The last thing the Brighton-born bandleader Ray Noble had in mind when he wrote “Cherokee” in 1938 was to provide a catalyst for modern jazz. The tune was subtitled “Indian Love Song”, opened a five-part “Indian Suite” and came with sentimental lyrics.
Noble had moved to the US in 1934 and by the time he recorded “Cherokee” he was firmly established in New York society. His instrumental recording of the song bounces along nicely enough but the sweet harmonies and understated rhythms are firmly in the symphonic jazz tradition. Only a year later, both the Count Basie Orchestra and Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra stripped the composition down to its essentials and beefed up the riffs and breaks. Barnet’s hit cover, featuring the leader’s tenor sax, established the song in the “hot” swing-band repertory.
“Cherokee” soon percolated down to the world of New York’s after-hours jam sessions. The melody was simple enough but the song’s long chord sequence, fast tempo and key changes in the middle were tricky, making it a statement piece for musicians looking to get noticed. One of them was saxophonist Charlie Parker.
He had not always fared so well in jam sessions. As a 16-year-old sitting in with drummer Jo Jones, Parker over-reached himself and messed up, prompting Jones to fling a cymbal at the saxophonist’s feet, effectively “gonging” him off the stage (a moment evoked and embellished in the 2014 film Whiplash).
But by the time Parker first visited New York, in 1939, his grasp of music theory matched his facility on sax. Now using jam sessions as a laboratory, he made “Cherokee” the vehicle for audacious experiments with improvisation. One evening, jamming on the tune, a bored Parker started to probe the dissonant edges of its intricate harmonic structure. One of the foundation stones of modern jazz was in place.
Several Parker recordings of “Cherokee” from the early 1940s exist, including a 1942 radio broadcast from New York’s Savoy Ballroom that captures Parker in full up-tempo flight with the Jay McShann Orchestra. But the backings are rooted in swing-era rhythms; Parker’s musical concepts are way ahead of them.
His innovations, developed specifically while playing over the changes of “Cherokee”, were immense. “I realised by using the high notes of the chords as a melody line, and the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born,” Parker said.
But the 1942-44 ban on recording imposed by the American Federation of Musicians meant that few people outside clubs got to hear or even realise that the new musical form, bebop, had been conceived.
Finally, in 1945, Parker made his first recording as a leader, for Savoy Records. As he and his band started on “Cherokee” he was sharply reminded that the record label had no appetite for paying royalties — the producer pulled the plug as soon as he recognised the melody. Instead, Parker kept the “Cherokee” arrangement, replaced its melody and renamed it “Ko Ko”. It was the first time bebop had been committed to disc; what music writer Gary Giddins called “nothing more than one melodic rhythmic concept after another”.
A decade later, trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach’s quintet used “Cherokee” to expand the bebop vocabulary and make the first recording of a drum solo based on a tune’s melody. In 1965, “Cherokee” made its mark yet again, ironically during another union ban, this time one imposed by Britain’s Musicians’ Union on American musicians playing in the UK. With his first gig outside the US, saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his trio broke the embargo at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. At one point a heckler yelled: “Now play ‘Cherokee’! ”
In an instant Coleman ghosted the melody, upped the intensity and spun a series of variations that had the audience cheering. Like Parker, Coleman was proving a point with Noble’s “Cherokee”.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: William Gottlieb/Getty Images