To be perfectly frank, most of the 10 best jazz songs of all time sound absolutely nothing alike. But this is precisely what makes jazz such a great genre of music. It has gone through countless incarnations and stylistic changes in its 100 year history. From swing to bebop to free jazz, every artist and every generation has had their own contributions to the melting pot that is jazz music. For a sampling of the best songs that jazz has to offer, check out the list below.
- Bud Powell – “Parisian Thoroughfare.” Bud Powell was an eccentric musical genius. On the piano, he was a bona fide virtuoso. Though drug use cut his career and life short, his song "Parisian Thoroughfare" is an example of a key transition in jazz songwriting from swing to bebop. An Easter egg: listen close, and you’ll hear him moan along with the notes he’s playing in the background. Dude was weird.
- John Coltrane – “On Green Dolphin Street.” What Bud Powell was to the piano, John Coltrane was to the saxophone. One of the most legendary jazz musicians of all time, Coltrane too passed away young as a result of drug usage. But on the sax, he was absolutely unmatchable. Hear him belt out revolutionary playing technique and pure technical prowess on this classic jazz tune.
- Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – “Moanin.” Though not as virtuosic in his playing, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers made one of the best jazz albums ever with “Moanin."The album is a sub-genre called hard bop, in which the artists often incorporated heavy swing and blues phrases into their own brand of jazz songs. The title track is widely regarded as a pinnacle of hard bop.
- Bill Evans Trio – “Time Remembered.” Bill Evans got his start playing piano for the indomitable Miles Davis. In the jazz music scene, he was renowned for the longing sound and beautiful playing style he incorporated. “Time Remembered," one of his best songs, is a revelation – plain and simple. It is reflective cool jazz at its finest.
- Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – “Donna Lee.” “Bird and Diz," as they were called, single handedly ushered in the transition from jazz songs as pop music into a connoisseur’s genre with their frenetic playing. This classic bebop song catches them at their fast paced peak.
- Duke Ellington – “Take the A Train.” The legendary Duke Ellington broke the rules of jazz songwriting handily. Instead of relying on improvisation like most others, he meticulously orchestrated and composed some of the best jazz songs ever recorded. It may have been rigid in its creation, but the song “Take the A Train” sounds as loose and free as a big band can possibly be.
- Miles Davis – “Blue in Green.” When most people think of jazz, they think of Miles Davis. His album “Kind of Blue” is the best selling jazz record of all time, and for good reason. The introspective atmosphere and beautiful musical interaction in this song says it all.
- Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald – “Cheek to Cheek.” The talent of two musical giants collides on the classic jazz song “Cheek to Cheek." Armstrong’s gruff voice and trumpet playing compliment Fitzgerald’s smooth crooning over a really swinging backing band.
- Thelonious Monk – “I Surrender, Dear.” Another wildly talented oddball, Thelonious Monk is regarded as one of the most unique modern pianists ever. This undefinable jazz song proves that notion.
- Charles Mingus – “Duet Solo Dancers.” Off the ambitious and groundbreaking album “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady," Mingus’s song “Duet Solo Dancers” is not for the casual jazz fan. He meanders and drifts to the side of dissonance on this free jazz song. But its genius is undeniable. On the first listen you’ll be taken aback, but on the tenth – or whenever you get it – you’ll be blown away.
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