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 50 best jazz songs, expect eloquent break-up ballads, wistful reveries and exultant celebrations of love and romance.
50: Pick Yourself Up
Persevering in the face of setbacks and brushing off disappointments is the theme of this much-loved hymn of optimism. Penned by Jerome Kern with lyricist Dorothy Fields, Pick Yourself Up was first performed by the legendary fleet-of-foot dancer Fred Astaire and his then partner, Ginger Rogers, in the 1936 movie Swing Time. That same year, Astaire released the first version of the song as a solo single; after that, cool crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, along with jazz pianists George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, helped transform it into a perennially popular standard among the best jazz songs. Other notable versions of this evergreen tune have come from Natalie Cole, on her 1996 album, Stardust, and, more recently, by Gregory Porter, on his 2017 tribute to Cole’s father, Nat King Cole & Me.
49: How Deep Is The Ocean
From blues-rock icon Eric Clapton and folk-rock troubadour Bob Dylan to Motown soul man Marvin Gaye, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker and saloon swinger Frank Sinatra, a host of artists from different epochs and contrasting musical worlds have queued up to record this profoundly affecting song, written by Irving Berlin, whose clever lyrics reveal how impossible it is to measure or quantify one person’s love for another. One of the best love songs of its era, the first version of How Deep Is The Ocean was recorded in 1932 by bandleader Paul Whiteman. Since then, almost 700 renditions have followed, by a swathe of jazz instrumentalists (among them The Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis) as well as vocalists such as Tom Jones and Sheena Easton.
48: God Bless The Child
Jazz singer Billie Holiday co-wrote several famous jazz standards, including Don’t Explain and Lady Sings The Blues, but undoubtedly her most popular contribution to the best jazz songs is God Bless The Child, which she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog. According to the singer, writing in her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, the song’s famous refrain, “God bless the child that’s got his own”, came from an argument Holiday had with her mother over money, which became the inspiration for the tune. Holiday recorded three different versions of the song, in 1941, 1950 and 1956, and it has been covered over 500 times. The blues singer “Little” Esther Phillips released a version in 1963, imbuing it with a distinctive country-soul slant.
47: Cheek To Cheek
Sometimes arranged as a duet, this song about two lovers ecstatically entwined on the dancefloor comes from the repertoire of the prolific Russian-born US composer Irving Berlin, who published over 1,500 songs. The tune first appeared in the movie Top Hat, starring the illustrious terpsichorean duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in 1935, and quickly became one of the best jazz songs of all time, especially when it was covered by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, who combined their considerable talents on a heavenly 1956 duet. Five years later, the velour-voiced British crooner Matt Monro recorded a silky version of the tune on Love Is The Same Anywhere…, his debut album for Parlophone.
46: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Another case of one of the best jazz songs being introduced to the world by the debonair Fred Astaire, this much-cherished George and Ira Gershwin tune about valuing love over money was written for the 1937 movie A Damsel In Distress. The movie was set in England, which prompted the Gershwins to use a British colloquialism for the song’s title. Sadly, George Gershwin died later that same year, at 38, from a brain aneurysm and never saw the finished film. Over 300 recorded versions of Nice Work If You Can Get It exist, the most famous ones coming from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. Also noteworthy is Kansas City chanteuse Chris Connor’s lightly swinging jazz version, taken from the smoky-voiced singer’s 1957 Atlantic album Chris Connor Sings The George Gershwin Almanac Of Song.
45: Jeepers Creepers
Singer and actor Ethel Waters debuted this infectious Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren number on record with the Edward Mallory Orchestra back in 1938. One of the best jazz songs from the swing era, Jeepers Creepers took its unusual title from a slang term for Jesus Christ, appeared in the soundtrack to the film Going Places and was nominated for an Academy Award (it lost out to the signature Bob Hope tune Thanks For The Memory). The most famous version is arguably gravel-voiced jazz singer Louis Armstrong’s iconic 1939 single recording, but there have been memorable renditions from Tony Bennett with the Count Basie Orchestra and instrumental versions by vibraphonist Cal Tjader, pianist Les McCann and organist Jimmy Smith.
44: They All Laughed
The sweet taste of vindication is the theme of this witty Gershwin brothers song, whose protagonist was ridiculed for daring to dream he could capture the heart of a young woman who was considered out of his league. He compares his plight with those of several famous pioneers who were mocked for their groundbreaking discoveries, beliefs or inventions, from explorer Christopher Columbus to air-travel trailblazers the Wright brothers, automobile mogul Henry Ford and even chocolate-bar manufacturer Milton S Hershey. They All Laughed debuted in the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, Shall We Dance, and quickly rose to become one of the best jazz songs of the era. All the great crooners added the tune to their repertoires, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. Sinatra’s heir apparent, Bobby Darin, put a cool, jokey jazz spin on it for his 1964 Atco album, Winners.
43: Have You Met Miss Jones?
Many of the immortal songs from the Great American Songbook were written in the 30s, like this Rodgers and Hart classic, which first appeared in I’d Rather Be Right, a 1937 musical comedy that satirised US politics. In 1955, the song appeared in the movie Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, starring Jane Russell, and was further popularised by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Ex-Take That singer Robbie Williams revived interest in the tune when he recorded it with a big-band arrangement for the soundtrack to the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. Another memorable version was sung by the legendary jazz diva Sarah Vaughan, who revealed her imperious scatting technique on a swinging arrangement recorded for her 1960 Roulette album, The Divine One.
42: Feeling Good
This inspired musical collaboration between British songwriters Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse was popularised by Nina Simone in 1965, and was taken from their musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd, which premiered the year before. Over 200 versions of the song have been recorded, the most surprising one by the British neo prog-rock band Muse, who included it on their 2001 album, Origin Of Symmetry. In 2005, two different acts scored hits with the song: the Canadian crooner Michael Bublé and the US pop-dance group Pussycat Dolls.
The sultry jazz singer Peggy Lee put this moody blues groove, which describes love as an addiction, on the radar of mainstream pop pickers with her hypnotic 1958 version, which was a US Top 20 hit. Such was Lee’s identification with the song that many people were unaware that the original recording was by Arkansas singer Little Willie John, who had scored a US R&B hit with it two years earlier. There have been almost 600 covers of Fever, and artists from many different genres have been drawn to the song, from smooth contemporary crooners such as Michael Bublé to hard rockers Bon Jovi and pop royalty in the shape of Madonna and Beyoncé.
40: The Way You Look Tonight
Considered one of the great songwriting masters of the 20th century, Jerome Kern wrote many of his songs with lyricist Dorothy Fields, including this romantic expression of admiration, one of their most famous collaborations. Easily one of the best jazz songs, The Way You Look Tonight was introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1936 Hollywood movie Swing Time, and since then has been recorded over 700 times, inspiring memorable renditions from jazz greats Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. It also brought out the inner crooner in two contrasting British rock legends: ex-Faces singer and Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? hitmaker Rod Stewart and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. In 2003, Michael Bublé resurrected the song with a silky bossa nova vibe on his self-titled third album.
39: Moon River
Recorded almost 1,000 times since it was written in 1960, this durable Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song has touched musicians from a wide range of musical worlds, with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Cliff Richard to Morrissey and R.E.M. cutting versions of it. First heard in the iconic 1961 movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s, sung by Audrey Hepburn (as the character Holly Golightly), Moon River was initially taken into the charts by MOR crooner Andy Williams. The song was originally titled Blue River but lyricist Johnny Mercer changed it to the name of a river in his native Savannah, Georgia. Recalling the genesis of the song, Henry Mancini said: “It took me about 30 minutes to compose. It had to be in keeping with the character of Holly Golightly, the star of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and I had to bear in mind the limitations of Audrey Hepburn’s voice. I worked the whole song round a simple guitar basis, although the guitar isn’t heard much during the number.”
38: My Shining Hour
Dancing legend Fred Astaire and saxophone giant John Coltrane are two names you don’t expect to hear mentioned in the same sentence. The famous stage hoofer premiered this Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer number in the 1943 movie The Sky’s The Limit, which the Philadelphia-born saxophonist then reworked for his 1961 Atlantic album Coltrane Jazz, with a rhythm section that included pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, from Miles Davis’ then band. Other jazz musicians that recorded the song include West Coast trumpeter Shorty Rogers, hard-bop saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and guitarist Tal “The Octopus” Farlow.
37: But Not For Me
Written for the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, starring Ginger Rogers, this Gershwin brothers’ song was a favourite with big-band orchestras in the 40s and later became associated with two very different jazz singers: trumpeter cum crooner Chet Baker, who cut it on his Chet Baker Sings album, and Ella Fitzgerald, whose 1961 recording won a Grammy. The tune was popular in the repertoire of several jazz instrumentalists, including pianists Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner and Red Garland. Saxophonist John Coltrane featured a swinging uptempo take as the closing track on his acclaimed 1961 album My Favorite Things.
36: The Night Has A Thousand Eyes
Though many of the best jazz songs were forged in the heat of Tin Pan Alley workshops, others had more surprising pedigrees. This Jerry Brainin-Buddy Bernier song – not to be confused with the 1961 Bobby Vee pop hit with the same title – began life as a movie theme song in 1948, when it appeared in a horror film about grisly premonitions called The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, which starred Edward G Robinson. Though the first version, recorded by crooner Buddy Clark, presented the song as a soporific ballad, the tune was adapted as a vehicle for searing improv by some of the jazz world’s most prominent saxophonists in the late 50s and early 60s: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and Stan Getz all offered distinctive interpretations of it.
A bittersweet nostalgic ballad from the pens of Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, Yesterdays was premiered by singer Faye Templeton in 1933 and was taken from a musical called Roberta, which also yielded the classic song Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. The song quickly became popular with jazz singers (Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day both recorded it twice), and it was also covered by a plethora of top-tier instrumentalists, ranging from trumpeter Miles Davis to pianist Oscar Peterson. One of the most unusual versions came from Roland Kirk, a flautist and saxophonist famous for playing three horns simultaneously; Kirk’s rendition appeared on his 1967 live-in-the-studio Atlantic album, Here Comes The Whistleman, and featured a striking scat vocal by bassist Major Holley.
34: Stella By Starlight
No list of the best jazz songs would be complete without composer Victor Young’s romantic nocturne, which grew out of his theme music to a 1944 movie called The Uninvited, and was first recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1947. The lyrics to Stella By Starlight were penned by the redoubtable Ned Washington, whose work also graced three other classic songs: When You Wish Upon A Star, The Nearness Of You and Wild Is The Wind (the latter of which inspired David Bowie to record a superlative version for his 1976 album, Station To Station). Other singers who added Stella By Starlight to their repertoires were Johnny Hartman, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett, while Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Ben Webster and Bill Evans were among numerous instrumentalists who put their mark on it.
33: Let’s Face The Music And Dance
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Irving Berlin, whose biggest hits included White Christmas, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies and Cheek To Cheek, wrote this unforgettable song about living in the moment as a vehicle for Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie Follow The Fleet. Arguably the most famous rendition of Let’s Face The Music And Dance was by Nat King Cole, who put an elegant spin on the song in 1964, just a year before his death. Three years later, the smooth-voiced UK singer Matt Monro served up a magnificent version with a svelte arrangement by Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle, on his 1967 big-band album, Matt Sings, Nelson Swings. In the 21st century, ex-Take That singer Robbie Williams has recorded it, while veteran crooner Tony Bennett teamed up with Lady Gaga to reimagine the song as a duet.
