We have all heard the word “Jazz.” It signifies freedom of expression in music and carries with it a certain mystique. Therefore, before I take a look at the best jazz songs, it might be a help to understand where jazz came from and when.
Jazz is more than just a name. It is a culture and has a history all of its own. And it has given us some of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. But where did it come from, and when did it arrive?
Down By The Riverside
Jazz had its origins in New Orleans in the latter part of the 1800s. It was created from existing musical traditions that mixed the historical music of the slaves of the area and a European musical style.
The African influence provided the rhythms and the Blues feel. The Europeans offered harmonic construction and a variety of instruments. This eventually mixed again with post-Civil War marching bands that provided the brass instrument influence.
A Musical Concoction
It is mistaken identity to assume Jazz is just American. Jazz is improvisation around a theme, and that had been going on in Europe for hundreds of years.
But, American Jazz, like other improvisational musical techniques, was influenced by its culture. And American Jazz was largely African-American. Post-Civil War, there were large populations of African-Americans scattered all over the southern areas of America. It was from here that it started to develop seriously.
Some Were Ostracized
It was shunned by the white population and even by educated and middle-class African-Americans. They considered it “The Devil’s music.” Not surprisingly, this idea continued for many years, and it meant ostracization from family for some musicians and singers.
A good example of that was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She had to change her name to Nina Simone when she started working at clubs and bars. Her family thought of the music she was playing in a demonic way, and she didn’t want them to pursue her.
A Culture Of Its Own
If you take a look at the best and most influential Jazz musicians, you will find most of them are of African-American lineage. That is not an accident. A musical genre born out of culture.
The music they created and still create captures the human experience, things we could all feel. And they turned it into a musical art form. So, let’s have a look at some of the best jazz songs that this culture has given us.
47 Best Jazz Songs Of All Time
Take the “A” Train by Duke Ellington
Let’s make a start with “Sir Duke,” as Stevie Wonder referred to him. Edward Kennedy Ellington, “The Duke,” was a composer, jazz pianist, and leader of one of the most famous jazz orchestras there has been. He formed them in 1923 and led them throughout his life.
In Jazz, “The Duke” is legendary…
He was a member of an era known as the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 20s and 30s. A cultural movement in that part of New York promoted African-American culture, especially music.
“Take the A Train” was initially written by his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. However, there were several different versions, here is an alternative. The inspiration for the song came from the new subway line around Manhattan called “The ‘A’ Train.” As a result, it was one of his band’s first major successes in 1939.
Setting a standard…
There have been plenty of amendments and changes to the song over the years, some lyrically. It was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald singing in her ‘scat’ style on the album Ella in Hollywood.
From this song, a new form of jazz began to evolve, later known as “Swing.” Furthermore, it became a showcase song for most of his career.
My Favorite Things by John Coltrane
From one jazz legend to another in John Coltrane. Saxophonist Coltrane was one of the most influential jazz musicians of any age and is still revered today. He was at the forefront of the “Free jazz” movement.
Some jazz musicians attempted to break from the previous set-in-stone musical conventions. They adopted a more experimental way of playing and approaching the music. Also, they didn’t follow the norms of tempo, chord changes, and even tones.
During his relatively short career, he was invited to play with Theolonius Monk and Miles Davis. That gives you an idea of just how respected Coltrane was. With Miles Davis, The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis & John Coltrane. With Theolonius Monk, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.
I am sure most will know this as one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics from “The Sound of Music.” Coltrane took what was a waltz and turned it into a saxophone-dominated hit record in 1960.
He played out in a “modal style,” meaning there was not a ‘tonal center’ to the piece. Furthermore, he modulated between musical modes to accompany the chords.
Bye-Bye Blackbird by John Coltrane
Let’s stay with “The Trane” for one more. This song is almost a standard in many genres, but especially in the jazz world.
It was first published in 1926, and John Coltrane released his version in 1962. Additionally, he was awarded a posthumous honor for the solo he created. It was released from the album of the same name.
This is the kind of track that displays Coltrane’s virtuoso ability. His contribution to jazz during this period of his career was immense.
