The term “jazz” usually refers to a performance style rather than a method of composition.
A jazz composition may or may not contain lyrics. It could include scat elements syllables sung in a horn-like fashion.
There are countless ‘classic’ jazz songs, but most jazz lovers and artists would agree that a limited set of songs appear more regularly than the others.
Some of the most well-known jazz pieces of the twentieth century are included here.
Many of them were reworked by different artists in the early half of the twentieth century, with thousands of recordings of the best songs by various influential jazz musicians.
One of the unique qualities of great players is their ability to add new and intriguing components to well-known songs.
We’ve chosen some of the most well-known or best jazz compositions in this article.
Duke Ellington’s signature composition was “Take the A Train,” written by his frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn.
“I Got Rhythm” is a song written by legendary composer George Gershwin.
Also, I Got Rhythm has become such a significant jazz standard its chord progression has functioned as the framework for many later compositions.
Cannonball Adderley’s rendition, featuring Miles Davis’ renowned trumpet solo, is in G minor.
On ‘So What,’ John Coltrane plays tenor saxophone, Miles Davis plays trumpet, Cannonball Adderley plays alto saxophone, Bill Evans plays piano, Paul Chambers plays bass, and Jimmy Cobb plays drums.
20. Mack the Knife – Ella Fitzgerald
After forgetting the lyrics, Fitzgerald improvised phrases for “Mack the Knife” at this performance, making it one of his most acclaimed live performances.
At the 3rd Annual Grammy Awards, she was awarded Best Female Vocal Performer (Single) and Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album). The album Ella in Berlin was also awarded to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“Mack the Knife,” also known as “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” is a song written by Kurt Weill and lyrics written by Bertolt Brecht for the 1928 musical drama The Threepenny Opera.
The ballad becomes a classic standard, with numerous musicians covering it, notably Bobby Darin, who had a number one sensation in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1959.
19. Straight, No Chaser – Miles Davis
Straight, No Chaser from Milestones, Miles Davis’s debut album, was initially written by Thelonious Monk. The album Milestones was recorded with Miles Davis’s “first great quintet, releasing it in 1958 by Columbia Records.
Straight, No Chaser features soloists Cannonball Adderley (Alto Sax), Miles Davis (Trumpet), John Coltrane (Tenor Sax), Red Garland (Piano), and Paul Chambers (Acoustic Bass).
Miles’ approach to the composition is more melodic, slower-paced, and lyrical, while John Coltrane’s improvisational technique is faster, with strong dissonance and odd rhythmic combinations of notes.
Cannonball stands halfway between Davis and Coltrane’s short scalar and slower melodic passages, with Red Garlands Bluesy licks keeping Paul Chambers Strong Targeting arpeggio based.
Mark C. Gridley, a music educator, commented regarding Monk’s composition style: Monk used simple compositional procedures to get unique outcomes.
His ‘Straight, No Chaser’ consists of merely one theme repeated, each time at a different portion of the bar and with a different ending.”
18. Autumn Leaves – Cannonball Adderley
Autumn Leaves was created by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert’s 1945 song “Les Feuilles Mortes.” Johnny Mercer’s English lyrics introduced many vocalists and jazz musicians.
“Autumn Leaves” has over a thousand studio recordings as a jazz standard. Throughout the 1950s, prominent pop vocalists recorded the song regularly. Instrumental jazz musicians soon adopted it as well.
Roger Williams made the song a top success in the United States in 1955, making it the first piano instrumental.
In 2012, jazz historian Philippe Baudoin remarked on the song as “the most notable non-American standard,” stating that “it has been recorded roughly 1400 times by famous and contemporary jazz artists exclusively.
Cannonball Adderley introduced a brooding minor pulse to the song on his 1958 album ‘Somethin’ Else,’ and many musicians have preferred to use it since.
17. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
My Favorite Things is jazz musician John Coltrane’s eighth studio album, launched in March 1961 on Atlantic Records. It was Coltrane’s initial record on which he played soprano saxophone.
A modified rendition of the title song was released as a successful single on the radio in 1961. The record was a huge commercial success.
As the title song of an album produced in October 1960 and released in March 1961, John Coltrane performed a fourteen-minute version in E minor.
It became a jazz standard and a signature piece for Coltrane in performance, and it was also featured on Newport ’63 in 1963.
“My Favorite Things” is a composition from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The film version of the song was ranked No. 64 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list of best melodies in American cinema in 2004.
