Ken Wiley, the host of Seattle's excellent weekly jazz history program on KPLU Public Radio ("The Art of Jazz," Sundays from 3 - 6 p.m.), calls this exercise "chasing a song."
"Body and Soul" was an immediate hit from its first appearance over America's radio airwaves in 1930. The melody by Johnny Green, spooky and ominous with its prominent minor chords, and the lyrics by a committee (Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton) are an over-the-top lament of a crushed heart, dousing listeners in a bath of bathos. Then as now, America loved a sentimental tear-jerker.
When played well the song is affecting, however, mainly because of its inventive and unusual melody. Its popularity insured that it would be covered by top vocalists and jazz artists, and it was recognized as a standard by 1950. The many versions of this classic give us an opportunity to "chase" it at length, and to compare and contrast the styles and approaches of many famous singers and instrumentalists.
One of the earliest recorded versions (1930), by the gorgeous and talented Ruth Etting, gives us the full vocal treatment of the piece, and includes the only appearance of the song's lyrical introduction I've ever heard.
The month after Etting's record, Okeh released Louis Armstrong's orchestrated rendition, which combines vocal and instrumental virtuosity in one of Satch's greatest sides. Of particular note is Armstrong's beautiful muted trumpet improvisation over the melody, laid down by the sax section, with which the song opens.
Django Reinhardt's version, recorded in France in the mid-30's, is strictly instrumental, and features the legendary guitarist playing what is undoubtedly one of his greatest solos ever, accompanied by his long-time partner, the great Stephan Grappelly. This song is one of the reasons Reinhardt's reputation continues to grow year by year, right down to the present.
One of the most famous recordings of the song was made by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins for the Bluebird label in 1939. Fronting an orchestra as Armstrong did, Hawkins uses the same approach as Reinhardt's, dispensing with the lyrics and improvising freely on the melody, but always with close attention to the song's chord structure. Hawkins's version was a big hit, unusual for a modernistic improvised jazz solo, and has remained immensely popular with jazz musicians over the decades. It was enshrined by its inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2004.
There are numerous other well-regarded versions of "Body and Soul" as well, most notably one by Ella Fitzgerald recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, but I'll leave it to the reader to track them down and continue chasing this tune, as each is so inclined.
Photo: Ruth Etting, 1929