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Moonlight in Vermont (1944)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Moonlight in Vermont” sold two million copies in the first two years following its release in 1944.

- Chris Tyle

Rank 141
Music Karl Suessdorf
Lyrics John M. Blackburn

Vocalist Margaret Whiting, daughter of songwriter Richard Whiting, introduced this number in 1944, and it was her first big hit. She recorded it again 10 years later, and this version charted as well:

 

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

Capitol Records began operation on April 8, 1942. The brainchild of lyricist/vocalist Johnny Mercer, it was intended to be the West Coast competition for big East Coast recording companies like RCA Victor and Columbia. At the time of its formation, the American Federation of Musicians strike loomed, and Capitol quickly recorded and released several sides, two of which (by bandleader/pianist Freddie Slack and Johnny Mercer), became big hits. Once the strike hit, and then the wartime usage of shellac (the material records were made of at the time) made the material scarce, the company put future plans on hold.

 

More on Margaret Whiting at JazzBiographies.com
 

Margaret Whiting was one of the vocalists Capitol recorded prior to the ban. Eighteen in 1942, she recorded a session with Freddie Slack and his band and one with a big band under the leadership of trumpeter Billy Butterfield. Although neither produced a huge hit, the records sold well and Capitol president and artists-and-repertory director Johnny Mercer thought Whiting had hit potential.

Because Mercer was operating on a small budget, he needed vocalists and musical groups that were in need of exposure--artists with talent whose careers needed a boost. Trumpeter Billy Butterfield had graced the bands of Bob Crosby, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, was a swinging jazz artist, and had the experience to organize and direct a big band. His initial recording session for Capitol with Whiting impressed Mercer. Once the A.F. of M. ban was settled, Mercer hired Butterfield to back Whiting.

 

More on John M. Blackburn at JazzBiographies.com
 
 

More on Karl Suessdorf at JazzBiographies.com
 

Whiting met with Mercer and Capitol musical director Paul Weston to select material to record. One number, by John M. Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf, caught the fancy of the young Whiting, but she didn’t really comprehend Blackburn’s lyrics. Mercer came to the rescue, encouraging her to imagine what Vermont was like in the fall. In her autobiography It Might As Well Be Spring, Whiting explains: “Johnny had worked so hard with me before we came into the studio. Breaking the song into sections, I could feel the sad warmth of fall, the smell of leaves. I began to sing. The band was wonderful. Then, when Billy Butterfield’s trumpet came in, all silver and glittering, it changed my voice. We were like two instruments.” When Mercer heard the playback, he knew he had a hit.

“Moonlight in Vermont” sold two million copies in the first two years following its release in 1944. The number was a special favorite of the troops overseas, since the song so poignantly describes what many longed for back home.

The tune was scheduled to appear in a 1943 motion picture with the same name, but was pulled prior to the picture’s release, proving to be a major error by Universal Studios since the rest of the soundtrack music, with the exception of Rodgers and Hart’s “Lover,” went nowhere.

More information on this tune...

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


(In his biography of the lyricist, Furia tells anecdotes about the song and analyzes the lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The lyrics for “Moonlight in Vermont” are unusual in that they don’t rhyme. Yet they work perfectly, picturing fall in New England with the glinting water of streams, ski trails in the snow, falling leaves, and bird song.

In her book The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis quotes lyricist John Blackburn as saying, “After completing the first 12 bars of the lyric, I realized there was no rhyme and then said to Karl, ‘Let’s follow the pattern of no rhyme throughout the song. It seemed right.”

Of additional interest is that all of the “A” sections of Moonlight in Vermont are in haiku form. A Japanese Haiku is a three-line poem with a 5/7/5 syllable count.

- Chris Tyle / Jeremy Wilson

Musical analysis of “Moonlight in Vermont”

Original Key Db major; brief false key change to F major in “B.” Additionally, the original sheet music edition contains a restatement of the melody in two additional keys (Bb major and Eb major).
Form  A - A - B - A; sometimes a two or four measure tag is added.
Tonality Primarily major
Movement “A” is a descending pentatonic scale with one altered tone (Bbb or A natural) added as an embellishment at the bottom. “B” consists of a single pitch repeated, leaping up an octave and descending a minor third. This entire phrase is then repeated a half-step higher.

Comments     (assumed background)

The harmonic progression-quite advanced for its time and heralding the advent of “cool”--makes sophisticated use of simple elements. Part of this lies in the melodic tones that make up the chord extensions (particularly the 13th, 11th, 9th and flatted 5th). The transition at “B” is particularly interesting in its abrupt jump to a “distant” key (Db major to F major) and smooth return to the original tonic by way of chromatic movement. From the last tonic chord of “A,” the harmony leaps up a tri-tone in a ii7 embellishment of the V7 of the new key (Gm9 - C7(b9b5) -Fma9) while the melody note forms the 11th of the initial chord. The new tonic is followed by VI (V7/ii) in a brief turnaround before settling once more on the F major tonality. The entire sequence is then repeated a half-step higher, putting the tonality into Gb major-closely related and easily modulated to Db.

Although the original changes are elegant, the construction of the melody-particularly “B”-does contain opportunities to use varying harmonies and chord substitutions.