Many performers, including Jack Jones, Tony Bennett, Ariana Grande, and Ari Lennox, have produced cover versions of this song.
16. Take The “A” Train – Duke Ellington
“Take the ‘A’ Train,” a jazz standard, was composed by Billy Strayhorn, the trademark piece of Duke Ellington’s orchestra. It quickly became one of his band’s most successful songs.
On January 15, 1941, the song was initially recorded as a standard transcription for radio broadcast. On February 15, 1941, the first commercial recordings were produced.
The song nicely represents the trip to Harlem in crowded New York, being bright and happy. The title is a reference to New York City’s then-new subway system.
The song, primarily based on the chord framework of “Exactly Like You,” blends the full swing of Duke Ellington’s 1940s band. The song is written in AABA form and the key of C, with each part consisting of a lyric couplet.
Ella Fitzgerald sang and performed this song numerous times beginning in 1957; for a live rendition with Ella scatting,
The tune was the theme song for the “Voice of America Jazz Hour.” This song was included in National Public Radio’s “NPR 100” in 1999, wherein NPR’s music editors assembled the one hundred most influential American musical works of the twentieth century.
15. Night and Day – Cole Porter
Cole Porter’s iconic song “Night and Day” was composed for the 1932 musical Gay Divorce. Hundreds of performers have recorded Porter’s most famous addition to the Great American Songbook.
On stage, Fred Astaire performed “Night and Day.” On January 13, 1933, his commercial rendition of the song with Leo Reisman Orchestra was launched, becoming a No. 1 success, leading the charts for ten weeks.
The structure of “Night and Day” is uncommon for a 1930s hit song. Most popular songs had 32-bar choruses separated into four 8-bar pieces, with an AABA musical structure, with the B section serving as the bridge.
On the other hand, Porter’s song contains a 48-bar chorus divided into six pieces of eight bars—ABABCB—with part C marking the bridge.
Many artists have covered this song, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Henderson, Jackie DeShannon, Karrin Allyson, The Temptations, Stan Getz, Willie Nelson, Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, and Lady Gaga.
14. I Got Rhythm – George Gershwin
“I Got Rhythm” is a jazz song created by George Gershwin with words by Ira Gershwin and released in 1930.
Its chord changes flow, known as the “rhythm changes,” serves as the basis for many other classic jazz compositions, including Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop standard.
I Got Rhythm, Legendary singer Ethel Merman first performed in 1930, but it has since been covered by a slew of great jazz artists, either as the original song or with new songs built over the existing chord changes.
Dexter Gordon’s Second Balcony Jump, Charlie Parker’s Anthropology, and Dizzy Gillespie’s Ow are the most notable of these ‘contrafacts.’
Sarah Vaughan recorded this jazz standard on her 1963 album Sweet ‘n’ Sassy, which included a full-string orchestra organized by the legendary Lalo Schifrin.
Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and the Bill Charlap Trio delivered an excellent rendition of I Got Rhythm on Love is Here to Stay on his albums.
13. Honeysuckle Rose – Fats Waller
“Honeysuckle Rose” was composed by Fats Waller in 1929 with Andy Razaf’s lyrics. It premiered as a soft-shoe dance piece in the 1929 Off-Broadway revue at Connie’s Inn. In 1999, Waller’s 1934 track was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Aside from its popularity as a song, many jazz players use the first few notes of the melody sequence as a ‘lick’ or component in their improvisations. Waller’s 1934 recording showcases his lovely piano arrangement and his playful voice.
Various musicians have covered this song, including Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins with Benny Carter, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Benney Goodman, Louis Jordan, The King Cole Trio, Sarah Vaughan, and many more.
12. Round Midnight – Thelonious Monk
“Round Midnight” is a 1944 original composition by American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk that soon became a jazz standard and was recorded by a broad range of performers.
In 1993, a rendition recorded by Monk’s quartet was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is one of the most often recorded jazz standards written by a jazz performer.
Jazz trumpeters Cootie Williams and Dizzy Gillespie added their touches to the song; Bernie Hanighen wrote the lyrics.
The song was afterward used as the title for the 1986 film Round Midnight, which starred legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon in a fictional story of an American jazz artist living in Paris.
Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack prominently incorporates the song “Round Midnight,” many other jazz standards, and a couple of original works composed by Hancock.
The song is frequently referred to as” ‘Round About Midnight” because Miles Davis used this title in his 1957 Columbia Records album ‘Round About Midnight, which included a version based on Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement.
