In the early 20th century, jazz music took the world by storm. The music genre has a huge amount of importance in American history and greatly impacted the trajectory of popular music. Compiling this list of the best jazz songs was no easy feat, seeing as there are thousands upon thousands of fantastic tunes. That said, in this article, I have outlined 30 of the best jazz songs of all time! Ready to feel the groove? Let’s get straight to it!
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1. How High the Moon – Alfred Drake and Frances Comstock
An iconic jazz composition written in 1940, “How High the Moon” is one of the best jazz songs. Since its composition, it has also been covered by plenty of different artists, and what Alfred Drake and Frances Comstock created back then would become a jazz standard.
You’d see the likes of Les Paul with Mary Ford doing their version, but there were also many other, both vocal and instrumental takes. Another incredibly popular cover of this song is by Ella Fitzgerald. The earliest version recorded and published is that by Benny Goodman with vocals by Helen Forrest.
But at this point, it’s one of the must-know standards for jazz players. It’s also often performed in the way Charlie Parker did, with this version being known as “Ornithology,” combined with the song’s original melodies. Either way, “How High the Moon” is so easy to cover, and make your own arrangements for it.
2. Autumn Leaves – Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert
If you are just getting into jazz music, “Autumn Leaves” is the perfect standard for digging your toes in the genre, especially due to its simple ii—V—I chord progression. What’s really interesting is that the song’s origins are from a French song called “Les Feuilles Mortes,” which translates to “The Dead Leaves.” With music by Joseph Kosma, poet and writer Jacques Prévert wrote the lyrics.
The version as we know it now was initially introduced by Johnny Mercer, giving it English lyrics. Eventually, it became the must-know piece for all jazz musicians. But despite this change and countless different versions of this standard, the main feel still remains. It’s often performed with at least some variations to the main melody, but you can always easily notice that it’s “Autumn Leaves.”
3. All of Me – Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons
Of course, this one shouldn’t be confused with the modern pop song by John Legend. But “All of Me” was also once considered a popular piece back in the early 1930s. Two successful composers of the era, Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, wrote this song.
But it wasn’t until the song was performed by Louis Armstrong and Ben Selvin that it really started getting popular. Eventually, it got into the repertoires of many other musicians in the coming decades, becoming a jazz standard. The song isn’t too complex, which made it widely popular among those who are just learning about the genre. On top of that, it’s also popular among those who love to give songs original arrangements.
4. Donna Lee – Charlie Parker
When it comes to virtuosity in jazz, “Donna Lee” is considered to be one of the most challenging jazz pieces to perform. It’s an entirely instrumental one, most often associated with wind instruments. But there have been plenty of other versions, including those by bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius, who showed the full potential of his instrument.
The piece was written by Charlie Parker, though there have been some disputes that Miles Davis was the actual composer. Whatever may be the case, this is a truly impressive and complex jazz song. Additionally, there are tons of key changes throughout the piece, which makes it even more challenging for improvisation. It’s as if the main theme is incredibly tough on its own. Play at your own risk!
5. One Note Samba – Antônio Carlos Jobim
“One Note Samba” is a pretty fun piece of music. And yes, the name implies that there’s this one-note theme with rhythmic interplay. But don’t get fooled by this — the jazz standard in question can be pretty tricky, especially if you’re planning to improvise within the respective bossa nova style.
Brazilian musician Antônio Carlos Jobim composed the music for this piece, and Newton Mendonça wrote the Portuguese lyrics. The first recorded version was done by Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto in 1960.
The piece gained some popularity in the 1960s, eventually becoming one of the most interpreted jazz standards. It’s definitely one of the best jazz songs of all time and extremely fun to play!
6. Blue Bossa – Kenny Dorham
Speaking of the bossa nova style and jazz standards, another 1960s piece that became incredibly popular among jazz musicians is “Blue Boss”. In fact, to this day, it remains one of the most popular and most performed jazz songs.
Most importantly, “Blue Bossa” is very popular as an introductory piece for aspiring jazz musicians. Although simple, it features one key change that helps new jazz musicians better understand how modulation works in jazz music.
On top of that, its chord progression is great for improvisation, and even the most experienced jazz musicians have it in their repertoires and make exciting and appealing arrangements. Along with “Autumn Leaves,” this is one of the most common beginner-friendly jazz songs that novices in the genre tend to learn.
7. Stella by Starlight – Victor Young and Ned Washington
Next up on my list of the best jazz songs is “Stella by Starlight”, which takes us all the way back to the mid-1940s. Composer Victor Young wrote this piece with lyrics added by Ned Washington. The song initially appeared as an instrumental in the 1944 film “The Uninvited,” and music fans of the era were impressed by it.
