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Song Stories: April in Paris

In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, we are going to jam out to “April in Paris,” a song that has complex origins, and one that celebrates the daydreamer in all of us. Its roots come from the hardest of economic times, the Great Depression, and the melody and lyric transports listeners to a more hopeful setting. Cast aside by critics after its initial performance, “April in Paris” has been a part of the American vernacular for 10 decades, and is as relevant now as it ever was.

The song “April in Paris” was the result of a collaboration between Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Alexandrovich Dukelsky, 1903-1969) and Edgar Yipsel (“Yip”) Harburg (1896-1981). Duke was a Russian immigrant who fled his home country during the Bolshevik Revolution, while Harburg was born on the lower east side of Manhattan to Russian Orthodox parents—themselves having immigrated to the U.S. from Russia.

Ira Gershwin (right) and Vernon Duke, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing front, 1937. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c26075.

Both men ended up befriending the Gershwins, with Vernon Duke meeting George and Yip Harburg having gone to high school with Ira. There are some fascinating home movies made by the Gershwins from the Gershwin Trust Collection of the Library of Congress, including a 1936 cameo by Yip Harburg at 3:13.

Harburg and Duke would team up in 1933 on a musical revue, Walk a Little Faster, which was one of the few musicals mounted during the Great Depression. The show ran preview performances in Boston before its New York run, and the reviews were less than flattering. A local critic described one of the songs from the show, “April in Paris,” as “an unnecessary item,” possibly because of an impaired performance, as the singer had laryngitis. Despite the lack of acclaim, the song continued to have a life of its own.

Sarah Vaughan, half-length portrait, seated, with hands at her shoulders, facing right, 1953. From New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005681108/

“April in Paris” was propelled into the big band era with recordings by Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. It picked up steam again in 1952, when it was recorded by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. That same year, Hollywood released the Doris Day movie under the same name. The song also became a part of the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and Coleman Hawkins.

Count Basie half-length portrait, seated at piano, facing right, 1955. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00650704/

Arguably, the most memorable performance came from Count Basie in 1955. Remembered for its novelty “fake-out” ending (the tune appears to end, and Basie shouts, “One more time!” and then, “One more once!”), it became an unforgettable staple on the band’s playlist. It was even used for a Basie cameo in the 1974 film Blazing Saddles.

Unfortunately, the professional collaboration between Duke and Harburg did not last as long as the legacy of “April in Paris.” Duke strongly believed in his own abilities, and was not easy to get along with. He was interested in concert music, having written a ballet when he was only eight years old, and would later compose a cello concerto and three symphonies. He was encouraged by Sergei Prokofiev and received several commissions from Serge Koussevitzky. Yip Harburg would later become the lyricist for Finian’s Rainbow and, most notably, The Wizard of Oz.

This April, be sure to enjoy some of the holdings listed below from the NLS Music Section. To borrow any braille and large print music or recorded materials mentioned in this blog, you may access BARD or request a copy by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected]. As the song goes, “April in Paris / This is the feeling / No one can ever reprise.”

 

Brown, Bill. Somewhere over the Rainbow. Bill Brown teaches how to play an easy piano arrangement of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” without using music notation. (DBM02414)

Duke, Vernon. “Autumn in New York.” For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM27041)

Fifty Popular Songs for Piano, book 2. Includes “April in Paris” for piano in bar by bar format. (BRM27127)

Harburg, E. Y. You’re a Builder Upper: E. Y. Harburg. E. Y. Harburg, lyricist of Finian’s Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz, relates America’s history as a “melting pot” to the songwriting scene. (DBM00553)

Lane, Burton. No Sad Songs for me. Burton Lane discusses his collaboration with E.Y. Harburg in writing the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow and its most famous song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”. (DBM00554)

Simon, William, ed. Treasury of Great Show Tunes. For voice and piano in bar over bar format with chord symbols and guitar chord diagrams. Includes “April in Paris” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” (BRM33629)

Super Standards. For voice and easy piano with chord symbols and guitar chord diagrams. Includes “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York.” (LPM00683)

 

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