View Poll Results: Who do YOU think composed "Donna Lee"?

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  • Charlie Parker

    25 55.56%
  • Miles Davis

    20 44.44%
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  1. #1

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    Though it would be fun to have a poll on this. For reference: Wikipedia's Reliable Sources™ say it's by Miles, but a case can easily be made for Bird's authorship.
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  3. #2

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    I think one argument in favor of Miles Davis as being the composer is that the tune isn't nearly as interesting/complex/intricate rhythmically speaking as all the (rest of the) tunes Bird composed. FWIW, I agree with that view and voted accordingly.

  4. #3

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    There is a pretty detailed discussion of this in a chapter of the book The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music, supporting the claim that Miles Davis wrote the tune.
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  5. #4

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    Don't forget Fats Navarro's contribution (check out the end of his intro for the Indiana contrafact, Ice Freezes Red):


  6. #5

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    It had a complicated origin.
    The drummer/arranger/composer, Tiny Kahn wrote a tune similar to Donna Lee that was recorded by the Terry Gibbs Quintet in the early 40s, before Bird or Miles played it.
    The Fats Navarro tune mentioned by PMB above is also very similar to DL.
    I don't think Miles wrote, or could even play DL, and he stole so many tunes that this was probably just another example of that.
    Phil Schaap did a program on WKCR about the song's genesis, with the clarinetist Aaron Sachs, who played Tiny's contrafact (aka 'silent melody') on 'Indiana'.

    The truth probably is that it evolved out of either Kahn's or Navarro's ideas, and was played at jam sessions in the 40s, until someone wrote it out in its present form.

    When I used to gig with Aaron Sachs, he called it ' the line that they played on Indiana'.

  7. #6

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    It doesn't sound like a Bird head to me. I don't know if it was Miles or someone else, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Bird.

  8. #7

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    Bud Powell's impro version of Indiana sounds just like DL..
    Last edited by cosmic gumbo; 06-20-2016 at 10:48 PM.

  9. #8

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    it doesn't sound like a bird head to me either

    sgcim sounds like he has the facts at his fingertips - very plausible - and love the name

    its almost like a study or etude - and bird would never have done anything remotely like a study or an etude

    its also got a kind of pedagogic thing going on - this is how we make the changes now

  10. #9

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    Quote Originally Posted by sgcim View Post
    The truth probably is that it evolved out of either Kahn's or Navarro's ideas, and was played at jam sessions in the 40s, until someone wrote it out in its present form.
    Listening to Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, I think this is almost certainly true.

    In which case, it's possible that Miles did write it out—and then realized he couldn't play it.
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  11. #10

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    Almost any chorus of Bud's solo on Indiana had ideas that were similar to or just as good as DL. In the mid to late 40s, he was at his best- genius.

  12. #11

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    I brought this up with L. Coryell awhile back. I mentioned that Miles claimed to have written it. (I think he claims this in his autobiography) L.C. said it was Bird's but there's a different ending that Miles played than the one out in the fake books. L.C. played it for me ... he learned it from someone who gigged with Miles, an organist if my memory is correct. FWIW

  13. #12

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    The really interesting discussion by Douglas Parker, "'Donna Lee' and the Ironies of Bebop" in Oliphant's The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music explores the lines of connection between this tune and the various others, and suggests Miles Davis wrote it as a kind of joking send-up of a Fats Navarro line, designed also to answer those who claimed Miles didn't have speed-chops. That Davis then couldn't play it at tempo was itself ironic, and that the tune continued to be played faster and faster adds to the irony.

    The last paragraph is interesting:

    "Marked cross from the womb and perverse, misnamed and misattributed, misconceived and misconstrued, a feisty emblem of the new music that respectfully preserved the old, homage and satire at once, an affirmation of the composer's performance ability that he was unable to perform, a mighty monument with a moppet's monicker misused to measure machismo — this is Donna Lee, a grab-bag of ironies that spring from many curious sources, ironies that interbreed and somehow continue in effect as time and distance increase." (p. 201)
    - Lawson
    "Whenever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense." - Thornton Wilder, Our Town

  14. #13

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    I certainly don't know who wrote Donna Lee, but on another thread there was a discussion about 'borrowed chord progressions' and I raised the issue of "contrafacts" which according to Wikipedia is essentially a song where the composer creates a new melody over a well know chord progression. It noted in the article that this was a practice in the '40's amongst bebop musicians in part to avoid having to pay royalties. The article cites Donna Lee as being a contrafact of Indiana. I'm just referencing this because some might like to read the article in question in Wiki for further discussion. Kind of interesting. Maybe that is why the two songs resemble each other but with a different melody.

