Almost every classic jazz album contains at least one jazz ballad, where the artist can showcase a more expressive or sentimental side to their playing, perhaps in contrast to the rest of the set.
Historically, these have often been romantic ‘torch songs’ drawn from the Great American Songbook – songs that were originally written as show tunes or pop songs in the 1920s or ’30s, but have now become classic jazz standards.
Although not always, of course: some were written as original instrumental jazz compositions, as we’ll see.
There are hundreds of great jazz ballads about there, and even more versions of these. But in this article, we wanted to highlight 10 of the best-loved ballads in the history of jazz.
For each one, we’ve suggested a classic version, as well as a more modern rendition, to check out…
Lush Life was written by Billy Strayhorn between 1933 and 1936: Strayhorn was, remarkably, still a teenager when he began its composition.
Its sophisticated lyrics, also by Strayhorn, are a weary lament on failed romance and tiresome nightlife, while its harmony moves through various key centres and contains multiple chromatic shifts.
Best known for his long collaboration with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn also composed ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ and many others. You can, of course, find him in our round up of the most famous jazz composers of all time!
Classic version of Lush Life: Billy Strayhorn – The Peaceful Side
One of Strayhorn’s few ventures away from Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, this is not a famous record, but it is gratifying to hear the composer’s own interpretation of this fascinating jazz ballad.
His solo piano is accompanied only by the interjections of a vocal choir in a slightly eccentric arrangement, and it is interesting to note that both melody and harmony differ slightly in comparison to better-known recordings.
More famous versions include the two by John Coltrane: it appears on the album Lush Life and on his recording with vocalist Johnny Hartman.
Modern version of Lush Life: Joshua Redman – Walking Shadows
Wayne Shorter’s touching dedication to his young daughter is a good example of advancing compositional techniques in 1960s jazz.
A relatively static melody floats on top of harmony that is ‘non-functional’ or ‘modal’; i.e., moving between chords that imply various tonalities or chord scales, and with less of a focus on traditional tonic-dominant relationships.
Unusually, its form comprises three nine-bar sections.
Classic version of Infant Eyes: Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
1964’s Speak No Evil is a classic of the Blue Note era, regarded by many as Shorter’s finest work.
His tenor saxophone is accompanied by some of the finest names in 1960s jazz: Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (double bass) and Elvin Jones (drums).
Apart from ‘Infant Eyes’, the tunes, which are all composed by the bandleader, are themed around magic and folklore.
Modern version of Infant Eyes: Eric Legnini – Natural Balance
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
This piece was written as an elegy for Lester Young, who, as well as being one of the most influential tenor players of all time, was a cultural and stylistic icon, one of his trademarks being his wide-brimmed pork pie hats.
This sad, elegant melody has had lyrics put to it a number of times, perhaps most famously by Joni Mitchell on her collaborative album with the bassist, Mingus.
Classic version of Goodbye Porkpie Hat: Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
Mingus’s most famous album was recorded in May 1959, two months after Lester Young had died.
John Handy and Booker Ervin, both on tenor, play the 12-bar melody in unison first, then again an octave apart before Handy solos, making use of some distinctive flutter-tonguing.
Modern version of Goodbye Porkpie Hat: Juhász Gábor Trió – TRIO
Whilst many Great American Songbook standards have a verse, they are usually omitted by jazz musicians. However, in the case of ‘Stardust’ it’s usually considered essential.
In fact, Frank Sinatra’s 1962 recording dispenses with the chorus entirely!
Hoagy Carmichael was a professional songwriter, but with a much deeper connection to jazz than more straight-laced theatre composers like Jerome Kern & Richard Rodgers, and one can imagine the melody to this ballad having been improvised by one of the great soloists of the 1920s.
Indeed, pianist and American Songbook expert Bill Charlap says, “the verse has Bix [Beiderbecke] all over it, but the chorus is like Louis [Armstrong]. That’s America!….It’s almost like a National Anthem!”
Classic version of Stardust: Nat King Cole from Love Is The Thing
Cole’s restrained, elegant vocal interpretation lets Carmichael’s sublime melody shine through against the backdrop of sweeping strings arranged by Gordon Jenkins. Earlier versions, like Louis Armstrong’s 1931 recording, take the song as a medium swinger.
Modern version of Stardust: Wynton Marsalis – Hot House Flowers
Body and Soul
Written in 1930, this tale of heartbreak, yearning and devotion is considered an essential jazz standard by musicians, and is a favourite song of singers and instrumentalists alike.
It is relatively harmonically complex, one of its distinguishing features being the fact that its ‘bridge’ (the ‘B’ in its AABA structure) begins in the key of D major, half a step up from the D flat major home key.
The composer, Johnny Green, wrote various other songs that have become jazz standards, including ‘Out of Nowhere’ and ‘I Cover The Waterfront’.
Classic version of Body & Soul: Coleman Hawkins
Hawkins’ two choruses (available to hear on various compilation albums) are shockingly modern for 1939, when this landmark recording was made.
Considered by many to be the father of the tenor saxophone in jazz, his dense, chromatic lines foreshadow bebop, which would become the dominant style over the course of the following decade or so.
The recording is unusual in that he barely refers to the melody, so to hear the song a little closer to the way in which the composer intended, try Ella Fitzgerald’s version from Ella Swings Gently with Nelson.
John Coltrane’s recording from Coltrane’s Sound is played faster with a lilting feel and various harmonic twists. This is one of the most recorded songs of all time, and many of the great artists of jazz and popular song have tackled it at some point in their careers.
Modern version of Body And Soul: Lionel Loueke – Karibou
Another dedication from a great saxophonist to a loved one, this was written by John Coltrane for his first wife, Juanita ‘Naima’ Grubbs, who was a heavy influence upon the increasingly spiritual direction that he would take in the 1960s.
