Celebrate fall with the magical sounds of 'Autumn Leaves'

It’s autumn. I love watching the glorious display of colors that deck the hills that surround my home in the Hudson Valley of New York. While not everyone lives in regions where autumn is marked by an explosion of vivid new colors on the leaves of trees around us, the colorful season has been the subject of musicians for years. For today’s Black Music Sunday, let’s take a listen to a palette of fall colors painted with sound. For those who have fall chores like raking and leaf blowing to do, here’s some great music about those autumn leaves to keep you company. For those who don’t, well, just listen and enjoy. It seems appropriate to open with the song “Autumn Leaves.” When I started listening to the wealth of different versions of it, I wound up deciding to try an experiment: My first Black Music Sunday with variations of just one song. (I’ll have other fall songs in the comments section.) My first choice is the late, great Nat King Cole, seen here performing live in an October 1957 episode of The Nat King Cole Show. The King introduces his performance as a tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the English lyrics. YouTube Video I mention Mercer’s English lyrics because the song was originally a hit in France, taken from the poem Les Feuilles Mortes (Dead Leaves), by Jacques Prevert. Roger Crane details that history for The International Review of Music. Prevert’s poem was set to music by composer Joseph Kosma and introduced in a 1946 French film titled Les Portes de la Nuit by actor Yves Montand, who briefly sings (and hums) it in a nightclub scene. Thereafter, the beautiful and haunting song became popular in France. Four years later a batch of records were sent from Paris to Johnny Mercer’s Capitol Records to see if the staff thought any of the songs or recordings were worthy of release to the US audience. Fortunately the Capitol folks realized that this song was exceptional. Mercer was given the record and a copy of the French lyrics and reportedly, while on a short train trip, wrote the poetic English lyric. Although retaining the original concept, his lyric is not a translation from the French but a new story of its own. Kosma’s melody has 68 notes and Mercer used just 58 words to match the melody [...] In 1956 Hollywood released a movie titled Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford and the theme is used throughout the film. This movie also has Nat Cole singing the song over the film’s credits. (By the way, the movie’s title was changed to Autumn Leaves due to the popularity of the song. It’s original title was The Way We Are.) For horn aficionados, it doesn’t get much better than alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s 1958 rendition. With Miles Davis on trumpet, Sam Jones on double bass, and Art Blakey on drums, it’s both lyrical and mellow. YouTube Video Shifting to a vocal version, for sheer scat jazz virtuosity, no one can beat Betty Carter, also known as “Betty Bebop.” Carter didn’t sing “Autumn Leaves” with lyrics; instead, she used her voice as an instrument. In her New York Times obituary, written after her death in September 1998 at the age of 69, Peter Watrous wrote: Her improvisations were explosive, tumbling out in great leaps at a velocity that expressed unfettered artistic freedom. But it was artifice. Ms. Carter was one of jazz's most articulate small-group arrangers, and few musicians have ever controlled tempo the way she had; woe to the young musicians in the band who could not navigate the shockingly abrupt tempo changes or keep up with Ms. Carter's fastest or slowest tempos. Her snapping fingers, marking off the time, sent generations of musicians back to the practice room, chagrined. In her hands a standard or her own compositions often contrasted some of jazz's slowest tempos with some of its fastest. She wasn't afraid to pare down the instrumentation of a group for a while, singing against piano or bass, orchestrating the arrival of other instruments. And the constant tempo-changing gave the impression of emotional extremity and careful control of the artistic environment. She sculptured sound, and it made her concerts some of the most moving experiences in jazz, a mixture of the emotional power of the songs' texts and the sheer joy of her imagination. Listen to this performance at the Munich Philharmonie in 1992 with Cyrus A. Chestnut on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums, and you will see what Watrous meant. YouTube Video Still with us at age 91 is the great jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. According to his website biography, he was a musical prodigy and started playing piano at age three. By age 10 Jamal was composing, orchestrating and performing works by Franz Liszt, exploring the music of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Erroll Garner and a host of music notables. Jamal immersed himself fully in learning the American Song Book. He was proficient at amassing a huge repertoire and caught the atten

Celebrate fall with the magical sounds of 'Autumn Leaves'

It’s autumn. I love watching the glorious display of colors that deck the hills that surround my home in the Hudson Valley of New York. While not everyone lives in regions where autumn is marked by an explosion of vivid new colors on the leaves of trees around us, the colorful season has been the subject of musicians for years. For today’s Black Music Sunday, let’s take a listen to a palette of fall colors painted with sound.

For those who have fall chores like raking and leaf blowing to do, here’s some great music about those autumn leaves to keep you company. For those who don’t, well, just listen and enjoy.

It seems appropriate to open with the song “Autumn Leaves.” When I started listening to the wealth of different versions of it, I wound up deciding to try an experiment: My first Black Music Sunday with variations of just one song. (I’ll have other fall songs in the comments section.)

My first choice is the late, great Nat King Cole, seen here performing live in an October 1957 episode of The Nat King Cole Show. The King introduces his performance as a tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the English lyrics.

I mention Mercer’s English lyrics because the song was originally a hit in France, taken from the poem Les Feuilles Mortes (Dead Leaves), by Jacques Prevert. Roger Crane details that history for The International Review of Music.

