“September Song” (1945) Artie Shaw/Ray Conniff and (1960) Ella Fitzgerald

“September Song”

Composed by Kurt Weill (music). Arranged by Ray Conniff.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra for Victor on April 5, 1945 in Hollywood.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Paul Cohen, first trumpet, Bernie Glow, George Schwartz and Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Ollie Wilson, first trombone; Harry Rodgers, Bob Swift and Gus Dixon (Agostino Ischia), trombones; Lou Prisby first alto saxophone; Rudy Tanza, alto saxophone; Herbie Steward and Jon Walton, tenor saxophone; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Michael (Dodo) Marmarosa, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass; Lou Fromm, drums.

The story:

Starting in mid-August 1944, Artie Shaw, who was then living in the Beverly Hills, California, began commissioning and receiving new arrangements for the big band he would soon be forming. Through August and September, Shaw worked with arranger Ray Conniff to produce many new original jazz tunes and arrangements, and with arranger Harry Rodgers to produce new arrangements on standard tunes, and to revise older popular arrangements from the books of earlier Shaw bands. Conniff was also commissioned wo write arrangements on the standards “S’Wonderful,” “These Foolish Things,” “I’ll Never Be the Same,” and “September Song.” (1)

The members of Artie Shaw’s new band leaving his house in Beverly Hills, California, probably in early November 1944, after a photo shoot which was held there to create pictures for promotional purposes. Shown from L-R: Pat McNaughton, Chuck Gentry, Imogene Lynn, George Schwartz, Ray Linn, Lou Fromm, Barney Kessel, Tommy Mace, Les Clarke, Harry Rodgers, Jimmy Pupa, Morrie Rayman, Roy Eldridge, Herbie Steward, Jon Walton and Ray Conniff. Artie is in the doorway, waving.

Despite various reports in the contemporary media to the contrary, it appears that Shaw did not actually start hiring musicians for this new band until late October or early November of 1944. The band was fully organized and sufficiently rehearsed to undertake a two-week break-in tour of west coast ballrooms, beginning in mid-November. They made their first Victor recording session on November 23-24, 1944, then headed east. They began a tour of theaters in the Midwest, eventually arriving at the Strand Theater in Manhattan, where they opened what would be a five-weeks stay at that venue on January 26, 1945. That engagement ended on March 1. The band then worked its way back to Los Angeles. They then took a vacation of unspecified length.

Artie and his rhythm section played on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall network radio show on March 15, doing a Gramercy Five sans trumpeter Roy Eldridge. By the time the full band made its April 5, 1945 Victor recording session in Hollywood, there were several new musicians present, including trumpeters Paul Cohen and Bernie Glow, alto saxophonists Lou Prisby and Rudy Tanza,  and trombonists Ollie Wilson, Gus Dixon and Bob Swift. Many of the men who left Shaw in early 1945, including most notably, trombonist/arranger Ray Conniff, had been called into military service. (Above left: Artie Shaw, Roy Eldridge and Ray Conniff – poolside at Artie’s home – November 1944.)

The revamped Shaw band that appeared on the April 5, 1945 Victor recording session that produced the version of “September Song” featured in this blog post, and then on Fitch Bandwagon radio show broadcast on April 8, sounded rested and fit, and as a result of Artie’s inspired rehearsal techniques, spirited and unified. The band continued rehearsing through mid-April, and made another Victor recording session, on April 17, which produced four finished recordings, including Shaw’s superlative performance (two takes survive) of Eddie Sauter’s great arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”(2)

Victor Records’ studio at 1016 North Sycamore Avenue Hollywood in the later 1940s.

The next road engagement for the full band seems to have been a week at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco starting on April 25, followed by a week at the Orpheum Theater on Oakland. Then rather suddenly, work dropped off. Beginning on May 11, Shaw and his band played before audiences only on weekends at the Casino Gardens Ballroom on the Santa Monica pier. This lasted for six weeks.(3)  During June, July and August, Shaw continued rehearsing the band and concentrated on producing what he was contracted to Victor Records to produce: recordings. In June there were seven separate recording sessions; in July thirteen; in August one. But in many of those sessions, only one or two acceptable takes resulted. This is quite odd, especially when we remember that Artie Shaw had always been a very productive bandleader when recording, often producing four or as many as six acceptable masters in a regular three-hour recording session. Shaw’s relationship with Victor stopped permanently after the August 2 Gramercy Five session, which produced three masters and one acceptable alternate take. It was a weird and sad ending to what had been a very successful association. (4)

The music: Ray Conniff left Artie Shaw’s band probably in March of 1945 to enter the U.S. Army. While in the Army, he was assigned to work with the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he served under Meredith Willson and Walter Schumann.(5) When he was discharged in February of 1946, he went to work for Harry James. In addition to being an invaluable source of many jazz originals, Conniff had functioned as Shaw’s lead and jazz trombonist. Conniff’s role as arranger was filled by to some extent by George Siravo. His role as trombonist was filled by the nineteen year-old Ollie Wilson, who quickly proved to be a distinctive jazz soloist and section leader.

In this recording Shaw and arranger Ray Conniff successfully captured and projected the mood evoked by “September Song’s” lyric using strictly instrumental means. The mood of the song is one of bittersweet wistfulness. Here is the lyric from the song’s chorus:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December,
But the days grow short
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few…
September, November.
And these few precious days
I’ll spend with you;
These precious days
I’ll spend with you.

The music for “September Song” was written by Kurt Weill, the lyric by Maxwell Anderson.(6) The song was introduced by actor Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway production Knickerbocker Holiday. It was created at Huston’s request, so that he would have one solo song in Knickerbocker Holiday, in which he played the role of the aged governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, who is seeking the love of a younger woman.  Anderson and Weill wrote the song in a couple of hours, tailoring it to Huston’s gruff voice and limited vocal range.(7)

I suspect that Artie Shaw heard Bing Crosby’s Decca recording of “September Song,” made on December 29, 1943, and/or saw the film of Knickerbocker Holiday, which was in theaters in mid-1944. This is probably when he got the idea of recording the song. Moving his idea to full fruition as ultimately a great recording likely involved him discussing how he wanted the song to be presented with arranger Ray Conniff. Conniff had developed the ability to carry-out Artie’s instructions in such a way that he as well as his hyper-critical boss would be pleased. Shaw and Conniff were very much on the same musical wave-length. (Ray Conniff is shown at right.)

It is my informed speculation that Ray Conniff arranged “September Song” for Shaw in the autumn of 1944, as a part of the large number of arrangements he made for Artie then to fill out, in part, the initial repertoire of the new Shaw band. Clearly, he had written the chart to include a part for his trombone in the cascading round of trombones and trumpets that we hear in the introduction in this performance, along with Shaw’s melancholy clarinet. Due to the Shaw band’s heavy work-load in theaters, which they had after their first Victor recording session in late November 1944, which essentially lasted until March 1, 1945, Artie simply had not had time to make many recordings during that span of three months.(8) By the time the Shaw band had returned to Los Angeles in March, Conniff had gone into military service, replaced by the gifted trombonist Ollie Wilson. It is his trombone that we hear in this opening sequence.

The first chorus begins with the main melody being smoothly played by Shaw’s saxophone quintet in unison, with the introductory round being carried into the first chorus by the brass as an ostinato, which provides an effective contrast to the saxophones. This continues for sixteen bars. The bridge presents yet another contrast, with the band’s playing of the secondary melody being punctuated by short bursts of Barney Kessel’s electric guitar. The bridge ends with a bright brass exclamation. The final eight-bar reprise of the main melody is carried once again by the unison saxophones for four bars, backed by the opulent sound of Shaw’s four open trombones, with the entire ensemble filling out the last four bars.

Artie Shaw and his band on the stage of the Strand Theater in Manhattan in February of 1945. Visible musicians L-R: Morrie Rayman, Barney Kessel, Jon Walton, Lou Fromm, Tommy Mace, Les Clarke, Herbie Steward, Shaw, Chuck Gentry, Pat Mc Naughton, Roy Eldridge, Ray Conniff, Charles Coolidge, Harry Rodgers.

The first half of the second chorus belongs to Shaw, who plays jazz masterfully for sixteen bars to fit the musical setting provided for him by Conniff’s arrangement. The Harmon-muted trumpets play the bridge, providing yet another sonic contrast, and then we hear a few bars of baritone saxophone virtuoso Chuck Gentry’s playing, interspersed with chords from Kessel’s guitar, to end the chorus.

The final chorus returns to the opening ostinato, and the unison saxophones, but then veers off delightfully into an instrumental conversation between Shaw’s clarinet and the band, with the various sections playing swirling and harmonically rich backgrounds.

This recording presents a great melody in a brilliant arrangement, played by a virtuoso band and leader. Bravo for all who made it happen.

“September Song”

Composed by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (lyric).

Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald for Verve on April 19, 1960.

Ella Fitzgerald accompanied by Paul Smith on piano.

The music:

Ella Fitzgerald was an artist whose interpretations of great songs were often superlative. There has been some critical opinion that Ella’s performances, unlike those say of Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra, were sometimes superficial. I interpret the word “superficial” as used in those criticisms to mean that Ella did not make every song into an emotional tour de force. That is certainly true. But why would any singer want to overly dramatize every performance of every song they sang? Billie didn’t do that and neither did Frank, nor does any good singer. The question, I think, when evaluating any singer’s performance of any given song is: did the singer do an effective job of presenting the melody and the lyric? In the case of Ella Fitzgerald singing “September Song,” the answer is a resounding yes.

The reasons why Ella’s performance of “September Song” is brilliant are many. First, she, possibly with input from her producer/manager/guru, Norman Granz, decided to perform this great song with the utmost simplicity. She basically sings the song, including its suggestive verse, as written. Yet paradoxically, she invests her singing with a full measure of warmth and humanity. Her interpretation is guided by her complete understanding that she was singing a beautiful, memorable melody, and a poetic, evocative lyric, and that she wanted to heighten them by her singing, which is relaxed, on-pitch and gently swinging. The quality of her voice is sumptuously rich. Her accompaniment, by the gifted pianist Paul Smith, is minimal. it frames and elevates her singing perfectly. 

