Editor’s Note: Russian-born, naturalized American Vernon Duke (1903–1969) is best remembered for popular songs such as “April in Paris” (a sort of theme song and big instrumental hit for the Count Basie “Second Testament” band), “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Autumn in New York.” But he might not have been happy that his legacy turned out this way, for he was also a prolific composer of “serious” or “classical” music. Half of who Duke was as a musician never made the impact he hoped for; and the half that did reach the public was not always recognizable as a Duke creation.
Those Duke gems of the Great American Songbook and of the repertoire of a generation of American jazz musicians (an irony as Duke never much liked “real” jazz) are often attributed to some other songwriter. Most casual listeners assume that these songs were composed by Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, or Duke’s good friend, George Gershwin. Hipper listeners might mention Zelda Fitzgerald’s favorite composer, Vincent Youmans (of “Tea for Two” fame), or Harold Arlen (“Blues in the Night” and the songs from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz), or Burton Lane (“Old Devil Moon,” “How are Things in Glocca Mora,” and “On a Clear Day”).
But as his witty and insightful autobiography, Passport to Paris (1955), makes clear, Duke was a hard-working, ambitious composer not initially interested in writing popular music. He may never have pursued that course had he not been so enamored of Gershwin, or had there been greater commercial interest in his “serious” music. Yet there was some . . .