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Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes) (1947)

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Origin and Chart Information
Yves Montand introduced the song ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ in the 1946 film Les Portes De La Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris.”

- JW

AKALes Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves)
Rank 11
Music Joseph Kosma
Lyrics Johnny Mercer
Jacques Prevert

Composer Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert created one of the songs for Les Portes De La Nuit by setting a Prevert poem to music, “Les Feuilles Mortes.” In 1949 Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the tune changing the original French title to “Autumn Leaves.” Not surprisingly, Jo Stafford was the first to record “Autumn Leaves.” From 1943 until 1950 she was under contract with Capitol Records, a company founded and co-owned by Mercer. Following Stafford’s recording were a number of covers including renditions by Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf, Artie Shaw, and Jo Stafford’s husband, Paul Weston.


More on Joseph Kosma at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jacques Prevert at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jo Stafford at JazzBiographies.com

The Italian born, French singing idol Yves Montand introduced the song “Les Feuilles Mortes” in the 1946 film Les Portes De La Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris. Scriptwriter and poet Jacques Prevert and director Marcel Carne (1909-1996) had been responsible for a string of films spawning the French “poetic realism,” a genre upon which the American film noir movement was based. Although Les Portes De La Nuit was a commercial failure it fared much better when released in the United States several years later under the title Gates of the Night.


More on Yves Montand at JazzBiographies.com

Initially the public showed little interest in “Autumn Leaves.” In 1955 that changed, however, as pianist Roger Williams (1925-) (renowned for the instrumental hits “Near You” (1958), and “Born Free” (1966)) recorded a million-seller, number-one hit rendition of the song that stayed on the charts for 6 months. Williams’ success opened the door for a second spate of covers by Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, the Ray Charles Singers, Jackie Gleason, and Victor Young. These would be followed by hundreds of renditions in subsequent decades.

As the 1940’s waned so too did the public’s appetite for the Tin Pan Alley style ballad. With decreasing demand for his sophisticated talents, lyricist Johnny Mercer found himself penning words for instrumentals. In the case of “Les Feuilles Mortes,” Mercer would not have thought twice about renaming what was literally “The Dead Leaves” to “Autumn Leaves.” “The Dead Leaves” may have been an appropriate song title for the somber Les Portes De La Nuit, but it would not do for an American popular song.


More on Johnny Mercer at JazzBiographies.com

In 1956 Columbia Pictures produced a film entitled Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson. It is a generally well-reviewed tale of a spinster marrying a young man who has mental problems as a result of his ex-wife’s (Vera Miles) affair with his father (Lorne Green). Nat King Cole sang his hit version of “Autumn Leaves” during the credits.

More information on this tune...

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(Furia’s biography of the lyricist devotes two pages to analysis of the song’s lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)”

Original Key G major/E Minor
Form A-A-B-C
Tonality Initially major; goes back and forth between major and minor tonalities before finally resolving to E minor at the end.
Movement Balanced mixture of step-wise and skips. “A” sections consists of a three-note ascending scale followed by a skip of a fourth. “B” and “C” contain more movement, with leaps of a fifth and octave, giving the melodic contour a “soaring” impression (the descent and blowing of leaves in the storm?)

Comments     (assumed background)

Among the best known “standards,” this is one of the first tunes novice jazz players learn. Chord progression makes use of the circle of fifths, but in a way quite different than most tunes. The initial progression is ii7- V7- I, followed by a IV chord (similar to “All the Things You Are”), but then it uses a viiø7 in order to modulate to the relative minor (the viiø7 begins a iiø7-V7 in E minor). In general, however, the voice leading is quite orthodox and poses few surprises to the ear. The only place that may pose difficulty comes six measures before the end, where the composer uses chords descending chromatically from the tonic minor key down to the VI chord. In the original key, this is Emin7 - Eb7 – Dm7 – Db7 – Cmaj7. This is really the same “circle of fifths,” disguised using tri-tone substitutions. In the foregoing example, Eb7 and Db7 are substituted for the functional voice-leading chords of A7 and G7 (which would work just as well, but sound far less interesting).
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Soundtrack information
“Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)” was included in these films:
  • Les Portes De La Nuit (1946, Yves Montand)
  • Autumn Leaves (1956, Nat King Cole)
  • Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959, Keely Smith)
  • Addicted to Love (1997, Stephane Grappelli)
  • Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1997, Paula Cole)
  • Sidewalks of New York (2001, Stan Getz)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)" may be found in:

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.)

