May 11, 2011

Tunes Miles May Not Have Written

So who actually wrote “Four,” “Tune Up,” “Blue in Green,” “Solar,” Dig,” “Out of the Blue,” and “Donna Lee?” Maybe you already know about the questions concerning the authorship of these tunes, but here’s a story about how I came across some details of this little corner of jazz history.
About 10 years ago, I was proofreading my “Jazz Theory Handbook” with the help of my  friend Bob Murphy. Bob is a fine teacher/saxophonist, and has taught every summer, for years, at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. In the book, I had cited the tune “Dig’” as using pre-existing chord changes (the harmonic structure of “Sweet Georgia Brown”), and wanted to attribute the tune to the correct composer. Miles Davis was usually credited with “Dig,” but I had heard somewhere that it was actually written by Jackie McLean. I asked Bob if he knew about this, and he suggested, “Why not ask Jackie?” 
Jackie McLean was one of the bebop greats, an alto saxophonist a little younger than Charlie Parker, who came up in the 1950s. I would never have bothered him about this, but Jackie had taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop a couple of years earlier, and Bob thought he was a nice guy who wouldn’t mind. So how could I get in touch with him?
I called Herb Wong, a legend himself, who lives not far away. He didn’t know exactly how to contact Jackie, but gave me the name of a rep at the Berkeley Agency who might know. Herb also told me a story that he had heard from Bill Evans (I’m paraphrasing here): 
A few months after Miles’ album “Kind of Blue” had come out, Bill ran into Miles at a club, and asked him if perhaps he could receive some of the royalties from the song “Blue in Green,” which Bill had written. Miles didn’t say anything, but a few weeks later, Bill got a check in the mail from Miles, for $25. That was all he ever received in royalties for that song. (This story, related by Herb, also appears in “Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings,” the biography by Peter Pettinger.)    
I thanked Herb, and called the number he had given me. The agent said that she did not represent Jackie, but gave me the number of the agent who did. I called this next guy, who gave me Jackie’s number in Connecticut. I called that number, and got Jackie’s answering machine. I left a message explaining why I was calling.
About two weeks later, I got a call back from Jackie. He had been out of town. I asked him about “Dig.” He said that he had brought that tune to a recording session with Miles, in 1951. Sonny Rollins was there too, and had brought a tune called “Out of the Blue.” When the album came out, Miles was listed as the composer of both tunes. Jackie was willing to consider it an error by the recording engineer. He later talked to a lawyer about getting proper credit, but was told that the returns would not justify the cost of pursuing it, so he just let it go.
Then Jackie said. “Maybe you’ve heard that ‘Four’ and ‘Tune Up’ were written by Eddie Vinson.” I said that I had heard rumors to that effect. “And ‘Solar’ was written by Chuck Wayne.” I hadn’t heard that before. “Well, that’s what they say.” Jackie also mentioned that some people thought that “Donna Lee,” credited to Charlie Parker, had actually been written by Miles, but Jackie doubted that. In his opinion, Miles’ melodic sense at that point, early in his career, was not developed enough for him to have written it. I thanked Jackie for the call (I felt honored!), and we hung up.
The next Saturday, I told this story to my adult jazz combo class. After I said the word “Solar,” our pianist, Larry, said “Chuck Wayne.” I asked him how he knew that; Larry replied that he had heard it from a friend of his, whose girlfriend had known Chuck Wayne. 
According to Wikipedia, citing Ashley Kahn , “The Davis estate acknowledged Evans' authorship (of ‘Blue in Green’) in 2002.”
In his book “The Making of Kind of Blue,” Eric Nisenson recounts a conversation with Miles: 
I once asked him who wrote the tunes “Four” and “Tune Up.” He replied, “Eddie Vinson.” So I asked him why, then, the tunes listed Miles as sole composer. “Because I wrote them,” he replied. 
“But you just told me that Eddie Vinson wrote them.”
“What difference does it make?” he asked with mock exasperation.
For more about Chuck Wayne and “Solar,” check out this essay on Bill Crow’s website.
About “Donna Lee,” I think Jackie is probably right. Miles insisted that he had written the tune, but there’s a lot about it that sounds like Charlie Parker. For example, the first notes are right at the top of the normal alto sax range, making a great entrance for the alto. The tune is quite alto-friendly. 
The lick over the F7 in bar 2 continues into the triplet at the beginning of bar 3, suggesting a b9/#9/b9 over an F7 that is prolonged into bar 3, even though the underlying chord has changed to Bb7. This sort of harmonic displacement is pretty  common in Parker’s solos. Then there is the "Honeysuckle Rose" quote in bar 15, and other Parkerisms. 
Of course, it’s possible that Miles, who was playing with Parker at the time, had thoroughly learned the idiom, and this was a particularly well-written effort of his. We’ll probably never know for sure. But comparing “Donna Lee” to Miles’ early compositions (“Half Nelson,”  “Sippin’ at Bells,” “Little Willie Leaps”), I see a different level of craftsmanship. 
Some people have pointed out that in those years, it was not unusual for leaders to take credit for the work of their sidemen. 
Miles was a truly great musician, and contributed an incredible amount to jazz as an art form. He led the way in several stylistic changes taken by jazz over the course of his career, and he promoted the careers of many other major talents (Coltrane, Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Kenny Garrett, etc., etc.). We owe him a lot. But he was a complex person.
Miles passed away in 1991 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. Here is a picture of his memorial. The notes inscribed on it are the first two measures of “Solar.”