Over the many years I have had the pleasure of talking with jazz musicians, I have found a recurring theme in our conversations about how to approach a beautiful piece of music. The essence of it is that less is more. Ella Fitzgerald, consummate artist that she was, knew that well.

A few words about the verse for “September Song.” It is actually twice as long as commonly thought:

When I was a young man courting the girls
I played me a waiting game.
If a maid refused me with tossing curls
I’d let the old Earth make a couple of whirls;
(While I plied her with tears in lieu of pearls.)*
And as time came around she came my way
As time came around, she came.

When you meet with the young girls early in the Spring
You court them in song and rhyme.
They answer with words and a clover ring
But if you could examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing.
And the plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time.

(*) This line was not sung by Ella Fitzgerald in the recorded performance presented here.

Most singers, including Ella Fitzgerald in the recording presented here, use the first verse and not the second. It is a poetic, though rather wry commentary, on the courting behavior of young people. The song’s main lyric (reproduced above), is equally poetic, but it is also metaphorical in that it suggests a resemblance between aging humans and the passage of the months of the year. The theme that continues from the first verse into the main lyric is that when a person gets older, …(O)ne hasn’t got time for the waiting game.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Despite my search of the index of arrangements played by Artie Shaw’s bands housed at the the University of Arizona School of Music, I have not found and listing of Ray Conniff’s arrangement on “September Song.”

(2) Here is a link to Artie Shaw’s recording of “Summertime”:https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/10/11/reads-and-re-reads-the-protean-mr-gershwin/

(3) Details of the Artie Shaw band’s activities in late 1944 and into 1945 are from Artie Shaw …A Musical Biography and Discography, by Vladimir Simosko (2000), 105-107; and 196-197.

(4) Here is a link that includes the background of Shaw’s break-up with Victor Records: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/10/lets-walk-1945-artie-shaw/

(5) This information comes from the online resource Manfred Thönicke’s Guide to the Life and Works of Joseph Raymond Conniff.

(6) Kurt Weill was a composer of concert music who worked occasionally in the theater. He composed The Threepenny Opera in 1928. It included the song “Mack the Knife.” Weill was born in Germany in 1900, and received a thorough musical education there. He fled Naziism in 1933 and emigrated to New York. He died in 1950.

Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) was basically a dramatist, and he wrote the book for the play Knickerbocker Holiday. Although he dabbled in writing lyrics for popular songs, he was not known for that particular skill. Despite that, his lyric for “September Song” is both poetic and memorable.

(7) The basic information about Knickerbocker Holiday was extracted from the Wikipedia post on that production.

(8) Shaw made one two-part Victor recording session in New York on January 9-10, 1945. The session on January 9 produced three recordings by the big band; the one on January 9-10 produced two Gramercy Five sides.

Here is a link with substantial information about what was going on in Artie Shaw’s life from the time he was medically discharged from the U.S. Navy through the period when he formed a new band in 1944 and into the early months of 1945:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/24/these-foolish-things-1945-artie-shaw/

Here is another link with information about Shaw’s relationship with Ava Gardner: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/08/28/the-grabtown-grapple-1945-artie-shaw-and-his-gramercy-five/

Here is another link about the various extra-musical activities Artie Shaw was involved in in Hollywood in the years 1945 and 1946 which unfortunately (and unjustly) had a negative impact on his later musical career:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/05/14/innuendo-1949-artie-shaw-and-johnny-mandel/

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2 Comments

  1. Frank Sinatra recorded “September Song” three times. Once for Columbia in1946, once for Capitol in 1961 and once for Reprise in 1965. It’s on the last recording, that he includes both verses.

  2. Though I greatly admire every addition of the Shaw orch., all of which so clearly reflect the leader’s uniquely somber musical vision, I’ve always loved most the ’44-’45 crew, which I think of as “The Roy and Dodo band.” In my view, certainly no other white swing orchestra and possibly only Ellington’s crew could achieve the nighttime atmosphere that Shaw’s band, particularly this last Victor-era incarnation, consistently did. In an era in which film noir was blossoming, the band that followed Artie’s return to civilian life served as the sonic equivalent of this nihilistic cinematic movement — and no side illustrates my assertion to the degree of the glorious “September Song.” Ray Conniff establishes an elegiac mood from the opening gently cascading brass phrase and maintains it throughout in a way that suggests a lonely, after-hours tour through the city’s streets, with rain gleaming on the pavement. The manner in which the trombones are utilized in the piece, the Harmon muted trumpets on the bridge, Barney’s jagged guitar, Artie’s eloquent solo with Dodo’s beautiful;y swinging comping all suggest a feeling of resignation alternating with unease. It is, though, Chuck Gentry’s baleful baritone sax, in one of my favorite entrances on record, that most expressively coveys the noir aura.

    I recall being, if not entirely surprised (given that the Swing Era was, by ’45, essentially moribund), at least saddened that this magnificent band didn’t find greater commercial popularity. For me, it represents both Artie and Ray Conniff at their best. It’s difficult to believe that Ray could go from work of this celestial calibre to music in the ’50s that seems to me most suitable for a fondue/Tupperware party.

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