There may be hundreds of ‘classic’ songs out there, but most 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, 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 of the day, but their harmony and structures meant that they also worked perfectly as vehicles for improvisation.
There are thousands of recordings of musicians playing or singing these kinds of songs, and one of the remarkable things about the 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 songs in history…
25. Honeysuckle Rose – Fats Waller
A popular from the 1930s, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ was composed by , and entertainer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf. The was published in 1929.
Beyond its popularity as a musicians use the beginning of the line as a ‘lick’ or component in their improvisations. Waller’s 1934 recording captures his beautiful arrangement and mischievous vocals (‘The Essential Fats Waller’ and other collections)., many
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 ‘All Rise: An Elegy For Fats Waller’.
Here he sets Waller’s 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!
Nonetheless, it’s made its way to the heart of the Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson to Bobby Darin and Dick Hyman. songbook, with swinging versions by everyone from
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 , it’s also notable for the fact she forgets the lyrics and improvises new ones on the spot!
Recommended modern version of Mack The Knife: Kenny Garrett
This 1990 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 –
Recorded and performed by many artists over the years, -composer ‘s version of Cantaloupe Island is the definitive version for many fans.
Released on his 1964 Empyrean Isles, the 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 () and Tony Williams ( ) for the session.
Modern version of Cantaloupe Island: Lionel Loueke
Check out this stripped back yet grooving version of the by African guitarist Lionel Loueke on his 2020 tribute to entitled HH.
22. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
Whilst John Coltrane is perhaps more famous for the songs on his groundbreaking Giant Steps , his performance of the old My Favorite Things reached widespread popularity on its release in 1961.
Originally written in 1959 as a show musicians and fans alike. for Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of , its open structure and memorable have made it a firm favourite for
This particular 14 minute version features Coltrane on soprano saxophone and really shows how far it’s possible to take the basics of a and turn it into something totally unique!
Modern version: Youn Sun Nah
Korean Youn Sun Nah presents an altogether different version of this on her 2010 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
Columbia records in 1959, was groundbreaking for its extensive use of unusual time signatures. Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, released by
Becoming the first to sell over one million copies, its most famous track was the Take Five in (as you probably guessed) ‘5/4 time.’
Famous for its two Ebm7 and Bbm7) it’s catchy and structure has seen it absorbed into the standard repertoire of musicians around the world. vamp, (usually
Modern version: Sinne Eeg
Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg presents a stripped back version of this – complete with lyrics – on her 2021 duo staying in touch.
A great way of hearing a completely fresh reinterpretation of a you’ve probably heard a million times!
20. God Bless The Child – Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday wrote this with Arthur Herzog Jr., a frequent collaborator.
It has strong religious overtones and the title 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 and beyond have covered the including Sonny Rollins, the -rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Aretha Franklin.
Modern version: Keith Jarrett
As a who has frequently built performances around grooves and vamps, Keith Jarrett gives a great reworking of this on his legendary Standards Vol. 1 alongside Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.
19. How High The Moon – Ella Fitzgerald
This musicians as a swinging Broadway show and as its alter-ego ‘Ornithology’, the head that is known to Charlie Parker composed over its .
The earliest version recorded was by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, but it’s Ella Fitzgerald’s take on it that stands out in .
She often sang How HightThe moon and its contrafact Ornithology as as one , following her vocal with an incredible scat performance.
Check out this treatment on the 1955 ‘Lullabies Of Birdland‘ and the 1960 live recording ‘Ella in Berlin‘.
Modern Version: Diane Reeves
The is a favourite of vocalist Dianne Reeves, who sings it over a latin-infused ostinato for the 1991 Blue Note ‘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 musicians as a favourite .
For this emotive 1964 recording he is joined by saxophonist George Coleman, player Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. ,
Modern version: Bill Charlap
The 2010 ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ finds the consummate mainstream Bill Charlap stretching out on this familiar standard.
Completing his trio are guitarist Peter Bernstein and the former Peter Washington on .
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 .
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
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 , Ain’t Misbehavin’ was written back in 1929 with Andy Razaf contributing lyrics to the written by Harry Brooks and Fats Waller himself.
Whilst many people know the famous Louis Armstrong versions of this , the original Fats Waller version is well worth discovering.
Relatively slow compared to future versions, it’s an almost sentimental version in trio format, with the playing the first, before the vocals join in.
Modern Version: Anthony Strong
The British – has built a reputation as a who is equally at home reinterpreting classics as performing -infused Motown songs and original compositions.
For this 2019 version of Ain’t Misbehavin’, he’s joined by full 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 a tour de force of , with sax soli, muted trumpets and many other distinctive parts. writing introduction and is
This was one of the best editions of the Ellington orchestra, featuring trumpeter Cootie Williams, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, and player Jimmy Blanton.
Modern version: Dewey Redman featuring Joshua Redman
Father and son tenor players Dewey and Joshua Redman expertly deconstruct the on the 2011 ‘African Venus‘.
14. So What – Miles Davis
Miles Davis composed this for his 1959 the most important . of all time Kind Of Blue, widely considered
Like the whole recording, it is revolutionary in its simplicity, using just two chords.
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 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 Fats Waller actually wrote the 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 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 musicians. remains a particular favourite of traditional and
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sings the on his classic 1959 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 Bill Charlap gives this the ballad treatment on his 2016 Notes From New York on the Impulse! Label.
