A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Although credited to Charlie Parker, “Donna Lee” was actually composed by the young Miles Davis. (The tune’s long melodic lines certainly sound more like Davis’s other compositions than Parker’s more “stop and go” approach to phrasing. I once asked bebop drummer Max Roach about this and he confirmed that Miles Davis had indeed written “Donna Lee.” Max should know; he played on the original recording!) In Miles’ autobiography, he says that the mislabeling was simply a mistake by the record company. “Donna Lee” was the first Miles Davis composition to ever be recorded, in 1947. (Pretty good for a first try!!!)

It’s based on the popular song “(Back Home Again In) Indiana,” which is from 1917 and widely played by jazz musicians of the time. Every bebopper who played “Donna Lee” would have immediately known its relation to “Indiana.”

Incidentally, it can come in handy to know a few songs with “location” titles. I remember once playing at a New York City cocktail party at a fancy club. Midway through the evening, the bandleader/saxophonist leaned over and told the rest of us, “The author Kurt Vonnegut is here, on the other side of the room. Let’s play “Indiana,” since he’s from there.” We immediately played a lively version of the song, and about 30 minutes later, Vonnegut came over and thanked us. Music connects people!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
Charlie Parker

Gil Evans’ arrangement for The Claude Thornhill band

When Evans asked Miles if he could arrange the tune, one of the most influential friendships in all of jazz was begun.

Wynton Marsalis

Eldar Djangirov: Live at Maverick Concerts, 2015 (video)

Eldar begins by playing the tune out of tempo with rubato phrasing, then goes into a kind of stride feel.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Donna Lee” is one of the great bebop tunes to play, and it’s fascinating to see how different the flowing melody is from the shorter phrases that Charlie Parker often used in his composing. This reminds us how there can be a great deal of artistic variety even within a specific genre like bebop.

I recommend that you learn “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” (although it’s not in The Real Book) as well as “Donna Lee.” The chord progressions are very similar, although Miles Davis changed it a little to accommodate his new melody.

“Donna Lee” is also a great song for playing with your left hand, too. I once made an arrangement where my left hand played its own note under every melody note, following the exact same rhythm but with a counter melody. Why don’t you do the same?

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

Further links and resources:
Donna Lee: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

Why didn’t Charlie Parker let Miles Davis quit?

Donna Lee: Journey Through The Real Book #100

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