A History of Jazz

Old Goodies of Jazz: Top Jazz Songs

Top Jazz Songs

Jazz has been an influence on the music industry since the 1800’s, giving rise to many different genres of music. In 1880 Ragtime filled the air and persisted for twenty years - still popular today with many jazz enthusiasts. Dixieland came next, around 1900. It was a great sound, the combination of many diverse instruments playing in perfect harmony yet, each emanating a contrasting melody. The Blues, a mixture of work songs, spiritual chants and shouts, originated from southern Afro-Americans working in the fields in the late 1900’s. In the mid 1940’s Bebop blasted onto the scene, drifting into the 1960’s, and was accompanied by Cool Jazz. Free Jazz and Fusion Jazz followed. These trends would continue to add variation to the top jazz songs throughout the decades. Read about the different jazz styles.

There has always been, and always will be, controversy amongst jazz enthusiasts as to what are the “best” jazz songs in history. Jazz has a 120-year span, so by no means can any one person decide for everyone which jazz songs should be on the ‘top ten’ list. However, the songs below, predominantly of this genre, have been documented as most popular.

  • In 1939 Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” became a hit and has continued to be one of the top jazz songs in history.
  • “One O’clock Jump” recorded by Count Basie, one of the greatest bandleaders of all times, happens to be Basie’s first hit. From 1935 until his passing in 1984, Count Basie had numerous hits.
  • Duke Ellington is a name to be reckoned with in connection with top jazz songs. His song “Mood Indigo” was first recorded in 1930; though not his first hit, it has been noted as his greatest recording out of the hundreds of tracks he laid down.
  • Ella Fitzgerald, rightfully titled The Lady of Jazz, recorded “Someone to Watch over Me” in 1950, a time when the music industry heard Ella at her best.
  • Not to be forgotten is John Coltrane‘s title track from his 1960 album, “Giant Steps”, a song that jazz musicians deem to be one of his most memorable.
  • Charlie “Bird” Parker’s song “Ko-Ko” was an immediate success. Having grown up in a city known for its blues style jazz, Charlie was very familiar with this type of music. In the 1940’s he became involved with the introduction of bebop together with the famous Dizzy Gillespie.
  • You are not likely to forget a name like Thelonious Monk, who celebrated his arrival into the jazz scene in 1947 and soon became known as an acknowledged composer. A jazz aficionado would associate him with the hit “Round Midnight”, one of the noted top jazz songs of the era.
  • Many songs by female artist Billie Holiday were a hit, but her version of “Strange Fruit” propelled her into celebrity status and made her a jazz legend.
  • “So What” was the first track on one of the top selling jazz records ‘Kind of Blue’, which was recorded at the peak of Miles Davis’s career.
  • The ever-popular Louis Armstrong, known for his distinctive, raspy voice is predominantly linked to his hit “Hello Dolly”; however, many jazz enthusiasts argue that his version of “West End Blues” is his best jazz song as it emanates his true artistic ability.
  • New Orleans encouraged many new jazz artists to ply their trade in various locations around the city, but Basin Street, in the red-light district, was the popular area of the early jazz scene. Written by Spencer Williams in 1926, “Basin Street Blues” was made popular by Louis Armstrong, but was also interpreted by numerous other artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, and even Liza Minnelli.
  • One of the earliest Afro-Creole musicians, Morton, a pianist, became famous for his song "Jelly Roll Blues", which he composed around 1905 and published in 1915. It was the first jazz arrangement to be available in print. In early 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues”, recognized as the earliest released jazz record.

A tid-bit for jazz fans: Buddy Bolden led a band around 1905 and is often referred to as one of the first motivators to influence jazz. History shows him as an active musician in New Orleans, from 1895 through 1906. In his late years, Bolden retired to a mental institution. There are no known recordings remaining of Buddy Bolden.

Big Bands, a sound associated with jazz, made their debut in the early 1920’s and dominated the music scene through the war years as they entertained the troops. Today, Big Bands are coming back into vogue. Can you believe it?

About the Author: Amy Townsend is a jazz enthusiast and content writer for www.historyjazz.com.