“April in Paris”
Composed by Vernon Duke; arranged by Bobby Sherwood.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor on May 14, 1940 in Hollywood.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Manny Klein, Harry Geller, and George Thow, trumpets; John Cave, French horn; Lyall Bowen, Ben Kanter, alto saxophones; Harold Lawson and Jack Stacey, tenor saxophones; Joe Krechter, bass clarinet; Bob Bower, Mischa Russell, Harry Bluestone, Bob Morrow, Dave Cracov, Jerry Joyce, violins, David Sturkin, Jack Gray and Sam Freed violas: Cy Bernard, cello; Skitch Henderson, piano; Bobby Sherwood, guitar; Jud DeNaut, bass;, Spencer Prinz, drums.
The period in Artie Shaw’s career just before and after this recording of “April in Paris” was made has been explored in the post here at swingandbeyond.com about Shaw’s iconic recording of “Star Dust.” (1) More information about Shaw’s activities in Hollywood in early 1940 can be found in the post that explores Shaw’s relationship with the composer William Grant Still. (2) The period in early 1940 when “April in Paris” was recorded can aptly be described as the brief Lana Turner phase of Shaw’s life. (At right: Shaw and Lana Turner – 1940.)
Shaw and Ms. Turner had worked together somewhat uneasily in the summer of 1939 in the MGM film Dancing Coed. Much later, in 1998, Shaw recalled encountering Lana again: “I went over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Phil Silvers. He didn’t tell me what he was doing, but he took me to a set where they were shooting “The Ziegfeld Girl,” and that was Lana’s (first starring) picture. (Lana came off the set) …in a green satin gown that was molded to her body so that you could see every pore. She came over and introduced herself (again). We talked a little and got along. We had a dinner date. That was the night that I married her. It was a dare. We played chicken. We got a plane and flew to wherever it was and got married. We didn’t know what to hell we were doing. It was very stupid.”(3)
If one lives long enough, and/or is perceptive enough, he/she will be pained by a number of cultural catastrophes. In the category of “cultural catastrophes” I include the horrific “day the music burned,” June 1, 2008, when fire gutted one of the storage facilities at Universal Studio in Hollywood. In that storage facility were thousands of master recordings made by some of the most iconic American musical artists of the Twentieth Century. They were lost permanently. The cause was negligence on the part of a crew that had been working on the roof of the building in question with blowtorches, and greater negligence on the part of the accountants who ran Universal Music. They were oblivious to the fact that they were storing a large chunk of the musical heritage of the United States. They regarded those masters as outdated music that did not generate very much revenue. They were careless in the extreme in how they housed and cared for those masters.
Then there was the fire at the historic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris that started on April 15, 2019, caused in all likelihood by a negligently discarded cigarette by a workman in the space beneath the cathedral’s roof. As a result of this fire, one of the most revered historical sites in the Western world was nearly lost. Fortunately, Notre Dame is slowly recovering from that catastrophe.
We as human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes and do stupid things. No matter how careful we try to be, it seems that bad things still happen. But good things also happen. Music is one of the truly good things in this world. I am most grateful for it, and for the people who make it.
The title “April in Paris” always suggested to me romance in the springtime in The City of Light. That enchanting impression was changed permanently after April 15, 2019. Nevertheless, the restoration of Notre Dame is progressing. I have no idea when it will be complete. Estimates are that the cathedral will be sufficiently restored to begin admitting people again in late 2024. I hope to be there after that to rejoice in the restoration of one of the most quintessential of Parisian historical sites. In the meantime, we celebrate Vernon Duke’s lovely melody evoking Paris in idealized terms.
I suspect that Artie Shaw chose to record “April in Paris” when he did for no reason other than that it was a beautiful melody. The song was composed in 1932 by Vernon Duke (real name Vladimir Dukelsky) for the Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster. The composer and music historian Alec Wilder, in his monumental study of American Popular Song, appraised “April in Paris” thusly: “There are no two ways about it: this is a perfect theater song. If that sounds too reverent, then I’ll reduce the praise to ‘perfectly wonderful,’ or else say that if it’s not perfect, show me why it isn’t.”(4) Perfect or not, “April in Paris” has a memorable melody, and Artie Shaw was one of the relatively few musicians during the swing era who could embellish such a melody in a way that audiences found to be almost irresistible.
