"Donna Lee" is a bebop jazz standard attributed to Charlie Parker, although Miles Davis has also claimed authorship. Written in A-flat, it is based on the chord changes of the jazz standard "(Back Home Again in) Indiana". Beginning with an unusual half-bar rest, "Donna Lee" is a very complex, fast-moving chart with a compositional style based on four-note groups over each change.
"Donna Lee" was originally attributed to Charlie Parker on the original 78-rpm recordings and was copyrighted under his name in 1947. However, in various interviews and publications since, Miles Davis has claimed to be the composer. Among these is a statement Davis made in his autobiography:
"I wrote a tune for the album called 'Donna Lee,' which was the first tune of mine that was ever recorded. But when the record came out it listed Bird [Parker] as the composer. It wasn't Bird's fault, though. The record company just made a mistake."
"Donna Lee" was originally recorded by the Charlie Parker Quintet on May 8, 1947 for Savoy Records in New York City. Performers for the session were Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Miles Davis (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), and Max Roach (drums). "Donna Lee" was the first of four tunes recorded during the session and was recorded over four full takes, the fourth being the master take.
Later in 1947 it was recorded for Decca Records by Claude Thornhill and his orchestra, consisting of members who would be hired shortly later by Miles Davis to be part of his legendary Birth of the Cool sessions: Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Sandy Siegelstein, Bill Barber, Joe Shulman and Gil Evans who had approached Miles Davis to get the permission to write the arrangement "Donna Lee" for Thornhill. Miles agreed and had then the idea 'to imitate the sound of Claude Thornhill but with less people' for his own nonet recordings as he points out in his autobiography "Miles. The Autobiography" from 1989.
Jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius recorded his interpretation of "Donna Lee," a solo electric bass rendition featuring Don Alias on congas, for his debut album Jaco Pastorius (1976). Of Pastorius's performance, peer and contemporary Pat Metheny said:
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.”
The composition has been recorded many times by avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton, including a cut for his album called Donna Lee. Other artists include Tito Puente (Latin jazz composer and performer), Nick Brignola, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh (saxophone), Clifford Brown, Wallace Roney and Ryan Kisor (trumpet), and Karrin Allyson (piano/vocal scat). In 2012, the Luso-Cape Verdean singer Carmen Souza made her own version, with lyrics in Cape-Verdean Creole, which she wrote herself, and published in the LP Kachupada.
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.
- Burlingame, Sandra; K. J. McElrath. "Jazz Standards Songs and Instrumentals (Donna Lee)". JazzStandards.com. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
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.”
- "Session details: Harris Smith Studio (May 8, 1947)". Plosin.com. 1947-05-08. Retrieved 2012-08-14.
'Donna Lee' (named for Curley Russell's daughter) is credited to Parker on the original issue and many subsequent ones, but it is clearly Davis's tune.
- Chambers (1998), p. 61
- Davis (1989), p. 103
- Ira Gitler's interview Archived 2010-10-09 at the Wayback Machine. with Mark Myers
- Chambers, Jack (1998). Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80849-8
- Burlingame, Sandra "Donna Lee" @ jazzstandards.com. Accessed 2007 September 20
- Davis, Miles (1989). Miles, The Autobiography. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-72582-3
- Brian Priestley Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker
- Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans: Out of the Cool