Best jazz songs: 9 classics you will listen to again and again
Which are the best jazz songs of all time? It's a difficult choice, says Paul McGuinness, but here's my top 10
Although it has its roots firmly planted in New Orleans, the last 100 years or so have seen jazz evolve to encompass an extraordinarily wide variety of styles.
Here, we pick a selection of the most timeless jazz songs, sung by many of the greatest jazz singers of all time.
Best jazz songs of all time
Summertime (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong)
One of the most famous songs of the 20th century – in any genre – George Gershwin’s Summertime has been recorded by everyone from Billie Holiday to Sam Cooke and Janis Joplin. But with this version, you get two legends for the price of one.
We named Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong among the greatest jazz singers of all time
Fly Me To The Moon (Frank Sinatra)
Quincy Jones’ arrangement for Count Basie’s orchestra ( Count Basie was one of the best jazz band leaders of all time) are part of what makes Old Blue Eyes’ version of this 1954 Bart Howard number the definitive version, but it’s Sinatra’s effortlessly light vocal that sends it stratospheric.
A cassette of the recording was taken aboard some of the Apollo lunar missions, and was even played shortly before Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing in July 1969.
Unforgettable (Nat King Cole)
Legendary arranger Nelson Riddle’s magic touch creates a sublime bed on which to lay Nat King Cole’s heavenly vocals on this timeless 1954 Capitol single. The song had a new lease of life and became a global hit 50 years later when Natalie Cole added her vocals to create a virtual duet with her late father.
Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
This haunting song about a lynching in the Deep South was so impactful that her label refused to release it. When Holiday began to sing it in New York clubs, it would always close the set. A single spotlight on Holiday’s face would be the only light in the club, and the waiters would stop serving at tables.
My Baby Just Cares For Me (Nina Simone)
Although Nina Simone first released this recording in 1959, it didn’t become a hit for her until it was featured on a perfume advertisement in 1987, when it went top 10. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone transcended genres, bringing influences from southern gospel to her beloved JS Bach in creating her own unique style.
The Girl From Ipanema (Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto with Astrud Gilberto)
This Brazilian bossa nova/jazz recording won the 1964 Grammy for Record of the Year – and it’s not hard to see why. Infectious and effortlessly cool, it went on to become one of the most-recorded songs of the 20th century.
My Funny Valentine (Chet Baker)
A 1937 showtune from Rodgers and Hart, My Funny Valentine became American trumpet master Chet Baker’s signature following his smoky vocal version, recorded in 1954 and included on his /Chet Baker Sings/ LP two years later.
What A Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong)
Louis Armstrong was already over 40 years into his career when 'What A Wonderful World' was a hit for him in 1967. The song has become a favourite of film-makers, notably appearing in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam in 1988, after which it re-entered the Billboard Hot 100.
I Got Rhythm (Sarah Vaughan)
This 1930 George and Ira Gershwin song quickly became a jazz standard, recorded by the likes of Ethel Merman, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and, here, Sarah Vaughan.
Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael)
Written by bandleader Hoagy Carmichael and first recorded by him and his band in 1927, Stardust would become one of the most-recorded songs of the 20th century, transcending genres. Paul McCartney once cited it as the one song that he wished he’d written.
Main image: Nat King Cole © Getty Images
Paul McGuinness is a journalist with over 25 years’ experience. He has written about music of all styles for a variety of publications and labels. He has interviewed legendary musicians from five continents, and travelled the world to experience the music he loves in its natural setting.
He has stood in awe at doowopers busking on a street corner in Greenwich Village; sat in with the band at a late-night juke joint in Mississippi; supped cocktails in the shade listening to son music in Havana courtyard; and performed at a festival on a remote Hebridean island.