But the first jazz musician to really take it within the real boundaries of the genre was Harry James in 1947. Needless to say, it turned into a major hit piece with plenty of jazz musicians over the years giving it their own twists. By the time the 1950s came, Charlie Parker and later Miles Davis covered it and effectively turned it into a genre standard.
To this day, it’s considered among the best jazz standards of all time.
8. Summertime – George Gershwin
George Gershwin was a pure musical genius. His approach to writing orchestral compositions pretty much changed the game and is directly responsible for the development of modern music as we know it today. His most popular piece is arguably “Summertime,” which he initially wrote as an aria for his legendary opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Not long after its introduction in 1935, “Summertime” started getting a lot of traction. Various musicians covered it, and eventually, it became a jazz standard. At this point, it is believed that there are over 1,100 officially released reworked versions of the piece. The most famous cover of this jazz song was by Billie Holiday in 1936, who played a pivotal role in making the song so incredibly popular.
9. Cantaloupe Island – Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” is one of the best jazz songs to really showcase the genre’s potential. Not only did Hancock help spark a new wave of interest in the genre, but this piece immediately became a jazz standard and is now an essential part of every jazz musician’s repertoire.
Herbie Hancock wrote “Cantaloupe Island” while he was still a member of Miles Davis’ band in the mid-1960s. A little over a decade later, he even created a fusion, funk-oriented version. Nonetheless, the core of “Cantaloupe Island” remains the same as with the original piece. The specific combination of melodies and chord progressions made is super-interesting for jazz musicians of all backgrounds and sub-movements.
10. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Thomas “Fats” Waller
Seeing an old piece from the end of the 1920s become so popular is something you don’t see every day. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is one of the earliest examples of the jazz genre’s capabilities. This early swing piece was written by Harry Brooks and pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller and featured lyrics by Andy Razaf.
However, Waller was the one who recorded the piece, and he’s most closely associated with it. Other great jazz artists, one of whom is Louis Armstrong, also covered it over the years. It’s also known under the name “Hot Chocolates” since it was played at the premiere of “Connie’s Hot Chocolates.”
This song was eventually covered by Hank Williams Jr. and even topped the country billboards!
11. Django – Modern Jazz Quartet
Django Reinhardt was one of the finest musicians not only in jazz but in 20th-century music as a whole. So it’s no wonder that his fellow musicians dedicated a song to him a year after his passing in 1953.
Simply titled “Django,” the song is performed by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Considering this is a jazz piece, its main theme feels melancholic, especially in the first section of the song. It then gets into a noticeably different vibe, all while playing around with the variations of the theme.
There have been so many different interpretations of this piece. An interesting one was by John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, where the two exchanged lead guitar parts.
12. Blue in Green – Miles Davis
A list of the best jazz songs must always include at least one Miles Davis tune. “Blue in Green” is one of those slow and emotional pieces, giving just hints of sadness in the main theme, in combination with its chord progression. It’s often referred to as one of the modal jazz pieces due to its interesting interplay of major scale modes.
“Blue in Green” was officially written by Miles Davis. However, there have been many speculations that pianist William Evans was actually the man behind the piece. These days, you’ll often find both names in the credits. But whatever may be the case, it’s become a landmark jazz standard, and Miles’ performance on the original recording is nothing short of superb.
13. Moanin’ – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
You rarely find a piece as catchy and enjoyable as “Moanin’.” Drummer Art Blakey and his band, The Jazz Messengers, were the first ones to have a commercial recording of this song. But it was written by Bobby Timmons, one of the finest pianists and composers in the genre.
And it’s one of those timeless classics that feels as fresh today as it was back in the late 1950s when it came out. Obviously, it quickly became a jazz standard, and we have had some incredible versions over the years. It’s incredibly fun to perform due to the “call and response” aspect of the main melody. It’s also suitable for any instrument, and it can even be turned into a variety of interesting arrangements.
14. Take the “A” Train – Billy Strayhorn
Although Billy Strayhorn, legendary jazz composer and pianist, was the one to write this song, “Take the ‘A’ Train” is mainly associated with Duke Ellington. Being a pianist, Ellington gave it a very specific twist, and Strayhorn wrote it with Ellington in mind.
It’s such an incredibly energetic and wild piece in its own right, and the story behind its name is pretty interesting. The title “Take the ‘A’ Train” was from Ellington’s instructions to Strayhorn on how to reach his home in New York City.
Written in 1939, the first recording for commercial purposes was done in 1941. This one still remains the most popular version. Ellington re-recorded it in the early 1950s, with Betty Roché providing the lead vocals.
15. So What – Miles Davis
We could dig up so many exciting Miles Davis pieces for the list. But another one that really stands out is “So What.” Now well-known as one of the most essential jazz standards that every remotely experienced performer should have in their repertoire, the piece originally came out back in 1959 as a part of Davis’ fifth record, “Kind of Blue.”
