Saturday, November 29, 2014

Body and Soul, Sonny Rollins and Pepper Adams

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

We know that the 1939 Coleman Hawkins recording of Body and Soul is an iconic masterpiece of the jazz canon but don't we lose sight of how it influenced a generation of musicians? I recently read a piece by Marc Myers and was struck by how Sonny Rollins' experience as a young musician paralleled Pepper Adams'. Here's what Sonny Rollins recently told Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal about Coleman Hawkins' recording:

"It's hard today to fully appreciate how different Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul sounded when it hit Harlem jukeboxes in late 1939. On that three-minute record, Coleman took a popular torch song and, with his tenor saxophone, turned it into a personal statement without ever losing track of the original melody. Wow, that was completely new and it really changed me.

I first heard Body and Soul when I was 10 years old. I was standing outside the Big Apple Bar on the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue, across from Small's Paradise, and heard it on the jukebox through an open window. Back then, I was playing alto saxophone and idolized Louis Jordan — and still do. But when I heard Coleman's Body and Soul, a light went off in my head. If he could personalize a popular song like that without lyrics, any song was possible if you had that intellectual capacity.

People in Harlem know their music, and I remember marveling at how many of them were touched by his record. Coleman went beyond what musicians were doing then by creating new harmonic inventions. Right after hearing the record, I bought a tenor reed and began using it on my alto mouthpiece to get that big Coleman Hawkins sound. Some years later, after much pleading on my part, my mother bought me a tenor sax and I was on my way."

For Pepper Adams, Hawkins' recording also propelled him to get a tenor saxophone and emulate Hawkins' big sound and more aggressive style. Up until that time Adams was playing clarinet, imitating the melismatic and lighter New Orleans playing of Jimmy Noone and Johnny Dodds. Here's a touching excerpt from my book, Pepper's Adams' Joy Road, as told to me by the noted Eastman School educator Everett Gates. I interviewed Gates about Pepper and Pepper's March, 1978 performance at Eastman:

"Adams dedicated Body and Soul to Everett Gates, a professor at Eastman and an early mentor to Adams who was in the audience. Regarding Adams’ performance of Body and Soul, Gates said, “That completely floored me!” In 1942, when Pepper Adams was eleven years old, Adams started visiting Gates on a regular basis at Gates’ home in Rochester, New York. They used to listen to music and discuss jazz and music theory. “He came to the house,” Gates continued, “and one day he said,

“Do you know Body and Soul?” I said, “Sure.” “Well,” he said, “could you write it out for me?” I said, “Sure.” At that time he was going to get a saxophone. So I wrote it out in D-flat, which of course was the key we always used, rather than any other when we’re playing. When we were improvising, it was always D-flat. And, so I wrote it out with the chords. He said, “There’s a record by Coleman Hawkins.” I said, “Yes, he made that a couple of years ago.” He said, “Well, he’s all over the place.” I said, “Yes, it’s very complicated and he gets up even to the high harmonics on the saxophone, like high G, so you have to be pretty advanced to control those.” So he said, “I wonder: Could you write me out a little improvisation that’s simple? Something simple I can play?” I said, “Sure. You can play this either on tenor, or you can play it on a clarinet.” So he got so he could play that, [and] this is what [he began his solo with] when he played at the Eastman Theater with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble. (He played this just with a rhythm section, and the other things he had played with a big band.) And, unbelievably, he played that, and then, of course, he went into his own [thing]. Well, of course, I was just overcome with what he had done there!"

Portrait of Everett Gates that hangs in a gallery at the Eastman School:

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