There may be hundreds of ‘classic’ jazz tunes out there, but a handful of them have established themselves as the most famous jazz songs of all time.
In this article, we’re going to look at 10 of these top jazz standards and see how and why they achieved their legendary status!
Of course, there are hundreds of great jazz songs that musicians can call upon for their albums and performances.
In fact, there exists a repertoire of so called “jazz standards” that every player is expected to know from memory. That’s why you’ll sometimes see musicians who’ve never met before, get up onto stage and start playing together, without any prior discussion.
Many of these pieces are taken from what we call the Great American Songbook: a selection of tunes that were written (broadly speaking) during the first half of the 20th Century by composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
They were often written as songs for musical theatre shows, films, or simply as the popular music of the day, but their harmony and structures meant that they also worked perfectly as vehicles for jazz improvisation.
There are thousands of recordings of jazz musicians playing or singing these kinds of songs, and one of the remarkable things about the music is that great players are able to bring new and exciting elements to extremely familiar tunes.
So, without further ado, here’s our round up of 10 of the best jazz songs in history; our pick of some of the best-loved and most famous pieces, with background information, interesting facts and recommended ‘classic’ and modern recorded versions for each one.
Table of Contents
I Got Rhythm
George Gershwin is one of the best loved composers in American musical history.
As well as writing jazz-tinged orchestral music – such as his famous “Rhapsody in Blue” – he composed numerous songs for theatre and film, their sophisticated harmony and snappy rhythms making them perfect for interpretation by jazz musicians. As this song memorably wonders: “who could ask for anything more?”
I Got Rhythm was originally sung by legendary diva Ethel Merman in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, which also included “But Not For Me” and “Embraceable You”, which have both become famous jazz standards too. Like many Gershwin songs, it has lyrics written by his brother Ira.
“I Got Rhythm” is performed relatively infrequently by jazz instrumentalists nowadays, but hundreds of new melodies have been composed over its chord sequence.
Jazz songs that utilise “rhythm changes”
- Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology”
- Dexter Gordon’s “Second Balcony Jump”
- Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow”
Why not try listening to one of these and see whether you can hear how the melody to “I Got Rhythm” would fit over the harmony
Classic version: Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan recorded her version of this jazz standard on the 1963 album Sweet ‘n’ Sassy which featured a full string orchestra arranged by the great Lalo Schifrin.
Modern version: Tony Bennet and Diana Krall with the Bill Charlap Trio
Legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett recorded a great version of I Got Rhythm on his album Love is Here to Stay (2018) alongside Diana Krall and the Bill Charlap Trio.
One of the most famous songs by George Gershwin, this one reveals a softer, bluesier side to his compositional style.
Written for Porgy and Bess, his first attempt at an opera, it deliberately evokes African American spirituals and folk music and is sung as a lullaby by the character Clara to her baby, reappearing a number of times throughout Porgy and Bess.
Despite its sunny title and opening lyrics that state that “the livin’ is easy”, the song is in a minor key and has a rather melancholic feel, in keeping with the themes of poverty and oppression in the opera.
With over 25,000 recorded versions, it’s one of the most top jazz standards of all time.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong helped popularise it as one of the most iconic jazz pieces on their Porgy and Bess album, while Joshua Redman reimagines it as a piece of supercharged contemporary jazz.
Sadly, Gershwin did not live to see the success of “Summertime”: he died of a brain tumour in 1937, aged just 38.
Classic version: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Modern version: Joshua Redman
Modern tenor saxophone great Joshua Redman proved that it’s still possible to breathe new life into even the oldest jazz classics, on his 1998 album Timeless Tales.
All The Things You Are
Jerome Kern wrote extensively for musical theatre and film and is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of all time.
All the Things You Are was introduced in the 1939 Broadway show Very Warm For May. The production was a flop: it only ran for a few months, as terrible reviews ensured that ticket sales were low.
However, the song made an immediate impact, with famed singers like Mildred Bailey, and major Swing era bandleaders Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey all releasing recorded versions that same year. It also appeared in the 1944 film Broadway in Rhythm.
Very Warm For May was Kern’s final Broadway musical, and All the Things You Are, one of best-loved works, is typical of his more harmonically adventurous later style. But it’s pure, logical and flowing melody ensured that it entered the public consciousness and stuck fast.