Prevert’s poem was set to music by composer Joseph Kosma and introduced in a 1946 French film titled Les Portes de la Nuit by actor Yves Montand, who briefly sings (and hums) it in a nightclub scene. Thereafter, the beautiful and haunting song became popular in France.

Four years later a batch of records were sent from Paris to Johnny Mercer’s Capitol Records to see if the staff thought any of the songs or recordings were worthy of release to the US audience. Fortunately the Capitol folks realized that this song was exceptional. Mercer was given the record and a copy of the French lyrics and reportedly, while on a short train trip, wrote the poetic English lyric. Although retaining the original concept, his lyric is not a translation from the French but a new story of its own. Kosma’s melody has 68 notes and Mercer used just 58 words to match the melody [...]

In 1956 Hollywood released a movie titled Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford and the theme is used throughout the film. This movie also has Nat Cole singing the song over the film’s credits. (By the way, the movie’s title was changed to Autumn Leaves due to the popularity of the song. It’s original title was The Way We Are.)

For horn aficionados, it doesn’t get much better than alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s 1958 rendition. With Miles Davis on trumpet, Sam Jones on double bass, and Art Blakey on drums, it’s both lyrical and mellow.

Shifting to a vocal version, for sheer scat jazz virtuosity, no one can beat Betty Carter, also known as “Betty Bebop.” Carter didn’t sing “Autumn Leaves” with lyrics; instead, she used her voice as an instrument. In her New York Times obituary, written after her death in September 1998 at the age of 69, Peter Watrous wrote:

Her improvisations were explosive, tumbling out in great leaps at a velocity that expressed unfettered artistic freedom.

But it was artifice. Ms. Carter was one of jazz's most articulate small-group arrangers, and few musicians have ever controlled tempo the way she had; woe to the young musicians in the band who could not navigate the shockingly abrupt tempo changes or keep up with Ms. Carter's fastest or slowest tempos. Her snapping fingers, marking off the time, sent generations of musicians back to the practice room, chagrined.

In her hands a standard or her own compositions often contrasted some of jazz's slowest tempos with some of its fastest. She wasn't afraid to pare down the instrumentation of a group for a while, singing against piano or bass, orchestrating the arrival of other instruments. And the constant tempo-changing gave the impression of emotional extremity and careful control of the artistic environment. She sculptured sound, and it made her concerts some of the most moving experiences in jazz, a mixture of the emotional power of the songs' texts and the sheer joy of her imagination.

Listen to this performance at the Munich Philharmonie in 1992 with Cyrus A. Chestnut on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums, and you will see what Watrous meant.

Still with us at age 91 is the great jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. According to his website biography, he was a musical prodigy and started playing piano at age three.

By age 10 Jamal was composing, orchestrating and performing works by Franz Liszt, exploring the music of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Erroll Garner and a host of music notables. Jamal immersed himself fully in learning the American Song Book. He was proficient at amassing a huge repertoire and caught the attention of his senior Pittsburgh masters. Quickly hired on, he joined the AFof M (American Federation of Musicians) at 14, when the minimum age requirement was 16.

...

He formed his own group in 1951 and with the help of John Hammond started his recording career with Okeh Records. That career has continued for over six decades and has resulted in one of the most successful recordings in the history of Instrumental music, "The Ahmad Jamal Trio, at The Pershing".

In this concert at the Palais des Congrès in 2017, with James Cammack on bass, Herlin Riley on drums, and Manolo Badrena on percussion, “Autumn Leaves” takes on a decidedly Latin rhythm. It had me up out of my chair and doing a rumba.

I’ll close today with an homage to autumn leaves that is in no way related to those above, beyond the song’s title. It’s performed by Damian Marley, son of reggae legend Bob Marley.

Damian Robert Nesta Marley, also known around the world as “Junior Gong” and more recently as “Gongzilla” was born in 1978 to parents Bob Marley and Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976. As a young adult, he developed a passion and a gift to speak for those who cannot always speak for themselves. A self-proclaimed ‘Spiritual Revolutionary’, Damian has worked assiduously to carve his own niche in music history and to add a new perspective to the Marley legacy for the 21st century.  

Marley’s  2018 “Autumn Leaves” video, from his 2017 Grammy Award-winning Stony Hill album, is a stunningly photographed mini-movie directed by Mark Pellington.

Oh Autumn seems to never end Leaves are always brown Summer seems to never tend To ever come around Spring times are for beginnings When true love is found Winters are for finishings True love stands its grounds Now I hear no happy songs Birds have all gone south Bright green pastures drying up And plenty turn to drought
Life is full of ups and downs The carousels of love Good times, bad times, smiles, and frowns Don't give up on me Don't give up on me
Time flies by while having fun It's all gone in a wink And now the days feel more like months Don't know what to think
Life is full of ups and downs The carousels of love Good times, bad times, smiles, and frowns Don't give up on me Don't give up on me

By now it should be clear that I’m in no rush to see autumn end, since the bitter cold of winter follows. Join me in the comments for more autumnal tunes, and be sure to share your own fall favorites.