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Donna Lee (1947)

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Origin and Chart Information
“[Jaco’s] solo on ‘Donna Lee’ ...is even more notable for being one of the freshest looks at how to play on a well traveled set of chord changes in recent jazz history.”

- Pat Metheny

Rank 194
Written by Miles Davis

Although for generations “Donna Lee” has been credited to Charlie Parker, it was actually a Miles Davis composition based on the chord changes to “Indiana.” The authorship of the tune came to light when Gil Evans (who later arranged some of Davis’ most successful albums) sought permission from Parker to arrange the song for Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra. Parker referred him to Davis who gave Evans the go-ahead.

This information is confirmed by several sources including Brian Priestley’s Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker and Stephanie Stein Crease’s Gil Evans: Out of the Cool. In Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis author J. K. Chambers relates a comment by Med Flory, a saxophonist who arranged a lot of Parker material for the group Supersax. His comments, made during a blindfold test at Down Beat, came before Evans’ discovery. When Flory heard “Donna Lee” he said, “It doesn’t sound like a Parker chart. It sounds like Miles wrote it.”

Priestley goes on to say, “The fact that its opening idea has been described as deriving from a Fats Navarro solo (on Ice Freezes Red, a version of the same chord sequence) at least underlines that this is much more of a trumpeter’s phrase than a saxophonist’s, especially played at this pitch.” In Priestley’s notes at the end of the book he offers an explanation for the confusion of authorship. “James Patrick demonstrated (notes to Savoy S5J5500) that Charlie’s contracts usually provided for the record company to purchase rights to all the original compositions he recorded. Thus, if one happened to be written by a sideman, it was still likely to be credited to the bandleader.”


More on Charlie Parker at JazzBiographies.com

“Donna Lee” was first recorded in May, 1947, by Charlie Parker’s All Stars which included Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Speculation is that the tune was named for bassist Curly Russell’s daughter. The intricate melody is very difficult and isn’t one to be undertaken lightly. Trumpeter Clifford Brown’s improvisation on “Donna Lee” is considered a stellar performance and can be heard on the Columbia release The Beginning and the End. The recording date, usually attributed to the day before Brown’s death, has been corrected to May, 1955, by Brown’s biographer Nick Catalano in Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter.

Another legendary performance of “Donna Lee” was recorded by electric bassist Jaco Pastorius in his self-titled debut album as a leader (1976) accompanied only by Don Alias on congas. In the liner notes (available in their entirety on Pastorius’ web site) to the 2000 reissue, guitarist Pat Metheny has this to say about Jaco’s rendition: “His solo on ‘Donna Lee,’ beyond being astounding for just the fact that it was played with a hornlike phrasing that was previously unknown to the bass guitar, is even more notable for being one of the freshest looks at how to play on a well traveled set of chord changes in recent jazz history--not to mention that it’s just about the hippest start to a debut album in the history of recorded music.”

Among the musicians who have met the challenges of “Donna Lee” are reed man Anthony Braxton who has recorded it several times, the duo saxophones of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, Latin jazz artist Tito Puente, baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, and trumpeters Wallace Roney and Ryan Kisor, whose album is entitled Donna Lee. On her 1997 Daydream album vocalist/pianist Karrin Allyson scats through “Donna Lee/(Back Home Again in) Indiana” in a rendition that she co-arranged with Bill McGlaughlin.

- Sandra Burlingame

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