Exploring Jazz Standards

In his book “The Jazz Standards,” Ted Gioia, a well-known American author, jazz pianist, and music historian, stated that during his own journey of learning jazz, there existed a core set of 200 to 300 compositions that “served as the cornerstone” of the jazz repertoire. By emphasizing the importance of these compositions, Gioia underscores their pivotal role in shaping the evolution of jazz music over time. He explains that a jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

Jazz standards are musical compositions that have gained widespread recognition and have been performed and recorded by jazz musicians over the years. One defining characteristic of jazz standards is their harmonic structure. They often have a simple, memorable melody that is accompanied by a complex, sophisticated harmonic progression. These progressions provide ample opportunities for jazz musicians to improvise and explore different variations of the melody and harmony.

This article explores the captivating universe of jazz standards throughout the decades and presents a few classic examples for your listening pleasure. I’ll include a playlist as a reference so you can enjoy the songs while you read through the article.

1920s and Before

The origins of jazz standards can be traced back to the American songbook of the early 1900s when musicians primarily intended their music to be used for dancing. Musical traditions of New Orleans at the turn of the century included brass bands, blues, ragtime, and spirituals. Many of the popular jazz standards from that time were influenced by these styles. For instance, jazz musicians frequently play ragtime songs such as “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Tiger Rag,” as well as blues tunes like “St. Louis Blues” and “St. James Infirmary.”

Record companies also played a role in shaping the selection of songs recorded by jazz artists. Recording executives pushed certain songs that quickly achieved a “standard” status. As a result, early jazz groups like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and others incorporated a significant number of Tin Pan Alley popular songs into their repertoire, these are songs written by a collective of songwriters and publishers based in New York City.

A timeless classic from this era is the American blues song and acclaimed standard, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It’s a traditional American folkloric song with an uncertain origin. The song includes phrases from early blues recordings and has over 120 versions by various artists, with more than 20 versions of the lyrics. The versions by Louis Armstrong (1928), King Oliver (1930), Duke Ellington (1930), and Cab Calloway (1930) are among the most highly regarded. Various musicians continue to record the song, and my preferred versions are those by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Hugh Laurie.

Another noteworthy inclusion is the traditional psalm “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which may have originated in the Bahamas in the 19th century and was frequently played by brass bands in New Orleans during funeral processions. Many artists have recorded the song, but it was Louis Armstrong who truly popularized it with his 1938 recording. Other noteworthy versions include those by Bunk Johnson (1945) and Sidney Bechet (1949).

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
King Porter StompJelly Roll Morton
Tea for TwoArt Tatum
Blue SkiesElla Fitzgerald
Basin Street BluesLouis Armstrong
Ain’t Misbehavin’Billie Holiday

1930s and 1940s

Swing jazz emerged as the predominant musical genre in America during the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing plenty of renowned swing-era hits that have since become jazz standards. Among the most significant contributors was Duke Ellington, who either composed or collaborated on over one thousand compositions, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)“, “Sophisticated Lady“, and “Caravan“,

Also, the Broadway theater produced some of the most popular standards that remain widely recognized today. Compositions such as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime“, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“, and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are” continue to be among the most frequently recorded jazz standards.

In the early 1940s, Bebop was introduced with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk taking the lead. This form of jazz was more distinctive compared to earlier versions, as it appealed to a more specialized audience due to its complex harmonies, fast tempos, and virtuoso musicianship. Bebop musicians frequently included songs from Broadway musicals, particularly 1930s standards, in their repertoire.

Numerous bebop standards have gained widespread popularity over the years. For instance, “Salt Peanuts,” a scat/bebop composition by Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn, which gained critical acclaim and became the signature tune of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, “Scrapple from the Apple” by Charlie Parker, which is an improvisation over the chord progression of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “‘‘Round Midnight” composed by Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams, which Miles Davis later performed at the Newport Jazz in 1955.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Body and SoulColeman Hawkins
All of MeBillie Holiday
Autumn in New YorkElla Fitzgerald
Blue MoonBillie Holiday
In a Sentimental MoodDuke Ellington & John Coltrane
How High the MoonElla Fitzgerald
A Night in TunisiaDizzy Gillespie
Yardbird SuiteCharlie Parker
Autumn LeavesCannonball Adderley
Lady BirdTadd Dameron Sextet

1950s and After

The 1950s was a decade of significant evolution and innovation for jazz music. It was a time when jazz musicians broke free from traditional constraints and experimented with new sounds, rhythms, and structures. This period is often referred to as the “golden age of jazz,” and it saw the rise of several influential jazz musicians who composed or reimagined jazz standards.

