In 1974, around the time I met my wife Brenda, I felt the need to expand my musical knowledge. As a result, I began my piano studies with Boston-based jazz teacher extraordinaire Charlie Banacos. The focus of the lessons was on improvisation. Interestingly enough, it was Banacos’ selection of Autumn Leaves as the first vehicle he used to introduce his concepts to his students that changed my impression of the song for good. Because of his thorough knowledge of jazz, Charlie knew that Autumn Leaves had been a jazz standard since 1957.
The first time I remember hearing Autumn Leaves was when I saw pianist Roger Williams playing his version of this song on TV. His interpretation created the impression of leaves falling. He accomplished this effect by playing chord patterns that started at the top of the keyboard and skipped down to the bottom in a way that helped listeners easily picture nature’s annual autumn activity.
Williams’ 1955 million-seller recording finally established the popularity of Autumn Leaves nearly ten years after Joseph Kosma (1905-1969) composed this piece. Born in Hungary, Kosma studied with Bela Bartok (a name familiar to many of our Ed Mascari Piano Studios students) at the Liszt Academy where he had earned diplomas in composition and conducting. As a result of winning a grant, he continued his musical studies in Berlin, met his musician wife Lilli Apel and then immigrated to Paris in 1933. It was there that he met the French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert (1900-1977). Although Prevert helped Kosma to establish his career as a French film composer, these two colleagues only actually collaborated on the creation of the French song Les feuilles mortes (literally “The Dead Leaves”) in 1945.
Nearly 10 years after Joseph Kosma composed what had become a popular American standard, recordings by Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie introduced Autumn Leaves to jazz fans. About a year later in 1958, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley‘s album Somethin’ Else, featuring trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Ahmad Jamal, included the jazz version of Autumn Leaves that has inspired generations of jazz musicians. The following year, pianist Bill Evans released another definitive recording of the tune with his now famous trio (Scott LaFaro-bass and Paul Motian-drums).
The French version of this song, Les feuilles mortes, was introduced by singer Yves Montand in 1946 for the film Les Portes de la Nuit. However, it was the English title and lyrics created by American songwriter and singer Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) in 1947 that brought Autumn Leaves to popularity in the USA.
Although French singer Edith Piaf gave the debut radio performance of the song in both languages in 1950, it was Nat King Cole’s version sung over the title sequence for the 1956 movie Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford that established Autumn Leaves as the popular vocal standard that it has become.
Among my favorite recordings of Autumn Leaves are ones by jazz organists Jimmy Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Joey DeFrancesco and Brother Jack McDuff, solo pianists Stanley Cowell, Clare Fischer, Kenny Werner Jr. and Oscar Peterson as well as the piano duo of Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Jazz piano trio (piano, bass & drums) cuts also abound, including those of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly and of course Bill Evans. These always energize me as well. Whether performed as a ballad by vocalist Frank Sinatra, a Latin arrangement by percussionist Tito Puente, a humorous rendition by Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea or a classically oriented solo piano version (including quotes from Chopin and CPE Bach) by Vince Guaraldi of Peanuts fame, Autumn Leaves works!
How about you? Please take a moment to leave the names and recordings your favorite versions of Autumn Leaves in the Comments box below. I’m sure that your fellow readers would be delighted to check them out and provide you with some of their treasured tracks as well.
Before I conclude, I thought that you would like to know another very important reason why Autumn Leaves is such a popular vehicle for jazz musicians. Understanding this concept and learning to apply it can make a huge difference in your piano playing.
Autumn Leaves uses a type of harmonic language that features sequences of ii – V – I, as well as ii – V chord progressions (for example: C minor 7th – F7 – Bb Major 7th). This musical content not only offers great opportunities for improvisation but also provides pianists with many choices of ways to play these chords. As a result, it also makes it much easier to piano students to remember the chord patterns because every accompaniment style has its own idiomatic formula.
Watch for next Tuesday’s (3-3-09) blog post, in which I’ll talk about ii -V – I chord progressions in much more detail. Also be sure to visit the soon-to-be added Ed Mascari Piano Studios website ii -V – I Music Theory page which will give you an even more in-depth lesson on this valuable resource for your piano playing.
As always, the instructors at the Ed Mascari Piano Studios will be delighted to help you apply this and other musical techniques to your own goal of learning to play the music you love!