A short-lived career…
He died at the age of 40, probably as a result of various addictions he had suffered in his career. But, in the last years of his life, he had what he referred to as a ‘spiritual awakening.’ This inspired two more albums, one of which was Ascension.
Rhapsody In Blue by George Gershwin
George Gershwin had been primarily known as a musician who composed musicals within his brother Ira. “Rhapsody in Blue” outlined his talent and composing excellence. He performed it for the first time in 1924, and it was critically acclaimed.
It is a piece of music that is, in many ways, a defining song of the Jazz Age. The clarinet opening is one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever heard.
He had only five weeks to write it as it was scheduled to be played at a concert in New York celebrating the birth of Lincoln. The seeds of the song were laid down in his mind on a train journey of all places. He said he was inspired by the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks.
He went on to produce some great work, including some of the finest music of the time. His 1935 opera, “Porgy and Bess,” has been cited as one of the great works. And, of course, from that came the monumental song covered by many of the jazz greats, “Summertime.” This is a great example of the song from Ella Fitzgerald.
Another great that died very young, at only 38, from a brain tumor. One is left to wonder what other great works were still inside him.
Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman was a bandleader and clarinetist who earned the nickname “King of Swing.” For a decade until the mid-40s, he led a swing band that became the most popular in America.
He played a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall that was described as a concert that could be the most important in jazz history. This was a time of racial segregation in America, yet he organized one of the first jazz groups that were integrated.
A Talented And Accomplished Clarinetist
He was recognized as one of the great clarinetists and composers of his time. “Sing, Sing, Sing” was written in 1935 by Louis Prima and was never the greatest song he recorded.
However, it became one of his most famous songs and was a good example of music from the Swing Era. You may guess from the title that it was written for a vocalist. But, as time went on, and with the improvisations going on, it soon reverted to instruments only.
To make the music “swing”…
You need a great drummer. No problem for Benny Goodman; he had Gene Krupa, one of the top two best drummers of all time in jazz circles.
His drum solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the first of its kind. Suddenly drummers were important soloists. So, today’s drummers should raise a glass to him for that.
The original Benny Goodman recording went on for nearly nine minutes. I think the band must have been enjoying themselves.
Jazz Isn’t Just For The Instruments
There have been plenty of great singers who have embraced jazz and made it their own with some great songs. Let’s take a look at a few.
Fly Me To The Moon by Frank Sinatra (feat. Count Basie and His Orchestra)
Just about everyone will know this song. It was written by Bart Howard in 1954. A song he says took him 20 years to learn how to write.
It was originally called “In Other Words,” but the title was changed. That wasn’t the only thing that was changed. It was written in 3/4 time, but Quincy Jones changed it to 4/4.
Sinatra’s wasn’t the first recording, but it is probably the best known. Especially this version that features the Count Basie orchestra. Sinatra also included it on his album with Count Basie released in 1964, It Might As Well Be Swing.
The song became strongly associated with the Apollo space program and was played on the journey by the Apollo 11 crew.
There have been hundreds of cover versions. But, not many of the early visions made it “swing” quite like Basie and Sinatra. A classic jazz song from a classic age.
Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday
Let’s move on now to one of the greatest female jazz singers. Are you one of these people that like to hear the raw emotion in the delivery of a song? And, preferably without some of the modern histrionics? If so, then Billie Holiday is for you.
She was known as “Lady Day” and led to what can only be described as a troubled existence. The emotion of that very existence she poured into every note she sang. She was quite simply one of the very best jazz and blues singers you will ever hear. Likewise, this track remains one of the best jazz songs of all time.
A Song For Her
“Strange Fruit” was a song that she was able to get her teeth into. In some ways, it was a protest song based on the racially-charged atmosphere at the time. It was written as a poem in 1937 by a New York teacher, Abel Meeropol, who witnessed these atrocities.
A Story of Gratuitous Violence
He was inspired to write the words because of the random lynchings that “white” America ignored and did nothing about. It is a frightening story of man’s hatred towards others. In that background, Billie Holiday puts in one of her finest performances.
