It’s hard to list the most popular jazz songs of all time, since jazz is a wide-ranging style of music. To make things simpler, this list includes songs that are considered jazz standards. Some have vocals and some are instrumental.
Considered by many to be the classic voice of jazz, Billie Holiday recorded many songs which were either established hits or songs that became classics after she released them. One of these songs, Strange Fruit, details that grim reality of the racially divided South.
Written by a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was inspired by a lynching in Indiana. Horrified by a photograph of the event, Meeropol wrote the words as a poem. He set the poem to music and began singing it as a protest song.
The owner of a New York nightclub heard the song and introduced it to Holiday. She had to convince her label to allow her a one-song release from her contract in order to record it. Even though it became a live staple, Holiday would break down emotionally every time she performed the song.
Though racial tensions in the United States have changed drastically since then, the song is an important reminded of the country’s history. It is an effective warning against the unbridled villainy of which people are capable. Its lesson still applies.
A popular jazz song that was also written with racial tensions in mind is What a Wonderful World. It was written in the late 1960s by a Bob Thiele, a highly successful jazz record producer. The first recording of the song was by Louis Armstrong and remains the standard by which all other versions are judged.
Amidst the tension of the time, the song contained an optimistic lyric about the miracle of birth and the beauty of nature. Armstrong’s version, recorded in 1968, was a hit in the UK but was not a hit in the United States until 1971. Armstrong’s death brought a revival of interest in his work.
Since then, the song has been featured in films and documentaries as a pivotal piece of music. In the film Twelve Monkeys, it’s used as a reflection on a natural world that is inaccessible to mankind because of his actions. Whenever the song is played, it’s amazing lyric and melody cause the listener to appreciate the beauty of everyday living.
La Vie en Rose is a song by French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Though Piaf’s friends and writing partners initially dismissed the song, it became her biggest hit. The melody was written by Louis Gugliemi.
The lyric are about being completely in love to the point that the world appears to be a better place. The title phrase means to see life through rose colored glasses. It’s a fitting song for a singer who had a life full of drama and misfortune.
The musical Babes in Arms by Rodgers and Hart produced one of the most popular jazz songs, My Funny Valentine. Though it took a while for the song to become a hit, it has endured the test of time well. Originally released in 1937, the song has been recorded by over 600 artists through the years.
The first version of the song to be a hit was recorded by Hal McIntyre and Ruth Gaylor in 1945. Their version only reached number 16 on the popular charts. After this, it nearly disappeared into obscurity.
In the 1950s, the song became a true jazz standard. Many popular jazz vocalists and instrumentalists released their own variations of the song. Chet Baker recorded the most influential version of the song. He left out the first verse of the song, a change which became the standard way to perform the song.
There are many more popular jazz songs to add to any musician’s repertoire. These are a few that everyone should know if they want to explore the world of jazz. Whether you sing, play an instrument, or do both, these songs are a great beginning to your knowledge of popular jazz songs.
Here is Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs