Fast Jazz? The 10 Speediest Songs EVER!

Fast jazz songs are nothing new, but what are the fastest of all time? As part of our quest to highlight the best jazz songs in history, we dive into the topic of high-octane performances from the last 100 years. 

In a style of music which champions virtuosic technique and quick-thinking improvisation, playing fast has been a challenge musicians have take on for decades. 

It was perhaps the emergence of bebop – and its rejection of the danceable big band era – which really set this on its way, and its been going ever since. 

Of course, speed it not everything. 

Many of the most famous albums of all time are renowned for their downtempo gems (think “Kind of Blue”) or their slow-grooving swingers (‘Mingus Ah Um’ anyone?).

But it’s hard to resist the allure of a breakneck performance for both sheer excitement and impressive technique. 

So stay tuned for our pick of 10 iconic fast jazz songs, with a tip for our recommended version of each. 

10. Oleo – Sonny Rollins

After the 12-bar blues, the chord sequence to the song “I Got Rhythm” is the most famous chord progression in jazz, with countless songs taking the harmonic structure as their base.

One classic example is the Sonny Rollins tune Oleo which is usually performed at lightening-quick speeds.

His 1959 live performance of the song showcases how the iconic musician not only deals with such a fast jazz song, but manages to develop melodic lines throughout his solo.

9. Bugle Call Rag – Benny Goodman

First recorded in 1922 as “Bugle Call Blues”, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra popularised Bugle Call rag in the 1930s.

Whilst not hitting the blazing fast tempos of later types of jazz (and taking time to really get up to speed) it was a thrilling ride for audiences of the time, showcasing the tight precision and fast reflexes of each band member.

8. Flight of the Bumblebee – Harry James

Whilst bebop brought fast jazz songs to the fore, it wasn’t the birth of the phenomenon by any means.

Back in 1941, trumpeter-bandleader Harry James took on the challenge of turning a famous piece of classical music into a swing-era masterpiece.

Composed back in 1900 for the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, their version of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee is a testament to the technical proficiency and synchronicity of the band.

Just One Of Those Things – Lee Morgan

Whilst most tunes on this list are known for being fast jazz songs, Just One Of Those Things is slightly different.

Search the title on your favourite streaming platform or record shop and you’ll find a whole range of tempos, including famous versions which are firmly in the medium tempo category.

There are, though, a collection of high-speed versions which made it a ‘must’ for this list. In particular, the Lee Morgan version on his hard bop album The Cooker (Blue Note Records) from 1958.

The relaxed performance of the melody can fool you into thinking it’s not so fast, but just wait for the solos…

In the flick of a switch, both Morgan and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams launch into high speed workouts across the tune.

6. Seven Steps To Heaven – Miles Davis

Jazz legend Miles Davis seems to have been central to every twist and turn in the jazz world from the 1940s onwards.

Bringing fast-paced improvisation to jazz fans around the world is no exception, as his composition and subsequent recordings of “Seven Steps To Heaven” proves.

With its intricate, blazing fast melody, it’s a fast-paced tour-de-force that underscores the artistry and technical skills of any player who can get it under control.

Co-written by pianist Victor Feldman, the initial album version from 1963 actually featured the young Herbie Hancock on keys.

5. A Night In Tunisia – Dizzy Gillespie

This classic tune, whilst not always performed at high-speed, boasts fast tempos in many renditions, not least by composer and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

A Night In Tunisia was one of the signature pieces of his bebop big band with its rhythmically complex melody and intricate chord changes present an enticing challenge for the soloists.

4. Donna Lee – Charlie Parker

If any famous jazz musicians was to be included twice in this round up of fast jazz songs, it had to be bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

Another contrafact (this time from the old tune “Back Home Again in Indiana”), Donna Lee was first recorded in 1947 with Parker’s quintet for Savoy Records.

Often seen as the ultimate test of virtuosity, the tune was famously recorded by Jaco Pastorius on his eponymous 1976 album; a feat electric bass players ever since have been trying to emulate.

