Woody Herman: Early Autumn

23 Sep

Only the leaves from early autumn. More to come.

Only the leaves from early autumn. More to come.

The best thing about the last week of September? It’s a good excuse to play Woody Herman’s Early Autumn, or any of the many covers that added Johnny Mercer’s lyrics.

That, and there’s still time to procrastinate on the leaves pictured above.

The song was composed by Ralph Burns and Herman and recorded by Herman and his second Herd in 1948, but it was much of the public’s first hearing of saxophonist Stan Getz. The song and the soloist, 21 when the former was recorded, were both hits.

(Herman’s first band, though successful, had disbanded shortly before. When Herman accompanied his wife to a substance-abuse recovery meeting, he said he saw most of his old band, according to Gene Lees’ 1997 book, Leader of the Band.

” ‘Early Autumn,’ … took on a life of its own,” wrote Don Rose at jazzinchigao.org. “It was as big a hit as a jazz instrumental could become back then in, at the end of the big-band era, and launched Getz to superstardom (though he had left the band by the time the record was issued).”

The irony is that years later, Getz said he didn’t remember the solo or the recording, according to jazz.com

” ‘I don’t remember what I played on it. . . . My music is something that’s done and forgotten about,’ ” Getz said, according to jazz.com’s entry on Early Autumn. “Yet this was the performance that created the first buzz of fame that would establish Getz as a name attraction in the jazz world. And if Getz didn’t recall what he played on the date, many musicians and fans committed his phrases to memory. Ralph Burns’s chart is a perfect vehicle for the tenorist, and the sax section is luminous even before Getz steps forward. But his solo is a perfectly poised statement, and an important milestone in the development of the cool jazz idiom.”

The lyrics came courtesy of Mercer, who also wrote the English words in 1947 to Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves.

When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
and touches with her hand the summer trees,
perhaps you’ll understand what memories I own.
There’s a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down,
a winding country lane all russet brown,
a frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.

The covers don’t have Getz’s solo, but Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, among others, is a worthy trade-off.

Herman’s second Herd didn’t last nearly as long as the song, and he moved on to a third Herd and so on. He was one of the early musical performers at the Super Bowl, No. VII in 1973, and died in 1987.

Below is the version of Herman’s 1948 recording of Early Autumn. The leaves can wait.


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