At the forefront was trumpeter Miles Davis, whose cool and model jazz pieces quickly gained a standard status. “Milestones,” a composition he recorded in 1958 with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is an early exploration of the model jazz style. The piece ultimately led Miles Davis to create “So What,” the most well-known example of model jazz, which opened his 1959 studio album “Kind of Blue.” The album, also featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made.

The same year Miles Davis released “Kind of Blue,” The Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded and released their signature piece “Take Five.” In the jazz standard Take Five, composed by Paul Desmond, the quartet uses the uncommon time signature 5/4. It was the first jazz composition using another signature other than the standard 4/4 or 3/4 times. The song’s iconic drum and piano introduction, followed by the alto saxophone melody, helped it become a well-known and best-selling jazz classic of all time.

John Coltrane’s hard bop masterpiece, “Giant Steps,” was released in February 1960 and is also regarded as one of the most influential jazz albums ever. It features various Coltrane compositions such as the opening and title track “Giant Steps,” which includes unusual harmonic chord patterns known as the “Coltrane changes”, and the homage “Naima,” named after his then-wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs.

Bobby Timmons, a prominent member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, composed “Moanin’“, which was recorded and released by the ensemble. The recording featured Art Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Benny Golson on tenor sax, along with Timmons’ piano. The song features a call-and-response structure led by Timmons’ piano. Jazz critic Gary Giddins has noted that “Moaning” was “part of the funky, back-to-roots movement popularized by Horace Silver, Mingus, and Ray Charles in different ways.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Afro BlueDee Dee Bridgewater
The SidewinderLee Morgan
ImpressionsJohn Coltrane
BluesetteToots Thielemans
The Girl from IpanemaStan Getz & Astrud Gilberto
Blue TrainJohn Coltrane
My Favorite ThingsJohn Coltrane
Watermelon ManHerbie Hancock
FootprintsWayne Shorter
SpainChick Corea

Disclaimer: I would like to clarify that the jazz recommendations I provide are based on my individual taste and preferences. It’s important to note that the versions of the songs I suggest may not necessarily be the original recordings by the composer, but rather renditions by other artists.

Listen to all the songs from the article:

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Top 5 Essential Jazz Albums You Should Own

As a music genre, jazz holds a significant position in the global music scene. With its unique improvisational approach and wide range of influences, jazz has enthralled music enthusiasts for more than a century. Whether you’re a newcomer to the genre or an avid vinyl collector, there are a few indispensable albums that you shouldn’t miss.

It was hard to narrow it down, but here are the 5 essential and highly acclaimed jazz records you should own.

1. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis

“Kind of Blue” is the undisputed champion of jazz records and it’s unlikely that you’ll come across a list where the album isn’t ranked at number one, it simply stands above all the rest. But why?

First and foremost, “Kind of Blue” is a masterpiece of improvisation. Miles Davis and his band, which included jazz icons like John Coltrane and Bill Evans, recorded the album in just two sessions, and much of it was improvised on the spot. The result is a sound that is both innovative and deeply emotional. It departs from Davis’s earlier hard bop jazz style, which featured intricate chord progressions and improvisation, and is instead entirely based on modality. Each musician was given a specific set of scales that defined the boundaries of their improvisation and personal style, resulting in a series of modal sketches comprising the entire album.

But “Kind of Blue” is more than just a technical achievement. It’s an album that captures the very essence of jazz – its soulful, melancholic beauty. From the opening notes of “So What” to the closing strains of “Flamenco Sketches,” the album takes the listener on a journey through the heart of jazz music.

