There’s a long history of jazz musicians borrowing repertoire from the movies and musical theatre, but in this article we look at one specific area of that: Disney jazz songs.
Jazz and Disney share a common thread – both are rooted in the art of storytelling. This usually extends to the soundtrack, which is packed full of tunes which run from feel-good swingers to mournful ballads.
We’ve narrowed down a huge collection of Disney jazz songs to a selection of eight that have been masterfully reinterpreted by jazz legends, adding layers of complexity and emotion to these universally loved melodies.
Some were selected as part of a broader setlist, whilst others (hint: Louis Armstrong & Dave Brubeck!) were part of full Disney-themed albums which are well worth digging out.
Beauty and the Beast (Roy Hargrove)
The title song from the 1991 film “Beauty and the Beast” captures the essence of an unlikely love story.
Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove infused this romantic ballad with a touch of elegance and a bucket-load of emotion on this 1993 recording, alongside Antonio Hart on alto sax.
Perhaps in testament to the beauty of the melody, it’s played incredibly straight and simply by the band, with the solos also carefully-considered and measured.
Originally released out by The Jazz Networks, it features a host of Disney classics includingUnder The Sea (“The Little Mermaid”) and Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat (The Aristocats”).
Chim Chim Cheree (Duke Ellington)
Originating from the 1964 film “Mary Poppins,” “Chim Chim Cheree” celebrates the carefree lifestyle of Bert, the chimney sweep.
Duke Ellington’s big band got hold of the score for the movie in the mid-1960s and transformed the repertoire in their signature style for the album “Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins” (1965).
This rendition of Chim Chim Cheree is a sophisticated orchestration which captures both the magic of both the Disney song and the film.
Jazz critic (and sometime Jazzfuel writer) Scott Yanow noted for review site AllMusic that “the results are actually quite memorable” despite this not being one of Ellington’s most critically acclaimed releases.
Someday My Prince Will Come (Bill Evans)
Nestled inside Disney’s inaugural animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” this dreamy ballad has been a classic jazz standard almost since its arrival in 1937.
Forget famous Disney jazz songs; this version by Bill Evans is one of the most iconic jazz performances from one of the best jazz albums of all time.
The jazz pianist offers a reflective and deeply emotional rendition, featured on his landmark 1960 piano trio album “Portrait in Jazz“, alongside tunes such as “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “When I Fall in Love” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?”.
Other notable versions of the Disney classic include those by Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker and Miles Davis.
Cruella De Vil (Dr. John)
Introduced in the 1961 film “101 Dalmatians,” “Cruella De Vil” serves as the musical backdrop for the movie’s villain.
Dr. John’s rendition, infused with New Orleans boogie and blues, was used for the 1996 live-action remake, combining both the theatrical menace of the lead character and irresistible charm of the movie.
In true jazz-goes-Hollywood style, it runs the gamut from sparse piano and vocals, to epic full size big band orchestration.
The Bare Necessities (Louis Armstrong)
From the 1967 Disney classic “The Jungle Book,” “The Bare Necessities” is a tune that teaches us about the simple joys of life.
Louis Armstrong, with his unmistakable raspy voice and trumpet introduction, transforms this song into a Mardi Gras-style celebration.
This rendition is featured on Armstrong’s 1968 album “Disney Songs the Satchmo Way,” a collection recorded in Hollywood that showcases his unique take on Disney classics including “Whistle While You Work”, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “When You Wish upon a Star”.
It’s Alright (Jon Batiste)
Fast-forward to the modern era and the song “It’s Alright” was a cornerstone of the 2020 Pixar film “Soul,” encapsulating themes of life, death, and the pursuit of passion.
Jon Batiste, a modern-era jazz singer and pianist who also contributed to the film’s soundtrack, offers a rendition that is both contemporary and deeply rooted in jazz traditions, alongside singer Celeste.
Unlike others on the list which are cover versions, Batiste’s take is the original version from the Disney movie, which received critical acclaim for its musical depth.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me (Joshua Redman)
This song, from the 1995 Pixar film “Toy Story,” celebrates the enduring friendship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
Saxophonist Joshua Redman performed it as his contribution to the Disney Jazz Volume 1 album which features a whole host of modern jazz artists including Esperanza Spalding and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Whist the melody – as with many versions in this list – gets a sparse and relatively faithful treatment, the solos hear him dive deeper into his trademark winding, blues-tinged improvisation.
Give a Little Whistle (Dave Brubeck)
From the 1940 film “Pinocchio,” “Give a Little Whistle” teaches is all about the importance of right and wrong.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s rendition, part of his 1957 album “Dave Digs Disney“, is both playful and thoughtful, capturing the essence of Jiminy Cricket’s original message.
The performance showcases the inherent swing in many of the Disney songs of the era, and gives an insight into why they were so popular for many jazz musicians at the time.
Just listen out for Paul Desmond’s ever-so-cool solo on alto sax.
Disney Jazz: That’s a Wrap
Of course, we can talk about how the worlds of jazz and Disney are both about storytelling, emotion and the magic that happens when these elements come together…
But whilst these 8 performances offer a unique twist on the Disney originals, they perhaps prove that part of the success of these movies is based simply on great songs with beautiful, catchy melodies!
What did we miss? What’s your personal favourite? Feel free to use the comments section below…