Nothing beats a great jazz ballad. No jazz performance is complete without at least one, and such is the appeal of ballads there are many artists who have made a complete album of just ballad material.
With many song writers and composers writing jazz ballads for albums, stage shows or films many have entered the jazz repertoire and become standards.
So many great songs to choose from, but below is a selection of ten of the very best.
Perhaps a rather obvious choice but an important one none the less as ‘Round Midnight’ it is one of the most recorded jazz standards.
Written by pianist Thelonious Monk the song was composed around 1940 or 1941, although there are unsubstantiated claims that the song was written by the pianist when he was only 19 in 1936.
The composition is sometimes referred to as ‘Round About Midnight’ and has lyrics by Bernie Hanighen and a wonderful version can be heard by June Christy on the album The Misty Miss Christy (although under the original title ‘Round Midnight’).
Thelonious Monk recorded his composition on the 1947 Blue Note album, Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1, but it was trumpeter Miles Davis who put the song on the map with his outstanding solo on the tune at the Newport Jazz Festival.
On the back of this performance, the trumpeter secured a recording contract with Columbia Records and his first album for the label was called Round About Midnight and released in 1957.
Since then, countless artists have recorded the composition including Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Pepper and Gil Evans.
Classic Version: Miles Davis – Round About Midnight (1955)
Body and Soul
Another jazz standard with a distinguished pedigree it was written in 1930 for the British singer and actress Gertrude Lawrence. By the time it had been recorded in the United States it had already become popular in London after performances by Lawrence and the British big band leader Jack Hylton.
With music written by Johnny Green, lyrics were composed by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton, and the song very quickly grew in popularity.
The song has been recorded many times not least by Billie Holiday and in 2011 in a vocal duet with Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse. The song was truly a triumph of different generations meeting and finding common ground in a particular piece of music.
At the time of the recording Bennett was 85 and Winehouse was just 27. Sadly, just four months after the recording was made Amy Winehouse died.
The most famous and influential recording of the song was made on 11th October, 1939 by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. In a real twist to the story, Hawkins’s version barely hints at the melody, instead the emphasis is on his astonishingly creative two chorus improvisation on the tunes chord progression rather than a simple embellishment of the melody.
This is one of the first examples of using the chords to base the improvisation and would pave the way for bebop just a few years later.
Classic Version: Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul (1939)
It Never Entered My Mind
Written for a musical in 1940 called Higher and Higher featuring the actress and singer Shirley Ross.
Composed by the impeccable writing partnership of Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart the music has found great favour among singers and instrumentalists that have taken the popularity of the song way past its initial role as part of musical.
There have been multiple recordings of the song from Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Chris Connor, Stan Getz, Susannah McCorkle, Johnny Hartman and Anthony Braxton.
Classic Version: Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook (1956)
My Funny Valentine
Another classic song from the pens of Rodgers and Hart, and again written for a musical, Babes In Arms in 1937.
Originally performed and sung by Mitzi Green as a show tune, but very quickly the song became more memorable that the show. The first time the song hit the US charts was in 1945 when recorded by Hal McIntyre with vocalist Ruth Gaylor.
Since then, it has been recorded by more than 600 artists. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a wonderful version of the song, and it became a staple part of the live repertoire for trumpeter Miles Davis. The song has also been recorded by Ricki Lee Jones and Elvis Costello, but perhaps there can be none finer that that sung by Chet Baker.
Baker made the song his own, and his version with the Gerry Milligan/Chet Baker Quartet was only surpassed on Chet’s vocal on his own album on Pacific Records released in 1954.
Classic Version: Chet Baker Sings (1954)
Just one of several compositions from John Coltrane’s 1959 album Giant Steps to become a jazz standard, this is the only ballad. The saxophonist wrote the song for his first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, a deceptive gentle ballad that is packed with emotion.
The original version from Giant Steps also features a piano solo from pianist Wynton Kelly with whom John Coltrane played in the Miles Davis Quintet prior to steeping out on his own to concentrate on his solo career and front his own band.
Coltrane would go onto play this tune countless times as its popularity ensured that it became a staple of his repertoire for the rest of his life, and he would record the piece on a succession of iconic jazz albums, but none equal the sheer beauty of the original from 1959.
