When it comes to choosing the best jazz songs of all time, it's hard to choose. Some are the best jazz songs for dancing to, while others suit evenings at home with the turntable on low.
That said, here are the jazz songs and standards we consider a head and shoulders above some of the others.
This signature Duke Ellington standard tells the story of New York’s A-Train subway line.
Back in 1939, when Billy Strayhorn wrote it, the A-Train ran from Brooklyn to Harlem, then the heart of New York’s nascent jazz community.
While the A-Train does have lyrics, it wasn’t uncommon for it to be played instrumentally, with the improvisations undertaken by Ellington and his band instead of a singer.
And although Strayhorn wrote it, Ellington realized it. His version became synonymous with jazz in a way few other standards did.
Talking of songs with lyrics, Ella Fitzgerald famously forgot the words to Mack the Knife in concert.
As it turned out, so did everyone else, after they heard Fitgerald’s last-minute improvisation. In true jazz-singer fashion, she improvised and scat-sang her way to the end of the song, and fans loved it.
However, the momentary lapse was understandable. Like Ellington’s Take the A -rain, Mack the Knife wasn’t a song Fitzgerald wrote. Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darrin sang it before her.
But no one sang it as memorably as Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin.
My Funny Valentine began as a musical number in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Babes in Arms. It quickly became one of the best jazz songs of all time.
In 1952, Chet Baker recorded the song, and after that, it was Chet Baker’s staple. Wherever Baker went, My Funny Valentine went with him.
Sir George Shearing was born in Battersea. Although he was born blind, it never hindered his piano playing, and when he was knighted in 2007, it was in acknowledgment of his commitment to the advancement of music and jazz especially.
Shearing wrote Lullaby for Birdland in 1952. Its name is a tribute to the Birdland jazz club; itself named after jazz artist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.
But while Shearing created the rich and textured piano harmonies, Birdland’s lyrics were written by George David Weiss. However, because the two artists belonged to competing record companies, they weren’t officially allowed to collaborate.
So, Weiss developed a pseudonym and became B Y Forster to bend the rules.
It Ain’t Necessarily So was written by George Gershwin for the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In this jazz opera, where Sportin’ Life sings the piece. His sinuous tenor pokes playfully at famous Bible stories, horrifying his God-fearing neighbors.
But not so much horrifying audiences; the song was so popular it quickly developed a life of its own. Almost any jazz artist who was anyone wanted to record it.
One of the best versions was Peggy Lee’s 1955 rendition from her album Black Coffee, where she gives it a rich, warm vocal color.
When it comes to the best jazz songs to dance to, These Foolish Things, as performed by Charlie Parker on his saxophone, is hard to beat.
Deeply romantic, Parker gives Glen Miller’s music an intimacy perfect for dancing. In his hands, it balances between long, lugubrious phrases and playful improvisations. The result is an arrangement with rich tonality and a lot of light and shade dancers can enjoy.
Over the years, there have been many fantastic recordings of Johnny Green’s Body and Soul. But jazz is no more a museum piece than any other art form, and this recording between Tony Bennet and Amy Winehouse holds its head up with the best of them.
It’s another excellent jazz song to dance to. Neither too fast nor too slow, it’s ideal for the casual couple dancing at home. It’s also a perfect introduction or reintroduction to dancing to jazz for the inexperienced dancer.
The three-way collaboration between Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton produced memorable and romantic lyrics. But like any good jazz standard, its lyrics are fluid and can vary from singer to singer.
Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach collaborated on The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes in 1933 for the musical Roberta.
Over the years, many artists performed it, including:
- Paul Whiteman
- Randolph Scott
- Red Astaire and Ginger Rogers
But it was The Platters version of the song, released in 1958, that took America by storm. By 1959 The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes broke the Billboard Top 100 chart and was number three on the Rhythm and Blues Chart.
Britain loved it too, and The Platters rendition of one of the best jazz songs of all time spent 20 weeks on as number one on the UK’s equivalent charts.
While Kern’s widow tried valiantly to stop this new version’s distribution, Harbach approved of it, praising The Platters for reviving his work with taste and imagination.
Cole Porter stands out among his fellow artists and composers in that he wrote not just the music but the lyrics to his songs. And while Night and Day is now considered one of the best jazz songs of all time, it wasn’t always that way.
When Porter debuted the piece for friend Monty Wooly, Wooly was pessimistic. His advice? Scrap the song. It was terrible and would never catch on. Porter didn’t.
Instead, as the song’s popularity grew, he gave increasingly varied answers to the inspiration for the song. One version tells of Porter hearing the Islamic call to worship and taking inspiration from it.
Elsewhere, Porter said the song came to him on a Sunday afternoon at the Ritz. He then penned the lyrics lying on a beach, not in Morocco but Rhode Island.
Whatever its origin, the result is an excellent jazz song to dance to, perform or listen to on a lazy Sunday evening.
Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off is another of the best jazz songs of all time that faces stiff competition when it comes to recordings. But one of the things that makes Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s collaboration stand out is their distinctive voices.
Armstrong’s deep, burred voice is unmistakable. Likewise, Fitzgerald’s silky, rich contralto. They’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of the song’s playful linguistics.
Unforgettable is another of those songs you can file under best jazz songs to dance to. It sounds like liquid gold, and its long, elastic phrases are the perfect excuse for couples to dance slow and close together.
It’s also another jazz song with incredibly romantic lyrics, and the story it paints is of a love that persists.
Irving Gordon wrote the song. Regrettably, Irving died before Cole’s version entered the Hall of Fame in 2000. It’s still a favorite today because, as the song says, the music is unforgettable.
Round Midnight remains one of the most-recorded jazz standards there is. Both Miles Davies and Dizzy Gillespie titled the song Round About Midnight, and today the titles are interchangeable.
In Monk’s hands, the song segues from one daring improvisation to another.
His unlikely but interesting harmonies give Monk one of the most distinctive jazz fingerprints there is. And while his improvisations may seem strange to the untrained ear, they are always harmonically sound and rooted in musical theory.
His Round Midnight is no exception, and consequently, not only one of the best jazz songs of all time but one of the most interesting to listen to. You can never predict where Monk will take you, and that's half the joy of listening to him.
How High the Moon was written by Morgan Lewis and with lyrics by Nancy Hamilton. It started life like any 1940s jazz standard. But what neither composer nor lyricist could anticipate was the way jazz transformed their composition.
When Django Reinhardt recorded it in 1947, he and his quintet drew on his Romani background. The resulting style, which swings and skips rhythmically through various complex improvisations and variations, came to be called ‘gypsy jazz.’
This stylistic rendition of How High the Moon stuck, and today you’ll most likely hear it in the gypsy jazz vein. You’ll recognize it by its idiomatic rhythm, which borrows from swing by emphasizing the off-beats of the bar.
The strumming technique needed to render gypsy jazz is also distinct. It’s incredibly fast and demanding of the guitarist. But the result is a lively, fast-paced piece that makes How High the Moon another jazz song to dance to.
Duke Ellington wrote Satin Doll in 1953, with lyrics provided by Johnny Mercer. The piece is immediately recognizable for its atypical harmonic construction.
It opens with a chord sequence that shifts atypically from the note above doh (the supertonic) to the fifth (dominant) to end on doh. The decision to end on doh grounds the song in its chosen key and allows artists like Ellington to segue naturally into the melody.
This particular chord progression, called ii-V-I turnaround, is a staple of jazz harmony and used by Ellington to excellent effect in this jazz standard.
Written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, Georgia on My Mind has long since become synonymous with Ray Charles.
He first recorded the song in 1960. A Georgia native, Charles' version is full of warmth and affection for his home. As Charles sang it, Georgia on My Mind jumped to the number one spot on America’s Billboard Hot 100.
This jazz hit became so inextricably linked to Ray Charles that when the TV show Designing Women used it as their opening theme, they got Charles to perform it on piano.
For a singer disinclined to record, she nevertheless sang and produced her share of the best jazz songs of all time. My Baby Just Cares for Me is a classic example.
Simone recorded it as part of her debut album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958. When it was released in 1959, jazz aficionados everywhere stopped and listened.
Despite this, it wasn’t until Simone’s version of the song featured in a commercial for Channel No 5 years later that it reached a wider public.
For the rest of the late 1980s, Simone’s arrangement enjoyed a second wave of popularity. It played in several films from the 1990s, including:
- Peter’s Friends
- Shallow Grave
- Stealing Beauty
Today, when people think of Walter Donaldson’s standard, it’s Simone singing it that springs to mind.
Another of the best jazz songs of all time, The Look of Love, was composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1967.
Dusty Springfield was the first person to bring this jazz staple to notoriety. However, Canadian artist Diana Krall went on to be equally well-known for her version of the song.
It features a distinctive bossa nova rhythm inspired by samba music. It’s recognizable from its combination of intricate harmonies and syncopated rhythms.
Of the many versions of Sweet Georgia Brown available, Brother Bones and His Shadows stand out for their distinctive use of the percussive ‘knucklebones’ to accentuate the piece’s rhythm.
This eclectic recording was such a resounding success that it became the theme music for the Harlem Globetrotters, who purportedly played it during warm-ups to their basketball games.
Deceptively challenging to play, Sweet Georgia Brown relies on a chord progression inspired by the circle of fifths to establish the verse section. But it then segues into more nuanced and complicated progressions as players move through the song.
Like How High the Moon, it’s another piece popular with gypsy jazz artists, leading to creative rhythmic and harmonic reinterpretations of the song’s ternary structure.
Herbie Hancock is perhaps best known for his musical work behind the scenes of the film Blow Up. But he was also a prominent jazz artist, and his 1960 composition Cantaloupe Island is arguably one of the best jazz songs of all time.
Hancock wrote the song for inclusion in his album Empyrean Isles, where he pushed at the boundaries of jazz convention.
Its drum line melds minor seventh chords with modal chords. Unlike some of the other best jazz songs of all time, Cantaloupe Island wasn’t an immediate hit in the sixties. Instead, its success came later when hip-hop artists reimagined and reworked it.
There’s debate about who composed On the Sunny Side of the Street. Typically people attribute it to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. Others believe Fats Waller penned it and sold the rights.
Whoever wrote it, it quickly became one of the greatest jazz songs of all time. Everyone who was anyone recorded it, including:
- Louis Armstrong
- Count Basie
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Billie Holiday
Gillespie’s arrangement features his signature fast-paced trumpet playing. It slides and swings its way from variation to variation with inventiveness and originality.
It’s hard to settle on the definitive version of The Girl from Ipanema. But one of the reasons London’s reimaging of song and lyrics works so well for us is because she keeps the song moving.
It’s easy for Girl from Ipanema to stretch and slow into unsustainably long phrases. London keeps the bossa nova sound but playfully propels the song through its paces.
That same bossa nova rhythm makes this an excellent jazz song to dance to if you’re an ambitious dancer. But it requires strict counting and attention to detail for anyone dancing to it outside the comforts of their living room.
The story goes that Mood Indigo came from band member and clarinetist Barney Bigard’s routine warm-up. Ellington, always looking for inspiration where he could find it, heard the sequence and saw its potential.
The result is one of the greatest jazz songs of all time. It was composed for radio broadcast in the 1930s, and at the time, Ellington called it ‘Dreamy Blues.’
The name changed over time. Jazz musicians love it because of the harmonic conversation at work between the moving parts of the band. Clarinet, trumpet, and piano pass the melody and then the improvisations back and forth the way ordinary people pass the salt at dinner.
Played well, as with Ellington and his band, they make it sound and look that easy, too.
While doubtless there are other versions of this jazz standard, Armstrong’s rendition of What a Wonderful World is ubiquitous. Everywhere, people who hear the title think immediately of Armstrong’s deep, crooning serenade.
Written by Bob Thiele and with lyrics by George David Weiss, Armstrong recorded the song first in 1967.
Rumors persist that the song was initially offered to Tony Bennet for recording and that he declined. While no one agrees about this, they do agree that it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Armstrong singing it.
His ability to bring people together through music was an instant success in the UK. And while it lagged in America, this was less to do with the artist and more to do with the label’s reluctance to promote it.
This didn’t affect the song’s popularity, and it remains one of the best jazz songs of all time, as well as the best version of this particular song.
Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz wrote Haunted Heart for the musical Inside USA in 1948.
According to Will Friedwald, no one could render Haunted Heart with as much tenderness and vulnerability as Stafford. Musical history and various other artists' attestations have since proven Friedwald right.
In Stafford’s hands, the song swells with poignancy and memories of bygone love.
Appropriately, the song played a part in the film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, where the love story was as haunted and unfulfilled as tortured and Catholic.
When it comes to finding jazz songs to dance to, you can’t go wrong with Sinatra. The way he sings makes it impossible not to dance as you listen. This is particularly true of My Way, which shifts from slow and lyrical to soaring and exultant.
Interestingly, Sinatra’s rendition popularised what was originally a French song called ‘Comme d’Habitude.’
Claude Françoise and Jaques Revaux wrote the song and also debuted it in 1967. But Sinatra’s English arrangement is the version most people grew up listening to.
When Eroll Garner wrote Misty in 1954, it was an instrumental piece. Still a jazz standard, but one for the pianists and big bands to play with.
But then Johnny Burke gave it lyrics, and the lyrics turned Misty into the signature piece not only of Sarah Vaughan but Johnny Mathis.
In Vaughan’s musical hands, the song keeps its 32-bar structure and Burke’s lyrics. Misty alternately sparkles with high musical accents and plummets to earth as Vaughan’s warm contralto leads the melody.
Despite never being a number one song on any chart, it was so beloved and ubiquitous that it wormed its way into history as one of the best jazz songs of all time, anyway.
As discussed, Count Basie had a trick for pulling new material from anywhere. Before One O’Clock Jump got its reputation as one of the most fantastic jazz tunes of all time, it was a vamped reworking of another Basie standard, Good Morning Blues.
In seconds, the song went from musical dabbling to a fully-fledged piece. Asked what it would be called, Basie took inspiration from Good Morning Blues and playfully titled it ‘Blue Balls.’
He couldn’t call it that on-air, though, so Basie suggested One O’Clock Jump instead.
Best Jazz Songs Ever, Final Thoughts
So there you have it, some of the best jazz songs ever made. Did we miss any? What are your favorite jazz songs? Let us know.