With a history dating all the way back to the late 1800s, the jazz genre has its roots in the African-American communities of Southern cities like New Orleans, gradually growing into one of the most important and culturally defining musical styles of contemporary America. Capturing the essence of what makes jazz so unique, these ten songs have gone down in history and will never be forgotten.
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy by Cannonball Adderley
Written by Joe Zawinul and recorded at the iconic Capitol Records in LA, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was a massive hit for Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. It launched in the second spot on the Soul chart and came in at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This track has been covered and re-recorded by many different groups and artists over the years, with the most notable example being The Buckinghams, who made it to #5 in the Hot 100 with their 1967 version of the song, which included lyrics.
Salt Peanuts by Dizzy Gillespie
Originally composed by the great Dizzy Gillespie in 1942, Salt Peanuts was first recorded in 1945 by Gillespie and his All-Star Big Band in New York City, with the band featuring Gillespie himself, Charlie Parker on the sax, Al Haig on piano, Sid Catlett on drums, and Curley Russell on bass.
The lyrics to the song are nonsensical, and the composition was based on I Got Rhythm, with the same 32-bar AABA structure. A timeless bebop classic, Salt Peanuts was famously sung by President Jimmy Carter at a White House concert in 1978.
Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday
A legendary piece of jazz music, Strange Fruit was first performed and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. The lyrics had been written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 as a simple poem, with Holiday bringing the words to life in his distinctive fashion.
This song, which has been covered by countless artists like UB40, Jeff Buckley, and Nina Simone, is all about racism in the United States, with a big focus on the lynchings of African-American people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Chameleon by Herbie Hancock
Composed by Herbie Hancock in 1974, with the help from Paul Jackson, Harvey Mason, and Bennie Maupin, Chameleon, is another jazz classic. There was originally a 15:44 version of this song in 1973, but the 1974 version, which runs for 9:41, is considered the definitive version.
With a funky rhythm and addictive beat, Chameleon is regarded as one of the finest jazz standards ever composed and has been performed by dozens of different artists over the years like Maceo Parker, Buddy Rich, Stanley Jordan, and Maynard Ferguson.
Freddie Freeloader by Miles Davis
Released as part of his 1959 album, Kind of Blue, Freddie Freeloader is one of Miles Davis’ finest compositions. Formed in a classic twelve-bar blues structure, this song runs for 9 minutes and 46 seconds.
Jazz piano player Monty Alexander once revealed that the song Freddie Freeloader was named after a man called Freddie who used to sneak into Miles Davis’ shows and try to watch him live without actually paying for entry. There’s also a chance the name might have been inspired by a hobo clown character called ‘Freddie the Freeloader’ by Red Skelton.
Birdland by Weather Report
Written by Austrian jazz icon Joe Zawinul and performed by Zawinul and his fellow band members as Weather Report, Birdland is another hugely memorable jazz song. It was first released in 1977 on the Heavy Weather album.
The song was written in honor of the Birdland night club in New York City. The song was covered by The Manhattan Transfer in 1979, with the band winning a Grammy for their version. Another pair of Grammy awards were won in 1989 by Quincy Jones for his take on the classic tune.
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat by Charles Mingus
First recorded in 1959 and featured as part of the Mingus Ah Um album, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is by far one of Charles Mingus’ best-known compositions and has been covered countless times over the years, with Joni Mitchell famously composing lyrics to the song in 1979.
It was a heavy heart that Charles Mingus wrote this song; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was written in honor of Lester Young, who had sadly died just a couple of months earlier and was rarely seen without his trademark pork pie hat.
Take Five by Dave Brubeck
Composed by Paul Desmond and recorded by Dave Brubeck and his Quarter in 1959 as part of the Time Out album, Take Five is an excellent jazz standard that has stood the test of time, still being used and featured in TV and movies to this day.
Interestingly, it took a couple of years for this song to take off. In the end, it became one of the top-selling jazz songs of all time and was re-recorded many times, both by Dave Brubeck and by other artists.
My Favorite Things by John Coltrane
My Favorite Things was initially a show tune from the classic musical, The Sound of Music. It was written and performed for the first time in 1959 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and was a huge hit, but then John Coltrane made it his own.
Coltrane recorded a 14-minute version of My Favorite Things in 1960 and first released it a year later. It was a big hit right from the start and was played countless times on radio stations, helping the album of the same name become a mega-hit for Coltrane.
So What by Miles Davis
At the top of our list is So What by Miles Davis. Recorded and released in 1959, So What is a little over nine minutes of some of the most beautiful jazz the world has ever heard. It was a perfect example of modal jazz and showed Davis at his best.
Interestingly, Hollywood star Dennis Hopper claimed responsibility for the naming of the song. Hopper revealed that he would often say ‘So what?’ when speaking with Davis, leading to the jazz trumpeter choosing the phrase as the name of his classic song.