Ray Noble was a British composer and songwriter who also led a popular but mannered society band in England in the 1930s.
Why bother talking about Noble here? Because in 1938 he wrote Cherokee, which quickly became one of jazz's greatest standards and a musical drag strip of sorts for jazz artists eager to show off their chops at breakneck speeds.
Cherokee was first a big band hit in the US for Count Basie, whose band recorded it in February 1939. Jimmy Mundy's arrangement for the Count was so catchy that Decca decided to release part one on the first side of the 78 rpm and part two on the flip.
Five months later, in July 1939, Charlie Barnet's band took a crack at Cherokee with a rain-dance chart by his new trumpter Billy May. (May, of course, would go on to arrange for all the top singers at Capitol Records, including Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.)
Barnet's recording for RCA Victor's Bluebird label raced up the charts—thanks largely to the aggressive launch of national radio remotes from hotel ballrooms and roof gardens. Barnet's recording climbed to number 15 by October and stayed on the charts for three weeks. The song became so identified with Barnet that he made it his band's theme song.
As the Basie and Barnet recordings of Cherokee surged in popularity, the song's jaunty theme and smooth transitional bridge made it a hot standard of choice for many swing bands of the early 1940s.
One of those bands was Jay McShann's. On Friday, February 13, 1942, McShann's band began a run at New York's Savoy Ballroom. Gene Ramey, the bass player, relates what happened next in Stanley Dance's The World of Count Basie (1980):
"That Sunday, we had to do a matinee at four o'clock. In fifteen minutes we played only two tunes, Moten's Swing, I think, and Cherokee. Bird started blowing on Cherokee at that extremely fast tempo. It was way up there. The program was going out on the radio and somebody in the studio called the man with the ear set and said, 'Let them go ahead. Don't stop them!' We played about forty-five minutes more, just the rhythm section and Bird, with the horns setting riffs from time to time. That night you couldn't get near the bandstand for musicians who had hear the broadcast. 'Who was that saxophone player?' they all wanted to know."
Parker's seminal solo on Cherokee in 1942 and his subsequent pioneering of bebop in 1944 encouraged emerging bop musicians to emulate his approach on this song during mid-1940s. Cherokee was perfect for jam sessions, as bop musicians were able to show how fast they could play while producing new ideas off the cuff, chorus after chorus.
Weary of the traditional approach to the song, Parker recorded Ko Ko in 1946, inventing a completely new minor melody using Cherokee's chord changes.
Interestingly, no other jazz artist of the period that I can think of recorded Ko Ko—as if the song were reserved exclusively for Bird, while Cherokee was for anyone else willing to give it a shot.
In addition to writing Cherokee, Ray Noble composed The Very Thought of You, which became a vocal staple of pop singers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Despite its popularity, the song would never surpass Cherokee in popularity with jazz artists.
Ironically, Ornette Coleman's first performance outside the US was in Ray Noble's England, the birthplace of Cherokee. His free jazz set during that 1965 performance divided the audience—so much so that one heckler shouted, "Now play Cherokee."
So Coleman proceeded to tear through the changes of the standard, reinterpreting and folding Parker's lines into, creating a new interpretation.
"I just wanted to know that I knew Cherokee," he remembers, in an interview with The Guardian of London back in June, "not because of what he thought it meant." Ornette recalls receiving a standing ovation.
After almost 70 years, Cherokee remains jazz's national anthem and the standard chosen when artists decide to climb out on the musical ledge and risk everything trying to top the ghosts of Cherokees past.
Wax tracks: Here are my favorite versions of Cherokee, in order. Many are available as individual downloads at iTunes:
Charlie Parker (1941)
A Studio Chronicle 1940-1948 (JSP Records)
Count Basie (1939)
Complete Decca Recordings (Definitive Records)
Bud Powell (1949)
The Complete Bud Powell (Verve)
Dexter Gordon/Wardell Gray (1947)
Bopland: Legendary Elks Club Concert (Savoy)
Max Roach/Clifford Brown (1955)
Study in Brown (Emarcy)
Charlie Barnet (1949)
Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra: Cherokee (Living Era)