  15. #14

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    Targuit brings up a good point, I think. The list of contrafacts in jazz is a long one, and can be found in various method/theory/etc books. Not confined to, but certainly illustrated by, a common practice in the beginnings-of-bebop period.

  16. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by PaulHintz View Post
    a common practice in the beginnings-of-bebop period.
    Case in point:

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  17. #16

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    I am suggesting Lester Young for the melodic idea check out his solo on Indiana

  18. #17

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    "The piece is most likely named after bassist Curly Russell's daughter, Donna Lee Russell.[1][2][5]
    Charles Mingus offers an alternative origin in his quasi-autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, which describes a period in his life when he had two "wives" named Donna and Lee-Marie. Allegedly, when he introduced them to Davis, Mingus referred to them as "Donna-Lee" because he perceived them both as a single wife."

    Well, that's interesting.

    Miles Davis claims he wrote it and I believe him and it was a tribute of sorts. He borrowed heavily from others.

    I write contrafacts. It's my big F U to the establishment.

    Miles wrote Donna Lee.

  19. #18

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    The actual musical content sounds a lot closer to Fats Navarro in terms of phrasing than Bird: the phrases are longer and there aren't any shorter syncopated phrases that appear a lot in almost every Bird head.

    The story I heard is that Miles wrote it down based on a bunch of licks Fats Navarro played on "Ice Freezes Red".

  20. #19

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    Miles. It's a contrafact of Indiana.

    I'm not recommending this video, the breathless excitement's all a bit much really :-)


  21. #20

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    I vote for John Lewis. He apparently wrote a few tunes Miles pilfered. Like the original Milestones.

  22. #21

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    Charlie Parker was simply incapable of composing something as rhythmically straightforward as Donna Lee.

    Miles on the other hand - well DL is rather similar to Little Willie Leaps - also his soloing style at that time?

  23. #22

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    Oh, at this rate it was probably Bob Dylan :-)

  24. #23

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    The line seems like piano. But I believe in Phil Schaap.


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  25. #24

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    Well now, interesting. I never thought about this. If you read Mingus' Beneath The Under Dog, he talks about the big love of his life, Donna Lee/Lee-Marie. I looked it up and he's also one of those who claimed to have written that song. He wasn't known for claiming song credit that wasn't his. It's not far-flung. He did SOME contrafacts. And those triplets a lot.

    But also in the fray is Fats Navarro. It sounds like he could've written it as well.

  26. #25

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    Let's make a vow to resurrect this thread every year to say the same things.

    So...the story goes that Miles and Bird couldn't get Bud Powell to play Indiana in Ab, which horn players preferred for that set of changes. Bud insisted on playing it in F, the original key, because he'd been killing that tune with his trio in F. Well, they thought if they wrote a new head for Indiana in Ab, they could trick Bud into playing in the key they wanted to play in. Naming the tune Donna Lee, after Bud's bassist's (Curly Russell) daughter made it easier to get Powell to play it.

    Who wrote it? It doesn't matter. Bird and Miles got Powell to play those changes in Ab, that's all that mattered.

  27. #26

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    Lol. Awesome. I never heard that. I guess I never read the thread, as usual. Lol.


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  28. #27

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    Also Mingus and Miles played together a lot in the early days. It conceivable Miles took a Mingus chart and altered it.

    But I always wondered who the hell Donna Lee was. As far as I know she was Mingus' girlfriend.

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  29. #28

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    Quote Originally Posted by sgcim View Post
    I don't think Miles wrote, or could even play DL, and he stole so many tunes that this was probably just another example of that.
    Miles, as a leader, took writing credit for pieces by his sidemen, just as other leaders have done (Monk got sole writing credit for Eronel at first, for instance). That actually supports the idea that Miles really wrote DL and Bird, as the leader, took the writing credit. When Miles became a leader himself he figured it was his turn and took writing credit for Nardis, for instance. That's what I assume.

  30. #29

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    A lot of the tunes started as heads made up at jam sessions, so there was always issues between them who wrote what. The old cats I get to hang with their discussion always become "when did the mofo write something else like that???".
    No, I'm not going to give you the answer to your question. I don't want to deny you the pleasure you'll receive when you figure it out yourself. -- Bill Evans talking to his brother.

  31. #30

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  32. #31

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    There are seriously more people who think Parker composed Donna Lee than Miles Davis? SMH.

  33. #32

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    In school, I was always told, "well, it's common knowledge that Miles wrote it." So I always answer that Miles wrote it, but it seems somewhere between Miles and Bird. Definitely too simple for Bird. ...I don't know.

    It never felt like Miles was comfortable playing it. Can I say that? Oh well, he's still a hell of a lot more comfortable playing it than I am.