Shaw assigned the task of writing the arrangement on “April in Paris” to the multi-talented Bobby Sherwood.(5) (Shown at left.) Curiously, Shaw directed Sherwood to omit trombones from his arrangement, and utilize only three trumpets and one French horn to achieve the lower brass sonorities usually provided by the trombones. He later termed this decision on his part “an experiment that didn’t work.” When asked about this recording in 1998, Shaw said that he “hated” it.(6) I suspect that there was more to it than that. Shaw could easily have had trombone parts added to the Sherwood arrangement, which is delightful, and rerecorded it. He didn’t do that. In fact, there is no evidence that he ever played “April in Paris” again, which is truly unfortunate given the superb solo he played on this Victor recording.
Shaw’s recording of “April in Paris” begins with an enchanting introduction/melody composed by Bobby Sherwood, which features the solo violin of Harry Bluestone, playing against a cushion of ethereal strings and mixed woodwinds. The first pass at the main melody is taken by the muted brass, punctuated by piano chords played by Skitch Henderson.(7) The second pass is also played by the muted brass, but this time against strings. Jack Cave plays the secondary melody on his French horn, also against a scrim of airy strings. The last eight bars of the first chorus spot the softly played open brass and saxophones sharing the melody.
The second chorus contains one of the most brilliant melodic paraphrases Artie Shaw ever played, and he played many of them. In fact, he specialized in playing them; this was one of the keys to his great success. His first sixteen bar solo exalts a great melody. Notice how he melds together the two eight-bar sections of this solo. Skitch Henderson then plays the eight-bar bridge on piano, swathed in strings. Shaw returns for eight more bars of inspired clarinet to finish the chorus.
The final chorus is played by the open melodic brass, often underlined by the reeds to add some of the harmonic depth that otherwise might have been provided by a choir of trombones. Artie reprises the introductory melody briefly in the finale.
April in Paris 2023: Basilica of Sacre Coeur de Montmartre (Sacred Heart of Montmartre). Photo courtesy of swingandbeyond.com friend, historian and master musician Nick Rossi.
For a completely different approach to “April in Paris,” here is Count Basie’s joyful recording of it:
“April in Paris”
Composed by Vernon Duke; arranged by William “Wild Bill” Davis.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Clef on July 26, 1955 in New York.
William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Reunald Jones, first trumpet; Wendell Culley, Joe Newman and Thad Jones, trumpets; Henry Coker, Bill Hughes and Benny Powell, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Bill Graham, alto saxophone; Frank Wess and Frank Foster, tenor saxophones; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Percival “Sonny” Payne, drums.
When Count Basie reorganized his big band in 1951, he signed a contract with jazz impresario Norman Granz, who was then operating the small Norgran and Clef record labels. (Basie made his first recordings for Clef in January of 1952.) It was far from clear in 1951 if this new Basie band would be a success. Despite Basie’s great talent as a pianist and bandleader, the marketplace for big bands in the early 1950s was in many respects inhospitable. Nevertheless, Basie being who he was, worked as hard (and smart) as was possible to make this band successful, despite many daunting challenges. Success came slowly for Basie’s “new testament” band through the early 1950s. But by mid-decade, the Basie band was working almost every night, although many of those nights were spent playing one-night gigs across America. Basie needed a home base for his band, preferably one that was high-profile. Through good management by Willard Alexander, such a home base was secured.
