The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs.
New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York.
That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable.
In a way, the story of Autumn in New York begins when a young Russian immigrant musician named Vladimir Dukelsky arrived in New York in 1921 and met Jacob Gershowitz, the son of Russian immigrants.
But by that time, Gershowitz had changed his name to George Gershwin and had begun to make a name for himself as a composer of popular songs. Dukelsky had studied composition in Kiev with Reinhold Gliere and wanted to pursue a musical career.
Gershwin persuaded him to try his hand at popular songs as well as “classical” music and suggested Vernon Duke as a suitable pen name. From that time on, Dukelsky wrote music for orchestra, chorus, and chamber ensembles under his birth name and popular songs as Vernon Duke.
Autumn in New York
In 1934, when he was in Westport, Connecticut, Duke suddenly became homesick for Manhattan. So he wrote a poem in his second language and set it to music.
The text shows Duke’s thorough familiarity with the language of popular song lyrics. The music consists of a single verse and a chorus, a fairly ordinary structure for a Tin Pan Alley song.
But Duke apparently wasn’t thinking of something he could publish as a hit. He later acknowledged that it contained “not a particle” of what his publisher considered popular appeal. He called the song “a genuine emotional outburst.”
Alec Wilder, another musician with one foot in classical music and the other in popular song, suggested that Duke, the popular song composer, began the verse and Dukelsky, the classical composer, finished it. The chorus, less difficult and experimental, nonetheless is not easy listening or easy singing.
When Duke played the song for friends in Westport, he reported that he noticed them “retreating to the bar in the middle of the verse.”
Back in New York, Murray Anderson was producing a revue he called “Thumbs Up.” He told Duke he still needed one song, and what he had in mind was something that would evoke nostalgia with an image of red leaves in Central Park. He exactly described the song Duke had already written.
Even though Duke warned him that its frequent modulations from key to key made it difficult to sing, Anderson decided to use is as the finale. Duke later characterized the show as “a decent, average revue [that] received decent, average notices.” It ran for five months. No one took much notice of “Autumn in New York.”
Neglected song becomes a standard
Ten years later, though, both the Harry James and Charlie Spivak big bands played it on the radio. Louanne Hogan and Charlie Parker both recorded “Autumn in New York” in 1946 and began a virtual flood of recordings. Wikipedia lists dozens of recordings, including two as recent as 2011.
Apparently, they all include only the chorus. The following video featuring Dawn Upshaw includes the verse. The person who posted it notes he had never heard another singer perform it.
America’s songs: The stories behind the songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley / Philip Furia and Michael Lasser (New York: Routledge, 2008)
Autumn in New York (1934) / Jazz Standards.com
Vernon Duke biography / Song Writers Hall of Fame