2. A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

There are few jazz albums as revered and influential as John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Released in 1965, it is widely regarded as not only one of the best jazz albums ever released but as one of the greatest albums in music history. From its spiritual themes to its innovative approach to improvisation, “A Love Supreme” remains a groundbreaking and enduring work of art

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is a transformative and deeply personal work that speaks to the heart of human experience. As a listener, I am drawn in by the raw emotion and spiritual depth of the album, which was released by Impulse! Records in 1965. Coltrane’s tenor saxophone playing is both virtuosic and soulful, conveying a sense of urgency and purpose that reflects his search for enlightenment.

The album is comprised of four parts: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” Each part builds upon the previous one, forming a cohesive and emotionally impactful musical journey. The album’s themes revolve around Coltrane’s spiritual awakening and his desire to express his gratitude and devotion to a higher power.

3. Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet

“Time Out”, the 1959 album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, is a landmark album in jazz history that transcends the boundaries of the genre. The album features a series of complex and innovative time signatures that were unusual for jazz at the time, and it has become one of the most beloved and essential jazz albums of all time.

The quartet includes Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. The album is characterized by the group’s use of unusual time signatures, for example the iconic “Take Five,” which is played in 5/4 time. “Take Five” is undoubtedly the album’s most famous track and has become a jazz standard in its own right. The track features an infectious melody that is both catchy and sophisticated, with Desmond’s alto saxophone taking the lead and Brubeck’s piano providing the rhythmic foundation.

“Time Out’s” influence on jazz and popular music cannot be overstated. The album paved the way for other jazz musicians to experiment with unusual time signatures and brought jazz to a wider audience.

4. Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderley

“Somethin’ Else,” the 1958 album by the legendary saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, is a staple of the jazz world. This album is a true masterpiece that stands the test of time with its unique sound and an all-star ensemble that includes Miles Davis on trumpet, Hank Jones on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Blakey on drums.

The title track “Somethin’ Else” is an absolute gem of a composition by Adderley, where the musicians blend hard bop and soulful blues to create an unforgettable sound. The track is a masterpiece in its own right. Apart from the title track, the album boasts some of the most iconic jazz tracks of the era. “Autumn Leaves” is a beautiful rendition of the classic jazz standard that showcases Adderley’s soulful playing, while “One for Daddy-O” is a groove-based piece that features the band’s effortless synergy and their ability to lock in tight.

The musicians on this album were at the top of their game, with Miles Davis’s legendary trumpet work being a standout feature. The interplay between Davis and Adderley is electrifying, and the two create a magical blend of sounds that are both breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

5. The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman

“The Shape of Jazz to Come” features Ornette Coleman’s unconventional approach to jazz and challenged the traditional notions of harmony, melody, and rhythm, and paved the way for the free jazz movement of the 1960s. The album features a quartet that includes Coleman on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. The quartet’s sound is raw and free-flowing, with Coleman’s unorthodox melodies and Cherry’s angular trumpet lines creating a sense of tension and release.

The title track, “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” is a stunning piece that showcases Coleman’s innovative approach to composition. The track features an unpredictable melody that is both chaotic and beautiful, with Coleman’s saxophone soaring above the rhythm section. Another standout track is “Lonely Woman,” a haunting ballad that has become one of Coleman’s most well-known compositions. The track features Coleman’s melancholic saxophone playing, with Haden’s bass providing a mournful accompaniment.

“The Shape of Jazz to Come” was not just a departure from the traditional jazz of the time; it was a revolution. Coleman’s music challenged the status quo and opened up new possibilities for the genre. His influence on the jazz world cannot be overstated, and his legacy continues to inspire generations of musicians.

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John Coltrane’s Soultrane

The second half of the nineteen-fifties defined John Coltrane’s career and helped him come into prominence as a musician and arranger. Underlined is the time as a member in Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and later sextet, and the period working aside Thelonious Monk. Many recordings featuring Trane‘s support on the tenor saxophone got listed as the most acclaimed and influential jazz albums in history.

Coltrane’s legacy before moving to Atlantic Records in 1959 got well documented by Prestige. The record company released a couple of acclaimed studio albums, including Coltrane’s first album as a leader titled Coltrane (Prestige, 1957), and his recording with pianist Red Garland named Soultrane (Prestige, 1958). In 1957, Coltrane also recorded the album Blue Train with the record label Blue Note while he was still under contract with Prestige.