Classic Version: John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1959)
Along with ‘Take The A Train’, the composition ‘Lush Life’ is probably composer Billy Strayhorn’s most well known. A tune that is deceptive in its harmonic movement it has a complex chord progression at the story unfolds within the music.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers that that Strayhorn began writing the tune in 1933 and finished it some three years later in 1936, and at the time the piece was finished Strayhorn was still just twenty-one years old.
It would be another 12 years before ‘Lish Life’ received its first public performance in November 1948 when Billy Strayhorn played it with the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Kay Davis handling vocal duties.
A sad song that refers to loneliness and weariness of failed love life and the drudgery of pursuing the night life the song has been hugely popular and successful.
Notable versions of the tune have been recorded by a diverse variety of artists including Billy Eckstine, Nancy Wilson, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, Donna Summer, Natalie Cole and Lady Gaga in addition to recordings by Ellington and his Orchestra.
One of the most exquisite reading of the ‘Lush Life’ can be heard in a recording by the British singer Tina May.
Classic Version: Tina May – Never let Me Go (1992)
When thinking of the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, the ballad everyone thinks of first from the album is ‘Blue In Green’ written by pianist Bill Evans. The other ballad is of course ‘Flamenco Sketches’ and again has the touch of Evans all over it.
Jointly credited to Davis and Evans the music is written over a series of five scales or modes each played by the soloist until the cycle was complete. This allowed tremendous freedom for the soloists allowing them to deviate from the constraints of chord changes that much jazz improvisation was based on.
The piece is defined by the use of the five scales and has no written theme. The composition opens with four bar vamp that was written by Bil Evans for his composition ‘Peace Piece’ from his album Everyone Digs Bil Evans. Miles like the tune so much that he wanted to incorporate into ‘Flamenco Sketches’ and it these opening bars that set the tempo and balld feel of the tune.
This tune has been loved by many and covered by musicians including Richie Beirach, Jessica Williams, John Abercrombie, Denny Zeitlin, and Joe Henderson.
Classic version: Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue
My Foolish Heart
Written by Victor Young with lyrics by Ned Washington, the song was originally composed for the film of the same name and while the film was a failure in the eyes of the critics the song went on to have considerable success away from the film that could have sunk it, and ironically was nominated in 1949 for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
A year later in 1950 Billy Eckstine recorded the song which became a huge success for the singer as a million seller. Other notable versions have been recorded by Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Sam Cooke, Etta Jones, Chris Connor and Mark Murphy. However, it is irrefutable that probably the greatest instrumental version is by the Bill Evans Trio with Soctt LaFaro and Paul Motian recorded live at the Village Vanguard.
Classic Version: Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (1962)
This is not your typical ballad but one of the most powerful protest songs of the twentieth century. Written firstly a poem and then a song by the Jewish civil rights activist, Abel Meeropol under the name of Lewis Allan, and the song received notoriety when first performed by the 23 year old Billie Holiday at a club in New York City.
The year was 1939, and Holiday chose to sing the ‘Strange Fruit’ as her last song of the night. Insisting on absolute silence, the bar tenders stopped serving and the club lights dimmed, and Billie stepped up to the mic to sing the first horrifying and shocking lyrics.
The song would cause much debate and controversy. Listening today the music has the power to shock. Holiday’s record company, Columbia refused to record the song and it was eventually recorded by her friend and proprietor of Commodore Records, Milt Gabler in April 1939. The song was released by special arrangement on Vocalion Records. Many have recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ but none have managed to evoke the feelings that Billie was able to conjure up.
Classic Version: Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
I Loves You Porgy
Conceived a part of George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, ‘I Loves You Porgy’ like many of the other songs has enjoyed a far more successful critical reception away from its original setting. The opera with texts by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward met with indifference when premièred in 1935, and Gershwin who died in 1937 never witnessed the success of songs such as ‘I Loves You Porgy’ and ‘Summertime’ in the years that followed.
In the ‘folk-opera’ as Porgy and Bess would be dubbed, the song is a duet with Bess singing to Porgy and asking his help in escaping her abusive relationship with Crown. Nina Simone popularised the song with her version yet often in jazz circles the songs have been treated as duets with some of the most successful recordings by Sammy Davis Jr and Carmen McRae, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne and the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Instrumental versions have also been recorded by Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Modern Jazz Quartet, Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis with arrangements by Gil Evans.
Classic Version: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Porgy and Bess (1959)