The piece starts in the key of E flat minor.
A recording ban, imposed by the American Federation of Musicians from 1942-1944, prevented musicians in the nascent bebop movement from recording new works during the crucial formative period of this emerging genre. As a result, "Ko-Ko" is considered by many to be the very first time Bebop was ever recorded.
Charlie Parker said that while playing Ray Noble's tune "Cherokee," "I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing." He had played that piece so many times that by the end he hated it, but he had mastered the chords perfectly in all 12 keys. "Ko-Ko" has a partially improvised head and the chords are based on "Cherokee".
There a distinct 'jungle' feel to the piece, strongly held by the use of swing 8ths in the drums, also use of mallets on the toms. This is accompanied by syncopated off beats through the intro beat.
"Ko-Ko" was recorded on November 26, 1945, New York City at Savoy Records (MG 12079), with Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet and piano), Curley Russell (bass), and Max Roach (drums). Other recordings at this session were "Billie's Bounce", "Warming Up a Riff", "Now's the Time", "Thriving on a Riff", and "Meandering". The album The Charlie Parker Story (Savoy Jazz) (1945) came out of this session
[Duke Ellington also wrote and recorded a song called Ko-Ko in 1940 at Victor's studios in Chicago. The Duke Ellington Famous Orchestra, at that time, was completed by many good musicians as Cootie Williams, Wallace Jones, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwicke, Ben Webster and Harry Carney, added to the usual trombone section (Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol and Joe Tricky Sam Nanton) and rhythm section (Fred Guy, Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer and Ellington himself). See the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz vol.III to listen at the first issue.]
There were two takes:
In both Takes the piece starts with a 32-bar introduction, split into four 8-bar phrases, each likely written by Gillespie:
- Bars 1-8 - Alto saxophone and trumpet in unison octaves
- Bars 9-16 - Brief trumpet solo
- Bars 17-24 - Brief saxophone solo
- Bars 25-32 - Alto saxophone and trumpet in thirds, then briefly in octaves
Following the intro in the first take Parker and Gillespie start to play the melody of "Cherokee". They are interrupted by someone clapping and whistling and shouting "You can't play that".
After the introduction in the second take are two 64-bar solos from Parker on the saxophone; each solo (or "chorus") follows the Thirty-two-bar form (AABA), except that the number of bars is augmented to 64, partly due to the extensive importance of solos in bebop music, and partly due to the extremely fast 300bpm tempo. It is an extremely virtuosic solo, incorporating fast quavers and formulaic improvisation. The second chorus of the solo opens with a two-bar quotation from the notably difficult clarinet piece "High Society", made famous by clarinettist Alphonse Picou.
After the solo from Parker is a 27-bar drum solo from drummer Sonny Greer, the slightly manic style of which is considered innovative in jazz. The drums for the piece are tuned higher than normal, which gives the solo a brighter, livelier feel.
- Shapiro, Nat and Hentoff, Nat. Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, Courier Dover Publications, 1955, page 354 - ISBN 0-486-21726-4, ISBN 978-0-486-21726-0
- Reisner, Robert George. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, Da Capo Press, page 103 - ISBN 0-306-80069-1
- "The National Recording Registry 2002". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 18 January 2013.
- Torgovnick, Marianna. Eloquent Obsessions: Writing Cultural Criticism, Duke University Press, page 112 - ISBN 0-8223-1472-X
- The Charlie Parker Story (Savoy Jazz)