Yet another example of how the 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 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 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 , 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 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 and dancer Ginger Rogers introduced many A Gay Divorce (1934), with Astaire having made the first recording with Leo Reisman and His Orchestra two years earlier.
Joe Henderson turned the into a vehicle for fiery modal on the tenor saxophonist’s 1966 Inner Urge.
On first listen, Inner Urge is not the kind of where you expect to hear a true . But, nonetheless, the final track on this 1966 is a memorable rendition of Night & Day which explores areas not previously heard on this .
Modern version: Kenny Garrett
Contemporary 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 and for his -less 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 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 Solo Sessions. It’s pensive and exploratory, yet pulls out the beautiful and adventurous harmonic possibilities of the .
Did you know? Michael Jackson recorded a somewhat surprising cover of “All The Things You Are” on his 1973 & Me, which was released when he was just 14.
Modern version: Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau recorded his take on this for his Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 – Back at the Vanguard. The record features a wide range of repertoire, including fellow “I’ll Be Seeing You” alongside a trio version of Radiohead’s “Exit “!
10. Straight, No Chaser – Miles Davis
No list of is complete without a blues, and countless have been written over the 12-bar form.
Straight No Chaser is playfully chromatic, as we would expect from the composer .
One of the classic versions is by Miles Davis, which concludes his 1958 ‘Milestones’. It features solos by saxophonists and John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and 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 with his 1992 canon ‘Standards (And Other Songs)’.
It includes a freewheeling trio version of the Monk classic with 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 .
The and bandleader wrote that this was “the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among musicians at the time.”
One interpretation of this, and one that is still much-discussed amongst aficionados, is that 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“.
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 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 contemporary artist steeped in tradition. ‘In The Tradition’ shows a
One of the most famous songs of all time, many musicians have noted that “Fly Me To The Moon” is the most likely to be requested by the general public – especially as a !
This 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 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 via tape cassette on both the Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions.
It was taken from the Sinatra It Might as Well be Swing.
Modern version: Dan Nimmer Trio
Perhaps a result of just how famous this is, it’s less covered than some of the others on this list.
Nevertheless, American Dan Nimmer recorded a killer version on his 2012 All the Things You Are.
‘‘ came from the French ‘Les Feuilles Mortes‘, composed in 1945 by Joseph Kosma with lyrics by Jacques Prévert.
The English by Johnny Mercer introduced the to many singers and players on the other side of the Atlantic.
On his 1958 ‘Somethin’ Else’, the great alto saxophonist 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 of this set against a modulating rhythm on 1987’s ‘Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1‘.
The , and 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 world than many of the other famous songwriters of his day.
Unlike, say, Jerome Kern (who was something of a purist and famously disliked C Melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. versions of his songs), Carmichael played and sang on record with major early musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and
Georgia On My Mind was composed in 1930, with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell.
Early recordings take the 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 of the US state of Georgia in 1979.
It was a firm favourite of legendary 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 ballad songs in history.
Modern version: Ron Carter Quartet & Vitoria Maldonado
Bassist Ron Carter is another 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 greatest composers in . Thelonious Monk, is one of the greatest ballads by one of the
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 : Volume 1′.
Here the sparse backing allows space for Monk to embellish the in his unique style, against Art Blakey’s steady drum beat.
Modern version: Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea
Vocalist Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea explore this haunting theme on their 1992 ‘Play’.
4. The Girl From Ipanema – Stan Getz
The 1964 Getz/Gilberto was credited with kick-starting this craze.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, the composer of this and many of the most famous bossa novas, is heard on . 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 .
Despite the fact that she had never sung professionally, Astrud’s soft vocal approach suited the composition and the band perfectly, and the songs in history. has gone on to become one of the most recorded
The Girl From Ipanema is occasionally dismissed as cheesy, or as merely a piece of elevator musicians recognise it as an incredibly cleverly-constructed , with the bridge section in the middle of the proving particularly interesting for musicians to improvise over., but most
Modern version: Pat Metheny
Modern guitarist Pat Metheny produced a memorable version of Girl From Ipanema on his 2011 What’s It All About.
The BBC review stated that “his fans are 100% guaranteed to love every moment!”
3. Body and – Coleman Hawkins
Johnny Green’s “Body and ” is perhaps the archetypal American ballad, a sad full of yearning and devotion.
Written in 1930, it was premiered in London by the British actress and 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 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 , made a landmark recording of the in 1939. His two choruses barely refer to the , but his complex, hugely inventive improvisation helped pave the way from the Swing era into the new sounds of that would dominate the following decade.
Possibly the most classic version of the best (or at least 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 songs well into the 21st Century.
This recommended version of Body & was taken from his 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 musicians. -tinged orchestral – 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
As this 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 greats either as the original , or with new melodies composed over the existing 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 on the 1963 Sweet ‘n’ Sassy which featured a full string orchestra arranged by the great Lalo Schifrin.
Modern version: Tony Bennet & Diana Krall
Legendary Tony Bennett recorded a great version of I Got Rhythm on his Love is Here to Stay (2018) alongside Diana Krall and the Bill Charlap Trio.
1. Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
Ask any non- songs, and chances are Summertime will be there! fan to name five
With over 25,000 recorded versions, it’s one of the top 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 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 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 contemporary . pieces on their Porgy and Bess , while Joshua Redman reimagines it as a piece of supercharged
Sadly, Gershwin did not live to see the success of “Summertime”: 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 Timeless Tales classics, on his 1998 .
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 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, 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.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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