(addendum 6/8/11) - according to Lewis Porter, we might add "The Serpent's Tooth," written by Jimmy Heath, to this list.

(addendum 1/19/14) - Here's another: "Milestones" (original), written by John Lewis and reportedly "given" to Miles as thanks for including Lewis in the recording session. Thanks to Staffan William-Olsson for bringing that up in his interesting comment - see comments, below. Apparently this is well-known history, but I hadn't been aware of it. 

(addendum 5/29/14) - Here's the "smoking gun"on the "Solar" question: a recording of Chuck Wayne playing the tune, eight years before Miles recorded it.

(addendum 11/27/15) - I guess "Walkin'/Sid's Ahead" should be added to the list. See this post.

(addendum 3/19/17) - Thanks to "Big Al" for the comment on "Donna Lee," below. According to Phil Schaap, "Donna Lee," or a tune very much like it, was written in 1946 by Aaron Sachs, and recorded by him in 1946 under the name "Tiny's Con." The Parker/Miles recording was May 8, 1947. Miles may have reworked "Tiny's Con." Other info on the web seems to suggest that it was recorded by Tiny Kahn. If anyone can give me a link to the recording, please do! Here's the link to Schaap's Facebook post:

(addendum 8/11/17) - Thanks to jazz author/pianist Brian Priestley for this contribution:
1) Just found your site thanks to Mike Fitzgerald. Two bits of hard info: John Lewis confirmed his authorship of the 1947 "Milestones" in a phone interview with me (1999) but denied writing any of the other tunes recorded at that session;
2) Gil Evans (speaking to me in 1987) was very affirmative that "Donna Lee" was Miles's tune and confirmed that he sought Miles's permission to adapt it for the Claude Thornhill band - but then he probably didn't know about "Tiny's Con". Incidentally, the writer Max Harrison (cite not to hand) pointed out the opening phrase of "Donna Lee" is a quotation of Fats Navarro's solo on "Ice Freezes Red", three months earlier than "Donna Lee."

(addendum 3/28/21) - Miles' "So What" seems to owe a lot to Ahmad Jamal's "New Rhumba" - check it out here.


Anonymous said...

Bird must have written "Donna Lee". Both the technical difficulty and displaced melodies are emblematic of Parker. Also, how could Miles have written a piece he could not play properly? Listen to clams he plays on the All Stars recording.

Duke Earl

Anonymous said...

Milestones (the old one) was written by John Lewis, and I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote Sippin' At Bells (same chord changes as "Dance Of The Infidels") and Half Nelson (Lady Bird). I dont think Parker wrote Donna lee - he never wrote songs with long strings of eigth-notes. Fats Navarro may have written part of it (he used to play Indiana in Ab, e.g. "Ice Freezes Red") and Miles Davis finished it, using some of Navarro's signature licks.