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).
Musicians' Comments

What an unusual “sentiment” for a song. Nobody’s head-over-heels in love or had their baby do ‘em wrong. This is a landscape portrait in words and music. Its imagery is strikingly potent, and it’s a ballad I never tire of. One night when I was jamming with a bunch of musicians, this was the only ballad we opted to play over the entire evening. I read where, at a debut for the song, the composer was worried that ending the phrases on an augmented 5th (the “-more” of “falling leaves, a sycamore,” the “-side” in “down a mountainside,” etc.) would make the song too difficult to sing and possibly lose its appeal. I think it was Margaret Whiting, the one who introduced the song, who is said to have encouraged him to leave it alone. To me, that melodic choice is probably one of the strongest features of the song. That’s what creates the tension, ergo the chance for that lovely resolution. And, of course, horn players love it because of the gorgeous changes and the possibilities for exploration. (Sonny Rollins is said to have done a 45-minute version of it when he was playing in Vermont.)

Robert Moore, vocalist, trumpeter, harmonica player, songwriter
www.romomusic.net


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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Moonlight in Vermont" may be found in:

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages


(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis.)

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


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

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


(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: anecdotal and lyric analysis.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

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

Jazz History Notes

An all-instrumental session in 1947 found pianist/vocalist Nat “King” Cole and his trio performing a fine version of “Moonlight in Vermont,” although it certainly would have benefited from his vocal talent.

Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz recorded his initial foray on this tune with talented guitarist Johnny Smith in 1952. Their version is a beautiful, easy-going tapestry of sound.

Another version from 1952 is by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet with Chet Baker (trumpet). The piano-less group is the epitome of West Coast-“cool school,” relaxed with perfectly executed playing.

Record producer/promoter Norman Granz put together so many wonderful recording sessions that it boggles the mind. One of his classic sessions was pairing trumpeter/ vocalist Louis Armstrong with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald in 1956. The results were inspiring on every track. “Moonlight in Vermont” is no exception.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Nat "King" Cole
Nat King Cole Trio: Instrumental Classics
Blue Note Records 98288
Original recording 1945
iTunes
Johnny Smith
The Definitive Stan Getz. Verve 589950
Umvd Labels

iTunes
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Chet Baker
Original Jazz Classics 711

iTunes
Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong
Ella & Louis
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1956
iTunes
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Moonlight in Vermont.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Nat King Cole’s vocal interpretations of songs are often definitive, but it is his 1947 instrumental trio version of “Moonlight in Vermont” (Nat King Cole Trio: Instrumental Classics) that gives us an early classic jazz reading of the tune. Five years later, guitarist Johnny Smith created a hugely influential recording and a personal signature with his own recording (The Definitive Stan Getz ) featuring Stan Getz on saxophone. Among vocal versions, the 1956 collaboration between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, featured here on trumpet (Ella and Louis), is a classic, buoyed by their exceptional performances and the accompaniment of Oscar Peterson.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Margaret Whiting
Capitol Collectors Series
Capitol
Original Recording 1944

This faithful rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont” was a big hit and introduced the song to the world in 1944. Billy Butterfield’s orchestra provides a lush but not overbearing backdrop for Whiting’s sweet voice.

iTunes
Betty Carter and Ray Bryant
Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant
Sony
Original recording 1955

Accompanied wonderfully by Ray Bryant’s trio, vocalist Carter offers an early classic among modern jazz interpretations of Moonlight in Vermont.” Her relatively straightforward reading of the melody belies the innovation that was to come from her.

iTunes
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday for Lovers
Umvd Labels
Original recording 1957

This late-career recording features Holiday at her tender, intimate best. Saxophonist Ben Webster and guitarist Barney Kessel are particularly strong contributors from among the all-star band.

iTunes
Ahmad Jamal
Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961
Verve
Original Recording 1958

Jamal’s widely admired trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier can be heard in top form on this elegant and clever performance.

iTunes
Chris Connor
A Jazz Date with Chris Connor/Chris Craft
Atlantic / Wea
Original Recording 1958

Vocalist Connor offers a lovely rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont,” featuring creative and sensitive guitar work from Mundell Lowe.

iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Jeanie Bryson
Tonight I Need You So
1994 Telarc 83348
Original recording 1994
Vocalist Bryson’s warm, supple voice is seductive, and her stable of talented sidemen are appropriately subdued on this dreamy, ethereal rendition of the song.
iTunes
Marian McPartland
All My Life
2003 Savoy Jazz 17210
Original recording 1952
This wonderfully elegant and romantic version is from the early days of the pianist. The listener is treated to two takes of the song, subtly different but both fantastic interpretations.
iTunes
Joe Pass
Unforgettable
1998 Pablo Records 2310964
Original Recording 1992
Stripped down to just Pass and the six nylon strings of his guitar, the song is highly melancholic one instant and tentatively optimistic the next. Pass’ intricate fingering expresses emotion that borders on rawness.
iTunes
Sonny Stitt
Moonlight in Vermont
1994 Denon Records 8566

Saxophonist Stitt conjures up a crisp, clear night with moonlight reflecting off the snow and evergreens standing like sentinels in the distance. Makes you want to get out the skis.
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

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

John M. Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf

Year Rank Title
1944 141 Moonlight in Vermont

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