There may be hundreds of incredible jazz songs out there, but most jazz fans and musicians would agree that a select group of those appear more often than most.
In this article, we’ve chosen a selection of the most famous or, dare we say it, best jazz songs of all time with a classic and modern listening tip for each.
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 famous 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 some of the best-loved jazz songs in history…
A popular song from the 1930s, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ was composed by pianist, singer and entertainer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf. The song was published in 1929.
Beyond its popularity as a song, many jazz musicians use the beginning of the melody line as a ‘lick’ or component in their improvisations. Waller’s 1934 recording captures his beautiful piano arrangement and mischievous vocals (‘The Essential Fats Waller’ and other collections).
Modern version: Jason Moran
Inventive modern jazz pianist Jason Moran has recorded a huge range of repertoire from jazz history and beyond and paid tribute to Fats Waller on his 2014 album ‘All Rise: An Elegy For Fats Waller’.
Here he sets Waller’s music to modern grooves, with bassist/vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello and other collaborators.
24. Mack The Knife – Ella Fitzgerald
Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in 1928, Mack The Knife isn’t the usual story of romance or lost love; it’s based on the story of an 18th Century English thief!
The oldest jazz song on this list, it’s made its way to the heart of the jazz songbook, with swinging versions by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson to Bobby Darin and Dick Hyman.
Perhaps the best version is the 1960 live take from Ella Fitzgerald.
Recorded in Berlin, it not only showcases her trademark treatment of a classic jazz standard, it’s also notable for the fact she forgets the lyrics and improvises new ones on the spot!
Check out the full story of Mack The Knife’s murder and mystery here.
Recommended modern version of Mack The Knife: Kenny Garrett
This 1990 album entitled African Exchange Student is an early release from alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett around the time he was touring with Miles Davis.
His version of Mack The Knife is a down-tempo swinger showcasing his raw and bluesy yet precise improvisational style.
23. Cantaloupe Island – Herbie Hancock
Recorded and performed by many artists over the years, pianist-composer Herbie Hancock’s version of Cantaloupe Island is the definitive version for many jazz fans.
Released on his 1964 album Empyrean Isles, the song is a classic example of the hard-bop style vamps and laid-back groove that Blue Note popularised in the 50s and 60s.
Hancock is joined by Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) for the session.
Modern version of Cantaloupe Island: Lionel Loueke
Check out this stripped back yet grooving version of the song by African guitarist Lionel Loueke on his 2020 tribute to Herbie Hancock entitled HH.
22. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
Whilst John Coltrane is perhaps more famous for the songs on his groundbreaking Giant Steps album, his performance of the old jazz song My Favorite Things reached widespread popularity on its release in 1961.
Originally written in 1959 as a show tune for Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, its open structure and memorable melody have made it a firm favourite for jazz musicians and fans alike.
This particular 14 minute version features Coltrane on soprano saxophone and really shows how far it’s possible to take the basics of a song and turn it into something totally unique!
Modern version: Youn Sun Nah
Korean singer Youn Sun Nah presents an altogether different version of this song on her 2010 album Same Girl.
Slow, pensive and accompanied by a single bell-like instrument, it brings a whole new meaning to the lyrics.
21. Take Five – Dave Brubeck
Pianist Dave Brubeck’s album Time Out, released by Columbia records in 1959, was groundbreaking for its extensive use of unusual time signatures.
Becoming the first album to sell over one million copies, its most famous track was the song Take Five in (as you probably guessed) ‘5/4 time.’
Famous for its two chord vamp, (usually Ebm7 and Bbm7) it’s catchy melody and structure has seen it absorbed into the standard repertoire of jazz musicians around the world.
Modern version: Sinne Eeg
Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg presents a stripped back version of this song – complete with lyrics – on her 2021 duo album staying in touch.
A great way of hearing a completely fresh reinterpretation of a song you’ve probably heard a million times!
20. God Bless The Child – Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday wrote this classic jazz song with Arthur Herzog Jr., a frequent collaborator.
It has strong religious overtones and the title lyric refers to something her mother said to her in the course of an argument.
Billie Holiday recorded it three times, and the 1950 version with orchestra and chorus gives it a spiritual-like quality. This proves an excellent setting for one of the great vocal stylists.
Many artists in jazz and beyond have covered the song including Sonny Rollins, the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Aretha Franklin.
Modern version: Keith Jarrett
As a musician who has frequently built performances around grooves and vamps, Keith Jarrett gives a great reworking of this song on his legendary album Standards Vol. 1 alongside Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.
19. How High The Moon – Ella Fitzgerald
This song is known to jazz musicians as a swinging Broadway show tune and as its alter-ego ‘Ornithology’, the bebop head that Charlie Parker composed over its chord progression.
The earliest version recorded was by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, but it’s Ella Fitzgerald’s take on it that stands out in jazz history.
She often sang How High The moon and its contrafact Ornithology as as one song, following her vocal with an incredible scat performance.