Staffan WIlliam-Olsson

Peter Spitzer said...

Thanks, Steffan - great comment.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember that Joe Zawinul said he wrote "In A Silent Way", and that Miles also claimed authorship for that tune.

Stefano said...

Hi Steffan, I see now your comment. I agree with your guess about Milestones, but what reference you have?

Ricardo da Mata said...

Congratulations! This is a fascinating text.

Anonymous said...

This thread has some interesting insights en regards to Donna Lee: reading-who-do-you-think-composed-donna-lee.html

Peter Spitzer said...

Thanks, very interesting thread! The URL above has some extra spaces that Blogger won't let me edit. This one will work: At the moment the votes are 7 in favor of Parker, 5 for Miles.

Big Al said...

Tiny's Con (by drummer Tiny Kahn) in F was recorded some time before Donna Lee. Courtesy of Phil Schaap.

Big Al said...

Donna Lee was first recorded as Tiny's Con in F (Tiny Kahn)
courtesy of Phil Schaap

Peter Spitzer said...

Big Al - Thanks! Any idea where I can listen to "Tiny's Con"?

From what I could see on Phil Schaap's Facebook page ( and googling the song, Miles reworked it in some way.

Garsax said...

Dig by Miles Davis was recorded in prestige 1951 then 7 months later as Donna on Blue note credited to Jackie McClean..
Donna lee was a female bassist on the NY scene that Bird famously ripped off at a gas station..later on when he met her he said he would repay her by dedicating a tune to her essentially making her famous.."Robert Reisner"

Garsax said...

Sonny Clark "cool strutting" quote:"sipping at Bells" a Charlie tune was the first in my jazz record collection.I never had an opportunity to play with bird. I did meet him once in Chicago in 1954 during my first trip there with Buddy de Franco.Bird encouraged me to continue playing I admire those early bird tunes. This one for its melody as well as its changes. Its a 12 bar blues with sort of advanced changes."
Go figure??

Unknown said...

1) Just found your site thanks to Mike Fitzgerald. Two bits of hard info: John Lewis confirmed his authorship of the 1947 "Milestones" in a phone interview with me (1999) but denied writing any of the other tunes recorded at that session;
2) Gil Evans (speaking to me in 1987) was very affirmative that "Donna Lee" was Miles's tune and confirmed that he sought Miles's permission to adapt it for the Claude Thornhill band - but then he probably didn't know about "Tiny's Con". Incidentally, the writer Max Harrison (cite not to hand) pointed out the opening phrase of "Donna Lee" is a quotation of Fats Navarro's solo on "Ice Freezes Red", three months earlier than "Donna Lee"

Peter Spitzer said...

Many thanks, Brian!

Unknown said...

Hi Peter,

Thank you for the great scholarship on this topic, it is fascinating.

Based on my analysis of Miles's style I would like to offer the following ideas.

I believe Miles wrote Donna Lee. Stylistically it fits with his description of how he was crafting his voice on trumpet as well as his band leading and compositional skills during the 1947 period. In his autobiography he cites this as a high point in is development.

The melody displays a thorough grasp of the bebop language, which Miles was studying around the clock at this time. His work ethic was admirable in this period and he was seen as the leader of Bird's group. Miles would call rehearsals and even count off tunes on the bandstand. See pages 100-105.

A few months later, during the recoding session for Half Nelson, Sippin' At Bells, etc. (the famous "Bird on tenor" session), Miles's compositional, arranging, and band leading skills are on full display.

I am publishing two volumes on Miles's work for the online guitar school TrueFire:

adamponting said...

I can't hear many similarities between Donna Lee and Tiny's Con at all, besides having the same idea–"uptempo bebop tune on Indiana".

Wow, that Ice Freezes Red is eye-opening! Donna Lee sounds written in exactly Fats' style on that. Besides the opening phrase mentioned above, at 0:37 Fats plays what seems exactly the 5th last bar of Donna Lee (over B diminished).