Best Jazz Songs: An Introduction To Jazz’s Finest Moments

Reckon jazz is just for connoisseurs? Think again. This introduction to the best jazz songs ever has something for everyone.

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Miles Davis, trumpeter behind many of the best jazz songs ever
Photo: Vernon L. Smith/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What are the best jazz songs ever? That’s an almost impossible question, but the below list can serve as a great starting point for any curious jazz fan. Whether it’s swing, hot, cool, bebop, modal, free, or fusion, uDiscover has something for everyone in this list of the best jazz songs ever.

Check out some of the best jazz songs on vinyl here.

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uDiscover Music Store - Jazz
uDiscover Music Store - Jazz

51: Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra – Mood Indigo

According to Duke’s biographer, “Mood Indigo” is “an imperishable classic” and who are we to disagree? With lrving Mills having added the lyric, this remarkable 1930 standard has since been covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Joe Jackson, and Kelly Hogan. – Sam Armstrong

50: Norah Jones – The Nearness Of You

The concluding song from jazz/pop fusionist Norah Jones’ multi-million-selling 2002 debut Come Away With Me, this Hoagy Carmichael standard was first recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1940. – Sam Armstrong

49: Johnny Mathis – Misty

With his lush velvet croon, Mathis became a world-conquering pop idol in the late 1950s. One of his biggest jazz songs was the romantic interpretation he gave to pianist Erroll Garner’s evergreen ballad “Misty” in 1959, which reached No. 12 in the US charts. – Charles Waring

48: Julie London – Cry Me A River

Over 500 renditions of this classic Arthur Hamilton-penned ballad exist, which all followed in the wake of torch song specialist Julie London’s original version recorded in 1955. The song gained wider exposure after London was featured singing it in the 1956 hit movie, The Girl Can’t Help It. – Charles Waring

47: Brother Bones and His Shadows – Sweet Georgia Brown

This tune has been covered by plenty of jazz luminaries, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Django Reinhart included. The most famous version, however, is by Brother Bones and His Shadows. It’s played every time the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team takes the court. – Sam Armstrong

46: Diana Krall – The Look of Love

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s patient bossa nova is the perfect canvas for the gorgeous voice of Diana Krall, one of the greatest modern jazz vocalists. The song has been covered countless time, but Krall’s restrained delivery is a master class in doing a lot with a little. – Sam Armstrong

45: George Shearing – Lullaby of Birdland

Blind from birth, London-born pianist George Shearing reaped acclaim in America in the late 1940s and early 50s with his mix of swing and bebop; it was a unique sound crystallized by “Lullaby of Birdland,” a jazz song originally written in 1952 to advertise the famous New York club with the same name. – Charles Waring

44: Ahmad Jamal – Poinciana

A pianist with a delicate touch from Pittsburgh, Jamal’s name is synonymous with “Poinciana,” an obscure 1930s pop song that became both a hit single and the cornerstone of his 1958 million-selling LP, At The Pershing: But Not For Me. – Charles Waring

43: Jimmy Smith – Organ Grinder Swing

Hammond organ hero Smith broke into the US Hot 100 in 1965 when he teamed up with guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Grady Tate to record this punchy, blues-infused instrumental. It’s the musical equivalent to soul food. – Charles Waring

42: Modern Jazz Quartet – Django

Distinguished by Milt Jackson’s crystalline vibes sound, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s elegant chamber jazz style is epitomized by this haunting 1954 instrumental, written by the band’s pianist John Lewis as a homage to his friend, jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt, who had died the previous year. – Charles Waring

41: Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse – Body & Soul

Released to celebrate the legendary crooner’s 85th birthday, Tony Bennett’s Duets II gave him his first Billboard 200 chart topped. From it is this transcendent, Amy Winehouse-enhanced version of the 1930 standard, also covered by legends such as Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Etta James. – Sam Armstrong

40: Frank Sinatra – Fly Me To The Moon

Originally penned by Bart Howard in 1954 and also recorded by Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee and more. The definitive version, though, is surely Frank Sinatra’s 1964 recording. One of the most famous singers of his generation, not least for “My Way,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and more, Sinatra made “Fly” his own. – Sam Armstrong

39: Hoagy Carmichael – Stardust

An actor and attorney as well as being one of America’s greatest songwriters, Hoagland “Hoagie” Carmichael wrote and recorded his famous ballad “Stardust” in 1927 after splitting up with his then-girlfriend. Though Nat King Cole and Sinatra later recorded the tune, the biggest hit version was by R&B act Billy Ward & His Dominoes in 1957. – Charles Waring

38: Wayne Shorter – Infant Eyes

Saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter marked the birth of his daughter Miyako by composing this haunting, ethereal ballad for his 1966 LP Speak No Evil. The song went on to be a jazz standard, spawning over 70 cover versions. – Charles Waring

37: Thelonious Monk – Well You Needn’t

With its quirky chromatic melody, the much-covered “Well You Needn’t” was written by the pianist/composer dubbed the “High Priest of Bebop,” who first recorded the tune in 1947 and re-recorded it at regular intervals throughout his career. – Charles Waring

