51 Best Jazz Songs That Will Stop You in Your Tracks

Jazz has taken many forms over the decades through which improvisational music has existed. From instrumental dance numbers like those found in the swing era to the resistance songs of Sam Cooke and Doug Carn, we find not merely a musical genre but the music of change.

Our list of the best jazz songs includes jazz standards, newer tracks, and lyrical ballads, and all are worth listening to as you explore the world of music and life. You’ll find all the emotions in the textures of saxophone, euphonium, strings, and vocals of the jazz world.

Table of Contents

So What – Miles Davis

An instrumental classic from the incredible Miles Davis, ‘So What’ was the opening track on the album Kind of Blue, which many consider the best jazz album of all time (it’s hard to argue against it). The entire album was recorded in a mere two days, with each song recorded in a single take. Interestingly enough, this song was actually recorded in the wrong key and was later “cleaned up” on its rerelease later on.

Related: This song features on our list of songs with the best bass lines.


Summertime – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong

Performed with horns taking the solo leads, with full orchestration as the backdrop, ‘Summertime’ is a stunning work from the opera Porgy and Bess. On this track, Louis Armstrong takes on the solo, with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing the lyrics alternately after the extended intro. The opera began as a novel set in Charleston, South Carolina, which George Gershwin adapted for the stage. ‘Summertime’ is the most famous piece from the stunning and barrier-breaking opera that features an entirely African American cast.

Related: Celebrate warm weather with these songs about the summertime.


Take Five – The Dave Brubeck Quartet

You might recognize this jazz instrumental, ‘Take Five’ from soundtracks on Mighty Aphrodite, Constantine, or Pleasantville, among others, or you might know this rare jazz-pop crossover hit from the Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Out. Much of the song focuses on the piano riff and rhythm section statement, with the occasional horn solo. The unique album had a different time signature for each song on the album, a distinctive and bold choice.

Related: Count how many of the best songs with numbers in them you’ve heard!


Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins

A jazz instrumental by Coleman Hawkins on his tenor saxophone, with Tommy Lindsey directing, ‘Body and Soul’ was a popular hit in 1940 after being released in 1939. Hawkins is considered one of jazz’s greatest artists of all time, particularly in this swing era of music, as music was shifting and changing once again. The song was recorded in a single take at the studio, upon request from the producer, instead of a planned piece intended by the group, improvised on the concept of the song played in a club a while previously.

Related: Hear this song on our list of the best 1930s music.


My Favorite Things, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane

One year after The Sound of Music opened on Broadway, ‘My Favorite Things’ by John Coltrane premiered as a jazz adaptation of the popular song. With Coltrane’s incredible gift for improvisation on the recorder, the song takes on a whole new life from the original. Coltrane loved the simple tune and happily recorded it without pressure from the record company but for his own delight. As you listen to his rendition, you can hear the joyous play with the jazzification of the song.

Related: Listen to more songs from The Sound of Music.


The Girl from Ipanema – Stan Getz

Originally written in Portuguese by Brazilian composers Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ started out as a samba-jazz based on a real woman who often used to walk past the composers as she headed to the store regularly. Ipanema is a fashionable district in Rio de Janeiro that was rather obscure in its stretch of beach where the woman used to head out in her bikini for a swim. Once the song came out, the obscurity vanished as others thronged to find the girl from Ipanema.

Related: Here are some more song titles with girl in them.


I Got Rhythm – Sarah Vaughan

Written for the musical Girl Crazy by Gershwin and Gershwin, ‘I Got Rhythm’ is a classic, upbeat lyrical jazz piece brought to life by Sarah Vaughan. The famous lyrics, “I got music, I got rhythm, I got my man, who could ask for anything more?” expresses the gist of the fast-paced love song wreathed in musical wonder, founded in jazz.


Round Midnight – Thelonious Monk

A definitive jazz standard, ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk is by far his most well-known jazz composition and is known as the most recorded standard written by any jazz musician. The original recording was done was a group in 1947, with a later solo version in 1957 on the album “Thelonious Himself.” This incredible jazz piano piece was written by Monk when he was just 18 years old.


Georgia on My Mind – Ella Fitzgerald

While many artists in many musical genres have covered ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ the song originated as a jazz standard written by composer, singer, and band leader Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. In this version, Ella Fitzgerald leans into the swing-vibe of the jazz piece, making the song her own classical jazz piece some might not even recognize as the same song country singers have made of it in more recent years. It was Ray Charles in 1950, though, who made the song most famous when he recorded it in his own style. The state now claims it as the state song.

