Tonight these chords belong to me: a history of the ‘Cherokee’ progression

British bandleader Ray Noble published his tune ‘Cherokee’ in 1938.  The tune begins with a chord progression that could be described as I – I7 – IV – iv – I.  In this progression, the tonic chord becomes a dominant seventh that leads to the IV chord, which is then followed by either the minor IV or a dominant chord based on the flat 7th of the tonic major scale, which in turn leads back to the I chord.  Although this progression appears in earlier pop tunes such as ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ , first released in 1927, ‘Cherokee’ is perhaps the best known tune in the modern jazz repertoire to use these chords.  One possible reason for the longevity of ‘Cherokee’ is it that spends two bars on each of the changes in the progression, which gives improvisers a chance to ‘stretch out’, i.e. develop longer melodic ideas, on each chord.

The progression also appears in Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me‘, the 1947 update of Ellington’s 1940 composition ‘Concerto for Cootie’ with Bob Russell’s lyrics added.  Ellington’s tune opens with the ‘Cherokee’ progression but spends only a measure on each chord.  (I am using the term ‘Cherokee progression’ for ease of reference, not to imply conclusively that it was borrowed by Ellington from ‘Cherokee’.) In 1945, Billy Eckstine released his tune ‘I Want To Talk About You‘, which begins with the shortened ‘Cherokee’ progression that appears in the Ellington tune.  The melody of this tune mostly emphasizes the triad tones of each chord in the progression.  1955 saw the release of pianist Erroll Garner’s recording of his tune ‘Misty’, which uses much of the progression of ‘I Want To Talk About You’ but substitutes a different melody that emphasizes upper chord tones (such as the 7th in the first measure, the 9th and the 13th in the second and fourth measures) rather than triad tones.  On Garner’s original recording of the tune, his emphasis on chord extensions in the right-hand melody mirrors his left-hand chord voicings, which combine root position voicings with rootless voicings – voicings built on degrees of the chord other than the root, particularly the third and seventh, and in which chord extensions are emphasized through their placement on the top of the voicing. These are often called ‘Bill Evans voicings’ because they were used so prominently by the younger Evans, but they appear earlier in the playing of Garner and Garland. Garner, along with his slightly younger contemporary Red Garland, was one of the players who introduced rootless voicings into the left-hand vocabulary of jazz pianists.  Prior to ‘Misty’, one of Garner’s contemporaries and collaborators, Charlie Parker, released a recording called ‘Koko‘ in which he improvised a melodic line over the chord progression to ‘Cherokee’ that at a number of points arpeggiates rootless voicings of the chord changes.

A number of pop songs from the 1960s and 70s, including The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence‘, Billy Preston’s ‘You Are So Beautiful‘ and Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘That’s the Way Of The World’, derive their harmonic motion from looping the four chords with which ‘Cherokee’ begins.  In 2015, Kamasi Washington brought ‘Cherokee’ full circle by combining it with a groove similar to that of ‘That’s The Way of The World’. 

My tune ‘Washington Heights’, named after both the saxophonist and a neighborhood in New York City, uses the progression of ‘Cherokee’ with the groove from Kamasi Washington’s arrangement and adds a melody which I composed in the bebop melodic style.  It also demonstrates two important concepts which I find helpful in improvising piano solos on jazz progressions: dialogic phrasing (left hand chording that leaves space for melodic answers and melodic phrases that leave space for chordal answers) and ‘crossless’ voice leading in the left hand chords (voice leading that avoids voice crossing.)  While it can be learned as shown in the grand staff chart, another possible use is to memorize the original melody of ‘Cherokee’ and play it in the RH along with the LH voicings from ‘Washington Heights’, either with the written rhythms or with the chords in long notes.  The A sections of ‘Washington Heights’ (m. 1-20 with repeat) also work as a countermelody to the A sections of ‘Cherokee’.

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