Legend has it that he once, whilst musing with a friend, doubted that the song could become a hit due its complexity, but was proved wrong only moments later when the pair heard a passing pedestrian whistling the melody!
The romantic song lyrics were written by Oscar Hammerstein II, who would later go on to have an extremely fruitful songwriting partnership with Richard Rodgers, producing musicals The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma and The Sound of Music.
Michael Jackson recorded a somewhat surprising cover of “All The Things You Are” on his 1973 album Music & Me, which was released when he was just 14.
Classic version: Chet Baker Live
Modern version: Brad Mehldau
Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau recorded his take on this tune for his album Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 – Back at the Vanguard. The record features a wide range of repertoire, including fellow jazz classic “I’ll Be Seeing You” alongside a piano trio version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music”!
Georgia On My Mind
Hoagy Carmichael was more connected to the jazz world than many of the other famous songwriters of his day.
Unlike, say, Jerome Kern (who was something of a purist and famously disliked jazz versions of his songs), Carmichael played piano and sang on record with major early jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.
Georgia On My Mind was composed in 1930, with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell. Early recordings take the song at a breezy medium tempo, but it is now more commonly played as a soulful ballad, perhaps due to the influence of Ray Charles’ heartfelt 1960 version, which was designated the official song of the US state of Georgia in 1979.
Carmichael also composed “Skylark”, “Stardust” and “The Nearness of You”, which, along with “Georgia”, are some of the most often-recorded jazz ballad songs in history.
Classic version: Billie Holiday
Modern version: Ron Carter Quartet & Vitoria Maldonado
Bassist Ron Carter is another musician who, with a career spanning more than 60 years, could have been included as either the ‘classic’ or ‘modern’ example on many of these tunes! For this one, we picked his 2016 offering, BRASIL L.I.K.E, with Vitoria Maldonado.
Body and Soul
Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul” is perhaps the archetypal American ballad, a sad jazz song full of yearning and devotion.
Written in 1930, it was premiered in London by the British actress and singer Gertrude Lawrence, prior to an American performance by Libby Holman in the Broadway review Three’s a Crowd.
Numerous recordings were made that year, including jazz versions by Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman, as it became a favourite for improvisers, in part due to its unusual harmony, particularly in the middle “bridge” section.
Coleman Hawkins, the father of the tenor saxophone in jazz, made a landmark recording of the song in 1939. His two choruses barely refer to the melody, but his complex, hugely inventive improvisation helped pave the way from the Swing era into the new sounds of bebop that would dominate the following decade.
Tony Bennett covered “Body and Soul” in a Grammy Award-winning duet recording with Amy Winehouse in March 2011. Tragically, this would be Winehouse’s final recording before her death in July of that year.
Classic version: Coleman Hawkins
Possibly the most classic version of the best jazz song (or at least ballad) of all time!
Modern version: Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse
Tony Bennett makes his second appearance in this article, perhaps due to the fact that he continued to turn out brilliant interpretations of jazz songs well into the 21st Century.
This recommended version of Body & Soul was taken from his album Duets II and features Amy Winehouse alongside him.
Fly Me to the Moon
One of the most famous jazz songs of all time, many jazz musicians have noted that “Fly Me To The Moon” is one of the tunes that is most likely to be requested during performances by members of the general public.
Singer Kaye Ballard made the first recording in 1954.
The jazz classic was originally a waltz titled “In Other Words”, until Peggy Lee convinced composer Bart Howard to change the title in 1963 and Quincy Jones’ arrangement for Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra placed it in 4/4 time the following year.
The Sinatra recording became closely associated with NASA’s Apollo Space Programme in the late 1960s, with astronauts listening to the tune via tape cassette on both the Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions.
Jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall then performed the song at the ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 2004.
Classic version: Frank Sinatra with Count Basie and his Orchestra
This classic interpretation of Fly Me To The Moon is perhaps the most famous version on this whole list and was taken from the Sinatra album It Might as Well be Swing.
Modern version: Dan Nimmer Trio
Perhaps a result of just how famous this song is, it’s less covered than some of the others on this list. Nevertheless, American pianist Dan Nimmer recorded a killer version on his 2012 album All the Things You Are.
Night and Day
Cole Porter is one of the great icons of the jazz age, his songs perfectly encapsulating the upper echelons of American life during the roaring ‘20s and Art Deco ‘30s.
Unlike most songwriters, Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics to his songs, combining complex harmony and structure with witty, urbane rhyming couplets.