Related: Check out a soulful version of this song on our playlist of soul songs.


Take the ‘A’ Train – Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington

This jazz instrumental was written by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington’s band. The piece became the band’s signature, though there are lyrics as well, which were often sung by the band during performances. The song refers to the New York subway line into the Sugar Hill District of Harlem. The writer said creating the song was like “writing a letter to a friend.” The band leader using a song he didn’t write himself as the opening for the band says a lot about Ellington’s respect and appreciation for Strayhorn as a composer and musician.

Related: Head over to our list of train songs.


God Bless the Child – Billie Holiday

Written by Billie Holiday with Arthur Herzog, one of the frequent collaborators, ‘God Bless the Child.’ She wrote the lyrics in 1941 after an argument with her mother, Sadie, when finances were a hot topic between them. The song was inspired by a phrase she uttered, “God bless the child that got his own.”

Related: Find similar songs on our playlist of songs about children.


A Love Supreme, Pt. I – John Coltrane

‘A Love Supreme’ was written by John Coltrane, the famous American jazz saxophonist and composer. He wrote the jazz instrumental in 1964 and released the recording in 1965. The piece is one of Coltrane’s best-selling albums, considered by many to be the artist’s masterpiece. The song features distinctive saxophone solos, highly expressive of the theme and title.


Fly Me to the Moon – Antônio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra

Made famous by Frank Sinatra, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ is a jazz vocal song that pops with tight rhythms, saxophone solos, and full orchestration that fits the iconic vibe of the 1950s. In the post-swing, upbeat jazz season, the now classic tune became a popular song for many uses, including being played on some space missions, including Apollo 11 and Apollo 10’s missions. The song was even played on the moon when astronauts landed.

Related: Fly over to our list of the best full moon songs.


Night and Day – Joe Henderson

The Cole Porter jazz standard ‘Night and Day’ was embraced by Joe Henderson on his album Inner Urge, which helped to bring the song into a different realm. On the album, ‘Night and Day’ was the only standard used; the rest were written by Henderson and his contemporaries. Henderson used some subtle modifications to update the harmonic progression of the original to meet the sound of the day, some 30-odd years later. For musicians to note, the song is played in the key of D Major, a distinctive choice.


St. Thomas – Sonny Rollins

If you’re into instrumental jazz at all, you’re probably already quite familiar with ‘St. Thomas’ a song considered the “most recognizable” among jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ discography. The song wasn’t written by Rollins, though it’s often credited to him. Instead, the song is based on a traditional Bahamian folksong, ‘Sponger Money,’ and the traditional English song, ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher.’ The reason? The English song blended into Rollins’ Virgin Islands upbringing by way of a lullaby sung to him by his mother. As you listen to the jazz piece, you hear Bahamian influences in the drums.


On the Sunny Side of the Street – Dizzy Gillespie

A jazz standard with lyrics available, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ offers plenty to lean into the title’s theme without the words. The upbeat, bright song has a lyrical quality to it in the melodic duet between the various brass and woodwind instruments featured in the piece. The song was initially composed in 1930 by Jimmy McHugh and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, though some folks attribute the song to Fats Waller.

Related: Cheer up with some sunny songs with the word sun in the lyrics.


All the Things You Are – Bill Evans

‘All the Things You Are’ was composed by Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) and Jerome Kern for the musical Very Warm for May in 1939. The song sounds stunning both with and without lyrics, with an incredible upbeat rhythm section and playful piano rolling through the keys. Many artists have recorded the song over the decades, including Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, Frankie Masters, and others.


It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington

Iconic swing jazz number, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ was composed by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills in 1931. The jazz standard has a bit of scatting when sung, along with strong lyrical reflections on the genre of the music itself. It’s a fun dance song to partner dance with all over the floor, and if you’ve got the chops, to sing or play. But if you just need a boost to the mood, bring it up on YouTube for a listen. It would be nearly impossible to feel blue after the song trails off in its classic jazz “non-resolve” form.


Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Fats Waller

Fats Waller wrote this jazz song that many, many artists have recorded over the decades. The song was written for the off-Broadway revue Connie’s Hot Chocolates, with Andy Razaf providing the lyrics. Waller claimed he wrote the song on a miniature piano while in jail for an alimony charge and had his lawyer sell the song so he could get out of the clink.