3. Boogie Stop Shuffle – Chris Potter

Of course, the challenge of playing jazz as fast as possible didn’t end in the 1960s; modern jazz musicians all over the world still utilise this as an audience-friendly tool in their repertoire.

Of all the iconic saxophone players of the 21st Century, perhaps none delivers the high-octane pyrotecnics as American Chris Potter.

We weren’t short of examples, but his take on Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is arguably the finest.

Recorded live at The Village Vanguard in New York, the fast-paced, high-energy interpretation of the original is preceded by a mind-blowing solo saxophone intro.

For saxophone students, it’s an eye-opening must-hear performance (with a transcription available here), but its also testament to his creativity as an improvisor that it can also appeal to the casual listener.

So whatever you are looking for, this is one fast jazz masterclass that needs listening to right now.

2. Giant Steps – John Coltrane

The brainchild of the tenor and soprano saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” stands as a landmark in jazz history, both for its revolutionary harmonic progression (“Coltrane Changes”) and unrelenting tempo. 

The labyrinthine structure of the song, punctuated by rapid chord transitions, is a true test for even the most proficient jazz musicians. 

The original recording, clocking at approximately 272 beats per minute, presents a non-stop forward momentum; a pulse that underlines the agility and technical prowess necessary to not just manoeuvre, but by creative within the tune’s complex architectural underpinnings.

In many ways, the tempo is the gatekeeper to “Giant Steps,” separating the novices from the professionals in the realm of fast jazz songs. 

1. Cherokee – Charlie Parker

Emblematic of the explosive bebop era, “Cherokee” as performed by the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, is a fast-paced, exhilarating piece of jazz history that has tested the skills of performers ever since.

The tempo, which often exceeds 300 beats per minute in Parker’s renditions, encapsulates the audacity and virtuosity that make “Cherokee” a timeless bebop classic.

Such was Parker’s affinity for this song that he composed several other tunes – or ‘contrafacts’ – on the harmonic structure, notably Ko-Ko and Warming Up a Riff. 

Thanks for reading our pick of 10 epically fast jazz songs, spanning almost 100 years of music.

Of course, we missed a TON of others that could easily have taken a space.

Whilst we regroup and plan the next edition of this article, feel free to share your own personal comments and requests below…

Looking for more jazz? Check out our round up of the 50 best jazz albums of all time or the most famous jazz musicians in history.

8 thoughts on “Fast Jazz? The 10 Speediest Songs EVER!”

  1. I have no problem with fast tempos. What concerns me are all the later editions of jazz masterworks that speed up the original tempo. As heard on these recordings, the players lose their “bite” and tonal voice. Most recent example: “Sonny Side Up,” a Verve Recording under Dizzy Gillespie’s name that features the tenors of Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. The first track, “Sunny Side of the Street,” sounds like a throwaway compared to the sheer exhilaration of the original. And one of the best duels on record–Stitt vs. Rollins on “The Eternal Triangle”–is an anticlimax, with the two Sonny’s firing blanks at each other

    It’s now easy for producers to increase the speed of tracks without raising the pitch of the original. But don’t be fooled. The later, faster version that’s streamed or downloaded from Apple or Amazon or Spotify is bound to be a shorter track (compare playing times) at the expense of the music and its storied players. They deserve better, and certainly you do as a consumer-listener.

  2. Revealing some of my own bias, but I’d have to include something by Django Reinhardt or the more contemporary Rosenberg Trio or Bireli Lagrene. Jimmy Rosenberg, Bireli Lagrene, and Angelo DeBarre also covered Donna Lee nice.

  3. “All At Once You Loved Her” is a song that wasn’t on Lee Morgan’s original Candy album but was added later to the CD version. It is a fantastic piece of trumpet artistry. If you haven’t heard it, it’ll make you appreciate Lee Morgan even more.

  4. Still within my first year of saxophone playing. (baritone, king of the sound pyramid) I can say without any doubt that my rendition of Bluesette is not on anyone’s list.

  5. Hi, Matt. My daughters gave me the best father’s day gift, the jazz quartet by Lego. I’m still working on it, 1600 pieces of very inventive imagination to create a beautiful 3D puzzle. I have been working on it whilst listenin to jazz. Almost there !


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