While many jazz purists would argue that the true nature of the genre is a sprawling 10-minute instrument full of spontaneity and ever-changing melodies, many listeners tend to find their niche in the genre with artists who paint jazz with a lighter touch.
From Ella Fitzgerald’s floating vocals to Frank Sinatra’s iconic croon, jazz-infused pop artists have produced some of the most enduring hits ever recorded. Whether you’re 20 or 80, you can at least hum a few of their best hits.
Below, we review just 10, in no particular order, of the most iconic jazz standards in history that you can pick up the next time you want something classic. Let’s start.
1. “I fall in love too easily” (Chet Baker)
This jazz standard was written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Just three verses long, the song has a relatively small scope and yet has become an enduring hit for more than one artist over several decades. Although Frank Sinatra introduced the song, we’re watching Chet Baker’s version. Baker’s soothing voice perfectly embodies the track’s quiet resignation.
Stopping abruptly, the song ends with the line I fall in love too quickly. Cahn said of the sixteen-bar song, “This song was written one night in Palm Springs. When I sang the last line, Jule Styne looked at me and said, “So”. That’s it.’ I knew he thought we could have continued writing, but I felt that I had said all there was to say, and if I had to do it again, I would stop there again.
2. “Misty” (Sarah Vaughan)
Songwriter Erroll Garner was inspired to write “Misty” on a flight from San Francisco to Chicago. The aircraft flew through a thunderstorm as the aircraft descended at O’Hare. As Garner looked out the window to see a rainbow shining through the clouds, he was moved to start composing this song on the spot, playing an imaginary piano on his lap while humming the notes.
As with many jazz standards, “Misty” has been played a number of times, but arguably never as softly as Sarah Vaughan did in 1959. I feel like I’m clinging to a cloud / I can’t understand / I get foggy, just holding your handshe sings in the intro.
3. “Some Kind of Sunday Love” (Etta James)
Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” is currently enjoying a renaissance on Tik Tok. The sultry, dark song is used as the backdrop for many aesthetic hall tours and “days in the life.” Sixty years after its release, the song is still going strong, finding new appeal for another generation.
Dreaming of an easy and windy kind of love, James shows off her powerful voice as she sings, I hope to find / A certain type of lover / Who will show me the way.
4. “I’ll See You” (Billie Holiday)
Haunting and dark, “I’ll Be Seeing You” originally appeared in the Broadway musical’s songbook This way. Since then, Billie Holiday’s rendition has undoubtedly become the standout version.
His 1944 recording of the song has been used time and time again in pop culture as an ode to separation. This included the last transmission sent by NASA to the Opportunity rover on Mars when its mission ended in February 2019. The track is so moving that a significant part of the world was crying equipment.
5. “Come fly with me” (Frank Sinatra)
When you think of contemporary jazz, Frank Sinatra is often the first artist you think of. A crooner to beat all others, Sinatra was no stranger to a jazz standard and even delivered the initial recording of several.
While any of its tracks could find a comfortable home on this list, it’s “Come Fly With Me” that has to take the cake. Even for the most casual fan, the floating opening strings provide a touch of nostalgia. If there was ever such a thing as a truly timeless song, “Come Fly With Me” would surely be in the running.
6. “In a sentimental mood” (John Coltrane)
While many of the artists on this list lean towards the pop side of jazz music, we couldn’t get away without mentioning John Coltrane and his saxophone. “In A Sentimental Mood” is an instrumental track conjuring up images of a smoky jazz club with only Coltrane and Duke Ellington playing piano on stage.
Coltrane made great strides in the genre and is one of its most influential artists. Whether instrumental music is your thing or not, it’s impossible not to sink into this one.
7. “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday)
Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Holiday sings in “Strange Fruit”. Composed by Lewis Allan, the lyrics protest against the lynching of black Americans that raged at the turn of the 20th century.
The song’s powerful imagery has long been seen as a statement marking the beginning of the civil rights movement.
8. “Dream a Little About Me” (Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong)
With Metallica and Kate Bush, stranger things season four also brought a whole new generation of fans to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. The iconic duet, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” was used to thwart Vecna throughout the season much the same way “Running Up That Hill” did.
Although the placement may have been the song’s introduction to many young Gen Zers, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” has had a solid foothold in pop culture since its release. Although the track has been recorded several times, the contrasting vocals of Fitzgerald and Armstrong make the perfect duo. As stated in the series, taking lead vocals, Fitzgerald lulls the listener to sleep with “the voice of an angel”.
9. “Finally” (Etta James)
“At Last” has become one of the most important wedding songs of all time. Chances are you remember a few couples who got married and danced to this track – and it’s not hard to see why.
With lyrics like Finally my love has arrived / My lonely days are over / And life is like a song, those who are at the heart of marital bliss can cling to the lines as if they had personally written them. A testament to a lasting relationship, few songs are as classic as James’s.
10. “What a wonderful world” (Louis Armstrong)
Few voices are as recognizable as that of Louis Armstrong. Using his unique raspy voice, Armstrong lets the listener see the world through his eyes in “What a Wonderful World”. The grass is a little greener on Armstrong’s side, the sky a little bluer, the friendships are a little more real, and we have nowhere to go but up. With his trumpet in tow, Armstrong creates a song that is as peaceful as possible.
Photo: Youtube screenshot of Frank Sinatra