Moanin’ – The Jazz Messengers

Art Blakely took a novel approach to the band he led, The Jazz Messengers. He enlisted young players on a revolving door mentality, intentionally teaching the young musicians and keeping the energy, style, and music fresh as they explored jazz together. One of the songs to come from the group was the 1958 classic jazz song ‘Moanin” by 22-year-old pianist Bobby Timmons. The horn-heavy instrumental is a study of jazz lyricism and melodic work as improvisational art.


Autumn Leaves – Cannonball Adderley

‘Autumn Leaves’ was recorded by jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The song is a cool, smooth, bluesy jazz piece heavily leaning into the smooth sax solos and bright rhythms. The piece is filled with improvisations and is considered by many to be the seminal example of what “true” jazz is, thanks to that ever-changing component.

Related: Love crunching through the leaves? Enjoy these songs about autumn.


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

When ‘Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)’ starts playing, even non-jazz and swing lovers cannot help but tap their feet as the exceptionally well-known tune plays. The song originated in 1936 with music and lyrics by Louis Prima. It’s perhaps the most well-known swing dance song with its upbeat instrumentation, intense rhythms, and fun uses of instruments less common in many other forms of jazz, with a strong emphasis still on the horns.


Caravan – Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

Written by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington, ‘Caravan’ was first released in 1936. The lively, emotive song in a minor key was initially popular with several big bands in the 1930s and eventually evolved into a major choice for drum-heavy focus in the 50s, thanks to the unique rhythms used in the piece. You’ll find this distinctive piece in film scores like Alice, Sweet and Lowdown, Ocean’s Eleven, and Chocolat.


The Sidewinder – Lee Morgan

Written and recorded by Lee Morgan on his Blue Note album, ‘The Sidewinder’ has become a jazz standard. The fun song uses horns, piano as rhythm, and of course, drums to create a unique, syncopated, and intriguing sound that explores the concept of the “TV bad guy” (according to Morgan), not the snake, though you could maybe feel both in the funky mood of the song.


What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong

Perhaps Louis Armstrong’s most famous song, ‘What a Wonderful World’ is a fantastic example of orchestrated jazz in an accessible form. The song feels like it could have come about in the 1940s, but it was actually recorded in 1967 when Armstrong was already 66 years old. Bob Thiele and George Weiss wrote the uplifting song, but as Armstrong recorded the song, he apparently took inspiration for his vocal work in reflection on the many wonderful people in his neighborhood in Queens, New York. Interestingly, Armstrong would hold his trumpet during the live performances of the song, but he never played on it.

Related: If you’re feeling grateful, you’ll love these thank you songs.


Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock

Released in 1965, ‘Maiden Voyage’ is a highly syncopated jazz number by band leader legend Herbie Hancock. Hancock was 24 at the time and was formerly a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. The song comes from the album of the same name; a concept album meant to capture the flow and vibe of the ocean through a suite of five unique, original compositions in the jazz realm. This title track has become a jazz standard thanks to its incredible fluidity and distinctive influence in the genre.


Stella by Starlight – Miles Davis

Written for the score of the film The Uninvited by Victor Young, ‘Stella by Starlight’ was originally released in 1944 as a part of the film. The song at the time was an instrumental (which we hear in this Miles Davis version) that was the focal point of the ghost story of the film as it was played for Stella, a character in the story who looked out the window at her. Later, in 1946, Ned Washington added lyrics to the song.


At Last – Etta James

One of the best-known vocal jazz pieces, ‘At Last’ as sung by Etta James, is one of the greats that most non-jazz enthusiasts could at least agree upon as one of the greats. The 1961 recording by James is a pop-jazz style ballad that helped jazz crossover to the mainstream in many ways. The use of violin orchestration helped the love song push its way through, along with James’s stunning vocal prowess.

Related: Here are the best slow songs to enjoy with your lover.


Minor Swing – Django Reinhardt

‘Minor Swing’ by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli combines the unique vibes of two worlds, fusing into a form known as gypsy jazz. The original recording was created by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1937, with five more recordings following throughout Reinhardt’s career. You can hear the “gypsy” tones, particularly in the violin/fiddle playing throughout the upbeat A minor song. The song is quintessential of certain jazz types, with no discernible melody apart from that found in the introduction and final coda.


Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday

Most folks know that much of the music of black Americans was born through adversity, including jazz and blues. That fact is clear in the song ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday. The dark, haunting song tells the experience of persecuted black Americans as the “strange fruit” of the trees in the South, as racism and abuse were prevalent at the time. The incredibly dark song is one of the most distinctive protest songs of the era in an unusual style.