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

This 1947 tune took almost ten years to catch on as a jazz number, and 1957 saw three excellent recordings. There were versions by Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

Ellington’s version, taken at a very slow tempo, features Ray Nance on violin. Nance’s violin playing represented almost the total opposite of his trumpet playing, and he’s at his soulful best on “Autumn Leaves,” where he plays an exquisite, emotional solo; he then fills along with vocalist Ozzie Bailey. The album, Ellington Indigos, offered a different, more sentimental side of the Ellington ensemble and has rarely been out-of-print since it was released.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy's Diamonds: The Best of the Verve Years
Polygram Records 513875

Coleman Hawkins et al.
The (Be)Witching Hour: Midnight Blue
Blue Note 54365

Duke Ellington
Original recording 1957
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes).” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

The 1958 Cannonball Adderley recording of “Autumn Leaves” (Somethin’ Else) has inspired generations of jazz players. The arrangement, commonly credited to Miles Davis (who is also featured on trumpet here) actually comes mostly from Ahmad Jamal. Nonetheless, this is a recording that really caught on. The following year, Bill Evans made his recorded debut with his groundbreaking trio alongside bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Their version of “Autumn Leaves” (Portrait in Jazz) is comparably influential to the Adderley version and offers an essential look at the interplay of these three musicians.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Ahmad Jamal
The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings
2005 Sony 93580
Original recording 1955
This Latin-flavored arrangement displays the tremendous influence Jamal’s drummer-less trio had on Miles Davis, who adopted the bass line verbatim for his famous recording with Cannonball Adderley.
Bill Evans
Portrait in Jazz
Original Jazz Classics/Riverside 1162
Original recording 1959
This version of “Autumn Leaves” turned many heads with the stunning interplay between Evans and the virtuosic bassist Scott LaFaro.
Sarah Vaughan
Crazy and Mixed Up
1991 Pablo 2312137
Original recording 1982
Vaughan swings her way through this small-group performance. Her scatting shows that even by 1982 she had lost none of her skill.
Bobby Timmons Trio
The Bobby Timmons Trio in Person: Recorded Live at the Village Vanguard
Original Recording 1961
In an important trio performance with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, Timmons brings out the hard-swinging, bluesy qualities with which the tune is sometimes interpreted.
Wynton Marsalis
Marsalis Standard Time ~ Vol.1
Original recording 1986
This version of “Autumn Leaves” is noteworthy for the rhythmic innovations of the arrangement, particularly in the drumming of Jeff “Tain” Watts.

- Noah Baerman

Erroll Garner
Concert by the Sea
Sony 40589
original recording 1955
This is a “desert island”’ CD. Every cut is a gem. “Autumn Leaves”’ is transformed with Garner’s off-kilter rhythms.
Karrin Allyson

Karrin introduces the song in French and then swings into English and a Django/Grappelli mode with guitar and violin.

- Sandra Burlingame

Cannonnball Adderley
Somethin' Else
1999, Blue Note 95329
Original recording, 1958
All the stops are pulled out in this 11-minute version with Miles Davis and drummer Art Blakey. This cut can also be found on Davis’ Blues and Ballads.
Patricia Barber
Night Club
Koch Records

Singer/pianist Barber mesmerizes with this version of “Autumn Leaves.” The song is refurbished with a torch singer’s touch.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Joseph Kosma, Johnny Mercer and Jacques Prevert

Year Rank Title
1947 11 Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)

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