11. Stella By Starlight – Victor Young
Victor Young’s well-known song “Stella by Starlight” is based on theme material produced for the main title and music of the 1944 Paramount Pictures film The Uninvited.
The jazz standards site ranks “Stella by Starlight” as the tenth most popular standard.
Harry James and his orchestra recorded this in May 1947, and it peaked at number 21 on the pop charts. Frank Sinatra’s recording with Axel Stordahl and his orchestra two months later reached the 21st spot.
In January 1952, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker recorded the song for the first time, accompanied by a big studio orchestra including strings. Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and trumpeter Chet Baker recorded this song in 1952 and 1954.
Nat King Cole produced an instrumental version for his 1955 album The Piano Style of Nat King Cole.
Miles Davis included a recording on his 1958 album Jazz Track. Davis resurrected the song in 1963, playing it live numerous times until 1965.
Other jazz recordings include those by Lou Donaldson, Art Blakey, Red Garland, Bill Evans, and the Jazz Messengers, Joe Pass, Charlie Rouse, and Dexter Gordon, as well as vocal versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Helen Reddy, Billy Eckstine, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and Italian singer Mina in 1964, among many others.
10. Cantaloupe Island – Herbie Hancock
“Cantaloupe Island” is a jazz standard initially recorded by Herbie Hancock for his 1964 album Empyrean Isles in his early years as a member of Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet.
Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (cornet), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams played on the original 1964 recording.
The Us3 jazz-rap group sampled “Cantaloupe Island” in their song “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” off their album Hand on the Torch (1993). This rendition of “Cantaloupe Island” has appeared in various media.
On March 25, 1994, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified “Cantaloop” as gold for over 500,000 copies.
“Cantaloupe Island” was ranked #19 on the standard jazz site “Jazz 100: One Hundred Quintessential Jazz Songs” in 2000.
9. So What – Miles Davis
“So What” is the track on Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue. It is one of the most well-known instances of modal jazz, set in the Dorian mode and consists of 16 bars in the AABA format.
Gil Evans composed the piano-and-bass opening to Kind of Blue for Bill Evans and Paul Chambers.
Gil Evans later orchestrated this beginning for a television program provided by Miles’ quintet and the Gil Evans Orchestra; the orchestra presented the intro, while the quintet played the rest of “So What.”
The deployment of the double bass to perform the central motif defines the piece. Later, this composition was performed live in Carnegie Hall as part of Miles Davis’ album.
John Coltrane later used the very same chord structure for his song “First impressions.”
“So What” was placed 492 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2021.
8. Take Five – Dave Brubeck
“Take Five” is a classic jazz standard composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond and initially published by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on Columbia Records in New York City in 1959 for their album Time Out.
It had become a breakout hit and the best-selling jazz single two years later. The composition has been revived in various film and television soundtracks and garnered significant radio broadcasts.
In 1996, the song was honored in the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Take Five” is notable for its characteristic two-chord piano/bass vamp; appealing, cool-jazz saxophone melodies; innovative, jolting drum solo; and unusual quintuple in 5/4 time signature, which Dave Brubeck got the title from.
On July 5, 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed “Take Five” in front of a public show at the Newport Jazz Festival. The ensemble re-recorded it several times over the next 50 years.
Since its release, the composition has been a mainstay of jazz and pop music, and it has been covered numerous times in a wide range of genres.
On her 2021 duo album keeping in touch, Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg provides a stripped-down rendition of this song – replete with lyrics.
7. Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins
“Body and Soul” is a classic jazz standard written in 1930 by Johnny Green and Frank Eyton, Robert Sour, and Edward Heyman’s Lyrics.
Numerous recordings were recorded that year, such as jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman. Because of its odd harmony, notably in the middle “bridge” section, it became a favorite of improvisers.
At their Bluebird recording session, Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra recorded among the most famous and successful versions on October 11, 1939. His two choruses rarely make any reference to the song.
Nonetheless, his sophisticated, extremely innovative improvisation helped pave the road from the Swing era to the new voices of bebop that would dominate the decade that followed.
The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2004.
Tony Bennett appears for the second time in this song. This particular version of Body & Soul is from his album Duets II, featuring Amy Winehouse.
It was, unfortunately, Winehouse’s last recording before her death in July of that year, having been recorded in March 2011.