Related: This song made it to our classic songs playlist.


Birdland – Weather Report

Written as a tribute to jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker, ‘Birdland’ is considered a modern jazz standard. The song is technically a jazz-pop instrumental by Joe Zawinul from Weather Report. Additionally, the song bears the name of a popular nightclub in New York City, an important locale in the music scene of the day (1977) and prior, once hosting Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and other jazz greats in their day. You can hear the modern additions with electronic sounds while keeping true to classic jazz with the cacophony of sounds in real instruments.


Cry Me a River – Julie London

First published in 1953, ‘Cry Me a River’ by Arthur Hamilton became a popular torch song. The piece was originally meant to be debuted by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues. The song was dropped from the score, and singer Julie London picked up the song for her own debut LP, Julie is Her Name. The song became London’s signature song with her smoky, light voice making the song evocative, especially with the simple guitar and upright bass as accompaniment.


Cantaloupe Island – Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock wrote and recorded ‘Cantaloupe Island’ in 1964, and the song is now considered a jazz standard. The artist recorded the piece during his early years as a professional musician, still performing with Miles Davis’s quintet at the time. The unique song has lent itself to many covers, including Hancock’s own later 1976 version converting the traditional jazz song into a jazz-funk fusion. The song has been sampled by many artists since, including Us3, a jazz-rap group.


You Do Something to Me – Cole Porter

A charming love song from Cole Porter, ‘You Do Something to Me’ is part of the American Songbook, celebrating the beautiful works of early American artists in many genres. The famous love song was included in the musical Fifty Million Frenchmen in 1929. The early jazz form in this particular recording features Cole Porter himself singing the well-known lyrics. “You have the power to hypnotize me. Let me live ‘neath your spell. Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”


Mack the Knife – Ella Fitzgerald

Written as the theme for the character in the film Threepenny Opera, ‘Mack the Knife’ has been performed by many different jazz and musical theatre artists. In this particular version, we’ve got Ella Fitzgerald with her vibrant vocal stylings giving the title character his adventures through her own renditions, including this fun number referencing past artists who’d also recorded the song.


Straight No Chaser – Miles Davis

‘Straight No Chaser’ is one of those jazz standards that isn’t just well-known, but it’s given us a plethora of pop cultural references, including the title itself as the name for an American a cappella group that’s fairly well-known. The song was written by Thelonious Monk and made famous by various artists, particularly Miles Davis. The song uses Monk’s famous compositional devise that usually resulted in distinctive pieces like this one, using the same idea over and over again, each played in a different part of the measure with a different ending.


All the Things You Are – Charlie Parker

Written for Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical of 1939, ‘All the Things You Are’ made its way into the classic book American Popular Song despite the show having a short run time (less than two months). The love song was translated into soundtracks for multiple other musicals and films, including at least one starring Judy Garland. The song is bold and incredibly intelligent with its unique key and tempo changes. So, despite the play failing miserably, the song lives on as one of the greats of jazz.


One O’Clock Jump – Benny Goodman and Count Basie

Written by Count Basie—both lyrics and instrumentation—’One O’Clock Jump’ is a fun, upbeat, swinging jazz song from 1937. The song was a hit for Basie and his band. The song plays with sliding trumpet solos and horns as a part of the rhythm section. Ultimately, Basie chose the song as his theme and eventually inspired other songs with similar names and other songs with similar foundations in the swing world.


Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – Charles Mingus

Leaning heavily into a saxophone solo from the front, the stunning jazz instrumental ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ by Charles Mingus was a dedication song to saxophonist Lester Young who had recently passed before Mingus recorded. Young was known for wearing said pork pie hat. Mingus actually played the double bass, his primary instrument, while John Handy soloed on the saxophone for the song. The song was later adapted and retitled ‘Theme for Lester Young’ on the album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus.


How High the Moon – Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald

By 1947, Ella Fitzgerald was already a celebrated jazz standard singer, so when Dizzy Gillespie’s song, ‘How High the Moon’ was available for recording, she gladly leaned in. The song is definitely a jazz song, but it’s an early bebop-style song (when she recorded it, at least!), as well, which she performed so well. The scatting she was so skilled at comes out strongly in the song as the song’s central focus.


