In 1954 Miles Davis recorded two sessions for the Prestige label. The June session featured Davis on trumpet, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Davis opted to record three Rollins compositions during the session: “Oleo,” “Doxy,” and “Airegin.” In Sonny Rollins: The Definitive Musical Guide, author Peter Niklas Wilson says, “This probably represents a singular achievement for a musician officially hired as a sideman: he [Rollins] brings three compositions to a colleague’s recording session, all three are recorded, and all three immediately become jazz standards.” Wilson quotes Davis saying that Rollins hadn’t even finished the tunes when he brought them in: “‘He...rewrote them right in the studio. He would be tearing off a piece of paper and writing down a bar or a note or a chord....’”
The December session featured Milt Jackson on vibes and Thelonious Monk on piano with Davis, Heath, and Clarke. Selections from the two sessions appear on Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants and Bags Groove. The Rollins compositions were released on the Bags Groove album titled after the composition by vibist Jackson whose nickname was “Bags.”
Davis recorded a different version of “Airegin” in 1957 for his Cookin’ album which featured his quintet of saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
“Airegin,” an up tempo minor composition, was inspired by a magazine photograph of Nigerian dancers that had impressed Rollins, who said, “So the next song that I wrote I dedicated to the dancers, and I titled it ‘Airegin,’ which is Nigeria spelled backwards.”
Jon Hendricks wrote a lyric for “Airegin” which was performed by the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1959 and recorded in 1985 by the Manhattan Transfer with Hendricks scatting Rollins’ solo for the Transfer’s award-winning Vocalese album. The complex lyric paints a picture of Nigeria’s history from its innocent beginnings in the age of dinosaurs through the arrival of the white man and the influence of missionaries.
“Airegin,” a favorite of saxophonists, has been recorded by Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Don Braden, Michael Brecker, and Nick Brignola. But many other instrumentalists have recorded it as well: bassists David Friesen and Scott Colley, trumpeters Chet Baker and Claudio Roditi, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, guitarists Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, pianists Tete Montoliu and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and the Latin band of Tito Puente. Harmonica player Toots Thielemans used it as the title cut of his 1996 album.