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.
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.
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.
In 1956 Columbia Pictures produced a film entitled Autumn Leavesstarring 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.
(Furia’s biography of the lyricist devotes two pages to analysis of the song’s lyric.)
See the Reading and Research page for this tune for additional references.
- Jeremy Wilson
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.
Musical analysis of
“Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)”
major; goes back and forth between major
and minor tonalities before finally resolving
to E minor at the end.
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?)
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
Ellington’s version, taken at a very slow tempo,
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.
Your comments are welcome, including why you like
this tune, any musical challenges it presents, or additional background information.
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