'Solar' Wasn't by Miles Davis


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Who wrote what and when? This question pops up often when jazz fans try to figure out who composed their favorite jazz standards. And like most lamppost shadows that form in the dead of night, nothing is as it seems. For example, Richard Carpenter is credited as the composer of Walkin'. Yet little is known about Carpenter or his involvement in the song. Those familiar with Carpenter know that he was a music publisher whose name magically appears on songs he had nothing to do with.

Yesterday, intellectual mayhem broke loose at Jazz Research, the invite-only Yahoo forum hosted by Michael Fitzgerald. Participants were abuzz over a blog post by Larry Appelbaum, senior music reference librarian and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress' Music Division. In his post, Larry wrote that the true author of Solar isn't Miles Davis but guitarist Chuck Wayne. This fact was already known by many, but for the first time there was audio proof. To read Larry's post, go here.

Long story short, when the Library of Congress acquired the Chuck Wayne Collection last year from his widow Diane Wayne, among the many items was an unpublished 10-inch acetate disc featuring Wayne playing at a 1946 jam session. The disc was entitled, Sonny—named for trumpeter Sonny Berman. A clip of the acetate was posted by Larry and, clearly, Wayne (or someone else) had come up with the identical melody line—eight years before Miles Davis first recorded the song as Solar in 1954. How Davis first heard this line is unclear, since Sonny was never commercially released.

This, of course, wouldn't be the first time that Davis appropriated, cribbed or leveraged songs he didn't write and wound up with credit for them. The lengthy list includes Dig, The Serpent's Tooth, Tune Up, Four, Nardis, Blue in Green and so on.

But before we label Davis a plagiarizing thief, let's put a few things in perspective. In the 1950s, jazz, R&B and early rock-and-roll songwriting was a cross between the Wild West and the Klondike Gold Rush. The names of musically illiterate producers typically found their way onto credits while in other cases, more powerful artists present who changed a note or two wound up named as song collaborators.

Which begs the question: What was a songwriter in the 1950s? As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal article recently on the Original Dixieland Jass Band, jazz's very first recording landed in court over who actually wrote the song after the band's manager filed a copyright for Livery Stable Blues under his own name. The story of how the Delta blues was hijacked by white commercial interests in urban recording centers in the 1920s and how the blues forumula was whisked away from blues originators also are well-known and lengthy stories.

In the 1940s, many bebop hits were built on the identical chord changes to Tin Pan Alley standards to avoid copyright royalties. Even Chuck Wayne's Sonny uses the chord changes to Morgan Lewis' How High the Moon. As I write in my forthcoming book, Why Jazz Happened, most jazz labels in the 1950s set up publishing arms for jazz musicians who brought in original works, handling all of the paperwork for them in exchange for the publishing rights. Most of the time, musicians weren't aware that their signatures gave the labels 50% of the mechanical royalties paid out by record companies.

Tales of outright “borrowing" also abound. For example, much of Gerald Wilson's Yard Dog Mazurka (1941) for Jimmie Lunceford's band was lifted by Ray Wetzel for Intermission Riff (1945), which was recorded by Stan Kenton's orchestra. And just the other day, in my review of Mosaic's new Coleman Hawkins box, I identified the major riff on Serenade to a Sleeping Beauty (1940) as the same one used by writer David Rose and arranger Jerry Gray on Glenn Miller's recording of Holiday for Strings (1944).

So, before we run Davis out of town on a rail, let's get a grip. With the rise of the 45-rpm and the LP in the 1950s, music publishing was a profit-making, hustling enterprise, and dollars flowed to those with the legal know-how to file the appropriate papers. As producer and radio host Bob Porter noted during yesterday's e-discussion, it's all but impossible to pinpoint who actually did what on any song—partiularly when there is more than one author. As Bob notes, one person in the credit might have written the melody, one might have written the arrangement and yet another might have played it. [Pictured above: the Four Vagabonds]

Having written extensively on this topic—through recent interviews with Smokey Robinson, Mike Soller, Burt Bacharach and others—I know that songs often are a fusion of interests and creative input. Many songs are based on others. What makes a song a hit might be the lyrics. Or how those lyrics were tweaked. Or maybe it's the guitar lick that was added after everyone else went home. Each ingredient is responsible for the finished product.

While it's essential to recognize Chuck Wayne's contribution to what's now known as Solar, his originality should take nothing away from Davis and his recording. In the music business of the 1950s—and today, to a large extent—the person who plants the flag by filing the legal papers is credited with writing the song. And who knows how Davis came to the melody line. For all we know, Wayne was whistling it in the men's room at  Birdland while Davis was in there washing up. [Pictured above: Chuck Wayne]

Why Wayne neglected to register it, and why Davis did so, but in 1963—nine years after first recording it—is unknown as well. I do know that when white artists lift black music in rock and jazz, it's thought of as “clever." When a black artist does the same thing, particularly when the song is credited to a white artist, it's considered a “rip-off."

Whatever Davis did or didn't do regarding Solar or any other song is of little concern to me. What is of interest is the music itself and the phrasing. It's certainly apparent that Davis' blowing on Solar continues to rattle the soul. I'm not sure the same can be said for Wayne's. Hopefully, the Library of Congress will issue the full recording so we can hear its impact. Hats off to Larry for uncovering Sonny and sharing it.

JazzWax clips: Chuck Wayne never commercially recorded Sonny or Solar. But he did record plenty of terrific sessions. Here's Li'l Darlin' from the album Morning Mist in 1964...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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