The 10 Most Quintessential Old Jazz Songs
Louis Armstrong was once so popular he had a brand of cigar named after him.
The best thing about old jazz is how just one good song will serve as a reminder of how brilliantly romantic that time period was. The soulful cry of artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong was just made to intertwine with the rat-tat-tat-tat of crisp drums and and the wail of blaring horns. The collaboration between the big band and those big voices was -- and still is -- absolute magic.
And because it was such a magical time, we feel that everyone should spend part of their day dancing around to old jazz songs. While we may not be able to transport you back to the time when Dizzy Gillespie reigned supreme (our flux capacitor has gone missing) we can throw this here list your way to help you out instead.
So just throw on these old jazz standards and dance around like you're on some airy New Orleans veranda instead. We'll never tell.
10. "Sing, Sing, Sing," Benny Goodman This song -- widely believed to be completely instrumental -- actually has lyrics that were written by another jazz great, Louis Prima, who composed the song back in 1936 as the B Side to "It's Been So Long." But it truly became a jazz staple once Goodman got his hands on it a year later, and he recorded an instrumental version with guys like Harry James and Ziggy Elman.
9. "Take the A Train," Billy Strayhorn & Duke Ellington This standard was written and recorded by Billy Strayhorn, the pianist who wrote arrangements for Duke Ellington's band, back in 1941. Strayhorn said writing the song, about the the New York subway line to Harlem, felt much more like writing a letter to an old friend. It became the signature opener for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, and is today thought of one of the greatest jazz tunes to emerge from that time.
8. "La Vie en Rose," Louis Armstrong "La Vie en Rose," written in 1945, was the signature song of French cabaret singer Édith Piaf. The title translates as "life is pink," for those of us who don't speak French, and the song is about reclaiming love during times of war. Piaf's remains the definitive version, but something about Armstrong's deep vocals and wailing trumpet make this one spectacular as well.
7. "Summertime," Ella Fitzgerald Ella's version of "Summertime," technically a cover of George Gershwin's aria composed for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, is still utterly jaw-dropping. Gershwin's mix of jazz elements and African-American folk music worked so seamlessly that it would be hard to ignore the song's validity as a jazz standard even if Fitzgerald had never touched the tune. But she did, and did so in a way that really can't be outdone.
6. "Round About Midnight," Miles Davis This 1944 jazz standard was composed by Thelonious Monk, who can hardly be written off on either his solo piano version or the one with his quartet. Still, when jazz icon Miles Davis reworked it in 1957, renaming the song "'Round About Midnight," it became something pretty darn incredible.
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5. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday This haunting song is actually a poem that protested racism in America, particularly in the South of the '30s. Written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, the poem spoke of the horrors of the lynchings of African-Americans that continued in the South well past the turn of the century.
Billie Holiday was the first to sing a musical rendition of "Strange Fruit," pushing for it to be recorded even after her own label, concerned over the potential reaction by Southern record-store owners, refused. Thanks to her, it's now one of the most famous, and hauntingly perfect, jazz songs ever recorded.
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4. "Salt Peanuts," Dizzy Gillespie Composed by Dizzy Gillespie in 1943, "Salt Peanuts" has become a bebop staple, despite lyrics that have no apparent meaning. It was recorded by Gillespie and His All-Stars in New York City in 1945 with Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on sax, Al Haig on piano, Curley Russell on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums -- so many insanely talented musicians in one room has to lead to something great, even if it's all kind of nonsense.
3. "Kind of Blue," John Coltrane & Miles Davis "Kind of Blue," not just the song but the entire album, was a highlight of Miles Davis' career. He put together one hell of a band, which also included John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Some consider it one of the greatest jazz bands in history, and "Kind of Blue" is the sextet in peak form.
2. "So What," Miles Davis The first track off the aforementioned Kind of Blue, released in 1959, is widely considered not only one of the best-known examples of modal jazz, but one of the best jazz songs ever recorded. Just listen and you'll understand why.
1. "Take Five," Dave Brubeck Composed by Paul Desmond and performed by The Dave Brubeck Quartet on the 1959 album Time Out, "Take Five" is the best-selling jazz single of all time. Whether it was the unique two-chord piano vamp or the bouncy drum line, something about this imaginative tune resonated with jazz fans far and wide. It still does, which is precisely why we're typing this and trying to dance with headphones on in the office.
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