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September Song (1938)

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Origin and Chart Information
“The great alto saxophonist [Art Pepper] spends 11 minutes thoroughly exploring the song in the company of Tommy Flanagan, Red Mitchell, and Billy Higgins.”

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 76
Music Kurt Weill
Lyrics Maxwell Anderson

Actor Walter Huston introduced “September Song” in the Broadway musical, Knickerbocker Holiday, which opened October 19, 1938, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and ran for 168 Performances.

 

More on Walter Huston at JazzBiographies.com
 

Huston’s recording of “September Song” went onto the charts on January 28, 1938, peaking at number twelve.

All told, artists making the pop charts with “September Song” include:

  • Walter Huston (1938, #12)
  • Frank Sinatra (1946, #8)
  • Dardanelle Trio (1946, #11)
  • Stan Kenton and His Orchestra (1951, ensemble vocal, #17)
  • Liberace (1952, #27)

Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Willie Nelson also recorded popular versions.

 

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954
 

Walter Huston had accepted his part as Peter Stuyvestant in Knickerbocker Holiday on the condition that he be allowed to sing a romantic song in the musical. One evening, after listening to Huston sing, Maxwell Anderson dashed off the lyrics to “September Song” in about an hour, and Kurt Weill finished the music later that night.

A middle-aged Stuyvestant would sing “September Song” to the young Tina Tienhoven (Jeanne Madden) in an attempt to coax her into marriage. Although tailored to his limited vocal range, Huston was expected to have some difficulty delivering the song, but his raspy, half-spoken rendition was beautiful and touching. Indeed, his biggest hurdle was not the delivery but remembering the tune.

Weill’s conductor, Maurice Abravanel, excited by the prospect of doing something new, had just quit the Metropolitan Opera to work on Knickerbocker Holiday. According to Abravanel, “When Huston heard the music of ‘September Song,’ it didn’t stay in his head.” After failing to memorize the song numerous times, Anderson suggested that they drop Huston and just let the orchestra play it. But Huston was apologetic and determined, and by opening night he knew the song and it stopped the show.

There is a history to the naming of the musical for which “September Song” was written. Most people are familiar with today’s informal definition of “Knickerbocker,” which means a native or resident of New York. Not so long ago it meant a descendant of the Dutch settlers of New York. Its origin, however, dates back to 1809 with the publication of Washington Irving’s first book.

Best known for his short stories, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Irving used the penname Dietrich Knickerbocker for A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, as it later became known, was a satire on the early years of New York under the reigns of three Dutch governors: Walter van Twiller (Walter the Doubter), William Kieft (William the Testy), and Peter Stuyvestant (Peter the Headstrong).

Playwright Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of the book to Knickerbocker Holiday has Stuyvestant as the new governor. Tina Tienhoven is a young maiden pledged by her father to the older Stuyvestant, although, of course, she loves another, a younger man named Brom Broeck (played by Richard Kollmar).

 

More on Maxwell Anderson at JazzBiographies.com
 
 

More on Kurt Weill at JazzBiographies.com
 

United Artists’ 1944 film version of Knickerbocker Holiday starred Charles Coburn as Peter Stuyvestant, Constance Dowling as Tina Tienhoven, and Nelson Eddy as Brom Broeck. The biting satire of the Broadway musical was toned down so as to offend no one, and only three songs were retained from the original score. Audiences and critics alike agreed that it was a tedious disappointment.

More information on this tune...

David Ewen
All the Years of American Popular Music
Prentice Hall Trade
Hardcover: 850 pages


(Author Ewen touches on the songwriters and the history of “September Song” in his book.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The power of the lyrics derives more from their undercurrent than from their calmer surface. While the lyrics are both substantial and moving, they are more flatly rendered when compared to many other songs. Take, for example, the opening phrase from the verse of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”:

After one whole quart of brandy/Like a daisy I awake…

This phrase is immediately visceral in imagery; it navigates a choppy surface. The quart of brandy and the daisy are easily visualized. Alternatively, the opening phrase from the refrain of “September Song” goes like this:

…it’s a long, long while from May to December

It’s a further stretch to get a mental picture of the abstract images of months of the year.

Each of the two songs has forceful lyric power, yet it’s not so hard to see, after all, why Huston may have had trouble remembering the lyrics. While Huston sang both verse and refrain in the show, many jazz artists, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan included, sing only the refrain.

“September Song” is often characterized as a sentimental or poignant ballad, but it also has haunting and plaintive aspects. In Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, William Zinsser comments, “The C-minor chord that falls on ‘long, long while’ is as bleak as the days that dwindle down to a precious few for an old man in love with a young girl.” -JW

Musical analysis of “September Song”

Original Key C major
Form A1 – A1 – B – A2
Tonality Basically major, although the song slips into parallel minor in several places
Movement “A” consists primarily of ascending arpeggios and leaps. Section “B” consists of a descending second alternating with a descending minor third.

Comments     (assumed background)

The charm of this piece lies in its change of moods, at once soaring and hopeful, then introspective and almost brooding. This effect is created by shifts between major and minor under melodic intervals that vary from wide to small.

From a voice-leading standpoint there is little truly functional about the harmonic progression, but the I – i – II – iv bears some resemblance to “On Green Dolphin Street.” The latter uses an N6 chord in place of the iv, but the iv works as well. In this context, iv is used in place of V7I because the fourth and flatted sixth degrees of the scale (corresponding to the 7th and b9th of a V chord) have a strong tendency to move downward a half-step.

The “B” section is a bit different; the voice-leading chord, resolving to the initial I of the third “A,” seems to be the #IV˚7 chord which has three tones in common with the I (in reality, it is virtually identical to i˚7). Weill tricks the ear a bit by inserting an embellishing iv chord just before the I, but the voice-leading tendency remains.

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
“September Song” was included in these films:
  • September Affair (1951, Walter Huston)
  • Pepe (1960, Maurice Chevalier)
  • Radio Days (1987)
  • Texasville (1990, Willie Nelson)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "September Song" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: music analysis.)

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 American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary, lyric analysis, music analysis and performers.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages


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

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
Hardcover: 736 pages


(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

David Ewen
All the Years of American Popular Music
Prentice Hall Trade
Hardcover: 850 pages


(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history and song writer discussion.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Soundtracks
Reading & Research

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

Jazz History Notes

Artie Shaw’s 1945 big band, with an arrangement by trombonist Ray Coniff, ushers in the jazz versions of this tune with nice solos from Shaw and ex-Glenn Miller baritone saxophonist Chuck Gentry.

Oklahoma-born tenor saxophonist Don Byas recorded a first-class version with his quartet in August, 1946, which also features some fine piano playing by the obscure Sanford Gold. A few months later Sarah Vaughan would record her debut version of Weill’s tune as a ballad, ably backed by pianist Teddy Wilson and tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura.

In France, virtuoso guitarist Django Reinhardt would record the tune four times, the first in a stunning version from 1947 with the wonderful clarinetist Hubert Rostaing.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Artie Shaw
1942-1945
Classics 1242

Don Byas
Savoy Jam Party: The Savoy Sessions
Savoy Jazz 268

iTunes
Teddy Wilson
1946
Classics 997

Django Reinhardt
1947 Vol. 2
Classics 1046

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “September Song.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Sarah Vaughan’s 1954 recording of “September Song” (Sarah Vaughan W/ Clifford Brown) is still the stand-out among vocal performances of the tune, with a brilliant ensemble providing the perfect backdrop for her tender vocals. Don Byas’s great 1946 version (Savoy Jam Party: The Savoy Sessions), featuring a young Max Roach on drums, is creative yet faithful. Meanwhile, Art Pepper’s emotionally raw, Latin flavored exploration of the tune (Straight Life) is both a classic version of the tune and a wonderful example of his late-career renaissance.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Red Norvo
Modern Red Norvo
Savoy Jazz 17113
Original recording 1950
On this performance, vibraphonist Norvo is at one with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus, the members of his influential, forward-looking trio.
iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown
Sarah Vaughan W/ Clifford Brown
Polygram Records

This is a classic jazz recording and not to be missed for any of its songs. Vaughan is in the company of trumpeter Brown with Herbie Mann on flute, Paul Quinichette on tenor sax, Jimmy Jones on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass, Roy Haynes on drums, and Ernie Wilkins, arranger and conductor.
iTunes
Art Pepper
Straight Life
1990 Original Jazz Classics 475
Original recording 1979
This is one of the most beautiful, moving, and least sentimental versions of "September Song."' The great alto saxophonist spends 11 minutes thoroughly exploring the song in the company of Tommy Flanagan (p), Red Mitchell (b), and Billy Higgins (d).
Rosemary Clooney
Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz
2003 Jazz Alliance 12041
Original recording 1991
Clooney gets sentimental but not maudlin on this emotional duo performance with pianist Marian McPartland.
iTunes
Art Tatum
Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 5
1991 Pablo 428
Original recording 1955
Tatum’s all-star group takes “September Song” at a relaxed tempo, but Tatum still romps through with characteristic fullness. Also featured here are Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone.
iTunes
Monty Alexander
Ballad Essentials
2000, Concord

On this particular cut pianist Alexander is joined by the extraordinary steel drummer, Othello Molineaux, who lends an ethereal touch to this very slow version.
Chris Potter/Kenny Werner
Concord Duo Series Vol. 10
1996, Concord 4695

Pianist Werner and reed man Potter capitalize on the freedom offered by the duo setting. While some of the selections can be characterized as experimental, “September Song” is more conservatively rendered, and beautifully, with Potter on bass clarinet.
Dee Dee Bridgewater
This Is New
2002 Universal

Vocalist Bridgewater devotes the entire CD to the music of Kurt Weill, covering some of his beautiful ballads and lending drama to pieces such as “Alabama Song.”
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

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

Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill

Year Rank Title
1938 76 September Song
1949 688 Lost in the Stars

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