It was converted into a song by Lewis Allen. This 1939 recording became an anthem and a song that everyone identified with her. She aimed to draw attention to what was going on.
Billie Holiday lost her fight with substance abuse and died in 1959, aged just 44. Another jazz stalwart who could have given us so much more. You can hear some of her best work on the album Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits.
Fever by Peggy Lee
This is a song covered by plenty of people over the last 70 years. But, very few can deliver it like Peggy Lee. Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell wrote the song and Little Willie John released a version of “Fever” in 1956. But, it was the version by Peggy Lee that most will remember. It was taken from her album, Things Are Swingin.
Peggy had already been a well-recognized singer for 20 years before releasing it. She gave the song a combination of Jazz and Blues that gave it a real, almost dark atmosphere. And she also rewrote a few of the lyrics but without credit.
A great example of a respected jazz singer meeting a great song and delivering a powerful and sensuous performance.
Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles
This is one of the greatest songs recorded by one of the great artists. A supreme talent, Ray Charles could turn his hand to just about anything. Jazz, Blues, Rock n Roll, or Pop, it was all the same to him. But, he excelled in emotional jazz ballads, and this is a great example.
‘Georgia’ was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrel, and Carmichael released it himself in 1930. The song was written for his sister, whose name was Georgia.
However, it was Ray Charles’ version thirty years later that brought the song to everyone’s attention. It was taken from the aptly named album, Genius Hits the Road.
The single reached #24 in the UK and #1 in America. In 1979, the song was named the official song for the State of Georgia.
There have been many covers of the song other than Charles’ version. Most notable was one by Ella Fitzgerald on her album, Ella Swings Gently with Nelson.
A classic song that, despite some great cover versions, will be forever associated with the irreplaceable Ray Charles. Today, it remains one of the most well known jazz songs ever.
God Bless The Child by Billie Holiday
Back to the inimitable Billie Holiday for this song that she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog, Jr. They finished the song in 1939, but she delayed recording it until 1941. It was finally released in 1942 as a single.
Inspired by an argument over money she had with her mother, it was listed as one of the “Songs of the Century.” So it should be. It caused a few controversies at the time, though.
She intimates in the lyric that believing in the Bible doesn’t seem to have an effect on people. But it doesn’t make them treat each other any better. I would go along with that.
Some Blood, Sweat, and Tears
There are very few people, if any, that could carry this song off and make it sound as good as Billie Holiday could. But, one who went close was Blood Sweat and Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas. They included it on their first album called Blood, Sweat & Tears.
A very good version from an excellent jazz-rock band. But, as I said, there wasn’t anybody that could create the emotion in the song that Holiday could.
Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
I always get a spine-tingling feeling when I hear this song for reasons we don’t need to go into here. But, if you are going to get a great performance out of “Summertime,” then you would find it hard to beat these two.
Gershwin’s masterpiece from his opera “Porgy Bess” is one of the most covered songs ever. He wrote it in 1934, and it has been arranged in just about every musical style possible. Furthermore, it continues to be one of the best jazz songs ever.
But nothing beats this version by two jazz greats. It was released by them in 1957 on the album Ella and Louis. This is soft, subtle, and emotional jazz at its best. Two masters at work with one of the great songs of the century. What could go wrong?
Take Five by Dave Brubeck
Great jazz wasn’t only produced in the 30s and 40s. This was a track that was a huge success for the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1959. It was written by the saxophonist Paul Desmond.
It is interesting because, at the time, most jazz was written with a 4/4 or 3/4 time signature. The song was so named because of its rather unusual 5/4 time. It was taken from one of the best-selling jazz records ever, Time Out.
Two years after its release, it became the jazz single with the most sales worldwide. It reached #6 in the UK and #25 in America. There was also some success in other European countries.
For the Rhythm by Tineke Postma
On the subject of Europe, they haven’t been sitting there idle watching everybody else. They have produced their own breed of impressive jazz musicians. Let’s take Holland as an example, where there is a huge interest in jazz.
