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Best Jazz Songs: 20 Timeless Great American Songbook Classics
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List & Guides

Best Jazz Songs: 20 Timeless Great American Songbook Classics

From finger-clicking swingers to lovelorn laments and vehicles for virtuosic improv, the best jazz songs continue to resonate.

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The Great American Songbook is to jazz what the complete works of Shakespeare are to English literature: an indispensable foundation that has been crucial in shaping the development of a unique and influential art form. Composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers with Lorenz Hart created a formidable repertoire of songs written for Broadway stage musicals and Hollywood movies that became the bedrock of singers and instrumentalists in jazz’s golden age. Though mainly written between the 1920s and 50s, the songs were so well-crafted in terms of their lyrics and melodies that their appeal has crossed generations and musical genres. In this countdown of the 20 best jazz songs, expect eloquent break-up ballads, wistful reveries and exultant celebrations of love and romance.

Best Jazz Songs: 20 Timeless Great American Songbook Classics

20: ’S Wonderful

Premiered in the Broadway musical Funny Face in 1927, this George and Ira Gershwin song failed to register on Frank Sinatra’s radar, but that didn’t stop it becoming a much-loved staple of the standard repertoire. Though female singers from Ella Fitzgerald in the 50s through to Diana Krall in the 2000s recorded it, one of the most spellbinding performances of ’S Wonderful came from the Brazilian bossa nova maven João Gilberto, who recorded it in 1976 on his album Amoroso, with noted German conductor Claus Ogerman arranging. One of the best instrumental interpretations of the song was by saxophonist Eddie Harris, who reconfigured the tune as a breezy Brazilian samba on his 1965 album The In Sound.

19: Lush Life

Written by Duke Ellington associate Billy Strayhorn – who also wrote Take The “A” Train, another contender for a place among the best jazz songs, for the great bandleader – Lush Life is a forlorn lament that describes the desolate aftermath of a broken romance. Though a favourite of jazz singers since the late 40s, the song has also received surprising treatments by Donna Summer, Rickie Lee Jones (who brought a bohemian quirkiness to the song on her 1983 live EP, Girl At Her Volcano) and country-rock singer turned jazz chanteuse Linda Ronstadt, who made it the title song of her 1984 Nelson Riddle-arranged LP; their collaboration on the tune grabbed a Grammy award.

18: How High The Moon

First recorded in 1940 by the “King Of Swing”, Benny Goodman, and his orchestra, this Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton composition has received multiple makeovers over the years, from bebop blowouts by saxophonist Charlie Parker (1948) to disco floor-fillers by Gloria Gaynor (1975) and even rockabilly rave-ups by Jeff Beck featuring Imelda May (2011). Nashville queen Emmylou Harris reconfigured the tune as a jaunty slice of country swing on her 1981 album Evangeline, while in 1984 the US vocal group Manhattan Transfer transformed the song into a stomping vehicle for their impeccable close-harmony work.

17: I’ll Be Around

The most famous song from New York composer, poet and author Alec Wilder, I’ll Be Around was first recorded by jazz singer Cab Calloway in 1942 but became a chart hit for the vocal harmony group The Mills Brothers a year later. Soon afterwards, it became a jazz singers’ staple and was recorded by the foremost male (Frank Sinatra) and female (Billie Holiday) singers of the time. The powerhouse R&B singer Chaka Khan updated the song in 1988 on her album CK, transfiguring it into a seductive piece of electric fusion thanks to the help of jazz legend Miles Davis, who blows gilded trumpet melodies behind her aching vocals.

16: My Favourite Things

Though synonymous with British singer/actress Julie Andrews, who sang the tune in the iconic 1965 movie The Sound Of Music, American jazz musician John Coltrane had put his indelible mark on the waltz-time song four years earlier, when he made it the title track of his classic 1961 Atlantic album, transforming it into an epic 13-minute vehicle for his unfettered soprano saxophone improvisations. Forever enshrined among the best jazz songs, the tune was written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and debuted in the stage production of The Sound Of Music in 1959. Though the song doesn’t mention Christmas, it often finds itself ranking among the best Christmas songs, too. Other artists who have recorded it range from Johnny Mathis to Dionne Warwick.

