‘Body and Soul’

Getting jazzed about film festival’s opening theme of Jewish, African American ‘bridges’

The opening night of the Rockland Jewish Film Festival is April 3. But the first screening is much sooner — on March 14.

That’s when “Body and Soul: An American Bridge,” an hour-long documentary, screens at the Rockland Community College theater. Why so soon? Because the theater will be used for the school play soon after.

Rockland Community College wanted to co-sponsor “Body and Soul” because the bridge in the film’s title is about the bond between American Jews and African Americans.

The film uses the history of the song “Body and Soul” to examine the relationships between the two groups that shaped jazz in the first half of the 20th century.

“Body and Soul” was written in 1930. Johnny Green wrote the music. Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton wrote the words. It became a hit when performed by African Americans, most strikingly Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Ricky Riccardi, the director of the research collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, will introduce the film.

“The first part of the film is the story of Johnny Green, the composer, of Jewish origin,” Mr. Riccardi said. “The film deals with the intersection between African Americans and Jews in this period. Armstrong is sort of the main jazz figure.”

Ricky Riccardi

Armstrong’s association with Jews dated back to his childhood in New Orleans, when he was close with a Jewish family. “They gave him work,” Mr. Riccardi said. “He delivered coal and worked on their junk wagon.

“They saw his affinity for music. They would encourage him to sing. They bought him his first cornet.

“Because of their affinity for him and their encouragement, Armstrong wore a star of David for the rest of his life. His later Jewish manager, Joe Glaser, talked about how he always kept a box of matzah in the house.

“You can hear some of this in his music. Armstrong is attracted to minor-key songs. He almost sounds like a cantor, really wailing in those minor keys.”

The film’s two other main characters are Benny Goodman and Coleman Hawkins.

“Goodman was another Jewish jazz musician,” Mr. Riccardi said. “He helped break down the color barrier by performing with two black jazz musicians in 1936. Hawkins was one of the first geniuses of the tenor saxophone. His own personal improvisation of ‘Body and Soul’ in 1939 became a hit record.”

So how important was the song to Louis Armstrong?

Louis Armstrong

“It came during this very fertile period in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, where Okeh Records was starting the transition from using Armstrong as a ‘race artist,’ playing jazz and blues, and turning him loose toward a pop audience. They started giving Armstrong all the big popular love songs of the day. Armstrong proved to be a natural-born genius. The way he transformed these songs put jazz music on the map. He takes these popular songs and makes personal interpretations. He can change the rhythm. He can improvise. The way he approached love songs is the way jazz musicians still approach love songs to this day.

“‘Body and Soul’ came out in fall 1930. Armstrong puts it on the map. His is the first really definitive jazz treatment. His vocal is passionate. He’s swinging the entire time. It’s completely different from any other version of ‘Body and Soul’ from the year it was composed. He let musicians like Bennie Goodman and Coleman Hawkins sit up and pay attention to the song.”

Mr. Riccardi, 37, never saw Mr. Armstrong, who died in 1971, perform.

“When I was 15, I saw the movie ‘“The Glen Miller Story,’” he said. “I said, this man is great. I started listening to Louis Armstrong and started reading about him. A lot of the biographies of the ‘70s had a narrative that Armstrong was a genius as a young man but then he sold out and became popular. I never bought that. I devoted myself to rehabilitating Armstrong’s image.”

Mr. Riccardi made the case in his 2011 book, “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.”

“Now I’m writing a book on his middle years that will cover ‘Body and Soul’ and all the other pop songs,” he said.

The Louis Armstrong House is open six days a week.

“The neat thing about it is everything is one hundred percent original. Armstrong moved there in March, 1943. He fell so in love with the house and neighborhood that he refused to move. It’s kind of an Archie Bunker house. He had a very humble side. He just considered himself a regular guy and wanted to be surrounded by regular guys.”

Mr. Armstrong lived in the house, in Queens, until he died. When his wife died in 1983, Queens College took it over. “The first thing they did was pack up all his personal possessions, scrapbooks, sheet music, records, and reel-to-reel tapes,” Mr. Riccardi said. The archives he runs at Queens College opened in 1994. In 2003 the Armstrong House, at 34-56 107th St. in the Queens neighborhood of Corona, opened; it has exhibits, a gift shop, and restoration.

“It looks like the late 1960s,” Mr. Riccardi said. “People feel they’re walking into a time machine.”


Save the date

What: Rockland Jewish Film Festival screens “Body and Soul: An American Bridge”

Where: Rockland Community College, Cultural Arts Theater, 145 College Road, Suffern

When: Wednesday, March 14, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $14; $12 for seniors and students

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