The album Soultrane got described as a demonstration of Coltrane’s late nineteen-fifties “sheet of sound” (Ira Gitler, DownBeat Magazine). The term is dedicated to John Coltrane and represents the unique improvisational style he developed while working with Thelonious Monk. He loosened up the demanding chords and harmonies of hard bop while maintaining loyalty to its traditional values. Coltrane was given the freedom to improvise when playing along with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Thelonious Monk, Nellie Monk, and John Coltrane (image courtesy of T.S. Monk)

Soultrane” originally refers to a ballad written by pianist Tadd Dameron. The song appears on the studio recording Mating Call (Prestige, 1957), an album featuring Dameron on the piano and Coltrane on the tenor saxophone. However, the song was not added to the track-list of Soultrane. Prestige Records titled the album merely because it plays with the name and could represent a collective work.

The album got recorded together with Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Taylor (drums). The songs featuring on the album are Good Bait (Tadd Dameron, Count Basie), I Want to Talk About You (Billy Eckstine), You Say You Care (Leo Robin, Jule Styne), Theme for Ernie (Fred Lacey), and Russian Lullaby (Irving Berlin).

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Youthful Enthusiasm: The Cooker by Lee Morgan

Trumpeter Lee Morgan was only 19 years old when he led the recording of his Blue Note original album titled The Cooker. The album is a demonstration of Morgan’s early bop-oriented influence and contains improvisation that communicates to the listener. He is playing with a kind of youthful enthusiasm and spontaneity.

Morgan plays exceptionally well for his age. When comparing this album to his previous work, we can notice the speedy development of his skills as a musician and bandleader. Lee Morgan will soon grow to become the greatest hard bop trumpeter in jazz history. He would be listed next to other trumpet legends like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was also his mentor. He hired the 18-year-old Lee Morgan to replace Joe Gordon in his big band. Morgan’s solo work was spotlighted during the many live performances of A Night In Tunisia, a Gillespie original and signature of bebop. The Cooker opens with this song, and his solo for this album is claimed to be the best recording of Morgan’s career.

Aside from performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Morgan also recorded in the studio during that time. He recorded several albums with jazz icons Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. His most notable work is the recording of Coltrane’s Blue Train in 1957 (Blue Note 1577), which got recorded in the same studio, and only 2 weeks before Morgan recorded The Cooker.

In 1958, Gillespie’s band split, and Morgan joined Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers where he continued to develop his talents, now mainly as a composer. He brought a new potential to the band as they returned to Blue Note and released the jazz standard Moanin’ (composed by Bobby Timmons).

The Cooker got recorded in the Van Gelder Studio on September 29, 1957. It was the fifth Blue Note recording of the young trumpeter as a leader. He got the support from bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, who he knew from the Blue Train recordings two weeks earlier. Pepper Adams joins on the baritone saxophone, and Bobby Timmons sits behind the piano during this vigorous recording session.

The album (BLP 1578) got released in March the following year. It features five tracks including A Night In Tunisia (D. Gillespie), Heavy Dipper (L. Morgan), Just One Of Those Things (C. Porter), Lover Man (R. Ramirez), and New-Ma (L. Morgan).

In April 2020 the album got reissued as part of the Blue Note Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series (Blue Note 81578). An initiative from Blue Note Records President Don Was. It’s a reissue series of all-analog vinyl records mastered from the original master tapes.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps

John Coltrane’s masterpiece, Giant Steps, turned sixty in 2020 and this was celebrated with an anniversary deluxe edition LP. Let’s have a brief look at how the album came to life and how Coltrane developed, personally and musically, before being able to compose one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.

John Coltrane went through a lot before he was ready to create his masterpiece Giant Steps. Starting his musical journey in 1949 under the spell of Charlie Parker, and later Dizzy Gillespie, he felt dissatisfied, even dejected. In 1954, Coltrane joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. This was an important milestone in the yet-to-be-written composition of Giant Steps as he was introduced to new possibilities in chord progressions.

