lindsay, trumpet; Earl Hardy, trombone; Jackie Fields, saxophone; Eustis Moore, saxophone; Eugene Rogers, piano; William Smith, bass; Arthur Herbert, drums. New York, N.Y.: Oct. 11, 1939.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

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me: So do you think you've heard this before?

Boss Lady: My memory is like a sieve.

me: Well, all right then. What do you think?

Boss Lady: Very comforting. Just what I could use right now.

me: What's comforting about it, do you think?

Boss Lady: Sounds like the low voice of the sax is singing me a song. It also happens to be in my own vocal range (I've been trying to sing along).

me: You know, this was once an immensely popular recording — a lot of people learned to sing along to it, including the solo.

Boss Lady: He has such an expressive "voice." Not too sentimental, but full of feeling.

me: Yes, yes and yes. That's part of why so many saxophonists studied this record so intently.
The melody — do you know it?

Boss Lady: Once again, the answer is no. Sadly.

me: Well, "Body and Soul" is one of those American songbook numbers which became jazz standards. But you would be excused for not recognizing it, because ... you hardly hear it.
You know how in jazz, it's often: melody, then solos, then melody?

Boss Lady: Yes. But what do you mean by "solo"? I thought it was when one instrument takes a turn in the spotlight. This seems like one big solo for the sax. What am I missing?

me: Ok, I'll be more clear — it is almost exclusively a feature for the saxophone, true. In modern jazz, there's often melody, then improvisation, then melody. Here there's a heavily modified melody statement, then improvisation the rest of the way through.

Boss Lady: Does that fact change the way you feel the music?

me: Kinda sorta. Sometimes, your expectation is that, ok, time for this to wrap up already and move on to the final section.
That's the thing about this recording though — it creates its own rules.

Boss Lady: Well, I like the way it feels freer and freer and more intense as it moves forward.

me: Exactly. By the last chorus, that saxophonist is reaching for some really powerful peaks — check out 2:34. Quick denouement, coda and then we're out.

Boss Lady: Start sweet and narrow and stretch out by the end.

me: Right.
So, abstract question, I know, but: what is the general shape of the saxophone line?
What are its salient characteristics? How is that thing moving along?

Boss Lady: It moves ... upward, in overlapping arches.

me: Aha! Lots of arpeggios, right?

Boss Lady: Yeah. It's not arpeggios the way Art Tatum did them ... really linear and direct.

me: It's what this particular saxophonist was known for: so-called "vertical" improvisation. It's almost like every time the harmony shifts, he's outlining every chord, but in all these new ways.

Boss Lady: It gives his playing a casual air.

me: This was the system of a one Coleman Hawkins. Who was ... ?

Boss Lady: The inventor of the Coleman stove, in addition to being a fabulous sax player.

me: I'll give you half credit on that.
He was the first great tenor saxophonist.

Boss Lady: Did no one take it seriously as a solo instrument before him?

me: Before him, the main saxophones in jazz were of either the soprano or C melody (now obscure) varieties. And yes, the saxophone was a funny novelty instrument in march and dance bands ... the clarinet was really the jazz reed in the music's early days.
Hawkins helped to change that image by learning to improvise on it.

Boss Lady: It certainly has a warmer sound than the clarinet.

me: I think *his* saxophone has a warmer sound than some clarinets, sure, and especially here. It's part of why he made this instrument so popular.

Boss Lady: Well I can see why. Wish I could go to one of his shows. Can you fire up the time machine?

me: If he weren't over a century old — and moreover, dead for a half century — I would get you a ticket.
For now, this weekend would be a good time to catch up on your Hawk.
He would have been 105 this Saturday.

Boss Lady: OK, here's to Coleman Hawkins. If he was anywhere near as swell as his music, I'm in love.

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