Of all the cross-cultural encounters that have resulted in the richness of American popular music, none has been so prominent or so fraught with fraternity and conflict as the relationships between African-Americans and American Jews. On Sunday, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m., Arts Emanu-El will present “Body and Soul: An American Bridge.” This film aims to comprehend the elements of this cultural knot by focusing on the early performance history of the jazz standard “Body and Soul,” which was written in 1930 by Jewish composer Johnny Green.
The Great American Songbook is replete with songs written by Jewish composers and folded into the jazz canon by black musicians. The story of any one of these songs would illuminate the complex interplay between these two groups.
“Body and Soul” is particularly important because it is one of the most covered songs in the jazz canon. There have been more than 3,000 recordings since its composition. In 1939, Coleman Hawkins’ version made jazz history for its advances in improvisation. The early history of “Body and Soul” is notable not only for its spectrum of black-Jewish interrelations, but because the melodic structure of the song itself pushed jazz musicians to greater innovations.
Libby Holman introduced the song on Broadway, which furthered its fame in America. It had already been a hit in England. Holman, an acculturated Jew, benefited in her show business career from the same non-Anglo characteristics – dark skin, sultry charisma, throaty singing – that boosted the careers of other famous Jewish women entertainers, including Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice. These women borrowed singing styles and songs from African-American culture.
Due to her appearance and style of song delivery, people suspected Libby Holman might be African-American. She made “Body and Soul” an American torch song, about a good woman who loves a bad man, who doesn’t love her back.
Louis Armstrong introduced “Body and Soul” into the jazz canon, as he did with so many other pop tunes of the day. In this way, he crossed over to a white audience already familiar with the song from other sources. Armstrong was the premier jazz improviser of that time period (1930), not only in his trumpet playing but also in his singing. Because of his childhood contact with an immigrant Jewish family, Armstrong was a confirmed Judeophile. This character trait intensified through his association with his long-time manager, Joe Glazer.
Benny Goodman’s recording of “Body and Soul” with African-American pianist Teddy Wilson led to the breaking of the color barrier in jazz performance. Some people believed that Benny Goodman copied the big band style of the black orchestras and achieved enormous success because he was white. Others defend Goodman as a ground-breaking musician in his own right. Because of his success and mastery of the jazz idiom, he was able to perform with black musicians of his choice. Teddy Wilson not only matched Goodman in talent, but complemented him in the creation of intimate swing.
Following the film, there will be a performance of this jazz standard and other jazz compositions by Jewish musicians. Raphael Mayer, an accomplished jazz pianist, will be the guest musician.
This program is open to everyone whether or not you are a member of Temple Emanu-El.
Tickets are $18 in advance and $25 at the door. They may be purchased by going to the temple website: www.teprov.org. Refreshments will be served.
Upcoming events include:
Sunday, Dec. 16, 3 p.m. Leonard Bernstein Centennial Birthday Bash Concert. Kol Arev, Chamber Choir of Hebrew College, performs.
Sunday, Jan. 27, 3 p.m. Singing the Dream: Musical Commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Saturday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m. Film: "Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me."
Saturday, March 9, 7:30 p.m. Film: “After Auschwitz.” A “post Holocaust” documentary.
Saturday, April 13, 8:30 p.m. Film: “The Ancient Law.” A restored German silent film from 1923 Berlin.
Pamela Hanzel is the chair+man of Arts Emanu-El at Temple Emanu-El in Providence.