Night and Day is one of his more serious numbers: a passionate love song, it declares an everlasting yearning for the subject. It begins with an unusual introductory verse, establishing tension with the repetition of a single note 35 times.
Fred Astaire and fellow singer and dancer Ginger Rogers introduced many Great American Songbook compositions via the highly popular films that the pair starred in together. “Night and Day” appeared in the Fred and Ginger picture A Gay Divorce (1934), with Astaire having made the first recording with Leo Reisman and His Orchestra two years earlier.
Joe Henderson turned the song into a vehicle for fiery modal jazz on the tenor saxophonist’s 1966 album Inner Urge.
Classic version: Joe Henderson
On first listen, Inner Urge is not the kind of album where you expect to hear a true jazz classic. But, nonetheless, the final track on this 1966 album is a memorable rendition of Night & Day which explores areas not previously heard on this song.
Modern version: Kenny Garrett
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Duke Ellington is regarded by many as the greatest composer in all of jazz.
The pianist and bandleader wrote that this song was “the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time.”
One interpretation of this, and one that is still much-discussed amongst aficionados, is that jazz can be incredibly complex and technically impressive, but remains all but meaningless without swing, genuine feeling and attitude: all qualities that are impossible to notate.
The “It Don’t Mean a Thing” lyrics are by Irving Mills, who managed Duke’s Orchestra for a time and shared writing credits on a number of Ellington hits, including “Mood Indigo”, “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady”.
Ivie Anderson sang the vocal chorus on the original Duke Ellington recording.
Classic version: Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra
Modern version: Theo Croker
On The Sunny Side of the Street
“On The Sunny Side of the Street” was composed by Jimmy McHugh, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, although a long-standing rumour suggests that pianist Fats Waller actually wrote the song before selling the rights for some quick cash.
It was introduced in the 1930 Broadway show International Revue, which was a critical and commercial failure, despite producing two popular jazz standards in this and “Exactly Like You”, another classic by McHugh and Fields.
The uplifting lyrics of the piece are about looking on the bright side, no matter what life throws at you, and the song remains a particular favourite of traditional and Dixieland jazz musicians.
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sings the melody on his classic 1959 album Sonny Side Up, which pits saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins against each other on a number of ferociously competitive tenor battles.
Classic version: Dizzy Gillespie
There was a lot of competition for this one, but we decided to pick Dizzy Gillespie’s version for this album Sonny Side Up.
Modern version: Bill Charlap
The Girl From Ipanema
Bossa Nova, a new style of music that combined elements of traditional Brazilian samba with jazz harmony, took America by storm during the 1960s.
The 1964 album Getz/Gilberto was credited with kick-starting this craze.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, the composer of this jazz song and many of the most famous bossa novas, is heard on piano. Alongside him is fellow Brazilian Joao Gilberto, whose languid, rhythmically dextrous guitar playing and singing fits perfectly with American Stan Getz’s sweet tenor sound.
During the recording session it was suggested that they record an English language version of “The Girl From Ipanema”, in addition to the original version, “Garota de Ipanema”, which has Portuguese lyrics. As the only Brazilian present who could speak English, Astrud Gilberto, Joao’s wife, sang the song.
Despite the fact that she had never sung professionally, Astrud’s soft vocal approach suited the composition and the band perfectly, and the tune has gone on to become one of the most recorded jazz songs in history.
The Girl From Ipanema is occasionally dismissed as cheesy, or as merely a piece of elevator music, but most musicians recognise it as an incredibly cleverly-constructed jazz song, with the bridge section in the middle of the tune proving particularly interesting for musicians to improvise over.
Classic version: Stan Getz and João Gilberto
Modern version: Pat Metheny
Modern jazz guitarist Pat Metheny produced a memorable version of Girl From Ipanema on his album 2011 album What’s It All About. The BBC music review stated that “his fans are 100% guaranteed to love every moment!”
Thanks for reading and hope you discovered something new about some of these classic jazz songs!
Of course, there are plenty of other great tunes we could have included here, so don’t stop at 10: head over to Spotify, Youtube or your local record store to discover more brilliant pieces.
If you’re a musician looking to learn jazz standards, we published a guide to the most essential tunes to study here. You can also check out all of our instrument-specific articles, from saxophone and trumpet to guitar and piano…
If you’re a fan, stick around to discover more great jazz music.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!