“Avalon” and ‘E Lucevan Le Stelle”

LAST Sunday we were at the Riverwalk Hotel (again) to hear Ian Smith’s Trio play and sing some good old jazz, and anything else the patrons may request.

We usually take along our “Bible of Jazz Words” to refresh our memories on some of the words. This time we decided to work through the alphabet for our quota of requests, and out of the “A’s” we chose “Avalon”.

Here the Trio comprising Ian Smith on cornet, Willie Purcell on guitar and Hermann Schwaiger on bass mess about delightfully with this jazz classic! It was late in the day so they weren’t taking themselves too seriously, but I think it’s brilliant.

Now, not only does the “Bible” contain the words of hundreds of jazz standards, it also includes composer, lyricist, and often the disc from which the words were transcribed, any films the tune may have featured in, and occasionally some note of interest about the song.

We found that “Avalon” was a popular song written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva and Vincent Rose in 1920. It was introduced by Jolson and his recording rose to number two on the charts in 1921.

The song was possibly written by Rose, but Jolson’s popularity as a performer allowed him to claim composer co-credit. It became a popular jazz standard, and has been recorded by many artists, including Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Durham and Nat King Cole amongst others.

The Benny Goodman Quartet played the song in their famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

But what was even more interesting was that the tune’s opening melody resembles a part of Giacomo Puccini’s aria “E lucevan le stelle”, from the opera “Tosca”. Puccini’s publishers sued the song’s composers in 1921 for use of the melody, and were awarded $25,000 and all subsequent royalties of the song by the court. Here’s a clip of Caruso singing the aria. Al Jolson’s father was a devotee of opera so I suppose it’s possible that Jolson may have heard this recording (Caruso died in 1921; Puccini died in 1924) and the melody remained in his brain subliminally.

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