A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
The song “Cherokee” quickly became a jazz favorite after it was written by Ray Noble in 1938. It wasn’t easy to play, though. It’s usually played at a very fast tempo and the bridge moved through a series of ii/V/I chord progressions in B, A, and G major. Not too many popular songs of the day were in B or A so a lot of jazz musicians found themselves in unfamiliar harmonic territory at that point. Because of this challenge, “Cherokee” became a favorite jam session tune when musicians wanted to “prove themselves” or if they wanted to challenge another improviser to a “cutting contest.”

In the early 1940s, the young Charlie Parker made a specialty of playing “Cherokee” and had a breakthrough moment while playing the tune (see recording below). He later reported that while playing “Cherokee,” he “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.” You can hear him play the tune “before and after” by comparing his 1942 recording with “Koko,” based on the same chords and recorded just three years later, in 1945.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Ray Noble

This is the first recorded version of the tune, from 1938.

Sarah Vaughan

Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Study In Brown

Art Tatum

Wynton Marsalis: Newport Jazz Festival, 1989 (video)

Charlie Parker (early recording from 1942)

This is from when he was still developing as a musician.

Charlie Parker

This was released as the tune “Koko,” but it’s really “Cherokee” without the melody. Parker went into his first recording session as a leader planning to record “Cherokee.”

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Cherokee” is a great tune to improvise on, but there are two main challenges, but mentioned above. First, the tune is played fast. Very fast. To learn how to “think” this fast while improvising, I suggest that you take two approaches at the same time. Practice soloing over the chords at a very slow tempo and mentally “hear” your melodic line very clearly. Gradually increase the tempo over time. At the same time, just “go for it” and play at a fast tempo, even if you struggle a bit. Eventually, these two practice activities will catch up with each other and you’ll be able to improvise with clarity and confidence at a very fast tempo.

I also suggest that you isolate the ii/V/I progressions in the bridge and spend a good deal of time soloing in B major. Then A major and finally, G major. Players generally spend too little time practicing bridges so they never learn them as well as the ‘A’ Sections. The difficult keys used in the bridge to “Cherokee” make it doubly-necessary to practice them thoroughly.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Transcription of saxophonist Chris Potter soloing on Cherokee in 10 keys

Cherokee playalong track

The story of Charlie Parker’s “Koko”
The fascinating story of how Parker set out to record “Cherokee” and came out with “Koko!”

“Koko” form diagram

Cherokee: Journey Through The Real Book #61

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