The first day of fall is (officially) right around the corner, but already one can sense its presence. Light falls to dusk a little earlier as temperatures cool while once bold, verdant trees stand blushing. Some love the turning of the seasons and welcome the
arrival of autumn; others mourn the passing of long, carefree days and warm summer weather. That bittersweet passage of time has inspired countless works of art through the eons, including what is certainly one of the most emblematic standards in jazz and the American songbook, “Autumn Leaves.”
Before it entered the canon of American popular song, the tune was originally a French invention. First titled “Les Fueilles Mortes” (“The Dead Leaves”) and published in 1945, lyrics by French poet Jacques Prévert were set to music by Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma, directly quoting Kosma’s earlier ballet score for Le Rendez-vous (also based on Prévert’s work) and borrowing heavily from another French work, “Poème d’octobre No. 4” by Jules Massenet. Used in the 1946 film Les Portes de la Nuit (The Gates of the Night), a 1949 recording by the film’s star Yves Montand was an immediate hit.
Even so, through the 1940s the Tin Pan Alley-style ballad had steadily lost its appeal. With declining demand for his prodigious talents, lyricist Johnny Mercer had turned to penning words for existing instrumentals, publishing an original, English lyric in 1949 under a new title, “Autumn Leaves.” This makes it a fairly late addition to the body of American popular songs known as The Great American Songbook.
The song was quickly adopted by many jazz artists in the ensuing decade, appearing on several high-profile releases throughout the 1950s from the likes of Artie Shaw (1950), Stan Getz (The Getz Age 1952), Ahmad Jamal (The Ahmad Jamal Trio, 1955), Erroll Garner (Concert by the Sea, 1955), Cannonball Adderley (Somethin’ Else, 1958), and Bill Evans (Portrait in Jazz, 1959). That handful of recordings are just the tip of the iceberg – there are over 1,000 unique recordings of “Autumn Leaves” in existence!
“Autumn Leaves” remains a popular choice for jazz musicians – and especially young musicians and students – because it utilizes the ubiquitous ii – V – I (“two-five-one”) harmonic progression almost exclusively, and is a model of one of the most-used song forms in jazz, following an AABA structure. It remains a favorite among listeners as well, as its familiarity at once provides comfort and allows for following even the most adventurous improvisors on their daring escapades. This wistful classic is a perfect accompaniment to the season, and one you’re sure to hear on Jazz 93.5.