The most appealing thing about “So What” is that it’s based on the Dorian mode. This gives it enough room to have a slightly melancholy feel of the natural minor scale and still have that “cheerful” addition of the major sixth interval. Of course, the main theme and the variations wouldn’t have the same impact if it wasn’t for the cleverly conceived backing.
16. All the Things You Are – Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
What we know as one of the crucial jazz standards today. “All the Things You Are” was initially conceived as a piece for the 1939 musical “Very Warm for May,” written by composer Jerome Kern. Since the musical was based on a book written by “Oscar Hammerstein II,” he’s credited for the lyrics here.
But not long after the piece caught the attention of music lovers, plenty of great artists of the era took their own turn with it. Apart from orchestral versions, it also became a staple for bands and smaller performers. Particularly, bands like to play the chorus and variations to it these days, with instrumentals being more popular than vocal-based ones. Nonetheless, it’s always really fun to perform.
17. Sweet Georgia Brown – Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra
The 1920s were a game-changer when it came to developing modern music as we know it today. With the rise of radio and the possibility of recording and listening to music, you got the first examples of stars and hit songs, and one of them was “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra.
While initially intended as a Dixieland piece, you can hear a lot of different versions these days. It’s also often associated with wind instruments, and people usually love how Louis Armstrong performed it back in the day. Be it vocal, instrumental, old-school, or modern versions, the same appeal of “Sweet Georgia Brown” is still present.
18. Minor Swing – Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli
The magnificent Django Reinhardt played his instrument in a way that not even the most technical heavy metal guitar shredders today could pull off. But paired with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, the music the two created together is timeless. One of the most famous jazz pieces is “Minor Swing,” which proved that guitar and violin can do wonders together.
Released in 1937, the main structure of this piece isn’t all that complicated. This is why it could often be used by those who are just getting familiar with jazz and swing. However, in order to improvise within the style of Django and Grapelli, it would take a lot of practice and effort to get it to feel right. It’s far more than just playing up and down the harmonic minor scale over the chord progression.
19. Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington
The greatness of Duke Ellington can be heard in plenty of great jazz pieces. But one that really showcases his compositional, performing, and bandleader skills is the 1930 tune “Mood Indigo.” Interestingly enough, this one came specifically for one radio broadcast with a working title of “Dreamy Blues” and was co-written with clarinetist Barney Bigard. And people loved it so much that it eventually became a song of its own.
With all the hype after the transmission, lyricist and promoter Irving Mills came up with the lyrics, turning it into one of the best jazz songs of all time. One thing led to another, and “Mood Indigo” became one of the most important jazz standards.
20. Misty – Erroll Garner
In the mid-1950s, an iconic jazz song, “Misty,” was composed by pianist Erroll Garner with a specific 32-bar form. Its first official recording was released as a part of his 1955 album “Contrasts.” However, it wasn’t until singer Johnny Mathis reworked it in 1959 that it became a huge hit and started getting more traction in the music world.
The story goes that Garner started writing it during a plane ride from San Francisco to Chicago after seeing a rainbow when the flight took them out of a thunderstorm. While this is just a story, “Misty” does sound a lot like that scenario.
Apart from Johnny Mathis, the piece was covered and recorded by many jazz artists. There was even a country version by Ray Stevens in the 1970s.
21. Fly Me to the Moon – Bart Howard
Originally known under the title of “In Other Words,” the jazz song “Fly Me to the Moon” was created in 1954 by Bart Howard. Well known as a composer of the era, Bart wrote it for singer Kaye Ballard.
However, the song eventually found a new life about one decade later. Frank Sinatra was not only one of the most prominent musicians of the 20th century but his version of the song was appropriately used to promote NASA’s Apollo program. Now, if that’s not a historical feast, I don’t know what is. On top of that, the song is so incredibly catchy and can easily be turned into a very enjoyable instrumental.
22. Stardust – Hoagy Carmichael
The 1920s are full of incredible early jazz songs that still feel as fresh as ever. Another evergreen peice is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Along with Hoagy’s composition come lyrics by Mitchell Parish. Since its original release in 1928, the song has been covered on official recordings over 1,500 times, making it one of the best jazz songs of all time.
It didn’t take a lot of time for it to be considered a jazz standard. All of the big names of the 1940s and the 1950s had their take on this one. But even the more contemporary jazz musicians still have “Stardust” within their repertoire. And although it’s generally regarded as a vocal piece, you’ll find instrumentals of all kinds as well.
23. Body and Soul – Johnny Green
American composer Johnny Green is the man behind “Body and Soul,” while the song features lyrics by three different writers. Although written back in 1930, the song was included in the 1939 film of that same name. This is what helped the song really grow in popularity.
