Coleman Hawkins on "Body and Soul"

As I began practicing along with the recording of Coleman Hawkin's canonical "Body and Soul" improvisation from 1939, I soon realized that my recording was about a quarter tone sharper than the original. Luckily, I was able to find a version on YouTube with the correct pitch, but it was a bit jarring to realize that I had been listening to a version with distorted pitch for the past couple of years.

This solo, like Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" solo, is one of those standard watershed moments included in most jazz history books. The standard narrative is that this is a iconic example of the "vertical approach" to improvisation, which derives a solo fundamentally from the bar-to-bar harmonic progression and consequent outlining and acknowledgment of these harmonies. Usually, the vertical approach is contrasted with a so-called horizontal approach typified by Lester Young, which privileges the melodic direction of a line over the harmonic form of the tune itself. In practical terms, this usually means that key centers over the course of harmonic phrases are generalized, e.g., the first four bars of rhythm changes in Bb can be conceptualized as simply Bb over those bars, rather striving to hit every single chord change that passes over that time.

After transcribing this solo, I'm not sure if this generic narrative of "vertical" v. "horizontal" is necessarily as narrowly applicable or as helpful as I originally thought. Although there's a substantial amount of arpeggiation in this solo, which constitutes the vertical outlining of harmonies, there's also a fair amount of linear playing that, to me, makes sophisticated use of internal voice-leading to create lines that aren't reductive of the harmony, but create a flowing horizontal line that also manages to acknowledge passing harmonies (mm. 18-21, 26-28, mm. 54-56 come to mind). 

In fact, to my ears as a relatively educated jazz listener ca. 2013, the most memorable parts of this solo aren't the arpeggiations that span multiple octaves, which were probably considered technically virtuosic and exceptional among improvisers of the pre-Bird era but far less impressive in and of itself today; the most memorable element of this solo is the ingenious melodic voice-leading that lets Hawkins get away with so much blatant tracings of the harmony. Johnny Green, a Harvard graduate and stockbroker turned composer and arranger, wrote fine harmonies (this tune and his co-authored "Out of Nowhere" are probably his most famous), but if Hawkins hadn't created such beautifully logical phrases (mm. 11-12, 29-30, 35-36, and esp. the turnaround at 40-41) to embellish these otherwise conventional harmonies, it's doubtful if this tune would have established the legacy it did. 

Also, considering the fact that the comping of Gene Rodgers, the pianist on this recording, is almost exclusively limited to quarter note chords on every beat, Hawkins's achievement of sustaining both harmonic and melodic interest is all the more impressive. One last brief side-note: some of the double voice-leading going on here (two voices resolving to separate notes in a single line) makes me think of some of my favorite Coltrane lines; I wonder if there'd be more to investigate there with regards to theories of influence. I'm hoping to transcribe "Rainbow Mist," a later, unfortunately-titled Coleman Hawkins improvisation on "Body and Soul," to compare. For now, here's the solo:

Coleman Hawkins "Body and Soul" Solo Transcription - 1

Coleman Hawkins "Body and Soul" Solo Transcription - 2


  1. Check out my transcription of Body and Shoul and also Rainbow Mist, that I did a while ago, at
    I have also done a deep musical analysis of his playing on Rainbow Mist, if you are interested!

    Enjoy and let me know what you think!

  2. These transcriptions are great! Thanks for sharing, Martin.


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