Some would say that the Dutch jazz movement is led by saxophonist Tineke Postma. She began playing at the age of 11. She studied at the Conservatorium Van Amsterdam and, in 2005, became a teacher there.
“For The Rhythm” was on her first album, and her latest, Freya, was released in 2020. She worked with American drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on The Mosaic Project in 2011. An accomplished musician, she approaches her jazz differently from most of her contemporaries.
Candy Dulfer Live In Amsterdam
Candy Dulfer had a good start in her professional music career as her father, Hans, was a respected jazz saxophonist. She started with her first jazz band when she was just 14, having started to play the sax at age 6. Encouraged by her father, she has become one of the best jazz saxophonists in Europe.
Not Very Traditional
She is not what you might call a traditional jazz player. Is there such a thing? She likes nothing more than playing with musicians from other genres. Fusing her jazz influences with their styles.
She recorded with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and produced the track “Lily Was Here,” which received critical acclaim.
On stage, she crosses genres with ease. Her live shows are a mixture of blues and funk, but always with that heavy jazz influence.
Louis Blues by Dizzy Gillespie
There is no doubt that Dizzy Gillepsie is one of the greatest jazz trumpeters. He was known for building structured harmonic layers and complex rhythms that had not been heard before. He also had just about the biggest cheeks known to man.
“St. Louis Blues” is a song that is a standard for most jazz musicians. It was the first jazz song to be accepted and to be successful in the Pop Music world. Gillespie’s version is superb and exemplifies all that he was to jazz trumpet playing.
He was an influence on styles and other musicians. Along with Charlie Parker, he became an influential figure in the development of Bebop and Modern Jazz. He will always be remembered as one of the greats of jazz.
Cool Blues by Charlie Parker
And talking of the greats of jazz, we don’t get much greater than “The Bird.” It’s almost impossible to choose one song from his extensive repertoire. However, I have chosen “Cool Blues.”
Parker’s skill defined the Jazz Era. You could argue he changed the way jazz was played, and along with others, helped to create what we call Modern Jazz. When people speak of him, they do so in hushed tones of respect.
Some of his work transcends just playing saxophone, as can be heard on the alum, The Savoy Collection Deluxe. Another jazz great who died too young. After years of drug abuse, his body just said no more at the age of 35. He altered the landscape of jazz forever and left us with some great music.
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane
Before we look at a couple of jazz orchestras, let’s just return to John Coltrane. I mentioned in his last entry that in his last years, he had received what he called a “spiritual awakening.” Whatever it was, it affected him deeply.
“A Love Supreme” is one of the songs where he talks about a “journey.” The journey he refers to is him getting away from his addictions and into what he calls redemption. It is a deeply personal piece that immerses you in its form. He was at a place in his career where he could afford to experiment a little. This is a good example. It was popular with those at the time and still is.
Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
“Sir Duke” had what might be known as one of the best jazz orchestras ever heard. This track was first released in 1930, although there has been at least one other version that he recorded.
This song was creative in its approach and became famed for the harmonic structure it used. He used an interesting inverted structure for the three principle instruments. The clarinet, usually playing the top end, takes the low register. The trombone, usually the low-end, takes the high register, and the trumpet sits in the middle. A clever idea that made this version special.
April in Paris by The Count Basie Orchestra
And talking of great jazz orchestras, you have to include Count Basie in the equation. His contribution to Swing Music is immense, as was his collaboration with Frank Sinatra in the 60s, which enhanced his big band reputation even more.
During the 60s, when “Pop” music was taking over, Basie stayed prominent, also working with Ella Fitzgerald.
“April in Paris,” though, was a song that was released before those days in 1955. It was a song that further ensured his relationship with Swing. It is a typical Basie arrangement with an elegant style to the music that made it a firm favorite.
Round Midnight by Thelonius Monk
This track was written, it is thought, sometime in 1943, but was first released in 1947 on the album Blue Note.
Some observers say that Monk had finished the basics of the song as early as 1936, when he was only 19. It became an anthem of jazz and is considered to be the most recorded jazz song of all time.
