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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

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Donna Lee”

Original KeyAb major
Form A - B - A - C
TonalityPrimarily major
MovementRapid scale/chromatic movement in both directions, with rising and falling arpeggios outlining chord extensions

Comments     (assumed background)

A “be-bop” head based on the chord progression of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” it is worth comparing the two in order to see how later jazz players modified the harmonic progressions of older “pop” and show tunes and how they evolved with the addition of chord extensions and altered tones.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Donna Lee" may be found in:

Alyn Shipton
A New History of Jazz
Continuum International Publishing Group
Paperback: 956 pages

(One paragraph on Gil Evans’ arrangement of the song for Claude Thornhill.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
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Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
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By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Gil Evans was the brilliant arranger for many of trumpeter Miles Davis’ recordings. Evans’ second job was with pianist Claude Thornhill’s big band. Following World War II the band changed course, adopting more modern jazz sounds. Gil’s arrangement of “Donna Lee” from 1947 is strikingly ahead of its time.

Originally influenced by swing era tenor saxophonists, Wardell Gray modified his style with the emergence of bebop. His performance of “Donna Lee” from 1952, in the company of young trumpeter Art Farmer and drummer Shelly Manne, easily exhibits why he was admired by other tenors like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.

A 1956 live performance in Philadelphia by trumpeter Clifford Brown was his last prior to an auto accident that resulted in his untimely death. After an incredibly moving performance, he thanks the audience and says his final “goodbye.”

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Claude Thornhill
ASV Living Era CD AJA 572

Wardell Gray
From Hollywood. Fresh Sound
Swiss) FSRCD157

Clifford Brown
The Beginning and the End
Sony 66491

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Donna Lee.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Charlie Parker’s 1947 recording of “Donna Lee” (The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes) features both the song’s credited (Parker) and actual (Miles Davis) composers. It is certainly the definitive version of the song and a crowning moment of the bebop movement. Later that year, Claude Thornhill’s band recorded an important big band version of the tune (1947 Transcription Performances) that served as an announcement of Gil Evans’ arrival as an important arranger. Ten years later Clark Terry recorded “Donna Lee” (Serenade to a Bus Seat), a standout example among the numerous bop-influenced recordings that followed.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
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Charlie Parker
The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes
Savoy Jazz
Original Recording 1947

The original studio version of “Donna Lee” features a powerhouse solo by Charlie Parker, as well as strong solo contributions by Miles Davis on trumpet and Bud Powell on piano. This is one of the definitive examples of 1940s bebop.

Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh
Lee Konitz With Warne Marsh
Koch Records
Original Recording 1955

Saxophonists and Lennie Tristano disciples Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh interpret “Donna Lee” with a melody statement that is tight as a whip, yet rhythmically displaced in unpredictable ways. They both solo brilliantly, mixing the best of bebop and cool jazz. Pianist Sal Mosca and drummer Kenny Clarke are featured as well.

Clark Terry
Serenade to a Bus Seat
Original Recording 1957

At a challenging tempo, Terry’s quintet burns through “Donna Lee” with ease. Terry takes a fabulous trumpet solo, and there are also featured moments for saxophonist Johnny Griffin, pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, while bassist Paul Chambers keeps it all together.

Anthony Braxton
In the Tradition 2
Original Recording 1974

Multi-reed visionary Braxton stirred up some controversy on this recording, largely due to his choice to play “Donna Lee” on contrabass clarinet. The recording is fascinating and also features the straight-ahead yet flexible rhythm section of pianist Tete Montoliu, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
Original Recording 1975

Accompanied only by Don Alias on percussion, electric bassist Pastorius offers up one of his signature performances, one that helped to cement his status as a dominant influence on the instrument. He plays a fluid, inventive solo as well as playing the melody seemingly effortlessly.

Karrin Allyson
Concord Records
Original Recording 1997

Vocalist Allyson offers an impressive scat interpretation of “Donna Lee” and cleverly juxtaposes it against “Indiana,” the tune that served as its harmonic basis. The cast of guest artists contributing to this track includes influential vibraphonist Gary Burton.


- Noah Baerman

Bill Charlap
Along With Me
1994 Chiaroscuro 326
Original recording 1993
Pianist Charlap retains the enthusiasm and energy of Parker’s original but adds his own introspective variations on the theme, allowing the music to dictate where it goes.
Stefano Di Battista
Parker's Mood
2005 Blue Note 66740
Original recording 2005
Di Battista unleashes his inner Bird with this furious and mesmerizing reading. The saxophonist is so fleet of finger it is a wonder his sidemen (including Kenny Barron at piano) can keep up.
Art Pepper
Modern Jazz Classics
2002 Original Jazz Classics 341
Original recording 1959
Pepper revisits the song on 1981s Arthur’s Blues, but it is here that the listener gets a good sense of the saxophonist’s laid-back, West Coast cool aesthetic played over a small band arrangement by Marty Paich.
Bireli Lagrene
Live in Marciac
1996 Dreyfus 36567

Guitarist Lagrene was a prodigy who was early associated with the music and style of Django Reinhardt, but the scope of his talent and interests has far outstripped that early pidgeon-holing. This is a brilliant live performance of “Donna Lee” with Chris Min Doky (bass) and Andre Cecarelli (drums).
Bobby Enriquez
Live! in Tokyo
Gnp Crescendo

Enriquez wasn’t called “The Wildman” for nothing. The Filipino pianist was a man of prodigious technique and energy, and his version of “Donna Lee” is nothing short of amazing.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Miles Davis

Year Rank Title
1947 194 Donna Lee
1959 248 All Blues
1958 287 Milestones
1954 402 Solar
1959 426 Blue in Green
1959 435 So What
1954 537 Four
1959 633 Nardis
1953 652 Tune Up
1947 851 Sippin' At Bell's
1948 894 Half Nelson

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