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When Leaves Wither...

A Handshake Between Two Art Forms

By Christian LeePublished 2 years ago 5 min read

My uncle once told me getting older weakens one’s endurance for the cold. Winter used to be my favorite season; I'm not a wallflower, but enjoy the ambiance of solitude intimated by snow. And yet it seems my uncle’s words caught up to me earlier than expected.

Artistic words caught up with me too. Now I revel in the autumn season. In two places I’ve seen autumn imbued with human creativity: jazz and poetry. These two art forms have dramatically impacted my life–and for the better.

One popular jazz standard named ‘Autumn Leaves’, which I heard over half a decade ago when still new to the art form, stays with me days on. Like any jazz standard, its unique way of storytelling incited many jazz musicians to make their own rendition of the tune.

But before I share with you my favorite version of this beautiful song, here’s a little history of the song’s origin.

It began as a poem in 1945, written by Jacques Prévert, who was a French poet and screenwriter. It was titled ‘Les Feuilles mortes’, which in English means ‘The Dead Leaves’.

It became a song composed by Joseph Kosma the same year, a music composer. And Johnny Mercer, a multi-talented expert in music, rendered an English translation of the song in 1947.

Here's a brief clip of a scene from the film 'Les Portes de la nuit', showing a gentleman sort of idle and slipping into playing the melody on a harmonica.

And here's some words translated from Prévert’s lyrics…

The dead leaves picked up by the shovel

You see, I did not forget

The dead leaves picked up by the shovel

The memories as well as the regrets

Mournful, isn’t it? Yet the message is clear that at first read it feels impossible to not sympathize with Prévert. I came close to a serious romantic relationship, but never experienced that kind of love–to lose it and feel heartbroken.

When I heard ‘Autumn Leaves’ the first time, it was by Professor Goldsmith, an instructor for a piano class I had to take years ago. He played it a few times so I was assured of how to approach the song.

To no surprise, I enjoyed learning the song, inspired by him, and felt engulfed by an autumnal air whenever I got behind the piano.

But I never finished learning the song. It was a year or two later I stumbled upon a ‘Portrait in Jazz’, an album by the Bill Evans trio. Every song there is of singular and rich quality, especially ‘Autumn Leaves’. Yes, Bill Evans' rendition of ‘Autumn Leaves’ is my favorite version. It digs up memories from the mind–uptempo, and ever so gently.

Here's a live version of the trio playing the song:

Call it coincidence or a sign–either way I felt differently about love in so profound a way that I wondered how an instrumental song could bring my mind to the autumn air.

That wasn’t the first time I felt the power of music in such a way. The allocation of notes was clear, just as the lucid words of W.B. Yeats, a favorite modern poet of mine who composed ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’.

It’s a poem that moves in introspection, told by a man who’s mesmerized at the sight and vigor of swans. Unlike ‘Les Feuilles mortes’, it’s not focused on loss and romance–at least not so directly. Rather it takes the reader through imagery typical of the fall…

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight

The water mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty-swans.

These opening lines captivated me at first sight. I read this years ago–thinking, dreaming, and hoping to write like this one day. This stanza alone is rich of poetry’s ingredients.

But after reading this one-sentence introduction to the poem countless times, I realized two pivotal elements stood out to me: Yeats diction and rhythm.

As was often with Yeats poems, especially after remodeling his writing style by influence of Ezra Pound–a ginormous giant of modern literature–his choice of words and rhythm grew, it seems, to be his chief means of achieving high poetic beauty.

It’s no easy feat to compose a one-sentence stanza, to keep a steady and consistent rhythm, and neatly pack distinct forms of nature together.

In my recently published story called ‘Beginning The Poetic Journey’ (here on Vocal,) I regarded beauty as only capable of being felt–not seen...I love being pulled to contradiction when I read “The trees are in their autumn beauty,”. For what does that even mean!?

This is where the imagination comes into play. Along with “dry woodland paths”, a “still sky”, wet stones and “nine-and-fifty swans”, I see varied colorful leaves preparing to fall and decay. But the word “leaves” is never used in the poem.

How ironic, although this neither lessens nor wrecks the quality of the poem. In fact, any mindful reader will sense that leaves are very much a part of this lyric-written piece.

And in poetry: conceiving is believing.

I believe the shared theme between ‘Les Feuilles mortes’ and ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ is that things come and go. “Fate” can be forever-interpreted, but the evidence of a forthcoming winter is inevitable.

Thinking of winter in this light reminds me of why I loved it for so long; save for weather complications due to global warming, I can’t imagine experiencing any season beyond a quarter of a year (in New York City there's been snow in the springtime).

I grew up athletic from very young, mostly playing football and basketball. I enjoyed playing football in the winter. As I ventured into my 20s, literature and music stepped in. I left sports behind, and now, I steer the helm on drumming and writing.

I never expected this transition in life. But “the memories as well as the regrets” still surface to my conscience. For I don’t believe any person living beyond a score hasn’t regretted something at least once in their life.

Perhaps we all have an autumn beauty as well, that we bloom in or at something–be it a relationship, craft, or some other discipline or form of engagement.

These are moments of critical transition. It reminds me of rap artist Eminem’s hardcore lyrics from the chorus of the song ‘Lose Yourself’:

You better lose yourself in the music

The moment, you own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo

You better lose yourself in the music

The moment, you own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo

You better…

I feel the same way. Get “lost”, but focus on the moment and persevere.

My uncle often repeats to me a story about his glory days of playing basketball. He had a popular epithet: Bear. No, there was nothing grisly or “grizzly” about him. He simply wasn’t easy to move pass or get around to the hoop. That form of character never chiseled into my life, rather as a young Tim Duncan, except I could run fast and was a decent shooter.

Yes, my favorite basketball team was the Spurs. They displayed exceptional teamwork and harmony which led to earning a few championship rings. The same harmony is reflective of 'Les Feuilles mortes' and 'Autumn Leaves'.

Now my home for expression is the arts'. Particular leaves of my life are gone. And no memory feels anachronistic.

*If you enjoyed this personal story, leave a comment below, or share with friends. Cheers!*


About the Creator

Christian Lee

My nom de plume is Lee Arachnid; think: spider-poet. Here you will find non-fiction and poetry. I interweave elements of nature and my personal experience into uniquely crafted stories. I love idleness, Felidae, literature, and soundscapes.

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    Christian LeeWritten by Christian Lee

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