It utilises various ‘pedal points’: changing chords over a static bass note. The relationship between the bass note and the moving chords above creates tension and release.
‘Naima’ was reportedly Coltrane’s favourite composition.
Classic version of Naima: John Coltrane – Giant Steps
John Coltrane’s fifth studio album is best known for the innovative, fast-moving harmony of the title track and ‘Countdown’, but the tender ballad ‘Naima’ has also become a standard.
A Wynton Kelly piano solo – largely chordal – follows the saxophonist’s interpretation of the head. ‘Syeeda’s Flute Song’ from Giant Steps is also a dedication: to Naima’s daughter from a previous relationship, who Coltrane adopted.
He would go on to record ‘Naima’ a number of times, including on the famous live recordings from the Village Vanguard.
Modern version of Naima: John Mclaughlin – After the Rain
Blue In Green
‘Blue in Green’ is generally credited to Miles Davis, although there has long been speculation that this jazz ballad was actually composed by Bill Evans: according to the pianist, when he asked Miles for a share of the royalties the trumpeter wrote him a cheque for $25!
The short, 10-bar form lends the piece a circular feeling, with each chorus blurring into the next. It makes use of the Lydian mode, with the melody featuring a number of prominent E naturals (the raised fourth) over B flat major chords.
Classic version of Blue In Green: Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Arguably the most beautiful tune one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, ‘Blue in Green’ begins and ends with sensitive piano work from Bill Evans.
After we hear the melody played by Davis’s harmon-muted trumpet, the harmonic rate doubles (i.e. each chord passes by twice as quickly) during the piano and tenor saxophone solos. Evans would record this again eight months later on the trio album Portrait in Jazz.
Modern version of Blue In Green: Gretchen Parlato – The Lost And Found
George Gershwin wrote dozens of songs that have been interpreted by jazz musicians.
In fact, although he largely wrote theatre songs and classical music, much of his output is highly influenced by jazz. ‘Embraceable You’ was originally written for East Is West, an unpublished 1928 operetta, before it was eventually published in 1930 and included in the Broadway show Girl Crazy, where it was performed by Ginger Rogers.
It has an ABAC structure of 32 bars in length and, like many Gershwin songs, features lyrics by George’s brother Ira.
Billie Holiday’s 1944 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. A 1947 Charlie Parker version is considered one of his finest, although he barely refers to the melody, and Ornette Coleman’s 1961 take is notable as an extremely rare example of the alto saxophonist delving into the American Songbook.
Classic version of Embraceable You: Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook
This 1959 album forms part of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Complete American Songbook, the singer’s landmark series of records themed around various composers and lyricists.
Nelson Riddle provided the lush orchestral arrangement. Whilst some of the great American songwriters were notoriously unimpressed by jazz renditions of their work, Ira Gerswhin famously said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them”.
Modern version of Embraceable You: Joe Lovano Nonet – 52nd Street Themes
My Funny Valentine
Composed by the classic song writing team Rodgers and Hart, ‘My Funny Valentine’ first appeared in the 1937 musical Babes In Arms, which produced a number of other hits including ‘Where or When’ and ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’.
Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are directed at a lover (actually a character named Val, short for Valentine, in the show), gently poking fun at his physical imperfections, but ultimately affirming the singer’s affections for the subject and begging him not to change.
The song is primarily in a minor key (it is usually performed in C minor, at least by instrumentalists), but a four bar ‘tag’ at the end of the final ‘A’ section resolves to the relative major.
Classic version of My Funny Valentine: Chet Baker from Chet Baker Sings
Chet Baker had a long association with this song: audiences would beg for it when he performed live and he ultimately recorded it numerous times.
He had first documented the standard with Gerry Mulligan’s influential chordless quartet in 1952, but it is the version on his 1954 debut vocal record, featuring his understated singing style, that is perhaps best loved.
For a different flavour, try the version on Miles Davis’ 1964 live album of the same name, which is famous for the rhythm section’s advanced rhythmic interplay.
Modern version of My Funny Valentine: Paolo Fresu – Tempo di Chet
One of this beautiful ballad’s claims to fame is that it is the most recorded standard composed by a jazz musician (as opposed to standards that were originally written as pop songs or show tunes).
Penned by the pianist Thelonious Monk, it was first recorded in 1944 by Cootie Williams, who sometimes receives credit as co-writer.
Its harmony is fairly complex, including chromatically descending II-Vs in the fourth bar (B minor 7, E7, B flat Minor 7, E flat 7) of each ‘A’ section.
One of the challenging aspects of performing it, in addition to the relatively unusual E flat minor tonality, is the fact that many recordings utilise different chord changes, and it can be hard to establish which route through the harmony is authoritative. Furthermore, many Real Book charts omit the introduction and coda.
This is surely one of Monk’s most conventionally beautiful melodies, and it is often interpreted by singers with lyrics by Bernie Hanighen.
Classic version of ‘Round Midnight: Thelonious Monk from Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1
Monk liked Dizzy Gillespie’s introduction that the trumpeter wrote for his 1946 version so much that he used it on his own first recording of ‘‘Round Midnight’ the following year, and it has now become a standard addition to the song.
This early Blue Note recording, which sees trumpet and alto backing the piano melody, is slightly faster than many later versions: Miles Davis’ quintet take on the album Round About Midnight, his first for Columbia Records, established it as more of a haunting ballad.
Monk recorded the piece numerous times, including a solo piano version on Thelonious Himself and with his quartet on Live at the It Club.
Modern version of ‘Round Midnight: Bugge Wesseltoft – Somewhere In Between
Thanks for checking out this list of 10 of the great jazz ballads in history. You’re welcome to suggest new songs – or new versions – in the comments section!
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.