15: Somewhere

Most of the songs in the Great American Songbook were composed in the 1920s and 30s, but this Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic was written in 1957 for their musical West Side Story. An optimistic message song, it quickly became a favourite of velvet-voiced crooners – Matt Monro recorded a superb version in 1964 – but it has also inspired pop acts ranging from PJ Proby to Pet Shop Boys. One of the most soulful versions came from Aretha Franklin, who transformed the song into a soul-jazz aria for her 1973 album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky). Undoubtedly the quirkiest interpretation was by gravel-voiced Tom Waits, who growled his way through the song on his 1978 album, Blue Valentine.

14: Come Rain Or Come Shine

Ray Charles had forged a reputation as a hollering R&B singer until his 1959 album The Genius Of Ray Charles – a collection of standards that exuded sophistication – recast the blind Georgia singer/pianist as a jazzman. Its centrepiece was a widescreen adaptation, complete with a choir and orchestra, of Come Rain Or Come Shine. Another one of the best jazz songs to have originally been written for the stage, it was penned by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen for the 1946 musical St Louis Woman, and has been recorded over 600 times, with notable versions by everyone from Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Bette Midler and BB King with Eric Clapton.

13: Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words)

An immortal classic written by the US tunesmith Bart Howard, Fly Me To The Moon was originally called In Other Words, and under that title was recorded by Kaye Ballard (who cut the very first version, in 1954), Chris Connor and Peggy Lee, who widened the song’s audience when she recorded it in 1960. From 1962, most people were recording it as Fly Me To The Moon. While many of the song’s interpreters – like Frank Sinatra and Julie London – delivered it as a finger-clicking uptempo song, singer LaVern Baker transformed it into a haunting Hispanic-tinged ballad in 1968.

12: Body And Soul

No list of best jazz songs would be complete without this ballad, originally written for British actress Gertrude Lawrence by Johnny Green, with lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton, in 1930. One of the most significant versions was a 1939 instrumental rendition by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, whose extended solo set a template for improvisation in jazz. As well as instrumentalists, the tune has been covered by a plethora of singers, including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, the latter recording it with the late Amy Winehouse in 2011. Rock and pop singers have also been drawn to Body And Soul; the You’re So Vain singer Carly Simon revived it on her 1981 album, Torch, a collection of jazz standards.

11: Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)

One of Billie Holiday’s signature songs – her 1945 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1989 – Lover Man was written in 1941 by Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez and James Sherman. It’s been recorded by some of the greatest female singers from across many genres, among them Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Petula Clark and Barbra Streisand. Female rock singers Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt both notably reworked the song in 1979 and 1983, respectively; Ronstadt’s version featured lush strings arranged by legendary arranger Nelson Riddle. There have been plenty of instrumental performances, too (over 30 to date), from bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker to British violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy.

10: Angel Eyes

From jazz pianist Dave Brubeck to country music troubadour Willie Nelson and MOR crooner Barry Manilow, musicians from markedly different backgrounds have been attracted to the haunting melody of Matt Dennis and Earl Brent’s doleful minor-key ballad. Smoky-voiced jazz chanteuse Chris Connor cut a sultry version in 1956, on her album He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not; that same year, The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded an elegant vibraphone-led version on their album Fontessa. Frank Sinatra arguably recorded one of the most memorable versions on his Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely album in 1958, but soul singer Roberta Flack brought a new dimension to the song in 1994, featuring it on her final Atlantic album, Roberta.

9: Love For Sale

Despite being controversial for being written from the perspective of a prostitute advertising her wares, Cole Porter’s Love For Sale has proved tremendously popular with both jazz singers and instrumentalists ever since it was written in 1931 for the musical The New Yorkers. Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians helped to popularise it first, before a host of female singers – including Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald – added it to their repertoires in the 50s. Male crooners such as Sinatra and Bobby Darin (on his Darin At The Copa album) put their spin on it, and there have also been unique versions by Dr John (on his 1989 album, In A Sentimental Mood) and British band Simply Red, who recorded it as the B-side of their 1987 single, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

8: Someone To Watch Over Me

Recorded over 1,800 times, Someone To Watch Over Me has long been established as one of the best jazz songs of all time. A song about finding the perfect partner, it dates back to 1926, when George and Ira Gershwin wrote it for singer Gertrude Lawrence in the musical Oh Kay! Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra broadened the song’s audience in the 50s with treatments that wedded a wide-eyed vulnerability with a carefree optimism. Though a host of varied performers, from erstwhile Beach Boy Brian Wilson to Elton John and Amy Winehouse have covered the song, Linda Ronstadt, who reinvented herself as a torch song singer, impressed with her 1983 version of the tune from her gorgeous Peter Asher-helmed album, What’s New.

