“Autumn Serenade” (1945) Harry James/Billy May; (1970) Billy May and Joe Graves

“Autumn Serenade”

Composed by Peter De Rose; arranged by Billy May.

Recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra for Columbia on July 24,1945 in Hollywood.

Harry James, trumpet, directing: Jimmy Campbell, Irwin Berken, Al Ramsey, James Troutman, trumpets; Juan Tizol, (first) valve trombone; Vic Hamann, Jess Heath, Charlie Preble, trombones; Willie Smith, first alto saxophone; Murray “Jumbo” Williams, alto saxophone; Gene Patrick “Corky” Corcoran, tenor saxophone and English horn; Clint Davis, tenor saxophone; Stuart Bruner, baritone saxophone; Robert Bein, Sam Caplan, John de Voogdt, Sol Gliskin, George Grossman, Henry Jaworski, Ernest Karpati, Gerson Oberstein, and Jerome Reisler, violins; David Uchitel, William Spear, Harold Sorin, Alexander Neiman, violas; Carl Ziegler and Elias Friede, celli; Arnold Ross, piano; Hayden Casey, guitar; Ed Mihelich, bass; Ray Toland, drums.

The story:

By mid-November, we here in the Midwest are irrevocably into the last phases of autumn. The golden warmth of Indian summer has passed. It has been replaced by increasingly colder temperatures. The leaves have fallen, and the skies are often gray. Frequently there is rain or mist in the air. The darkness of night comes earlier each day. The month between Thanksgiving and the winter solstice can be described as generally gloomy.

Of course all of this comes after early autumn, which is often filled with warm, sunny days, blue skies and gentle breezes. But when there is sunshine, we see ever-lengthening shadows, a reminder that summer is past, and winter lies ahead.

All of this undoubtedly provided inspiration for pop song composer Peter De Rose, the man who in 1945 wrote the evocative music that is “Autumn Serenade.” (The song has a lyric, by Sammy Gallop, which is not heard in this performance.)

A native of New York City, DeRose (1896-1953, shown at left), was drawn to music at an early age. His first song, “Tiger Rose Waltzes”, was published in 1916.  After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City in 1917, he found a job at a music store as a stock room clerk. His composition “When You’re Gone, I Won’t Forget” led to a job at the New York office of Italian music publisher G. Ricordi & Co.

In 1923, he met May Singhi Breen when she was performing on radio with a ukulele group called “The Syncopators.” A relationship developed, and she later left the group to join DeRose in a musical radio show which was presented on NBC called The Sweethearts of the Air. On this show, DeRose played piano and Ms. Breen played ukulele. The show lasted for 16 years, during which time the two entertainers were married. The show not only provided them with a good living, but was also a vehicle for introducing his pop music compositions to a large radio audience. These included: “Deep Purple,” “Wagon Wheels” and “Rain,” (all from 1934), “On a Little Street in Singapore,” (1938); “Lilacs in the Rain,” (1939); and “Autumn Serenade,” (1945).(1)

The music: The evocative melody of Peter DeRose’s “Autumn Serenade” is the beneficiary of a splendid arrangement by Billy May, and an excellent performance by Harry James and his orchestra, which when this recording was made included a substantial string section.

The eight-bar introduction is a marvelously musical work in itself. An orchestral fanfare, which suggests the beginning of a 1940s film noir, quickly falls away as shimmering strings and a sinister sounding English horn, (2) (handled with remarkable expertise by Corky Corcoran, the 21 year-old jazz tenor saxophone soloist in Harry James’s band), play a deft modulation.

The first chorus begins with James’s diva-like trumpet setting forth the haunting eight-bar principal melody, and then the secondary melody. He is followed by young Mr. Corcoran on tenor saxophone, and then James plays again briefly. (Corky Corcoran is shown in the mid-1940s at left.)

The orchestral sequence that comes next features a marvelous blend of Corcoran, now playing English horn, and Juan Tizol, playing his mourning dove sounding valve trombone, in unison. The sonority they achieve suggests a chilly, misty gray autumn crepuscule. This musical effect is heightened by the pizzicato and tremolo strings. Alto saxophonist Willie Smith plays a bit of melody after the brass, while trumpets in Harmon mutes, add yet another instrumental color. Arranger May reprises the orchestral sequence highlighting the English horn/valve trombone blend, and then the unison saxophones appear with the secondary melody as the entire orchestra masses for the finale.

“Autumn Serenade”

Composed by Peter DeRose; Billy May reconstructed his original arrangement for this recording.

Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on September 21, 1970 in Hollywood.

Billy May, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock, Uan Rasey and Joe Graves, trumpets; Francis Howard, Dick Noel, Lloyd Ulyate tenor trombones; Lew McCreary, valve trombone; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Julie Jacob, tenor saxophone and English horn; Justin Gordon, tenor saxophone; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Paul Shure, Jerry Vinci, Sid Sharp, Eddie Bergman, Irving Geller, John de Voogdt, Mischa Russell, Darrell Terwilliger, Spiro Stamos, Harold Dicterow, violins; Sam Boghossian, Lou Kievman, Gary Nuttycombe, violas; Armond Kaproff, Fred Seykora and Ray Kelley, celli; Ray Sherman, piano; Al Hendrickson, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The story and the music continued: When Billy May conducted the recording sessions for the mammoth Swing Era project in the years 1969-1972, he was quite busy not only with the dozens of recording sessions that were required, but with a lot of reconstruction of the arrangements of the music that was to be recorded. Soon, May himself was swamped with the reconstruction of arrangements. He made connections with another master arranger, Sammy Nestico, who began to assist May with this work. Other arrangers, such as Larry Wagner and Carl Brandt, were also summoned to help out with the writing. Still, over the duration of this project, the vast majority of the reconstruction of the arrangements that were recorded was done by Billy May. It was an enormous amount of work. (At right: Billy May and Sammy Nestico at a Swing Era recording session – 1971.)

Almost all of the music that was recorded was selected by the producer of the project, Dave Cavanaugh. The criteria that guided Cavanaugh’s selection was largely centered around which pieces of music in the swing idiom from the years 1930-1958 had been either very popular, or less popular but had considerable musical merit, or absent popularity, were just excellent examples of swing. Rarely did Billy May request that a particular piece of music be recorded. He did however, request that Harry James’s version of “Autumn Serenade” be recorded. He was well aware of the musical merit of the James original because he had arranged the tune for Harry in 1945. I think it fair to say that May, who despite his great musical talent, was a modest man, was proud of that arrangement, and wanted to redo it because he really liked what he had done with the original.

Harry James’s solos on the original recording are played here beautifully by trumpeter Joe Graves. (Shown at left.) The alto saxophone solo is played by Skeets Herfurt, and the tenor saxophone solo by Justin Gordon. The important English horn/valve trombone sonority is created here by Julie Jacob and Lew McCreary.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The biographical information on Peter DeRose is derived from the Wikipedia post on him.

(2) The English horn is a double reed woodwind instrument in the oboe family that has a vaguely sinister sound and is rarely used in jazz or popular music. It is approximately one and a half times the length of an oboe. There have been quite a few compositions written for the English horn, but the one that most effectively utilizes its tonal quality is The Swan of Tuonela, which was composed in 1893 by Jean Sibelius.

For a very different musical mood created by Harry James in 1945, check this out:


And here is yet another musical mood from Harry: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/10/im-in-the-market-for-you-1939-harry-james/

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