All Blues – Miles Davis Quintet

A unique portion of ‘All Blues’ by Miles Davis is the bass line that plays on repeat throughout the entire song. The song contains a harmonically similar vamp as well, played by the horn section in the opening, which is then repeated by the piano underneath. The song contains some of the most intriguing blues compositions intended solely for instruments. There were lyrics added later, though, by Oscar Brown Jr.


A Night in Tunisia – Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie

Composed by Dizzy Gillespie sometime between 1940 and 1942, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ was originally played by Gillespie and the Benny Carter band. The song has become a jazz standard and is often referred to as ‘Interlude’ with lyrics added by Raymond Leveen later on. Funny enough, Gillespie named the song ‘Interlude,’ and someone else called it by its now more familiar title. The song became one of Gillespie’s signature songs, and the Victor recording is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame.


My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker

Many famous singers in various genres have recorded the love jazz standard, ‘My Funny Valentine.’ The song was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1937 musical Babes in Arms. The song is a play on the lead character’s name, Valentine “Val” LaMar. The song pokes fun at the lead character’s less traditional looks than the standard “leading man” but the song has been recorded and sung referencing roles of any gender.


Song for My Father – Horace Silver

Released by the Horace Silver Quintet in 1965, ‘Song for My Father’ was on the album of the same name. The song was apparently inspired by Silver’s trip to Brazil, celebrating his Portuguese heritage on his father’s side. The song is now one of Silver’s most famous works (perhaps the most famous?) and is considered one of his best-written works ever.

Related: Here are some more songs for dads.


Un Poco Loco – Bud Powell

A single released by Bud Powell in 1951 as a B-Side, ‘Un Poco Loco’ is an exciting, upbeat jazz piano piece that leans into its Afro-Cuban heritage and is considered a standard in the niche genre. The song is in thirty-two-bar form, with improvisations based on a single scale instead a chord sequence like many other jazz pieces are. In the late 1980s, Art critic Harold Bloom listed the song as one of the most “sublime” pieces of a 20th-century artist.


Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Cannonball Adderley

While some people might recognize ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ as a song by The Buckinghams, it’s actually a jazz song written in 1966 by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and performed by fellow musicians with him. Adderley played alto saxophone, with Nat Adderley on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano and electric piano, Victor Gaskin on bass, and Roy McCurdy on drums. The theme in the recording, played by Zawinul, was played on the Wurlitzer electric piano previously played by Ray Charles.

Related: This is one of The Wolf of Wall Street songs.


My Baby Just Cares for Me – Nina Simone

Now a jazz standard, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ was written by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn for the 1930 musical film adaptation of “Whoopee!” Eddie Cantor sang the song in the film, but it’s been covered by dozens of artists since then, particularly Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1957 and found a revival in her musical career, partially through the song’s revival 30 years later when it was used in a perfume commercial.

Related: Go back several decades with our 50s songs list.


Waltz for Debby – Bill Evans

This beautiful jazz standard on piano was written by Bill Evans and recorded in 1956 for his album New Jazz Conceptions. The titular character of the song ‘Debby’s Waltz’ refers to Evans’s niece, Debby Evans. The song was originally crafted without lyrics, but Gene Lees added some later on. Interestingly, in Sweden, the song is known as ‘Monicas Cals,’ and in Finland, it’s known as “Ankin Valssi’ with lyrics written in each language.


Blue Rondo à La Turk – Dave Brubeck

If you’re a classical music buff, you might assume that ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ was inspired by the Mozart song of a similar name. The jazz standard, however, was titled and inspired by entirely different things as Dave Brubeck found his inspiration in the Turkish aksak time signatures played by Turkish musicians he met playing on the streets. They replied, “This rhythm is to us what the blues is to you,” and so, the song was born and named.


Honeysuckle Rose – Fats Waller

Written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf in 1929, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ was introduced to the world in the Off-Broadway revue Load of Coal as a soft-shoe number. The peppy little jazz number found its place in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 in the form of the 1934 recording. The musical for which it was written premiered at the famous (infamous?) Connie’s Inn in Harlem, a speakeasy that introduced song and dance revues to the public.

Related: Check out our garden of a playlist featuring the best songs that mention flowers.


Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson

Composed by Oliver Nelson and originally performed by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and his big band project, ‘Stolen Moments’ is considered a jazz standard. The complex song has intricate instrumentals that lead a lyrical thrust in the tonic melody that sounds too complicated for the average person to play, but it’s surprisingly accessible for students of jazz to perform. The incredible depth and complexity of that simplicity make the song such an unusual piece.