32: Come Fly With Me
Frank Sinatra’s invitation to join the high-flying jet set and quaff some “exotic booze” in a variety of exciting far-flung destinations (Bombay, Peru, Acapulco Bay) is hard to resist, especially as songwriters Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn have a persuasive way of blending an earworm of a melody with memorable lyrics and an irresistibly swinging groove. “Ol’ Blue Eyes” debuted Come Fly With Me in 1958 and it soon became a staple of saloon swingers everywhere. Pop stars seeking some retro-chic Rat Pack hipness (see boy band Westlife and Mysterious Girl hitmaker Peter Andre) have also been drawn to the song, as have ex-football managers (Ron Atkinson) and MOR lounge lizards (Barry Manilow), though only Michael Bublé (on his self-titled 2003 album) got close to giving Sinatra a run for his money.
31: April In Paris
Over the years, the fabled “City Of Light” has inspired a multitude of songs, from Joni Mitchell’s Free Man In Paris (from her 1974 album, Court And Spark) to Elliott Smith’s Place Pigalle and St Vincent’s Paris Is Burning. But the most iconic is arguably Vernon Duke and “Yip” Harburg’s immortal April In Paris, which first appeared in the 1932 Broadway musical Walk A Little Faster. Associating the blossoming chestnuts of a Parisian spring with the first buds of yearning love, this wistful evergreen tune bloomed more fully after inspiring a 1952 romantic comedy movie of the same name starring Doris Day. Many jazz musicians covered it, including bebop pioneer and saxophonist Charlie Parker, though Count Basie’s 1954 Grammy-winning big-band rendition is arguably the most famous. Frank Sinatra and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk also recorded notable versions.
30: I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)
Widely considered one of the world’s greatest ever composers, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) copyrighted over 3,000 songs during his 75 years on Earth – many of which demand consideration for inclusion among the best jazz songs. One of his most popular and enduring tunes is I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), with lyrics by Paul Webster, which was first recorded by Ellington’s orchestra in 1941 and went on to spawn almost 500 different versions. Many interpretations came from the jazz world (versions have been made by everyone from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane), but there were also notable covers from soul singer Jackie Wilson, disco diva Donna Summer and Carly Simon, who cut a pop version for her 1981 album, Torch.
29: The Nearness Of You
Co-written by the Indiana-born singer/pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael (who was also responsible for the classic songs Georgia On My Mind and Stardust) The Nearness Of You expresses the joy of romantic proximity and was first recorded by Chick Bullock and his orchestra in 1940. The song was recorded a further eight times that year, most notably by the bandleader Glenn Miller, who took it into the Top 5 of the US pop charts. Some of the most famous vocalists of all time added it to their repertoires – including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Matt Monro – and, in the 21st century, the ballad refuses to die; it was covered by Norah Jones in 2001 and, more recently, there have been versions by Seal, Rod Stewart and Kandace Springs.
Written in 1946 by composer Walter Gross and lyricist Jack Lawrence, this aching ballad extolling the bliss of romance was first recorded a year later by the Brazilian crooner Dick Farney, who cut it as a string-drenched waltz. One of the more famous versions came from the velvet-voiced Nat King Cole, whose 1953 recording helped popularise it among the best jazz songs. In the 70s, Tenderly was covered by everyone from The Muppets to The Nolan Sisters, but it also received a stylish makeover by George Benson, who made it the title track of his 1989 album when he reconfigured it into a vehicle for his dazzling virtuoso guitar skills.
27: Autumn Leaves
Not to be confused with the Ed Sheeran song of the same name that appeared on the deluxe version of the British singer-songwriter’s 2011 debut album, +, Autumn Leaves is a bona fide jazz evergreen that dates from 1945. It was originally composed by the Hungarian-born musician Joseph Kosman and French lyricist Jacques Prévert under the title Les Feuilles Mortes, and appeared in the 1946 movie Le Portes De La Nuit, sung as a duet by Iréne Joachim and Yves Montand. In 1950, American lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics to the song which led to a spate of vocal recordings; noteworthy instrumental versions in the jazz world were also laid down by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and flautist Leo Wright (whose swinging version was the highlight of his 1960 album, Blues Shout). Autumn Leaves’ popularity has extended beyond jazz – it has also been covered by easy-listening gurus (Bert Kaempfert), blues legends (Eric Clapton), rock gods (Iggy Pop) and operatic tenors (Andrea Bocelli).
26: Lullaby Of Birdland
The London-born pianist George Shearing wrote this catchy number in 1952 to help promote Birdland, music mogul Morris Levy’s New York City jazz club named after bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker. Lullaby Of Birdland quickly became Shearing’s signature tune and also fell into the repertoire of other musicians, among them two of the best jazz saxophonists of all time, Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz. The tune’s audience widened considerably when George Weiss wrote words for it; Ella Fitzgerald recorded the first vocal version, in 1954, but Sarah Vaughan made the song her own a year later. In recent years, Amy Winehouse, Chaka Khan and Mariah Carey have all put a unique spin on it.
Many of the best jazz songs are Tin Pan Alley tunes written by experienced and professional tunesmiths, but Misty, a caressing ballad with a melancholy aura, was the product of the prodigiously talented jazz pianist Erroll Garner, renowned for his florid keyboard style. He first recorded the song as a piano-led instrumental with his trio in 1954 but, after Johnny Burke wrote lyrics for it, the crooner Johnny Mathis took the song into the upper echelons of the US pop charts in 1959. Mathis’ success provoked a plethora of cover versions, including a gorgeous rendering by the soul-jazz alto saxophonist Hank Crawford for his 1961 album, More Soul.
24: ’Round Midnight
Second only to Duke Ellington as the most recorded jazz composer of all time, the pianist Thelonious Monk was perceived as an avant-garde musician when he first emerged in the 40s, though one of his songs from that early period, ’Round Midnight, written in 1944, quickly became a jazz standard. With the addition of Bernie Hanighen’s lyrics, the song, with its long, sinuous melody, became popular with singers and was cut by jazz goddesses Julie London and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1963 it was recorded by a young up-and-coming jazz singer from Michigan called Betty Carter, as the title track of her 1963 Atco album.
23: In A Sentimental Mood
One of the best jazz musicians in history, Duke Ellington claimed he composed the music to this immortal song during a stopover in Durham, North Carolina, in 1935 as part of an attempt to pacify two quarrelling women whose company he was in. The resulting tune (with lyrics by Manny Kurtz) became one of his most covered songs; to date almost 700 versions have been recorded, the majority of them instrumental. Ellington himself revisited In A Sentimental Mood in two notable collaborations: with singer Ella Fitzgerald, in 1957, and with tenor saxophone titan John Coltrane, five years later. One of the most distinguished vocal versions in the last 30 years has come from soul singer Roberta Flack, who put her own spin on the song on her 1994 Great American Songbook-oriented album, Roberta.
22: The End Of A Love Affair
Though she’s revered as an icon of funk and soul music, Chaka Khan is a versatile singer who’s not been afraid to tackle jazz standards. On her 1988 album, CK, she revealed her skill as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook with her nuanced yet sultry version of The End Of A Love Affair. Long established among the best jazz songs, it was written by Edward Redding and first recorded by Margate Whiting in 1951, though Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor both recorded memorable versions at the end of the same decade. Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery are among the many jazz musicians who have also recorded instrumental versions of the song.
21: Mack The Knife
Though he recorded one of the most famous versions of Mack The Knife, Bobby Darin wasn’t the first singer to record this Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht song, originally written for the duo’s 1928 musical, The Threepenny Opera; that distinction went to the Harald Paulsen Orchestra, who recorded it in 1929 as Moritat (short for the song’s original title, Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer). But Darin, who transformed the tune into an infectious, finger-clicking saloon swinger courtesy of Robert Wess’ slick arrangement, saw his rendition shoot to No.1 in the US en route to grabbing a Grammy award. Though Darin’s success inspired a raft of cover versions, including those by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr, none of them could eclipse his 1959 recording, which more than earns its spot among the best jazz songs.
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 Favorite 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.
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.
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.
You’ve heard the best jazz songs of all time, now find out the best jazz musicians.
Original article: 30 April 2021
Updated: 30 April 2022
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