    I think I'll stop talking now. :-)

  34. #33

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    Quote Originally Posted by ScottM View Post
    In school, I was always told, "well, it's common knowledge that Miles wrote it." So I always answer that Miles wrote it, but it seems somewhere between Miles and Bird. Definitely too simple for Bird. ...I don't know.

    It never felt like Miles was comfortable playing it. Can I say that? Oh well, he's still a hell of a lot more comfortable playing it than I am.

    I think I'll stop talking now. :-)
    I'm not the best person at playing my tunes by a long shot.

  35. #34

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    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77 View Post
    There are seriously more people who think Parker composed Donna Lee than Miles Davis? SMH.
    Why SMH? Miles was famous for stealing tunes. Even though he was playing with Bird at the time, the song seems uncharacteristic for Miles.


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  36. #35

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    I find Donna Lee to be uncharacteristic of Parker, almost a parody of him, therefore I think young Davis wrote the great line.

  37. #36

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    Quote Originally Posted by henryrobinett View Post
    Why SMH? Miles was famous for stealing tunes. Even though he was playing with Bird at the time, the song seems uncharacteristic for Miles.


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    Little willie leaps?

  38. #37

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    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77 View Post
    Little willie leaps?
    Yes Miles wrote (or 'came up with'!) a few tunes in a very similar vein at that time. Another one is Sippin' at Bells. They are all on that Savoy session he did with Bird on tenor. Like Donna Lee, they have long lines of 8th notes with hardly any of those rhythmic rests/displacements that Bird tended to put into his tunes.

    So my vote goes to Miles. Even if he stole it!

  39. #38

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    I'm referring to this session:

    Miles Davis' All Stars

    Miles Davis, trumpet; Charlie Parker, tenor sax; John Lewis, piano; Nelson Boyd, bass; Max Roach, drums. Harry Smith Studios, NYC, August 14, 1947

    S3440-1 Milestones (orig.-take 1) Savoy 45-310, SJL 5500
    S3440-2 Milestones (new-take 2) Savoy 934, XP 8004, MG 9001, MG 12009, SJL 2201, SJL 5500
    S3440-3 Milestones (orig.-take 3) Savoy MG 12001, SJL 1107, SJL 5500

    S3441-1 Little Willie Leaps (short-take 1) Savoy MG 12001, SJL 5500
    S3441-2 Little Willie Leaps (new-take 2) Savoy MG 12001, SJL 1107, SJL 5500
    S3441-3 Little Willie Leaps (orig.-take 3) Savoy 977, 45-305, 4507, XP 8006, XP 8098, MG 9001, MG 9034, MG 12001, SJL 2201, SJL 5500

    S3442-1 Half Nelson (new-take 1) Savoy MG 12001, SJL 1107, SJL 5500
    S3442-2 Half Nelson (orig.-take 2) Savoy 951, 45-303, 4507, XP 8005, MG 9000, MG 12009, SJL 2201, SJL 5500

    S3443-1 Sippin' At Bells (short-take 1) Savoy MG 12009, SJL 5500
    S3443-2 Sippin' At Bells (orig.-take 2) Savoy 934, 45-306, XP 8004, MG 9000, MG 12009, SJL 2201, SJL 5500
    S3443-3 Sippin' At Bells (short-take 3) Savoy SJL 5500
    S3443-4 Sippin' At Bells (new-take 4) Savoy MG 12001, SJL 1107, SJL 5500

  40. #39

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    Quote Originally Posted by grahambop View Post
    I'm referring to this session:

    Miles Davis' All Stars

    ... Half Nelson ..
    Interesting set of coincidences ...,

    - I did not know about this tune, this today is the first time I've ever heard of it .
    - Couple of months ago, for the pourpose of Practical Standards thread, I renamed "Embraceable You" to "Half Nelson",
    - On that recording, I played somewhat twisted head of "Donna Lee" in place of "improvised solo".
    If anybody's interested, you can check it on my YT channel, or on my blog page, post from 22. Feb. 2018.

    Listening to these Savoy recordings, Miles Stars ..., must say it's some almost too good to be true stuff. Parker on tenor - cool ... Miles sounds better than anywhere, anytime .... Jazz ... Nice ...

    Back on topic and comments about Donna Lee, ever since I learned that melody, it is about the only melody I want to play. Probably the best Jazz melody ever conceived.
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  41. #40

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    Just to confuse matters, 'Half Nelson' is in fact a contrafact of Tadd Dameron's 'Lady Bird'.

    Dexter Gordon and James Moody did a good version where they incorporated both themes.

  42. #41

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    Don't know for sure who wrote it but I'll bet that if Jimmy Page ever records it, I know who'll get the credits.
    Ignorance is agony.



  43. #42

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    Not sure that Miles could complain anyway, seeing as he stole 'Solar' from Chuck Wayne.