Jazz embodies a nostalgic feeling and carries with it some incredible history thanks to legendary artists. Many jazz songs are still classics today because their creators captured the universal human experience in a groundbreaking and beautiful way.
For all the jazz lovers out there, here are 43 of the best jazz songs of all time.
1) Dave Brubeck, “Take Five”
This song gets its name from the unusual 5/4 meter it’s written in. Brubeck’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, wrote the song in 1959, in an era when most jazz was written in 4/4 or 3/4 time, making this a truly groundbreaking song.
Its companion album, “Take Five,” went on to become the all-time best-selling jazz record.
2) Miles Davis, “So What”
One of the most famous and easily recognizable jazz songs, Davis and his band recorded all the tracks of this song in one take, after practicing the new song for only two days.
Its 1959 album, “Kind of Blue,” has been recognized by Congress as a national treasure and is a prime example of modal jazz, which uses improvised, scalar methods instead of traditional chord-based, vertical methods.
3) Duke Ellington, “Take The A Train”
Ellington, a standout of the Harlem Renaissance, penned this with collaborator Billy Strayhorn at the same time that the new A train subway line was pumping people and ideas all around Manhattan Island. With the help of this song, the subgenre of swing started to emerge.
As one of Ellington and his band’s first big successes, it served as a hallmark song for him for the rest of his career.
4) Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight”
Monk’s hit is the most recorded jazz standard of all time. Supposedly penned when he was just 18, Monk and his band recorded it eight years later.
It became a sort of “the national anthem of jazz.” Many other jazz greats have performed it to great acclaim, having changed very little since Monk wrote it in 1936.
5) John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”
Most people know this song right away from the film classic The Sound of Music. Although penned by Rodgers and Hammerstein as part of their original 1958 show, John Coltrane found inspiration and transformed the waltz style of the song into a saxophone-driven, modal-style jazz hit in 1960.
The optimistic and whimsical original lyrics pair well with the uplifting and almost soaring style of Coltrane’s jazz version.
6) John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme (Acknowledgment)”
Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is a deeply personal song about his spiritual journey out of addiction and into redemption. The style is swelling and harmonically static but also profoundly immersive. He had gained popularity at this point in his career to experiment with avant-garde sounds, and his risks were well received.
7) Miles Davis, “All Blues”
Davis’s companion album, Kind of Blue, is the best-selling jazz record of all time. “All Blues” is a 6/8 time, bluesy classic that’s beloved for its poignant lyrics about the similarities shared by all people.
It’s also been popular because its time signature and composition with all 7th chords make it easy to play over and jam to.
8) Weather Report, “Birdland”
The band Weather Report made strides in the popularizing of jazz-rock fusion. Their 1977 hit release “Birdland” further solidified their dedication to experimental rhythms and reinvention of the genre with electronic and modern-sounding additions.
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9) Benny Goodman, “Sing, Sing, Sing”
Released in 1937, this song was a beloved hit during the swing era, and it’s still well known and recognizable from its use in media today. The original recording, with Goodman on clarinet, is eight minutes and forty-six seconds long.
10) Frank Sinatra, “Fly Me To The Moon”
Bart Howard wrote this instantly recognizable classic was initially titled “Other Worlds” and was inspired by the style of the writer’s favorite musician, Cole Porter.
Sinatra recorded his famous version in 1964, and it became immediately associated with the Apollo missions to the moon, although the lyrics tell a love story instead.
11) Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, “Mood Indigo”
Released in 1930, this song is famous for its harmonies, which utilize an inverted structure. The three prominent instruments of the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet are arranged in a special order: the clarinet plays the low end of the range, while the trombone plays the highest.
12) Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World”
This song was released in 1967. Because of the time period, its creators were purposeful in their intentions that the subject matter and the musician might heal some of the social and political unrest in America.
Interestingly enough, the song became a hit in other countries long before it was recognized in America as a chart-topper in 1988.
13) Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
This tragic protest song, centered around the racially charged hate crime of lynching, was originally a poem written by a Jewish civil rights activist, Abel Meeropol. After the poem was put to music, Billie Holiday connected with the song and felt its necessity to call the public’s attention to the criminal and unfair treatment of Black people in America.