7: I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Cole Porter’s timeless song about the addictive nature of love has inspired countless recordings since it was first written, in 1936, for the Hollywood musical Born To Dance. Frank Sinatra claimed it as one of his signature numbers in the 50s, but there were also remarkable versions by acts as diverse as US pop group The Four Seasons, disco diva Gloria Gaynor and Swedish singer/rapper Neneh Cherry, who infused it with a hip-hop sensibility. Sinatra’s heir apparent, Michael Bublé, recorded a spirited 2006 revival of the tune using Ol’ Blue Eyes’ swinging arrangement, introducing the song to a new generation of listeners in the process.

6: Embraceable You

Everyone from Cliff Richard to the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman – who offered a discordant deconstruction of Embraceable You on his 1961 free jazz manifesto This Is Our Music – have tried their hand at the Gershwin brothers’ tale of intoxicating love. Published in 1932, the song brought a posthumous 2005 Grammy Hall Of Fame award to Billie Holiday, who had recorded it in 1944. Most of the great crooners – Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams – included it in their repertoires, as did many jazz musicians, including bebop icon Charlie Parker and cool-school horn hero Chet Baker.

5: Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye

A slow, melancholic love song whose theme embodies what William Shakespeare described as the “sweet sorrow” of parting from a loved one, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye was written by Cole Porter in 1944 for the Broadway musical Seven Lively Arts. A year later, bandleader Benny Goodman put the song into the charts, but singer Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic 1956 performance of it ensured its place among the best jazz songs. The 60s witnessed memorable versions by saxophonist John Coltrane and singer Esther Phillips, while in 1987, Manchester pop-soul group Simply Red introduced a new generation to the song with their soulful remake.

 

4: Night And Day

Another gem from the Cole Porter songbook, Night And Day was first performed by dancer and singer Fred Astaire in 1932, who scored a hit with it later that same year and then reprised the song in the 1934 movie The Gay Divorcee. Despite its unusual chord changes, Night And Day became popular in the 40s, when Frank Sinatra waxed the first of five versions of the tune he would record during his long career. While droves of jazz singers have recorded it (among them Bing Crosby and Charlie Parker), it’s also been recorded by Ringo Starr, crooner Johnny Mathis (who gave it a souped-up disco makeover) and Irish rock gods U2.

3: Cry Me A River

This bitter break-up ballad was first recorded by the sultry queen of the torch song, Julie London, in 1955 and came from the pen of Arthur Hamilton, the writer responsible for the popular children’s tune Sing A Rainbow. Though London’s version is considered definitive, there have been other notable renditions through the years, among them recordings by distinguished female singers Natalie Cole (1993) and Linda Ronstadt (2004), who both adhered to the arrangement of London’s original, and also from 21st-century crooner Michael Bublé, who reworked the tune from a male perspective on his multi-platinum-selling 2009 album Crazy Love.

2: My Funny Valentine

The runner-up in our list of the best jazz songs is this one – Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Valentine’s Day favourite, which has the distinction of being recorded over 1,000 times. A song about finding perfection in a person’s flaws, My Funny Valentine dates back to 1937, when it was written for the Broadway musical Babes In Arms, but its popularity didn’t really take off until the early 50s, when jazz singer/trumpeter Chet Baker and saloon crooner Frank Sinatra both popularised it. Instrumentalists such as trumpeter Miles Davis helped to establish the song as a standard in the jazz world, and its popularity has continued through the 80s (when Rickie Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt both recorded outstanding versions) to the present day. More recently, Michael Bublé put his unique spin on a tune whose longevity has been nothing less than remarkable.

1: Summertime

Topping our list of the best jazz songs is this immortal classic co-written by the great US composer George Gershwin, with his brother Ira and lyricist DuBose Heyward, in 1934. Summertime first appeared in Gershwin’s opera Porgy And Bess and, because of its hypnotic tempo, dreamy chords and aching melody, quickly became a jazz standard. It has been recorded over 2,000 times, including versions by many of the jazz greats, among them Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and the prolific flautist Herbie Mann, who put an addictive Afro-Cuban beat behind the tune on his 1962 album Herbie Mann At The Village Gate. The song’s universality is reflected in the fact that many pop and rock musicians have also recorded it – including The Doors, who sometimes performed it live in concert, usually over the groove of their signature tune, Light My Fire.

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