Donna Lee – Back Home Again in Indiana
Well, this is an interesting story (to me, anyway!) It started back in Boston – no, actually, it started back in Hartford, Connecticut during my medical internship when my new housemate ended up being a jazz disc jockey drummer who first turned me on to Charlie Parker, the highly influential jazz saxophonist father of bebop (along with Dizzy Gillespie) – no, maybe it really started in first grade when the gifted kids in playing the bells were called down to the music teacher’s office (who was also the gym teacher, something I had a hard time comprehending) to offer them opportunities to learn different instruments to play in the school band and when he asked me what I wanted to play I somehow simulated a jazz bebop sax lead (something that I must have heard in my parents LP collection), and then he started asking me about my mouth and tongue (questions which I have since learned have to do with embouchure, what you do with the front part of your mouth lips and teeth in order to play the saxophone) and being the smart aleck that I was, I replied “What are you, a dentist or a music teacher?” immediately after which he sent me back to my room for being rude, and I never learned to play the sax! True story! But I distinctly remember my surprising affinity for the bebop jazz sax line.
Anyway, back to the story. Years later, after some advanced surgical training in Toronto, I dropped down into Boston to spend some time at the Berklee College of Jazz. I lucked into taking over an artist’s loft in what was then called The Piano Factory (an artist collective housed in the old Chickering Piano Factory), rented a Yamaha studio upright piano and among many other things, really tried to learn and understand one of Parkers most widely known compositions, Donna Lee.
By the end of my time in Boston I could play the head (the melody of the first verse), and learned a good bit, but not all, of a few of Parker’s improvised solos. Then I came to California and didn’t play the tune again for 35 years until recently. This is how I happened on it again.
When I was back in Philadelphia taking care of my mom, I randomly searched Louis Armstrong on YouTube and we watched a great Satchmo concert in East Berlin. One song in the repertoire was “Back Home Again in Indiana” (also called simply “Indiana”). I subliminally must have recognized the chord changes and been attracted to them.
When I was researching “Indiana” on the internet, I learned some interesting things:
1 – ”Indiana” has been performed in Speedway, Indiana during pre-race ceremonies before the Indy 500 since 1946. And from 1972 to 2014 it was performed yearly and almost exclusively by Jim Nabors! That’s right, Gomer Pyle, USMC
! (if you never heard of Gomer, well, gollee! – you owe it to yourself to try to watch at least 1 episode!) Remember Gomer and Sarge?
2 – For years Louis Armstrong and his All Stars would open every public performance with “Indiana”.
3 – According to Wikipedia, Indiana’s “chord changes undergird the Charlie Parker composition Donna Lee, one of jazz’s best known contrafacts [actually a word!], which is defined as a composition that lays a new melody over an existing harmonic structure.
Contafacts Facts: Back in the forties, when the jazz world was being rocked by bepop, there was a lot of jamming going on. Now every time that a professional musician would play a song in public or recording, the song writer or copyright holder is due compensation. But the chord changes are so well known and compelling. What to do? It turns out that chord changes can’t be copyrighted, just the melody and words. So, Parker’s answer was to make up a completely different melody to the same chord changes that musicians already knew and that audiences already loved, “Indiana”. (Parenthetically, Miles Davis has claimed to be the composer and that Parker was credited by mistake.)
After learning this, I got the idea to try to record Parker’s “Donna Lee” melody and improvisations over “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Anyway, when I got back to Newport Beach, I couldn’t wait to check out my idea to record the melodies at the same time, contrapuntally. So, I did a rough recording of 3 choruses of “Indiana” with a bebop drum track and a few drum fills, accompanied by a punchy walking bass and a simple piano melody and comp.
Then I started practicing the solo and getting it up to speed (fast tempos were a hallmark of Parker’s virtuosity), which was great fun, especially when it actually started sounding pretty good to me. Then i recorded the ‘head’ and a couple of improv verses. In any case, here is my recording of “Donna Lee” with Parker’s solo played over my recording of “Indiana”.
Listening to it this way makes the melodic invention and creativity of Parker even more apparent, and also makes his improvisation more accessible by being able to follow the chord changes more easily by comparing the “Donna Lee” melody with the underlying “Indiana” melody and bass. The “Indiana” melody acts like an anchor to prevent the casual listener from being blown away by Parker’s creativity and jazz sophistication. I’ve tried to record Parker’s melody line more softly for the first pass, so you can follow the “Indiana” melody.
The enormous popularity of “Indiana” is apparent by the extraordinary number of “Indiana” cover versions: Jerry Garcia, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney, Art Tatum, Jim Nabors, Bobby Darrin and Johnny Mercer, Lester Young, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Allen Toussaint, Bud Powell, Jack Benny, Phish, Jaco Pastorius, Benny Goodman, Vassar Clements, Kate Smith, among many others. In my book, any song covered by Jerry Garcia, Gomer Pyle and Jack Benny deserves another listen.
This recording is dedicated to my longtime friend and former jazz disc jockey, Todd B.