14) Ray Charles, “Georgia On My Mind”
Recorded in 1930 by Hoagie Carmichael, Charles sang this song to fame nearly thirty years later. Although it went on to become the state song of Georgia as a love song to the state, it was actually written for Carmichael’s sister, Georgia.
15) Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, “Summertime”
Written in 1934 by jazz great George Gershwin, this song is the most covered song of all time, translated into every musical style imaginable.
Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s collaboration in 1957 is what hurtled the song into its place of acclaim. Initially featured in an opera, Porgy and Bess loaned its name to the duo’s album containing this hit.
16) Dizzy Gillespie, “A Night in Tunisia”
Gillespie’s track, which he referred to often as “Interlude,” shows steps away from the conventional jazz methods of the early 1940s and is injected with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and African inspiration that later inspired its final name.
17) Chet Baker, “My Funny Valentine”
This hit was originally penned by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for a broadway musical, Babes in Arms, which also contained the future hit “The Lady is a Tramp.” Similarly to that song, it found popularity when recorded later by many different jazz greats.
Today, it’s synonymous with Chet Baker, who recorded the song over 100 separate times.
18) Julie London, “Cry Me A River”
Falling under the category of torch songs, this popular one was written by Arthur Hamilton in 1953. Many recognize the song as sung by the modern artist Michael Buble.
But the song was originally meant for Ella Fitzgerald and a feature in the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues. When the song was cut from the movie, it was released instead by Julie London on her debut record.
19) George Gershwin, “I Got Rhythm”
Another composer of musicals, Gershwin, wrote the song for his 1930 show Girl Crazy. From there, it became a hugely popular jazz standard that was so notably easy to improvise to and jam with that it became an inspiration and a model for many other famous jazz songs.
20) Cole Porter, “Night and Day”
This song, penned by Porter in 1932, marries form and function. Representing the insistence and annoying process of capturing the heart of a stubborn woman, the music reflects a monotonous, relentless, and pulsing sort of quality.
Of all of Porter’s musical achievements, many consider this very popular piece to be the pinnacle of his work.
21) Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
Ellington and his band recorded this hit in 1932, with a little bit of variance about who coined the original title phrase. It encompasses the early style of the band, synonymous with the popular swing jazz of the decade.
One of the band’s signature sounds can be heard on this track: the plunger-muted trombone playing of Joseph Nanton, who did indeed mute his trombone with the head of a toilet plunger.
22) Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, “The Girl from Ipanema”
Jobim and Moraes, forerunners of the Brazilian bossa nova style, wrote this tune inspired by a local girl who embodied the ideals of Rio de Janeiro. Once translated into English and recorded by Astrud Gilberto in 1964, it soared to popularity.
This song is the second most recorded pop song in history and has been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse.
23) Etta James, “At Last”
Mack Gordon and Harry Warren penned this classic for a 1942 musical. But the song really found flight under the sweeping, jazzy, crooned vocals of James in 1961.
Although she’s famous for many songs, this is considered by many to be one of her most quintessential. It’s been used continuously over the years as a popular wedding song.
24) Cannonball Adderly, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”
Having already cemented himself as a foundational proponent of soul-jazz, Adderly recorded this song in 1966. Although the album sleeve says it was recorded live at a Chicago nightclub, the album was actually recorded in a studio in front of family and friends to give it the same live feel.
The strong gospel feeling of this jazz classic, interspersed with clapping and shouts from the crowd, went on to help define the sub-genre.
25) Dave Brubeck, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”
This song that debuted in 1959 was inspired by Brubeck’s encounter with Turkish musicians playing on the street. When he asked them what they were playing, they replied that it was their version of the blues.
In a 9/8 time signature and 4/4 swing, the rhythmic pattern pays homage to Brubeck’s inspiration and has gone on to be a beloved classic.
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26) Oliver Nelson, “Stolen Moments”
This jazz standard has been covered by a great many musicians but first appeared on Nelson’s album The Blues and the Abstract Truth in 1961. His solos in his version of the piece provide a famous and cornerstone example of the augmented scale used in jazz.
27) Billie Holiday, “God Bless the Child”
This 1942 classic was inspired by Holiday’s experience in asking her mother for a loan and being denied. The famous line is what Holiday said back to her mother: “God bless the child that’s got his own.”