Coltrane had a drug addiction and was dismissed from the band (together with drummer Philly Joe Jones) in 1957. Being sacked by the number one musical influencer, Miles Davis, was a wake-up call. With the help of friends and family, Coltrane took steps to get his life back in order. He started rehearsing with the celebrated Thelonious Monk and this not only helped him recover from his addiction but also helped him develop artistically.

“Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order”

John Coltrane in an interview with DownBeat (1960)

Fully recovered and evolved, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’ band in 1958. The following year, they recorded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, an album that is claimed to be the most important album in jazz history. Giant Steps was recorded less than a month after the sessions for Kind of Blue (1959). Giant Steps, consisting entirely out of Coltrane’s original compositions, was released in 1960, and despite being a perfect contrast to Kind of Blue, it became a mighty equal.

Working with Thelonious Monk, and recording Kind of Blue with Miles Davis, were both giant steps John Coltrane took before he mastered the skills to compose and record the album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically.

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Five Biographical Documentaries Of Jazz Titans

It’s not an easy task to capture the life of jazz titans like John Coltrane or Miles Davis into a ninety minutes cut. There is a lot of ground to cover before you’re able to give the audience a peek into their minds. Some directors and screenwriters managed to provide us with the best possible overview. They captured the essentials that contribute to their legacy.

Here are five biographical documentaries of true jazz titans where they successfully documented the story of the artists.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

2016 / John Scheinfeld (director & writer)

Chasing Trane is an epic portrait of the legendary forward-thinking saxophonist who innovated and influenced jazz music in many ways. This story explores the impact of Coltrane’s life on the music he made.

It’s a classic, well-made biographical movie built on personal interviews with his children and grandchildren, friends, and fellow musicians. It creates honest insights into the life of the jazz titan.

John Scheinfeld’s documentary includes footage of Coltrane’s performances and uses the musician’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. At times, it analysis Coltrane’s compositions and his unique way of playing.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

2019 / Stanley Nelson (director & writer)

This documentary is a reflection on the musical career of Miles Davis and the birth of cool jazz. It captures the story of the talented trumpet player who introduced the world to a new style of jazz by blending it with modern classical ideas. An approach that would shape bebop into something everybody can listen to, a sub-genre not limited to jazz fans alone.

It is not an easy task to capture the story of Miles Davis on film. Davis was actively shaping jazz music for six full decades. The documentary attempts this via interviews with family members, friends, and musicians such as Quincy Jones.

I Called Him Morgan

2016 / Kasper Collin (director & writer)

I called him Morgan” are the words of Helen Morgan in an interview she gave two decades after she shot and killed her common-law husband, Lee Morgan.

The documentary is not a study into the life of hard bob trumpeter Lee Morgan. Instead, It’s a drama narrating the relationship between him and Helen. Via interviews with former band members and friends, we get a picture of what caused the fatal shooting of this celebrated musician who featured in bands with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey.

Lee Morgan’s story is spellbinding. A young talented musician who struggled with a drug addiction and got murdered. This is the story of a musician who obtained his place in history next to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, as one of the greatest trumpet players in history.

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

1998 /  Don McGlynn (director & writer)

This project took nine years to complete and is the first comprehensive documentary about the life of jazz musician Charles Mingus.

Charles Mingus is known for being a great bass player, bandleader, and composer. The documentary highlights Mingus as a composer. A musical genius with many ideas and innovative ways to use music. Mingus created unusual complexity in writing by using different layers and combining multiple rhythms. His high-sounding music feels chaotic, and yet, its structure has many similarities with classical music.

The story is told from the perspective of people who were close to him and features many video recordings of Charles Mingus where he is talking about his music.


2018 / Alan Hicks & Rashida Jones (directors & writers)

The documentary plays in two different worlds. One is the present-day world of Quincy Jones as a composer and producer who accomplished everything and is loved by everyone. It shows an intimate setting where he is surrounded by family and friends. The second revisits Mr. Jones’ career as a jazz arranger and multi-instrumentalist. We peek into the different stages of his life via flashbacks and discover details about his friendship with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

The documentary features people impacted by Mr. Jones. He was a mentor for Micheal Jackson, launched the career of Will Smith, and discovered Oprah Winfrey.