Check out this treatment on the 1955 album ‘Lullabies Of Birdland’ and the 1960 live recording ‘Ella in Berlin’.
Modern Version: Diane Reeves
The song is a favourite of vocalist Dianne Reeves, who sings it over a latin-infused ostinato for the 1991 Blue Note album ‘I Remember’.
She also recorded a relaxed and intimate version for the soundtrack of ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’, a movie set in the 1950s.
18. Stella By Starlight – Miles Davis
Composed by Victor Young for the 1944 film ‘The Uninvited’, ‘Stella’ was soon picked up by jazz musicians as a favourite song, as we wrote about here.
Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Chet Baker and Nat King Cole were among the first to record it, but it is perhaps Miles Davis’ deep, 13-minute, dive into it for his album ‘My Funny Valentine‘ which stands out most.
For this emotive 1964 recording he is joined by saxophonist George Coleman, pianist Herbie Hancock, bass player Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.
Modern version: Bill Charlap
The 2010 album ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ finds the consummate mainstream jazz pianist Bill Charlap stretching out on this familiar standard.
Completing his trio are guitarist Peter Bernstein and the former Jazz Messenger Peter Washington on bass.
17. St. Thomas – Sonny Rollins
This joyful, calypso-inspired piece is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and notable in this list as one of the few latin-influenced songs.
The tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins is credited as the composer, although its origins are from the Virgin Islands and further back as an English folk song.
He first recorded it on ‘Saxophone Colossus’, released in 1956 on the Prestige label, which remains the definitive version of it to this day!
This version is notable for his masterful tenor solo, which he gradually builds from two notes, and for Max Roach’s drumming.
Modern version: Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and the Global Big Band
On the 2021 remote recording ‘Open World’, tenor stars Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Melissa Aldana duel on a reharmonised St. Thomas, soloing over shifting time signatures.
16. Ain’t Misbehavin – Fats Waller
One of the most famous early examples of Stride piano, Ain’t Misbehavin’ was written back in 1929 with Andy Razaf contributing lyrics to the music written by Harry Brooks and Fats Waller himself.
Whilst many people know the famous Louis Armstrong versions of this song, the original Fats Waller version is well worth discovering.
Relatively slow compared to future versions, it’s an almost sentimental version in piano trio format, with the piano playing the melody first, before the vocals join in.
Find this, and more in our round up some of Fats Waller’s most popular songs.
Modern Version: Anthony Strong
The British singer-pianist has built a reputation as a musician who is equally at home reinterpreting jazz classics as performing soul-infused Motown songs and original compositions.
For this 2019 version of Ain’t Misbehavin’, he’s joined by full big band for an explosive performance.
15. Take The “A” Train – Duke Ellington
Billy Strayhorn composed this for Duke Ellington and it became one of the most popular numbers in his band’s book. Bright and joyful, it perfectly conveys the journey to Harlem in bustling New York.
The classic 1941 recording begins with Duke’s piano introduction and is a tour de force of big band writing, with sax soli, muted trumpets and many other distinctive parts.
This was one of the best editions of the Ellington orchestra, featuring trumpeter Cootie Williams, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, and bass player Jimmy Blanton.
Modern version: Dewey Redman featuring Joshua Redman
Father and son tenor players Dewey and Joshua Redman expertly deconstruct the melody on the 2011 album ‘African Venus’.
14. So What – Miles Davis
Miles Davis composed this for his 1959 album Kind Of Blue, widely considered the most important jazz album of all time.
Like the whole recording, it is revolutionary in its simplicity, using just two chords.
After some abstract interplay between pianist Bill Evans and bass player Paul Chambers, the bass states the melody, making a call and response with the horns – Miles with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane no less.
Modern version: Ronny Jordan
The late British guitarist Ronnie Jordan introduced ‘So What’ to a new audience in the 1990s with a dance-floor-friendly version. It remains a popular play on jazz radio stations.
13. On The Sunny Side of the Street – Dizzy Gillespie
“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.
Modern version: Bill Charlap
Classy American jazz pianist Bill Charlap gives this song the ballad treatment on his 2016 album Notes From New York on the Impulse! Label.
Yet another example of how the best jazz songs of all time can be reinterpreted in so many ways, with contemporary versions many years later still finding new angles.
12. Night and Day – Joe Henderson
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.
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
Contemporary jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett made a habit in his early career of taking standard repertoire and giving it a fresh lease of life.
His version of Night & Day is another example of this, performed with just double bass and drums for his chord-less album Triology in 1995.
11. All The Things You Are – Bill Evans
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.
Whilst there are countless classic versions to choose from, our pick of the bunch is Bill Evan’s solo interpretation for his 1963 album Solo Sessions. It’s pensive and exploratory, yet pulls out the beautiful and adventurous harmonic possibilities of the song.
Did you know? 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.
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”!
10. Straight, No Chaser – Miles Davis
No list of best jazz songs is complete without a blues, and countless jazz tunes have been written over the 12-bar form.
Straight No Chaser is playfully chromatic, as we would expect from the composer Thelonius Monk.