The song became a historically significant classic and, even in its own day, was beloved as a celebration of ambition, work ethic, and optimism despite its sad origins.
28) Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
Composed in 1929, this song was originally used as the opener for an all-black musical show hosted at the famous Harlem nightclub, Connie’s Inn. The show was so popular that it had a run on Broadway afterward.
While on Broadway, Louis Armstrong, the orchestra director, rose to fame by performing a rendition of the song’s opening lines as a trumpet solo during intermission.
29) John Coltrane, “Bye Bye Blackbird”
Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon first published this song in 1926. Since then, it’s been recorded by many musicians, but John Coltrane was posthumously awarded a Grammy for this solo in his 1962 version released under an album of the same title.
30) Ella Fitzgerald, “How High the Moon”
Originally a show tune by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton, this 1940 classic was made famous by several other musicians, most notably Fitzgerald in 1947.
It’s considered one of her signature songs, as she recorded it around 15 separate times, and one of her 1960 versions was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.
31) Count Basie, “April in Paris”
First recording the song in 1955, Basie is considered one of the greatest big band leaders of all time. This song only further cemented his historic contributions to swing.
The song has a restrained but modern and elegant flow that made it an instant classic, as it looked ahead to the future of a sophisticated and complex genre.
32) Lee Morgan, “Sidewinder”
Released on Morgan’s 1963 album of the same name, this song was his first great hit that propelled him into jazz fame. Initially, the song was considered as more of a filler track for the album.
33) Count Basie and his Orchestra, “One O’clock Jump”
Composed first in 1937, this song became one of the theme songs for Count Basie and his Orchestra. It’s got a typical blues progression that made it an excellent classic jazz standard.
34) Horace Silver, “Song for My Father”
Recorded in 1963, this song pays homage to Silver’s father’s heritage. According to Silver, his father would hold dance parties in their kitchen on Saturday night to the music of Cape Verde, which was his homeland.
35) Modern Jazz Quartet, “Django”
This song, penned by the undersung jazz writer John Lewis in 1954, was written in memory of Django Reinhardt, who had died the previous year. Reinhardt, a Romani-French-Belgian jazz artist who was notably one of the first to emerge from Europe.
36) Duke Ellington, “Caravan”
Ellington co-wrote this song with Juan Tizol, the band’s trombone player, in 1936. At the time, it had an exotic and exciting sound considered new by many on the jazz scene, and as such, it caught on and became popular quickly.
37) Peggy Lee, “Fever”
Lee was already at the top of her career, nearly 20 years in when she recorded this classic that became her 48th Billboard hit. Originally written by R&B singer Eddie Cooley, Lee’s bluesy and sultry delivery made this song a pleasing best of both worlds combination.
38) Thelonious Monk, “Straight, No Chaser”
This 1952 recording has become one of Monk’s most popular and beloved of all time. The track itself is based on traditional blues, with some classic repetition and warbling melody that many musicians still pick to jam to today.
39) Art Blakey, “Moanin’”
This song became one of the hallmark examples of the hard bop subgenre that grew from the bebop subgenre of jazz. In this 1958 track, the exemplary aggressive percussion, swinging rhythms, and focus on improvisation are displayed.
40) George Gershwin, “Rhapsody in Blue”
Gershwin performed this song for the first time in 1924. Up until then, he was known only as a composer of musicals. It was received very well at the time, leaving critics calling him a genius.
41) Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, “In a Sentimental Mood”
The marriage of Ellington’s crooning piano and Coltrane’s pensive saxophone make this a sentimental feeling song, indeed. Ellington composed the piece in 1937 and performed it with his orchestra but teamed with Coltrane and added it to their duo record in 1963, only four years before Coltrane’s death.
42) Herbie Hancock, “Maiden Voyage”
Hancock described “Maiden Voyage” as his favorite among all the compositions he had written himself. Apparently he had originally written it for a TV commercial. It is the title track of a concept album with a nautical theme.
43) Ahmad Jamal, “Poinciana”
Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier originally penned this song in 1936 based loosely on a Cuban folk song whose title translates to “Song of the Tree.” The Poinciana is indeed a type of tree with flaming-colored flowers that is native to Madagascar.
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