Starting in 1952, Basie began what turned out to be a long-term relationship with Morris Levy, a part owner of Birdland, the now legendary jazz venue. The original Birdland was located at 1678 Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan. Basie’s relationship with Levy/Birdland allowed the Basie band to sit down in one place for periods of at least a couple of weeks several times a year. These gigs were like oases in the desert for the Basie band, allowing them respites from the road, and the opportunity to work in a place that was conducive to jazz and swing before large appreciative audiences. Basie was a success at Birdland throughout the 1950s, and frequent radio remote broadcasts of his band from that venue provided much-needed ongoing promotion for the Basie band. (Above right: a poster from 1955 promoting Basie at Birdland. Lester Young and his quintet were also on the bill, and Pres would play a few tunes with the Basie band each night, to the delight of Birdland audiences.)
Basie also undertook his first European tour starting in mid-March of 1954. The tour included many European countries, including France. April of 1954 was Basie’s first experience of April in Paris.
Curiously, the famous Count Basie recording of “April in Paris” was not planned. It happened serendipitously. The Basie band was playing at Birdland, basically for the entire month of July, 1955. Featured on the bill with Basie then was the organist Wild Bill Davis, who, like many of the acts at Birdland that were featured with the Basie band, played a couple of tunes with them each night. In order to showcase his organ prowess, Davis wrote an arrangement on “April in Paris” that he used when he played with the Basie band. Audiences loved it. It was decided that Davis would record his arrangement of “April in Paris” with the Basie band at the July 26, 1955 recording session Basie was to make for Norman Granz. The Basie band showed up for that date, Davis did not. Basie himself later explained: “…something happened to the little truck he used to haul his organ around in, and he didn’t make it. He was supposed to play it with us as we had been doing together at Birdland. …We went right on and made “April in Paris” anyway, using exactly the same arrangement he played on the organ with us.”(8) “April in Paris” quickly became one of Basie’s best-selling records.
The bright, brassy introduction leads into the first chorus melody expositions, carried by the saxophone quintet, with Marshal Royal’s lead alto prominent, as always, but nicely balanced with Charlie Fowlkes’s baritone. The percolating rhythm section, led by Basie on piano, drives the music forward. Trombonist Benny Powell plays the secondary melody on the bridge. The trombones, saxophones and trumpets, in order, finish the first chorus main melody.
Trumpeter Thad Jones, recently arrived in the Basie band when this recording was made, playfully begins his sixteen bar jazz solo with a snippet of the melody of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which remained a permanent part of all Basie performances of “April in Paris” because audiences liked it so much. Listen to the support Jones gets from Basie and his rhythm section partners. To say that was inspirational would be an understatement. The reeds and ensemble then play the bridge. (That Jones is shown at right in his days as a sideman with Count Basie.)
The extended finale, with Basie exhorting his band members to play it “one more time” and “one more once,” are bits of theatricality that audiences lapped up. More important from a musical perspective is the muscularity and unity of the Basie ensemble in this sequence and indeed throughout this classic recording.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Here is a link to the story and music for Artie Shaw’s recording of “Star Dust”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/10/21/star-dust-1940-artie-shaw/
(2) Here is a link to a post here at swingandbeyond.com which details Artie Shaw’s 1940 collaborations with the composer William Grant Still: https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/06/16/blues-from-lenox-avenue-1940-artie-shaw-william-grant-still/
(3) This information comes from chapter 7 of the 13-part radio series called The Mystery of Artie Shaw, produced in 1998 by Ted Hallock. Hereafter Hallock.
(4) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, by Alec Wilder (1972), 357
(5) Robert J. Sherwood (1914-1981) was a multi-instrumentalist who specialized in playing guitar and trumpet, among many other instruments. In addition, he was a fine arranger. He led his own bands off-and-on through the 1940s. Before that, he worked at M-G-M and other Hollywood movie studios. It was probably at M-G-M that Sherwood met Artie Shaw, possibly through Lennie Hayton. Sherwood can be seen in many scenes of the 1957 Columbia feature film Pal Joey, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.
(6) Hallock, ibid.
(7) Skitch Henderson, like Bobby Sherwood, was employed by M-G-M in 1940.
(8) Good Morning Blues …The Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray (1985), 318.
Here are links to a couple other tasty Basie performances from the 1950s: