In the serene Jazz Corner section of Woodlawn Cemetery, located in the Bronx, NY, lies the final resting place of jazz legend Miles Davis. The tombstone is a large, stately slab of polished stone, etched with a simple epitaph containing Davis’ name, dates of birth and death, a picture of a trumpet. Just one additional, controversial engraving adorns the tombstone—the score for the first two measures of the song “Solar.”
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Davis recorded “Solar” for the 1954 album Walkin’. From the moment of the song’s release, rumors emerged that Davis was not the original composer.
The origin of the tune can be traced back to 1946 and a small, Oklahoma City jam session, led by jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne. Sonny Berman, a trumpeter in the session, played one of Wayne’s compositions over the tune “How High the Moon.” Wayne titled the composition simply, “Sonny.”
“Sonny” disappeared from the history books until Davis’ nearly identical tune, “Solar,” materialized eight years later. Stirrings within the jazz community insinuated that Davis was not the original composer, but without hard proof, no one could confirm the rumors.
Chuck Wayne passed away in 1997. Nearly a decade and a half later, his widow donated his collection of photos and recordings to the library of congress, providing senior music archivist Larry Applebaum with the proof he needed to trace the Davis tune back to that 1946 Oklahoma City jam session.
The connection between Wayne’s “Sonny” and Davis’ “Solar” remains nebulous, but incontrovertibly, the song is a favorite number in jazz jam sessions and encores. A simple, 12-bar progression comprises “Solar.” The Cm harmony contains just one chord per measure, making “Solar” relatively easy to memorize, yet the simplicity allows soloists and accompanists ample freedom to “stretch out” and experiment.
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