Notable versions were made by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Furthermore, Gillespie composed the intro, which is most often used when playing the song.
All Blues by Miles Davis
This is a track from the album Kind of Blue from 1959. An album some consider that changed the face of jazz and improvisation. So, there are some very interesting features of this track that are worth a mention.
It is often referred to because of the lyrics, which are tinged with sadness and regret. But, let’s just take a minute to consider the music itself.
Timing And Composition
It is written in 6/8 timing in a twelve-bar blues style. Something very distinctive on a close listening is the double bass played by Paul Chambers. It is repetitive until bars nine and ten, when there is a slight change.
The song itself is entirely made up of 7th chords. This allows plenty of freedom for improvisation. Eleven and a half minutes of great jazz.
So What by Miles Davis
Let’s stay with the mercurial Miles Davis to close this look at the best jazz songs. If someone says to you, “Play me a jazz song, I don’t know any.” Play them this. It is almost certain they will have heard it, jazz fan or not. The 1959 Davis album Kind of Blue was a watershed.
Likewise, it has long been considered one of the best, if not the best jazz album ever. “So What” was included in that album. It has a 32-bar format in Dorian Mode utilizing the modal structure. This form of jazz does not rely on a tonal center as other music does in chord-based vertical, traditional methods.
This track was recorded in one take, which makes it all the more astounding. The piano and bass intro was created by Paul Chambers, Gil Evans, and Bill Evans. A work of genius that is certain, by one of the great jazz musicians.
Feeling Good by Nina Simone
Autumn in New York by Frank Sinatra
Caravan by Juan Tizol
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know by Celeste
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Wellington
The Girl from Ipanema by Amy Winehouse
Damselfly by Loyle Carner, Tom Misch
Dream A Little Dream Of Me by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong
Yenne by Young Jazz Giants
Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock
Back in Your Own Back Yard by Sun Ra
They Can’t Take That Away From Me by Fred Astaire
Lady Bird by Chet Baker
After You’ve Gone by Dinah Washington
My Baby Just Cares For Me by Nina Simone
Dragonball Durag by Thundercat
Blue Ridge by Nat Reeves
The Nearness of You by Norah Jones
Ain’t Nothing Changed by Loyle Carner
Upswingin’ by Tim Simonec
House Rules by Hyde Park Brass
La Vie En Rose by Edith Piaf
Bittersweet by Lianne La Havas
Mzungu by The Adam Price Group
Prosperity’s Fear by Makaya McCraven, Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul
Want to Find More Incredible Jazz Music?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Jazz Albums of All Time, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time, Popular Jazz and Blues Songs for Female Vocalists, and Chet Atkins’ Most Memorable Songs for more great song selections and musicians.
Of course, you need to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds, the Best Headphones for Music, and the Most Comfortable Headphones you can buy in 2023.
And, if you are an aspiring jazz musician, don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Saxophone Mouthpieces For Jazz, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, and the Best Trumpet currently on the market.
Some Of The Very Best Jazz Songs – Final Thoughts
I say some, because there are plenty more not included. Some will have alternatives that aren’t here. We all have our particular favorites.
The Glory And The Tragedy
Someone once said, “Jazz shouts at us with its sorrow.” There is just something about it. The ability of the musicians to improvise and create, at times amongst some frenetic activity, seems to offer freedom. It certainly does to those playing. The freedom to express your innermost feelings and thoughts. Perhaps that is a throwback to its roots.
The music is glorious; it transcends the irrelevant issues that cloud our lives. It soars through the skies and reminds us of how good we can be. Just like those musicians and singers listed here and others that could have been included.
Lives Cut Short
But, the tragedy is that some of those lives were cut short by a lifestyle that they could not, in the end, sustain. Someone once said to me about addiction that it is the very reason musicians can produce works of genius like these.
I am not sure I agree with that. They would have been great, regardless. But, those problems in their lives robbed them of years, which robbed us of more music. Is that being selfish? Whatever, we are left with music like this, and perhaps we should just be glad about that.
Until next time, happy listening.