Jazz, jazz, jazz there’s so much of it that you never know where to start. Jazz is a melting pot. It’s main characters are coloured and complex chords, swing music, polyrhythm, and of course, improvisation. It is a place where genres mix and dance together. Today, we will be exploring the best jazz songs of all time.
Jazz has evolved and changed throughout its long history and has always followed a trend of its own.
There are so many beautiful jazz songs, but today, we will be picking the 10 top jazz songs of all time.
There will a lot of time travelling, going through some of the best eras of music and shedding some light on some of the best artists who made jazz what it is today.
Top 10 Best Jazz Songs Of All Time
So, are we ready to go through our list of the 10 best jazz songs of all time?
Let’s get started.
1. My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker
Firstly, let’s start off with a classic jazz song – a memorable piece.
My Funny Valentine – with the music written by Richard Rogers and the lyrics by Lorenz Hart. This song was a famous show tune from the musical Babes In Arms, a Broadway musical comedy from 1937.
The song has been covered by over 600 artists and has become iconic in Chet Baker’s version. The latter was also inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for its cultural significance to American society. Making it one of the best classic jazz songs of all time.
The story of the song is based on the main character, Billie Smith. From the musical comedy Babes In Arms that sings “My Funny Valentine” to Valentine Val LaMar.
The song plays upon derogatory terms towards “Valentine”, saying that her “looks are unphotographable”. However, she is “his favourite work of art”.
The lyrics of the song play upon the imperfections of a loved one. A piece that really pulls that sweetness in your heartstrings. It is definitely one of the most famous jazz songs that have been written in the last century!
2. Somewhere Over The Rainbow – Judy Garland
A masterpiece, the blending of colours and rainbows all in one piece. This song is taken from the classic 1939 musical “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and was written by Edgar Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. It is a classic jazz song that has become a favourite jazz best among musicians.
This song is the opener for the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. The beautiful Judy Garland really makes you believe in a place that can exist only over the rainbow. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became Garland’s signature song. She performed it for thirty years, singing it as she had for the film.
The song was the last to be written for the movie. Composer Harold Arlen felt a lot of pressure when he could not find the right tune for the opening of the film . One day as he was with his wife, he asked her if she could drive them to a Chinese restaurant.
He was relaxed in his car and was not thinking of work at all when suddenly a spark of inspiration hit him. He asked his wife to immediately pull over the car, as he took out his small manuscript from his pocket and wrote the whole melody of the song.
Who knows, perhaps the song really did come from over the rainbow inside of his clouded thoughts. Chapeau for a classic that has been sung over and over again by millions of artists worldwide. It has been played in a variety of styles from swing, to pop. Which makes it a perfect suitor for our list of best jazz songs of all time.
3. Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
Yet another classic jazz song on our top ten best jazz songs of all time. Summertime was written in 1934 by the Gershwin Brothers and lyrics by DuBose Heyward for the opera Porgy and Bess.
This famous jazz song was inspired by Gershwin’s attempt to create his own spiritual song in the style of African American folk music of the period.
Summertime is sung many times throughout the opera Porgy and Bess. Its simplistic chord structure in the context of A minor makes it feel like a blues song. However, many jazz performers have changed it and put in more complex chords to have it adapt to their own style.
The song revolves around a blues in A minor. With chords Am – Dm and closing off the verses with an E7, which is the perfect fifth.
The lyrics to this famous jazz song really take you inside the working and living life of African-Americans during the 1930s. Where they spent most of their time working in the cotton fields. This comes to mind with the lyrics “….and the cotton is high”.
So many versions of this song have been recorded. However, it’s Ella Fitzgerald’s soulful vocals and Louis Armstrong’s tasteful trumpet lines really take you inside of its essence making you feel as if you were living in the 1930s.
An everlasting piece and definitely a keeper among the best classic jazz songs of all time.
4. Autumn Leaves – Nat King Cole
A slow jazz ballad of 1945 composed by Joseph Kosma with original lyrics by Jacques Prévert in French, and later by Johnny Mercer in English. One of the best jazz ballad songs out there.
The song was originally written in French with the title “Les Feuilles Mortes”. Which talks about a summer love that is coming to an end, and the reminiscing of the memories of this relationship as autumn starts to come.
The song was sung a lot during the 1950s by many pop vocalists. Such as Bing Cosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole’s version is a blessing. The beautiful orchestral arrangement and his woody toned voice make you believe that the autumn leaves are really starting to fall.
This famous jazz ballad is usually an introduction to jazz harmony. As its sequence of ii minor and V chords are present throughout the whole song and make you understand in a simple way how harmony is used in jazz.
5. Take Five – Dave Brubeck Quartet
This song has been used in numerous movie and television series. Its iconic saxophone melody line written by Paul Desmond (from Dave Brubeck’s Quartet) will last for a lifetime. As a matter of fact, this piece was written in 1959, but it is still featured on many different radio stations today.
The song features an odd time signature, which is 5/4 – very unusual for the jazz of the 1950s and 60’s. It is said that this time signature was influenced by travelling abroad to foreign countries, where the signature is more often heard in popular music. We could define this song as one of the best modern jazz songs, since it uses an odd meter which is not that common in jazz.
Although this song was not the first jazz song to be composed in 5/4, it was the first one to reach commercial success even outside of its genre. Additionally, it reached 25th position on the Billboard Hot 100.
An interesting story about this song is that even if it is wholly credited to Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck which was the piano player and arranger of the band, has written many parts to the song. After the death of Paul Desmond, the whole music rights to the song have been given to the American Red Cross that has been earning around $100,000 a year for it.
What could be better more beautiful than that? A catchy song with one of the best jazz saxophone parts ever, and also all of its revenue going into helping others.
6. Moon River – Audrey Hepburn
The lush and famous soundtrack to Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Moon River was written in 1961 by Henri Mancini and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. This song has got to be one of the old jazz songs of all time, considering the beautiful singing from Audrey Hepburn.
An interesting backstory is that the song had been initially discarded from Paramount Studio, saying that “the f**cking song had to go”.
Audrey Hepburn was outraged by their choice. However, in the end, the song was saved. What makes this so interesting is that in the beginning, Audrey Hepburn did not even want to sing the song!
Henry Mancini wrote the song taking into consideration that Audrey was not a singer. He then spent over a month to think of the perfect melody for her limited vocal range.
He stated that after that whole month of thinking, the melody came to him in half an hour after sipping on a glass of wine.
The lyrics of the song are inspired by Johnny Mercer’s childhood in Savannah, Georgia. Where he would spend his time picking “huckleberries” near the river. Which seems to be the main subject of the song as a metaphor to letting life take you along its river.
In 2004 “Moon River” was named the fourth most memorable jazz song in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute. After “Over the Rainbow”, “As Time Goes By” and “Singin’ in the Rain”.
7. The Girl From Ipanema – Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto & Stan Getz
The legend goes that this song was written around 1961-92 near the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and the poet Vinicius de Moraes while they were drinking beers and girl-watching. It is said that as they were watching the girls, a beautiful eighteen-year-old called Heloisa Eneida Menezes Pais Pinto passed by, and they wrote the song on the bar’s napkins.
The song’s backbones seem to have been born by this interaction the two writers had. However, it was not later on that it came to life when the writers began working on a musical comedy.
Jobim and de Moraes were stuck with two verses on their song “Menina Que Passa” (“The Girl Who Passes By”). They then recalled their day in Rio and inspired by that, came up with Garota da Ipanema.
The original version was in Portuguese. However, the English version came along later when Joao and Jobim were making a record in New York with tenor sax player Stan Getz.
The interesting part of this song is the highly influential Brazilian and Latin America influences. Which blends elements of Samba and bossa nova, making it an iconic Latin Jazz song.
“The Girl From Ipanema” went on to become the second-most recorded Latin jazz song in history, behind “Yesterday.” Covered by an A-Z gamut of performers, it’s become the ultimate cliché of elevator music. Shorthand for the entire lounge revival of the ’90s.
This song is a classic example of jazz blending into Bossanova and Latin, making it one of the best Latin jazz songs ever!
8. What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
What A Wonderful World is one of the best classic jazz songs ever. A wonderful piece of music which was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. It was first recorded for the first time in 1967 by one of the greatest jazz players of all time: Louis Armstrong.
The song is reminiscent of the slow ballads of the 1950s, and it has a real swing to it. It can definitely be considered one of the best jazz swing songs out there for its groove and uplifting vibes!
The song was not initially a hit in the U.S.A. However, it reached number one in the United Kingdom in 1968. Additionally, it was also the biggest-selling single and Armstrong’s recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Making it Louis Armstrong’s best jazz song ever.
The song has been featured in a variety of TV shows. As well as movies such as The Muppet’s Show (1977), Good Morning, Vietnam (1988) and 12 Monkeys (1995).
9. Just The Two Of Us – Grover Washington, Jr
We are near the end of our top ten best jazz songs of all time and we are heading towards the 1980s where synths, world music, and jazz combine together.
Just The Two Of Us was written by Bill Withers in the 1980s. It’s definitely the best cool jazz song, and you can taste the soulful groovy chemistry all over this tune.
It is identified as Smooth Jazz which is a commercially oriented, crossover jazz where the improvisational elements are kept at a minimum. Giving more emphasis on the melodic features of a song, such as a melody or a catchy sax line.
This song started to change the way that jazz was seen. It became oriented more towards a pop feel. Leaving behind the old school tradition of improvising solos.
10. Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones
Lastly, let’s explore one of the best modern jazz songs of the last twenty years. Don’t Know Why was written and composed in 1999 by Jesse Harris and covered by singer-songwriter Norah Jones on her solo debut album Come Away With Me.
What makes this song so interesting is the fact that it feels like it was written a long time ago, but it blends in the elements of contemporary pop with beautiful soulful vocals.
The single went on to win three Grammy Awards in 2003 for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
That Was Our List Of The Top 10 Best Jazz Songs Of All Time
Selecting the top best jazz songs of all time has been a curious ride between various decades, since jazz is an ever-evolving genre that never seems to be standing still.
We are already starting to hear blends of jazz with rap, hip-hop and also rock. However, it is still a niche genre, but we are hoping that it might spread towards more mainstream audiences.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with our list of the 10 best jazz songs of all time? Let us know if we missed any out in the comment section below! We would love to hear your thoughts!