The 5 best jazz songs of all time

The 5 best jazz songs of all time

Back for a second year by extremely popular demand, BBC Music Jazz is all set to hit the digital airwaves for over four days of excellent music, opinions and interviews. A veritable feast of all things jazz, the pop-up station will be live from 10 to 14 November.

Listen out for exclusive programmes hosted by the likes of Will Young, Gregory Porter and Craig Charles. All self-confessed jazz fanatics, they’ll be given free rein to play their favourites. Click here for the full 96 hour schedule.

To commemorate, we’ve taken a trip through the genre’s rich history and picked out five of the very best tracks. So whether you’re a jazz muso or an absolute beginner, this is the perfect pre-cursor to the return of BBC Music Jazz.

1. Dave Brubeck – Take Five

Dave Brubeck - Take Five ( Original Video)

While jazz is commonly regarded as a varied and complex genre of music for the acquired taste, this one song successfully brought the sound to the masses. Upon its release in 1959, the record rapidly made waves around the world – rightfully earning its status as the jazz movement’s defining hit.

Aurally, the song is a masterpiece. So much so, it’s widely considered the most important jazz composition of all time. A simplistically suave piano motif plays throughout, with the quartet’s various instrumentalists all coming to the fore with skilful solo displays.

Even if you know nothing about jazz, you will know this song.

2. Miles Davis – So What

Miles Davis - So What (Official Video)

If you’re looking for a master class in musicianship, then you’ve come to the right place. With Miles Davis leading the charge on trumpet, the late legend takes the listener on a sprawling journey of musical exploration. Anchored by his impeccable backing band, the track meanders along beautifully for over nine minutes of laid-back bliss.

It’s a real testament to Miles Davis that the track remains as progressive as ever. Away from this standout hit, Davis will forever be remembered as a luminary in jazz. He was a forerunner of major stylistic developments in jazz over his five-decade career and his music continues to influence artists to this day.

3. Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday - Strange fruit

Here’s a challenge for you: Try listening to this song without feeling goose bumps all over. Can’t do it? We don’t blame you. That’s because this track is quite easily one of the most haunting pieces of music ever recorded. Despite only including around two minutes of actual singing, Billie Holiday’s vocal is utterly mesmerising. Taking the fore over a simple backing track, she proves her mettle as arguably the best jazz singer of all time.

The lyrical content is just as compelling. Originally a poem penned in 1937 in protest of American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans, Lady Day pours every sinew of her being into this track – impassionedly delivering a message very close to her heart.

4. John Coltrane – Acknowledgement 

John Coltrane - Acknowledgement

Here’s another superb instrumental track, this time from the jazz saxophonist lovingly known as Trane. Somewhat of a musical odyssey, Acknowledgement forms the first part of the artist’s four-track magnum opus entitled A Love Supreme.

Drenched with emotion, this expressive, beautiful record skitters along intensely – representing the artist’s personal struggle for purity. On a technical level, it’s also perfect. Created as a deeply spiritual piece of work, Coltrane’s avant-garde styling set an indomitable precedent for not only jazz, but artistry in general.

5. Weather Report – Birdland

Weather Report - Birdland

For those who like their listening a bit funky, this is the song for you. Proudly at the forefront of the late 70s jazz-fusion boom, Birdland combines classic aspects of jazz with an electric, rockier sound to glorious effect.  

When comparing a track of this ilk to earlier releases, it becomes salient just how flexible jazz can be. It’s also what makes the genre so difficult to classify. While some may say it’s a dying sound, the essence of jazz is still alive in so much of the music we hear today.

Are you a fan of our choices? Yes? Well you’re in luck, because we’ve made you lovely people a Spotify playlist of the above tunes and even more! You can play music from any device through Bluetooth and Spotify Connect on loads of our digital radios. Our Highway in-car entertainment adapters even let you take your favourite playlists on the road.