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Avalon poster


Avalon is one of those interesting numbers that spans the ages. It emerged in 1920 when it was performed and co-written by Al Jolson. Jolson's collaborators on the tune were Buddy Gard De Sylva and Vincent Rose - Buddy De Sylva had performed on stage from the age of four in a song and dance act and he went on to compose and arrange with the Gershwins. His first hit Look For The Silver Lining, written with Jerome Kern, was also a hit in 1920. Later, with Lew Brown, Buddy De Sylva was responsible for a host of jazz standards including The Birth Of The Blues, Black Bottom, Varsity Drag, Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries and The Best Things In Life Are Free.

Vincent Rose came to America from Italy when he was seventeen. His band, Vincent Rose and his Montmartre Orchestra played for 35 years from around 1905. In 1920 he wrote Whispering with John Schonberger (lyric by Richard Coburn), a hit for Paul Whiteman, and Linger Awhile, written in 1923 with Harry Owens and recorded by Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. Perhaps his other best known tune is Blueberry Hill written with Larry Stock and Al Lewis, and recorded by Glenn Miller and Fats Domino.

And then Jolson, DeSylva and Rose ran into a problem. The Puccini estate took the tune to court where it was ruled that the melody had been nicked from an aria in the opera Tosca and the Puccini estate were awarded the royalties!


The aria was E lucevan le stelle ("And the stars were shining") sung by tenor Mario Cavaradossi, a painter in love with the singer Tosca, while he waits for his execution on the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo.




The above video lets us hear the aria sung by Placido Domingo filmed in 1992. The production was performed in the exact places of the Tosca libretto.

Now click here to listen to Al Jolson's version - same tune? Different style!




I found my love in Avalon
Beside the bay.
I left my love in Avalon
And I sailed away.
I dream of her in Avalon
From dusk till dawn.
So I think I'll travel on
To Avalon.


By the 1930s Avalon was doing well. The Benny Goodman Quartet recorded a version that they revisited years later in 1980 when Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman came back together with George Duvivier on bass for this film of them playing their swingtime version:




What do we know about the origins of the tune? Avalon is of course the mythical island in the legends of King Arthur where the sword Excalibur was forged and where Arthur went to recover after the Battle of Camlann. The word is thought to be from the old Welsh language aball, meaning "apple/fruit tree". The Welsh cleric and writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth who was a major influence in the popularity of the King Arthur legend, referred to it in Latin as Insula Avallonis in the Historia and later as Insula Pomorum the "isle of fruit trees" (from Latin pōmus "fruit tree"). Around 1190, Avalon became associated with the area around Glastonbury in Somerset, still seen by some as a mystical location. Visit it Avalonsometime and walk down the main road and alleys with the various spiritual shops and those selling crystals, dreamweavers, incense and herbal remedies.

What is now known as Glastonbury was, in ancient times, called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called Ynys Afallach, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit once grew in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, later the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called Ynys Gutrin in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name 'Glastingebury'. (The Glastonbury Music Festival does not actually take place in Glastonbury but in the nearby village of Pilton, but it offers an opportunity to visit Avalon).

I don't think Teddy Wilson ever played Glastonbury, but here is a video of him playing Avalon with the Dutch Swing College Band in 1976.




Every morn' my memories stray
Across the sea where flying fishes play.
And as the night is falling
I find that I'm recalling
That blissful all-enthralling day.


The only link between Somerset's Glastonbury and the DeSylva / Rose tune Avalon is the notion of a place of respite and recovery. The tune actually refers to Avalon - a holiday resort in California. Located on Santa Catalina, a rocky island in the California Channel Islands, Avalon is the southernmost city in Los Angeles County. Avalon Bay has a harbour and beaches forming the centre of the town's activity. The pedestrian walkway has decorated pavements, fountains, palm trees, and a fancy serpentine seawall. In the 1920s and 1930s Avalon was a popular resort destination for the film community of Hollywood.

Here is a video of Catalina Island in the 1930s.




The island was originally inhabited by the Tongva tribe who did good business mining and trading soapstone. When the Spanish sailed in, they claimed the island as theirs but by the 1830s, the island's entire native population were either dead or had migrated to the mainland. In time, seal hunters from Russia and America set up camps on the island killing otters and seals for their pelts. Pirates also found that the island had plenty of handy hidden coves, and the short distance to the mainland and its small population, made the island Avalon Harbourideal for smuggling activities.

In the 1850s–60s, rumours went round that there was gold on the island. There was a minor (sic) gold rush but they didn't find any. (Presumably the pirates had theirs well hidden!). Over the years the island was owned and sold to various owners. The development of the island as a holiday resort began at the end of the 19th century and in 1919 Mr William 'Chewing Gum' Wrigley owned most of the shares and it was he who put a lot of effort into developing the tourist trade. The family owned the island until 1975, never it seems biting off more than they could chew.

Avalon Harbour

In 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned in one of the harbours while on holiday with Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken; the island was a favourite escape place for Clark Gable who the fostered Marilyn Monroe, in her early years, pretended was her father. At seventeen, Marilyn married to avoid returning to her foster home, and she and her husband Jim Dougherty lived on Catalina Island when he was stationed there in 1943. You can see Avalon Harbour right now from their live cam:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream 


Catalina Island also stages the Jazztrax Festival each year. JazzTrax is an American radio station playing mainly smooth jazz and this year their 29th festival is in October - 'All Concerts held in the Historic 1929 Avalon Ballroom... looking Out To Sea'. Who is playing? Regrettably, names I do not recognise - Click here.

Beside the bay.
And I sailed away.
I dream of her in Avalon
From dusk till dawn.
So I think I'll travel on
To Avalon.


If you thought that the tune Avalon was reserved for the swing era, think again. Here is an excellent version from John Coltrane and Elmo Hope from 1956.




The album is Informal Jazz and the band is John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Donald Byrd (trumpet), Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone), Elmo Hope (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Here is another treat - a video of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass performing Avalon in Hanover in 1975. Ella stumbles with the lyrics at the beginning, apologises but doesn't break stride and goes on to show the wonderful working relationship she had with guitarist Joe Pass. Despite not developing the all the songs lyrics they make the tune work.




Although it is a diversion, it is worth going on to listen to them playing You Turned The Tables On Me from the same session.

Our final version comes from Art Pepper and Warne Marsh accompanied by images of the musicians, Avalon and Catalina Island. A suitable West Coast place to wind up.




(The tune is also on the Art Pepper The Complete Freewheeling Sessions album click here for the download).


I dream of her in Avalon
From dusk till dawn.
So I think I'll travel on
To Avalon.


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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Lover Man
I Found A New Baby
Just A Gigolo
Milneburg Joys

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2015