One of the classic versions is by Miles Davis, which concludes his 1958 album ‘Milestones’. It features solos by saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Red Garland, who cleverly reprises a solo that Miles himself had played years earlier on ‘Now’s The Time‘.
Modern version: Mike Stern
Mike Stern, a sideman of Miles in the 1980s, made a notable addition to the jazz guitar canon with his 1992 album ‘Standards (And Other Songs)’.
It includes a freewheeling trio version of the Monk classic with bass player Jay Anderson and drummer Al Foster, another veteran of Miles’ bands.
9. It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington
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“.
This memorably fast jazz tune is considered one of the best jazz songs to dance to and, as such, is a favourite of swing dancers.
It’s been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Django Reinhardt to Tony Bennett but (as is frequently the case) the original Duke Ellington version – with Ivie Anderson singing the vocal chorus – is still our go-to recommendation!
Modern version: Theo Croker
Born in 1985, American jazz trumpeter Theo Croker already has 3 Grammy nominations and countless other awards under his belt.
His 2009 version of It Don’t Mean a Thing for his album ‘In The Tradition’ shows a contemporary jazz artist steeped in jazz tradition.
One of the most famous jazz songs of all time, many jazz musicians have noted that “Fly Me To The Moon” is the tune most likely to be requested by the general public – especially as a jazz wedding song!
This classic song 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 – arguably the best and certainly the most famous – 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.
It was taken from the album It Might as Well be Swing which features other Frank Sintara hits such as ‘The Best Is Yet To Come‘ and ‘Wives and Lovers‘.
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.
7. Autumn Leaves – Cannonball Adderley
‘Autumn Leaves’ came from the French song ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’, composed in 1945 by Joseph Kosma with lyrics by Jacques Prévert.
The English lyric by Johnny Mercer introduced the song to many singers and jazz players on the other side of the Atlantic.
The chord progression uses II-V-I cadences in both major and minor, making it an excellent study piece for jazz students.
On his 1958 album ‘Somethin’ Else’, the great alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley added a brooding minor vamp to the composition, and many players since have chosen to include it.
Modern version: Wynton Marsalis
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis presents the melody of this song set against a modulating rhythm on 1987’s ‘Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1’.
The piano, bass and drums gradually shift from tied whole notes to quarter notes, as if changing gear.
6. Georgia On My Mind – Billie Holiday
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 jazz piano and sang on record with major early musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and C Melody saxophonist 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.
It was a firm favourite of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday who can be heard performing it throughout her career.
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.
Modern version: Ron Carter Quartet & Vitoria Maldonado
Bassist Ron Carter is another jazz 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.
5. Round Midnight – Thelonious Monk
”Round Midnight’, written by pianist Thelonious Monk, is one of the greatest ballads by one of the greatest composers in jazz.
Trumpeter Cootie Williams was the first to record it in 1944 and Monk himself made the first of several recordings in 1947. By this time he had added an introduction, which was composed by Dizzy Gillespie.
Our recommended version appeared on the Blue Note release ‘Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1’.
Here the sparse backing allows space for Monk to embellish the melody in his unique style, against Art Blakey’s steady drum beat.
Modern version: Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea
Vocalist Bobby McFerrin and pianist Chick Corea explore this haunting theme on their 1992 album ‘Play’.
4. The Girl From Ipanema – Stan Getz
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 jazz musicians recognise it as an incredibly cleverly-constructed song, with the bridge section in the middle of the tune proving particularly interesting for musicians to improvise over.
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!”
3. Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins
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.
Possibly the most classic version of the best jazz song (or at least jazz ballad) of all time!
Modern version: Tony Bennett & 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. Recorded in March 2011 it would, tragically, be Winehouse’s final recording before her death in July of that year.
2. I Got Rhythm – Sarah Vaughan
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, but went on to be covered by a huge number of jazz greats either as the original tune, or with new melodies composed over the existing chord changes.
Some of the most famous of these ‘contrafacts’ include Charlie Parker’s Anthropology, Dexter Gordon’s Second Balcony Jump and Dizzy Gillespie’s Ow.
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 & Diana Krall
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.
1. Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
Ask any non-jazz fan to name five jazz songs, and chances are Summertime will be there!
With over 25,000 recorded versions, it’s one of the top jazz standards of all time.
Written by George Gershwin, for Porgy & Bess (his first attempt at an opera) it reveals a softer, bluesier side to his compositional style.
The piece 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.
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 as he died of a brain tumour in 1937, aged just 38.
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.
That’s it – our pick of 25 of the most famous jazz songs of all time and 50 recommended versions to check out!
Thanks for reading!
Hopefully you discovered something new about some of these classic jazz songs, or at least some inspiration for things to (re)listen to!
Of course, there are plenty of other great tunes we could have included here (what about In A Sentimental Mood?!), so don’t stop at 25: head over to Spotify, Youtube or your local record store to discover more brilliant jazz classics or our guide to the 50 best jazz albums ever.