6. Fly Me to the Moon – Bart Howard
“Fly Me to the Moon” was composed by Bart Howard in 1954. The song was initially titled “In Other Words,” It was a waltz.
Bart Howard wrote the song 3/4 time, but Quincy Jones changed it to 4/4 for his arrangement. Kaye Ballard recorded the first commercial recording of the song, which Decca issued in April 1954.
The Frank Sinatra recording – undoubtedly the best and most renowned – became inextricably linked with NASA’s Apollo Space Program in the late 1960s, with astronaut crews playing on the Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted “Fly Me to the Moon” as a “Towering Song” in 1999.
5. St. Thomas – Sonny Rollins
“St. Thomas” is one of the most well-known instrumental compositions in American jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ repertoire.
The song rose to prominence because it was included on Rollins’ 1956 album Saxophone Colossus, even though Randy Weston had released it in 1955 as “Fire Down There.”
The song can be heard as the background music for the Trask wedding scene in the 1988 film “Working Girl,” as well as on the soundtrack of the computer game Grand Theft Auto IV.
Although most performances are instrumental, Sonny Rollins initially wrote the song with lyrics.
His excellent tenor solo, where he progressively develops from two notes, and Max Roach’s drumming stand out in this version.
4. Georgia on My Mind – Ray Charles
“Georgia on My Mind” is a composition by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell first recorded by Hoagy Carmichael in 1930.
It is most commonly associated with Ray Charles, a native of Georgia, who released it for his 1960 classic album The Genius Hits the Road.
Ray Charles’ version was recognized as the state’s official song of Georgia in 1979. Rolling Stone magazine selected Ray Charles’ rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” the 44th best song of 2003.
Early recordings have the song’s light-medium tempo, but it is mainly performed as a soulful ballad, possibly due to Ray Charles’ 1960 version.
3. It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington
The song “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a Duke Ellington composition from 1931 with lyrics by Irving Mills.
Ellington’s recording of the song from 1932 was nominated for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
Ellington wrote and arranged the music between intermissions at Chicago’s Lincoln Tavern in August 1931, and it was initially performed by Ellington and his orchestra for Brunswick Records on February 2, 1932.
Ivie Anderson sang the vocal after Mills wrote the lyrics, and trombonist Joe Nanton and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges performed the solo.
It was recorded multiple times by Duke Ellington’s ensemble, most notably with trumpeter Ray Nance as a singer. Everyone has recorded it, from Louis Armstrong to Django Reinhardt to Tony Bennett.
2. On the Sunny Side of the Street – Jimmy McHugh
On the Sunny Side of the Street is a 1930 composition written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. Some authors claim that Fats Waller wrote the song, although he sold the copyright to it.
It became a jazz standard and was performed by Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, the Nat King Cole Trio, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, James Booker, Count Basie, and Lester Young, among others.
Tommy Dorsey and the Sentimentalists’ arrangement was the most successful, reaching No. 16 on the charts in 1945.
On his iconic 1959 album Sonny Side Up, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sings the song, which sets saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins with each other in multiple intensely competitive tenor duels.
The song’s upbeat lyrics are about looking on the bright side of life no matter what life throws at you, and it remains a classic of traditional and Dixieland jazz players.
1. The Girl From Ipanema – Stan Getz
“Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) is a bossa nova and jazz song from Brazil. It became an international success in the mid-1960s and was nominated for a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1965.
It was composed in 1962, with melodies by Antônio Carlos Jobim and words by Vincius de Moraes in Portuguese. Norman Gimbel later wrote the English lyrics.
Pery Ribeiro made the initial commercial recording in 1962. The Stan Getz track featured Astrud Gilberto’s singing debut and was an international hit.
For two weeks, the song hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Easy Listening chart. Overseas, it reached number 29 in the United Kingdom and charted well worldwide.
The Girl From Ipanema is sometimes viewed as cheesy or essentially elevator music.
Nonetheless, most jazz players recognize it as a brilliantly composed composition, with the bridge portion in the middle of the song offering particularly exciting for performers to improvise over.
It is claimed to be the second-most recorded piece of music in history, after The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” In 2001, the track was nominated for the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame.
It was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress in 2004 to be added to the National Recording Registry.
A “jazz” song is defined by its use of instrumentation, improvised solos, or general approach to interpretation rather than the form or structure of the music itself, whether it is an original piece or an adaptation.
Of course, there are a ton of other great tunes we could have included here, but That’s our pick of 20 of the most famous jazz songs.