June 13, 2024

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Authorship of the jazz standard Four: who recorded this song in 1954: Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins: Videos

Authorship of the jazz standard Four has always been in question. Miles Davis was the first to record the song in 1954 and is credited as the sole composer.

But it has long been argued by jazz writers that Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson wrote the song, along with Tune Up, and loaned them to Davis to record. Somehow Davis wound up with official credit, which Vinson didn’t complain about until many years later. In almost all of these narratives, Davis is cast as a song thief.

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In truth, we don’t really know who wrote Four. Vinson may have played a variation of the song for Davis, and then Davis altered it sufficiently to make it his own. Or after Davis recorded the song, Prestige owner and producer Bob Weinstock simply wrote down Davis’s name as composer. Weinstock seemed to do this quite often to gain the publishing rights for Prestige. Chuck Wayne’s Sonny (named for Sonny Berman) wound up as Miles Davis’s Solar, with Prestige again receiving the publishing rights. Or Vinson may have had virtually nothing to do with Four’s writing but thought he did. We’ll never know for sure.

What we do know is that the song has been recorded more than 300 times by jazz musicians and that most fans never tire of hearing it. Let’s listen to the first recording of the song by Miles Davis in 1954 and then a 1968 video of Sonny Rollins playing it:

Miles Davis playing Four backed by Horace Silver (p), Percy Heath (b) and Art Blakey (d) in 1954…

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins backed by pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath in Denmark in 1968. The rendition opens with Sonny improvising a solo introduction, referencing quite a few songs. To my ear, in order, they include They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Don’t Stop the Carnival, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, I Understand and I Can’t Get Started. Then dig how Sonny backs into Four. Remarkable…

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