While many jazz purists would argue that the true nature of the genre is a sprawling, 10-minute instrumental full of spontaneity and ever-changing melodies, many listeners tend to find their footing 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 produced some of the most enduring hits ever recorded. Whether you’re 20 or 80, you can at the very least hum along to some of their top hits.
Below, we’re going through just 10, in no particular order, of the most iconic Jazz standards in history for you to pull out the next time you’re wanting for something classic. Let’s begin.
1. “I Fall In Love Too Easily” (Chet Baker)
This jazz standard was penned by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Just three verses long, the song is relatively small in scope and yet has become an enduring hit for more than one artist across several decades. Though Frank Sinatra introduced the song, we’re looking at the Chet Baker version. Baker’s lulling vocals embody the quiet resignation of the track perfectly.
Coming to an abrupt stop, the song ends with the line I fall in love too fast. 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 over at me and said, ‘So. That’s it.’ I knew he felt we could have written on, but I felt I had said all there was to say, and if I had it to do over, I would stop right there again.”
2. “Misty” (Sarah Vaughan)
Songwriter Erroll Garner was inspired to write “Misty” on a flight from San Francisco to Chicago. The plane passed through a thunderstorm as the plane descended into O’Hare. As Garner looked through the window to see a rainbow glowing through the clouds, he was moved to begin composing this song on the spot, playing an imaginary piano on his knees as he hummed the notes.
Like with many jazz standards, “Misty” has been performed a number of times, but arguably never quite as dulcetly as Sarah Vaughan did in 1959. I feel like I’m clingin’ to a cloud / I can’t understand / I get misty, just holding your hand, she sings in the intro.
3. “A Sunday Kind of Love” (Etta James)
Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” is currently experiencing a rebirth on Tik Tok. The sultry, somber song is being used as a backdrop for many an aesthetic room tour and “day in the life.” Sixty years after its release, the song is still going strong finding a renewed appeal for yet another generation.
Daydreaming about an easy-breezy kind of love, James shows off her powerhouse vocals as she sings, I’m hoping to discover / A certain kind of lover / Who will show me the way.
4. “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Billie Holiday)
Haunting and somber, “I’ll Be Seeing You” originally appeared in the songbook for the Broadway musical Right This Way. Since then, Billie Holiday’s rendition has undoubtedly become the standout version.
Her 1944 recording of the song has been used time and again across pop culture as an ode to parting ways. Notably, it was the final transmission sent by NASA to the Opportunity rover on Mars when its mission ended in February 2019. The track is so moving, that it had a sizable portion of the world mourning a piece of equipment.
5. “Come Fly With Me” (Frank Sinatra)
When thinking about contemporary jazz, Frank Sinatra is often the first artist to come to mind. A crooner to beat out all the rest, Sinatra was no stranger to a jazz standard and even delivered the initial recording of quite a few.
While anyone of his 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 of fans, the buoyant opening strings bring with them a tinge of nostalgia. If there ever was 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 evoking images of a smoky jazz club with only Coltrane and Duke Ellington playing the piano up on stage.
Coltrane made broad strokes in the genre and is one of its most influential artists. Whether or not instrumental music is your thing, it’s impossible to not 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 the lynching of Black Americans that had run rampant at the turn of the 20th century.
The song’s powerful imagery has long been credited as a declaration marking the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
8. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong)
Along 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’s across the season much in the same way “Running Up That Hill” did.
Though the placement may have been the introduction to the song for many on the younger side of Gen-Z, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” has had a strong footing in pop culture since its release. Though the track has been recorded a few times, Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s contrasting voices make for the perfect duet. As remarked in the series, taking on lead vocals, Fitzgerald lulls the listener to sleep with “the voice of an angel.”
9. “At Last” (Etta James)
“At Last” has become one of the most prominent wedding songs ever. Odds are you can recall a few couples who have tied the knot and danced to this track—and it’s not hard to see why.
With lyrics like At last, my love has come along / My lonely days are over / And life is like a song, those in the thick of marital bliss can cling to the lines as if they’ve personally written them. A testament to an enduring relationship, few songs are as classic as this one from James.
10. “What a Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong)
Few voices are as recognizable as Louis Armstrong’s. Using his uniquely raspy vocals, Armstrong lets the listener see the world through his eyes in “What a Wonderful World.” The grass is a bit greener on Armstrong’s side, the sky a bit bluer, friendships are a bit truer and we have nowhere to go but up. With his trumpet in tow, Armstrong creates a song that is as peaceful as they come.
Photo: Frank Sinatra Youtube Screenshot