36: Roger Williams – Autumn Leaves

This Nebraska ivory tickler had the distinction of being the only musician to take a piano-led instrumental to the summit of Billboard’s pop charts with his grandiose rendition of the French song “Autumn Leaves” in 1955. – Charles Waring

35: Cab Calloway – Minnie The Moocher

Riddled with veiled drug references and famous for its nonsensical, ad-libbed “scat” lyrics, this 1931 standard sold over a million copies. In 1980, Calloway famously performed his signature tune in the smash hit movie The Blues Brothers. – Sam Armstrong

34: Natalie Cole feat. Nat King Cole – Unforgettable

One of the best jazz songs ever came in the form of an unlikely duet: Natalie Cole sang with a recording of her legendary father, Nat King Cole. Leaving aside how beautiful the actual singing is (and it is stunning), the circumstances of the recording gave it a deep, added resonance. – Sam Armstrong

33: Django Reinhardt – Minor Swing

Released on a 78 rpm single in 1937, this song – co-written by guitar genius Reinhardt with French violinist Stephane Grappelli – epitomized the stomping gypsy jazz style that set Europe alight in the 1930s. The musical synergy generated by both musicians is undeniable. – Charles Waring

32: Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind

Though penned by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930, most people associate this sublime jazz song with Ray Charles’ transcendent 1960 recording which topped the US Billboard 100. – Sam Armstrong

31: Peggy Lee – Fever

In 1958, Minnesota chanteuse Peggy Lee took R&B singer’s Little Willie John’s R&B chart-topper from two years earlier, added some new verses and transformed it into a smoldering jazz groove that hit the Top 10 of America’s pop rankings. The song is notable for its minimal instrumentation; bass, occasional drum flourishes, and finger snaps. – Charles Waring

30: Nina Simone – My Baby Just Cares For Me

Originally released in 1961, a British perfume commercial using this stellar tune in 1987 afforded Nina’s remarkable career a much-deserved renaissance. – Sam Armstrong

29: Bill Evans – Waltz For Debby

A pianist who worked almost exclusively in a trio format, Bill Evans recorded this, his signature tune – which was named after his niece – in 1956 on the album New Jazz Conceptions. Later, in the 70s, he recorded a vocal version with singer Tony Bennett.

28: Sonny Rollins – God Bless The Child

Though written by and associated with iconic singer Billie Holiday, the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins served up an indelible reading of the ballad in his 1962 album The Bridge, which showcased his peerless improv skills alongside that of guitarist Jim Hall. – Charles Waring

27: Herbie Hancock – Cantaloupe Island

This was one of the Chicago pianist’s most popular tunes; a jaunty soul jazz piece taken from the 1964 album, Empyrean Isles. Herbie Hancock gave the same tune a jazz-funk makeover in the 70s and in 1991, his 60s original version was sampled by UK rap group Us3 for their hit single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” – Charles Waring

26: Weather Report – Birdland

Led by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Weather Report were one of the biggest jazz fusion bands of the 70s and 80s. Taken from their classic 1978 LP, Heavy Weather, “Birdland” with its catchy chorus, was their most famous tune and was later taken into the US singles chart by the American vocal group Manhattan Transfer. – Charles Waring

25: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – Summertime

There are, reputedly, around 25,000 known recorded versions of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s standard “Summertime.” From Ella Fitzgerald & Louis ArmstrongPorgy & Bess (1958), this is one of the best. – Sam Armstrong

24: Dizzy Gillespie – A Night in Tunisia

A minor key number, “A Night In Tunisia” was first recorded by its composer, the puff-cheeked bebop trumpeter Gillespie, in 1942, and quickly became regarded as a jazz standard. Those who’ve covered the song range from Miles Davis to Chaka Khan. – Charles Waring

23: Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul

Tenor saxophone titan Coleman Hawkins invented the extended improvised solo on his 1939 instrumental recording of a ballad that was written for British actress Gertrude Lawrence in 1930. Hawkins’ innovative melodic embroidery laid the groundwork for the improvisatory approach of bebop. – Charles Waring

22: Cannonball Adderley Quintet – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Written by Adderley’s pianist, Joe Zawinul, who would go to form Weather Report, this gospel-inflected song produced by David Axelrod was a surprise US hit in 1966 for the Florida-born alto saxophonist. – Charles Waring

21: Miles Davis – Blue in Green

An introspective ballad from Davis’ classic 1959 album, Kind Of Blue, this tune was written by the trumpeter with noted pianist, Bill Evans. It captures Davis – blowing a muted horn – at his lyrical best. – Charles Waring

20: Dinah Washington – On The Sunny Side of the Street

Dinah Washington’s versatile voice had hints of gospel, hints of jazz, and made for some incredible early pop/R&B music too. Her rendition of one of the best jazz songs of all time is sung with a big band, but she still shines brightly against their backing. – Sam Armstrong

19: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Moanin’

The signature number of drummer Art Blakey’s long-running but ever-changing “Hard Bop Academy,” 1958’s “Moanin'” was written by the band’s then pianist Bobby Timmons, with help from Benny Golson. With its gospel cadences, it was an early example of what came to be known as soul jazz. – Charles Waring

18: Bud Powell – Un Poco Loco

Bassist Curley Powell is certainly no slouch, but “Un Poco Loco” is all about two masters at play: Bud Powell’s quick-fingered piano lines and Max Roach’s distinctive drumming. One of the best jazz songs ever. – Sam Armstrong

17: Benny Goodman – Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)

This Louis Prima tune was transformed into a stomping, intoxicating big band extravaganza by the clarinet-playing bandleader Benny Goodman, whose version was recorded in the first-ever jazz concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. It’s a performance that confirms that Goodman lived up to his nickname, the “King of Swing.” – Charles Waring

16: Chet Baker – My Funny Valentine

Over 1,000 recorded versions exist of Rodgers & Hart’s evergreen 1930s romantic ballad but one of the most memorable was cut by Chet Baker, the poster boy of west coast cool jazz, on his 1954 album Chet Baker Sings.– Charles Waring

15: Horace Silver – Song For My Father

Built on a loping bass line that was lifted by rock group Steely Dan for the intro of their 1974 tune “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” this classic jazz song by pianist Horace Silver was recorded ten years earlier and features a tremendous tenor saxophone solo from Joe Henderson. – Charles Waring

14: John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman – My One and Only Love

Noted for his resonant baritone voice, Louisiana-born Hartman joined forces with saxophone legend John Coltrane for the 1963 album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, which yielded arguably the definitive version of this much-covered 1950s ballad. The album marked the only time Coltrane recorded with a vocalist. – Charles Waring

13: Charles Mingus – Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

This beautiful ballad – now a jazz standard – was bassist/composer Charles Mingus‘ elegy for tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who always wore a narrow-brimmed “pork pie” hat. Written to mark Young’s death in 1959, Mingus later re-recorded the song as “Theme For Lester Young.” – Charles Waring

12: Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

Inspired by the nickname of a gun-slinging bad guy in a western series called The Rifleman, trumpeter Lee Morgan came up with the catchy melody to this classic 1965 funk groove in a recording studio bathroom. The song broke out of the jazz world and into the US pop charts, reaching No. 25. – Charles Waring

11: Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema

Featuring a timeless vocal from Astrud Gilberto, this sultry 1964 bossa nova is widely believed to be the second-most recorded pop song in history, after The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” – Sam Armstrong

10: Thelonious Monk – Round Midnight

Believed to be the most recorded standard recorded by a jazz musician, the perennial “Round Midnight” was the work of inspirational American pianist Thelonious Monk. – Sam Armstrong

09: Dave Brubeck Quartet – Take Five

This jazz song written by the band’s saxophonist Paul Desmond first appeared on Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 album Time Out and it reportedly remains the biggest selling single of all time. – Sam Armstrong

08: Louis Armstrong – What A Wonderful World

Seemingly part of the very human fabric, Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ wonderful standard was first (and arguably definitively) recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967 when it also topped the UK Top 40. – Sam Armstrong

07: Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit

One of the greatest protest songs in any given genre, the chilling “Strange Fruit” was first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1978 and it’s since been covered by the likes of Robert Wyatt, UB40, and Annie Lennox. – Sam Armstrong

06: Count Basie and his Orchestra – One O’Clock Jump

This was the big band hit that launched Count Basie‘s career in 1937; a piano-driven stomp garnished with jabbing horn riffs. The song became Basie’s theme tune and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1979. – Charles Waring

05: Ella Fitzgerald – Mack the Knife

Bobby Darin made the song his own, but Ella Fitzgerald made the song iconic by forgetting the words altogether. She won a Grammy for her live version, sung in Berlin, in which she improvised new lyrics, showcasing her incredible voice in every which way. – Sam Armstrong

04: Charlie Parker – All The Things You Are

One of bebop’s prime architects, Kansas City-born Charlie Parker was famed for his lightning-fast alto saxophone solos but showed a more restrained side on this Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein tune he performed with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945. – Charles Waring

03: John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Most fans would agree John Coltrane’s classic LP is 1964’s suite-like A Love Supreme. His fifth album Giant Steps, however, was his first to feature all self-composed material and it remains a must-have record for all serious jazz fans. – Sam Armstrong

02: Miles Davis – So What

The opening track on legendary trumpeter Miles Davis’ landmark 1959 album Kind Of Blue is one of the best-known examples of modal jazz. That term’s too technical to explain in a soundbite, but the track is simply sublime. – Sam Armstrong

01: Duke Ellington – Take the A Train

Written by Billy Strayhorn in 1940, who was inspired to compose the song after he wrote down directions of how to get to Harlem using New York’s subway system, “Take The A Train” was one of Duke Ellington’s biggest hits and also became his signature tune. – Charles Waring

Build your jazz vinyl collection with classic titles and under-the-radar favorites.

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