Some of the best writing found anywhere lives inside the cheery neo-fascist pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Yes, the paper is owned by Rip-Heart Murdoch and we should boycott his hateful empire, but I cannot resist, though I wish I could, good writing even when it resides in such odious environs. In fact, I believe in the power of writing to cleanse and sanctify the world.
That's one of my many problems.
It is through good writing, I believe, and the not dumbing-down of discourse by the good writers that we will ultimately subdue the bile spewed by the anti-intellectuals, anti-enlightenment-ers of the hard and evil radical right. As long as there are people who can still think and who care about learning, there is hope for this world, even during these almost pitch-black days.
The Weekend Journal is just great—you don’t have to read their editorials and their news-reporting, which is to the right of Attila the Hun. The Journal’s books and arts sections are wonderfully intelligent and well-writ. Buy it for those sections. Use the fascist parts to line your bird-cage or pick up after your dog or to wrap fish heads in.
This morning, I read an amazing article on the jazz standard “Body and Soul,” particularly the improvised version by the great(est) tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins. (Because the Wall Street Journal has a rigid pay wall, I’m pasting the article below. Just let me finish pontificating first before you go off and read some real writing.)
There’s a bit at the beginning of the article about the song’s composer, the 21-year-old Harvard graduate, Johnny Green. Green was asked if he had known, while writing Body and Soul, that it would become the most-recorded torch song ever. He replied, “No, all I knew was that it had to be finished by Wednesday.”
Speaking of soul, Green’s rejoinder goes to the very soul of our business, such as it is. We have to have our stuff “finished by [a metaphorical] Wednesday.”
We have to respect deadlines. We have to get things done. We have to put aside our fears and insecurities and our crises of confidence and the burdens on our lives and calendars and in the parlance of Wieden & Kennedy, “Just Do It.”
We can filigree and noodle and tweak and fuck-with and hear the pomposity of blowhard bosses spewing inanities. But it has to be finished on Wednesday. And we have to do it.
I don’t have a single personal creative approach, other than what I tell people who ask me. I am a “NOW-ist.”
When I get an assignment I don’t tarry, carry-on, or dilly-dally. I sit down and do it. I do it. I do it now.
I am “Old Iron Ass” until I get it done. Rarely rising from my seat. And working working working until I am satisfied with what I’ve written.
I do it now. I’m a NOW-ist.
Because I know work, like most things, "has to be finished by Wednesday.”
One Take, and on to Immortality
Coleman Hawkins helped establish the tenor saxophone as an esteemed instrument for jazz expression—and then made ‘Body and Soul’ a must-play for musicians.
Oct. 4, 2019 11:59 am ET
Eighty years ago next week, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins made a recording of “Body and Soul” that stood musicians on their ears and became one of the most celebrated improvisations in American music.
“For me it’s one of the greatest works of music of any kind from any era,” said pianist Randy Weston. “When I first heard it, I played it note-for-note on the piano…it was something that blew my mind.”
Composed in 1929, “Body and Soul” is the best-known song by composer Johnny Green —then a 21-year-old Harvard graduate who had worked briefly on Wall Street. He was commissioned to write the song by the British actress Gertrude Lawrence. According to writer and Wall Street Journal contributor Will Friedwald, when Green was asked if he had known, while writing it, that it would become the most-recorded torch song ever, he would reply, “No, all I knew was that it had to be finished by Wednesday.” Journeying through five keys, the song’s harmonies make it challenging to play. And the tricky chord changes in the bridge—its third eight-bar phrase—make it unlike any other.
The lyrics are credited to the trio of Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Their bold, sensuous words—“I’ll gladly surrender to you, body and soul”—were sexual enough that in the 1930s, some radio stations banned the song. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-vocal recording of October 1930 entered it into the jazz tradition.
But it was Coleman Hawkins’s Oct. 11, 1939, saxophone rendition that made it a must-play for jazz artists and placed the piece firmly in the history books. During his 10 years (1924-34) with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, Hawkins had helped establish the tenor saxophone as an esteemed instrument for jazz expression. Then he spent five years performing in Europe, honing his style. By the time of this recording, he had defined a personal sound with a sensual, rich tone, full-bodied vibrato, and emotional conviction.
With no rehearsal and just one take, Hawkins captured musical lightning. “His eyes were closed,” his pianist Gene Rodgers recalled, “and he just played as if he was in heaven.”
After the first two bars, Hawkins never renders the melody as written, departing into paraphrase and then pure invention. Through two slow choruses, he takes us on a dramatic, thrilling journey through musical valleys, plains and a mountain, methodically building—with more intense tone, louder volume, and higher notes—to the peak. He compared the storyline to a love-making session. Full of ideas, his virtuosic extemporization ranks as one of the most renowned jazz solos ever, along with Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”
This disc was an extreme outlier: Very rarely did a successful jazz recording—unless of a pianist—feature only one musician throughout, or omit a song’s melody. It’s as if, after a few words, an actor performing a Shakespeare soliloquy swerved to improvise an alternate rendering so sublime that countless others memorized it. And as if that very version became an enduring hit with the public.
Hawkins’s magnificent recording challenged musicians to more purposefully mine their own creativity and inspired them to think in unfamiliar ways. His approach on “Body and Soul”—making fresh melodies from the chords of an old piece—opened up prospects leading toward a new modernism and paradigm in jazz, which came to be called bebop.
Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” instantly established him as a star soloist. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins said the record was “ubiquitous in Harlem.” Hawkins was as surprised as others by the success of the record, remarking “It’s the first and only record I ever heard of that all the squares dig as well as the jazz people. I don’t understand how and why.” Credit goes to the public for so warmly embracing such a maverick performance. I suspect most listeners sensed the story arc and its carnal climax.
The disc’s popularity led to reported sales of one million copies and kept it on jukeboxes into the 1950s. It’s been honored in the Grammy Hall of Fame, the National Recording Registry, and “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology.”
Legions of musicians and fans memorized Hawkins’s inspired solo. Singer Eddie Jefferson set new words to it—a “vocalese” version—which both he and the Manhattan Transfer recorded.
The song popularized the phrase “body and soul,” which has been used as the title of a dozen movies, several hundred CDs, and more than 60 books, including Frank Conroy’s hauntingly musical 1993 novel. But it’s Coleman Hawkins’s triumphant transformation of the song that, above all, will keep it alive for another 80 years. And another. And another.
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).