Before the film, it was also featured in the Broadway show “Three’s a Crowd.” But, most importantly, “Body and Soul” became an incredibly popular jazz standard. This also came with numerous variations to its lyrics and a lot of different instrumental arrangements as well. However, the popular recordings only came at the very end of the 1930s, despite the piece being written in 1930.
24. Confirmation – Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker, the godfather of “bebop,” was simply an unstoppable force, helping turn jazz into what the genre is today. The saxophone legend was a huge name in the bebop movement, often cited as one of the guys who defined it. While there are many pieces that we could mention, apart from “Donna Lee,” “Confirmation” is a landmark example of his greatness.
Being an early bebop piece, this standard is just so incredibly complex and challenging to perform. It features what later became known as the “Bird changes” or chord progressions that are associated with Parker.
Funnily enough, although Parker wrote it, the first recorded version was by trumpet maestro Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn’t until 1953 that Parker finally recorded his version. But whatever he did was heavy on improvisation anyway, so it’s hard to say how similar it was to his originally written piece.
25. Got a Match? – Chick Corea Elektric Band
Now for something a little different compared to the most entries on this list, “Got a Match?” is one of the pieces from the debut album by Chick Corea Electric Band. Just like with most of the group’s stuff, this one was written by Corea himself.
Although released in the mid-1980s, this piece and the entire album are more in the style of the jazz fusion genre of the 1970s. What’s really interesting is how the piece has that classic structure. Once the main theme is done, there are so many improvised parts and a bunch of variations on the main theme. “Got a Match?” is a very energetic piece and can be a great way to practice your lead-playing skills on any instrument.
26. Bright Size Life – Pat Metheny
While not taking the usual fast-playing virtuoso approach, Pat Metheny is one of the most innovative guitarists of all time. As he was just entering his 20s, Metheny released a full-on jazz record, “Bight Size Life.” And to this day, its title track is still one of his landmark pieces and a truly iconic jazz song.
Apart from Pat, the song also features Bob Moses on drums and none other than legendary bass player Jaco Pastorius. While not a jazz standard in the same sense that the other pieces on the list are, it’s still so incredibly impactful that it’s worth mentioning. If you’re a jazz guitar player and want to get into something new, this is the way to go.
27. Satin Doll – Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
And yet another collaboration between Duke Ellington and his co-writer Billy Strayhorn, “Satin Doll” is a genre classic that must also be mentioned on this list of the best jazz songs. Although it opens with your famous ii—V—I progression, things are a little bit more complex in the full picture.
The song also got its lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and it was also covered by plenty of vocalists of the genre. Most notably, we have a version by Ella Fitzgerald, which is just a stunning one. But as far as Ellington goes, this was such an important piece for him that he often closed his live shows with it. That main melody is just a real earworm, but there’s still enough variation and dynamic interplay to make things really interesting.
28. Yesterdays – Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach
No matter what, things just always take us back to the early 1930s. Up next, we’re bringing “Yesterdays,” which is an incredible song by Jerome Kern. As far as the lyrical content goes, for this one, he collaborated with Otto Harbach. It was part of a larger musical called “Roberta,” which itself was filled with some incredible music.
It took some time for it to get more traction. But once it did, “Yesterdays” was considered a standard. There’s been such a variety of jazz artists of all backgrounds doing their versions. And despite being a vocal piece, it’s most often covered as an instrumental. And it can work so well as an electric guitar arrangement.
29. Giant Steps – John Coltrane
Just like some of the bebop pieces that we mentioned, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is an incredibly challenging one to learn and perform. Firstly, we have the so-called “Coltrane changes” here, or a very specific chord progression. Secondly, this chord progression changes keys pretty fast. And finally, the main theme is just so outrageous yet really energetic and fun.
The name it got was due to its bass line, which implements a very peculiar pattern of intervals. On top of that, it’s also well-known as that one jazz standard that is a test for one’s musicianship. Just imagine how much you’d have to adapt to key changes while improvising. If you’re playing a saxophone, it’s only a matter of time until someone expects you to know how to play “Giant Steps.”
30. Four on Six – Wes Montgomery
Finally, we’d love to bring in one piece by jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery. Like all his other works, “Four on Six” feels incredibly smooth yet catchy. Released in 1960 on Montgomery’s debut record, it was immediately considered a defining jazz guitar piece. To this day, you’ll have guitar players and many other musicians learning this piece among Wes’ other works.
It’s not super complex, but it’s still challenging in a way. You can also use this as an introductory piece to jazz music. However, it’s not recommended if you’re generally a beginner musician. Also, bear in mind that Wes played with his thumb instead of a pick or the usual fingerpicking approach. This gives him a very specific and smooth sound.
Looking to learn some easy songs on guitar? Check out some of my posts on beginner guitar songs: