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Arts Desk

"Autumn in New York"—The Story Behind the Standard

USA, New York, Exterior
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images
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Digital Vision
New York City, Central Park, The Mall, autumn

Let’s play a little game: How much do you really know about your favorite Tin Pan Alley composers?

First, a relatively easy one: Jacob Gershowitz. No, he’s not your periodontist; at least that’s not the Jacob Gershowitz I’m referring to. Here’s a clue: ever heard “I Got Rhythm”? That’s George Gershwin, you say? Well, you’d be correct. But you’d earn extra credit for knowing that before George Gershwin was George Gershwin, he was born in a Brooklyn tenement to Lithuanian and Ukrainian Jews and named for his paternal grandfather—you guessed it—Jacob Gershowitz.

Next, a tougher one: Vladimir Dukelsky. Sounds Russian. Sounds regal, too. It’s likely both. The 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims, in its entry for Dukelsky, that his grandmother was a descendent of Georgian royals (if you’re thinking peaches and Hank Aaron, you’ve got the wrong Georgia). Perhaps that’s why, shortly after he arrived in the U.S. in 1921, a new friend and would-be mentor convinced Dukelsky to change his surname to Duke.

The new friend was George Gershwin. Dukelsky, five years Gershwin’s junior, had been classically trained at the Kiev Conservatory, where the classical pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz was a classmate. Gershwin’s young charge, still a little green yet, harbored dreams of becoming a classical composer; after all, he’d studied under the great Reinhold Glière in Kiev. Gershwin had more practical advice, for he, too, was the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants trying to make a living writing music in 1920s America: Change your name to something American-sounding and write popular music. And so, from Vladimir Dukelsky we get Vernon Duke.

Compared to his pal Gershwin who was able to cross over and make iconic contributions to the classical canon, Dukelsky’s contributions to his native form pale. It’s as Duke that he’d partner with the best lyricists of the day—Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Howard Dietz, Ogden Nash, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer—to write songs that have achieved immortality as standards. “April in Paris,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Taking a Chance on Love,” are but a few.

But the fact that he continued to write poetry and classical music—for orchestra, chamber ensembles, etc.—as Vladimir Dukelsky (until legally adopting his pen name in 1955) turns out to be of particular consequence in telling the story of one of Vernon Duke’s most enduring standards: “Autumn in New York.”

The song wasn’t even a song at first; it was conceived as a poem, seemingly written on a lark and borne out of homesickness for Manhattan, while Duke was summering in Westport, Conn. in 1934. He put music to it, but he never expected the tune to go anywhere. As he writes in his autobiography, Passport to Paris, it didn’t contain what his publisher saw as “popular appeal.”

The publisher had a point. To start, Duke’s original iteration consisted of an unconventional first verse that’s consistently proven unwieldy for vocalists. Most vocal covers of “Autumn” have shied away from the verse, opting to stick principally with the chorus. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, an opera star with multiple Grammys to her name, is one of the few who’s proven willing and able to pull off a successful commercial release of the unabridged version.

Even setting the verse aside, much of “Autumn” seems like a tune Duke wrote more for himself than any audience. Though subdued, one senses this to be a rather Whitmanian pronouncement of Duke’s contained multitudes, a quest for catharsis from a man who’d suppressed a valued part of his musical identity in order to make a living.

That’s at least the essence of what fellow songwriter and Frank Sinatra collaborator Alec Wilder surmises in American Popular Song, the Great Innovators 1900-1950, where he writes, “The verse may be the most ambitious I’ve ever seen. It begins simply enough, but halfway through it’s almost as if the other musical side of the man couldn’t be silent and the rest… was finished by Dukelsky.”

While Duke’s artistic ambition thrilled Wilder, early audiences and critics weren’t nearly as intrigued. “Autumn” ended up making its debut later in 1934 in the Broadway revue Thumbs Up, where it served as the finale in a show that ran for five months and received tepid reviews. In Passport to Paris, Duke describes the John Murray Anderson production as “a decent, average revue that received decent, average notices.”

It wasn’t until a decade later, when big band arrangements for Charlie Spivak and Harry James aired on radio, that “Autumn” began to break through. Five years later, though, is when it really exploded, with Columbia Records’ 1947 recording of Frank Sinatra leading conductor Axel Stordahl’s arrangement for big band.

You can tell Sinatra’s voice is ripening toward its classic vintage but is still just a touch on the youthful side. Not quite the Chairman of the Board yet, he’s more a cunning manager gunning for the c-suite.

Stordahl’s strings, meanwhile, are lush, yes, but also angular and unforgiving at times, reminding the listener that the sanguine revisionism of nostalgia can surprise you with pangs of pains thought passed. Which is why Duke writes that while autumn in New York “brings the promise of new love,” it’s just as often “mingled with pain.” It’s this kind of world, where joy and sorrow cohabitate, that Duke pines for as he writes from the sterile environs of his Connecticut vacation spot.

This idea of the hollowness of pleasure in a world scrubbed of pain is sophisticated, philosophical stuff. Yes, this was a golden age when Tin Pan Alley wordsmiths approached their craft with an elegance and sophistication that their contemporary counterparts can’t even comprehend let alone replicate. But this is elevated even for that crew. Take this line from the post-chorus: “Glittering crowds/and shimmering clouds/in canyons of steel”—that’s poetry in any generation. Wilder’s right; Dukelsky’s fingerprints are all over this.

So, when evaluating the scores of musicians who’ve covered “Autumn” over the years, there’s really only one foundational, do-not-pass-go question to consider: Does the artist do Duke’s—or Dukelsky’s—poetry justice?

Sinatra’s was the only rendition to register on the pop charts. That in itself has no bearing on the question we’re trying to answer, though there’s no need to hold the popular success of Sinatra’s version against him; it’s solid and deserves credit for bringing the tune into the mainstream, even if it does fall short of amplifying the full emotional context of the source material. In short, it’s a good start.

Better yet, is Charlie Parker’s rendition, which he records two years later, in 1949, as part of the legendary Charlie Parker with Strings sessions. Backed not just by strings but by three trumpets, two trombones, and a cadre of additional woodwinds in addition to a standard rhythm section, Bird is nothing short of spectacular here.

Part of the genius of this take is that it disproves any notion that a standard’s lyrics have no effect on an instrumental interpretation. Listen to this one with a copy of Duke’s lyrics by your side; it hits on literally every conflicting emotion expressed in those lyrics.

Maybe Bird really did do his homework. Or maybe he could just relate—to the idea of a place where the highest of highs and the lowest of lows are inextricably bound, to the idea of New York inspiring awe and despair in equal measure, and to the idea that for a certain kind of performance-inclined dreamer New York’s the only place to feel truly alive. And, you know, all that stuff about the leaves changing colors, too.

Of the hundreds of other versions of “Autumn in New York” worth engaging with, some favorites of mine include: the Bill Charlap Trio’s take from 2007’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Dexter Gordon’s version from 1955’s Daddy Plays the Horn, and the immortal Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duet from 1957’s Ella and Louis Again. Compare the tone and texture of this last one to Bird’s to see two strikingly different, equally evocative approaches.

Then, there’s the consensus favorite, Billie Holiday’s 1952 recording with Oscar Peterson accompanying on piano.

Every time I listen to this one, I picture two people walking past each other in Central Park, heading opposite directions in every conceivable way. One’s on cloud-nine but showing it only with her eyes and the tiniest suggestion of a grin. Maybe something’s just happened at work that will forever change the course of her career; maybe she’s decided to take the scenic route back to her apartment after what she’s certain was just the last first date she’ll ever go on. Whatever it is, she’s bursting; she’s never felt this grateful to live in New York City. “Wait a second,” she thinks to herself, “are all my New York dreams coming true?” She instinctively frets, just for a moment, that her passing thought has just given her a kinehora.

God forbid the man who’s just walked right past her should have the ability to hear her internal monologue; he’s just lost everything in one legendarily calamitous afternoon down in the financial district. I can’t even begin to speculate what’s happened to him, but he’s carrying many of his personal effects in a cardboard box, and that doesn’t even seem to be the worst of it; it’s unspeakably bad.

As I listen to Billie Holiday’s definitive rendition, my mind’s eye produces a one-act play that climaxes and resolves in just under four minutes. Dozens of these same scenarios unfolding simultaneously but independent of each other over the course of one autumn afternoon in New York, a mass of people either blissfully unaware or woefully unaware, cycling past each other like self-contained planets in opposite orbits around the same star.

The leaves fall. A single, overeager snowflake falls. The curtain falls.

That’s Billie Holiday’s “Autumn in New York,” an interpretation that presents maximum leeway for speculation and subtext, one that best represents the active ambivalence and subtly powerful intellect of Duke’s love letter to New York City.

Deceptively complex, “Autumn in New York” is a song of two minds; it can amplify and affirm triumph or anguish. Its message can find purchase in a worldview that sees the glass half-full or one that sees the glass half-empty. Like a great mushroom, it takes on the flavor of the sauce in which it’s immersed, yet it never completely cedes its native properties, the flavors that remind you of the earth it comes from.

Like its creator, Vernon Duke—or should I say Vladimir Dukelsky?