Top 10 Influential Jazz Songs

From the Brass Bands to Bebop, Jazz is more than a music genre; it’s a history. A history of Africans brought here as slaves, bringing with them their traditions and music, a history of dancing and famous night clubs across the country, from New Orleans to New York City to Chicago, and a history of political and social statements. The men and women included on this list are not just Jazz icons, but icons of American history and culture. Please keep in mind that these are the top ten songs, if it were top ten Jazz musicians the list could very well be completely different. These are the top ten most influential songs of Jazz, in chronological order of their release.

If you want listen some of the songs listed below, just click on title of the song.

1. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (1929) – Fats Waller

Waller was known for his charisma on the stage. An entertainer to the core, Waller was popular in one of the Jazz Capitols of the world, Harlem, known for his ragtime piano and legendary character.

2. “Black Bottom Stomp” (1926) – Jelly Roll Morton

Dixieland jazz, originated in the South where another Jazz Capitol rests, New Orleans. Morton started out as a street performer and steadily made a name for himself as one of the earliest jazz successes.

3. “St. James Infirmary” (1933) – Cab Calloway

Jazz in the early thirties began to take on glamour. Performers would dress to the nines and live versions of their tunes were often very theatrical (this stemmed from Jazz’s inspiration from early, European Opera). Cab Calloway was a man who dressed and presented himself with flair. Although, “St. James Infirmary” wouldn’t gain large popularity until Louis Armstrong’s version (retitled “St. James Infirmary Blues”), Calloway added a characteristically dramatic atmosphere to the historic folk song, despite its somber lyrics.

4. “Summertime” (1934) – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Jazz’s power couple, scat-singers, Ella and Louis would perform many classic songs together, often making the song truly unique by injecting it with their warm humor. “Summertime”, much like “St. James Infirmary”, is a classic song that has been sampled and covered by many artists throughout the years. Penned by George Gershwin, a famous composer of the time, for an opera, Porgy and Bess, the song gained popularity among the nation after the First Lady of Song and Satchmo took on the tune.

5. “Strange Fruit” (1939) – Billy Holiday

Billy Holiday performance of this song is monumental. The lyrics of “Strange Fruit” read like a poem and its content compares the lynching of African-Americans in the South to fruit hanging from the branch. The inhumanity and racism of the time was inspiration for many Americans and Holiday’s eerie yet beautiful voice brought true meaning and attention to its lyrics.

6. “In the Mood” (1939) – Glenn Miller

In their clean-lined sports jackets and with hair combed with pomade, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra were one of the nation’s most loved bands of the big band era. During the time of World War II, this song was performed in dance halls and clubs across the country where couples would dance the Lindy-Hop. This upbeat song was just as popular as Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” a sweet, low song dedicated to lovers.

7. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1943) – Duke Ellington

Much like “In the Mood”, this Jazz staple was a popular chance for dancers. The iconic tune can be recognized by most anyone, of any generation. Ellington and his Orchestra actually recorded this song as earl as 1932, featuring female vocalist, Ivie Anderson, but he song was continuously covered by others, including Ella Fitzgerald, and revamped by Ellington and his band. This version in particular regained popularity during the era of big band and swing jazz.

8. “Blue Monk” (1954) – Thelonious Monk

As Jazz began to grow and evolve, it developed new sub-genres, such as Bebop and Cool Jazz. Bebop was popular from the early 1940’s to the mid 1950’s and the sub-genre made Jazz art music, taking away the need for dancing and making it music one enjoyed best by simply listening. Bebop was complex, even postmodern, with musicians exploring their instruments and rhythms in ways never done before this time. “Blue Monk” is a great Jazz tune because it rests almost perfectly in between the eras of Bebop and Cool, featuring elements of both. The song was one of infamous pianist, Thelonious’ favorites to perform.

9. “Kind of Blue” (1959) – Miles Davis

Commonly associated with the West Coast, cool jazz hit its apex in the 1960’s, showing Jazz-enthusiasts the softer, and yes, cooler, side of Jazz. Miles Davis found his start in New York City, a legenary trumpeter and perfectionist, Davis was a true artist – complicated and profound. This track, sharing its name with the 1959 album, showcases Davis’ talent and telling characteristics of Cool Jazz, soft hi-hatt rythms and a combination of composition and improvisation.

10. “In a Sentimental Mood” (1962) – Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Originally recorded and popular among Jazz-lovers, “In a Sentimental Mood” was reintroduced to the music industry, but this time with the company of John Coltrane. The song is purely instrumental, calling upon the definition of the Jazz we are more familiar with today. With Ellington on piano and Coltrane playing saxophone, the song is enigmatic, even enchanting in its arrangement and execution.

Honorable Mentions:

“Cherokee”Dizzy Gillespie
“My Funny Valentine”Chet Baker
“Moanin'”Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
“What a Wonderful World”Louis Armstrong
“Stompin’ at the Savoy”Benny Goodman