Jazz Corner: 10 Fun Jazz Songs to Listen to
From Louis Armstrong to John Hendricks to Frank Sinatra; a look at some of the most enjoyable jazz tunes
Jazz has always been an extroverted, expressive medium with large degrees of freedom for it’s performers. Several musicians have involved humor in writing their songs. Among the vocal recordings of jazz, there have been some delightful lyrics, often written with tongue firmly in cheek, and although they may never qualify as great jazz performances, are thoroughly enjoyable. For example, the great Charlie Parker made one of his earliest recordings backing a vocalist who sang “Romance without finance is a nuisance”—somehow rhyming ‘nuisance’ with ‘finance’!
We thought it might be fun to list a few such fun jazz songs. This is a random assortment set down in no particular order.
1. “The Five Penny Saints” by Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye
From the movie The Five Pennies, a biography of jazz trumpet player Red Nichols, is this most clever and cheerful version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” The verbal dialogue between Satchmo and Kaye is very creative.
2. “The Ballad Of Thelonius Monk” by Carmen McRae
Jazz vocalist McRae performs this in a live recording made in a Los Angeles club, Donte’s, in 1972. This song, written by her pianist on the set, Jimmy Rowles, is about the legendary Thelonius Monk, but with a twist! As McRae explains in the preface to the song, “this is about Thelonius Monk the cowboy… If he were to be reincarnated a hundred times, he ain’t never coming back as a cowboy.” Thereby hangs the tale!
3. “The Snake” by Oscar Brown Jr.
This very creative singer/songwriter from the Sixties and Seventies has written and sung some crazy lyrics to this composition with plenty of innuendo in place.
4. “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
5. “Gimme That Wine” by Jon Hendricks
A solo song from the vocalese trio recording of the group Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan. A prolific jazz lyricist, Hendricks never missed an opportunity to inject humor into his songs. Here he says in the song, “You can beat my head out of shape but leave my grape!”
6. “A Swell Party” by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra
Another fun song from a movie, this is from High Society, which also features Grace Kelly and a cameo from Satchmo. Both of these great crooners were acting in this film.
7. “V-8 Ford Blues” by Mose Allison
Another singer/songwriter, Mose Allison played piano and had an easy, languid style of singing. This swinging blues number has clever lyrics and were obviously written before America started buying Toyotas and Hondas!
8. “Pop’s Confessin'” by Dizzy Gillespie
A number of people have tried to imitate the unique, gruff voice of Satchmo. Nobody does it better than Gillespie, who not only mimics the voice and style but also plays the trumpet in the style of Armstrong with improvised lyrics thrown in!
9. “Three Blind Mice” by Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan
The old nursery song in which Hendricks says, “It wasn’t that way at all. Let me tell you what happened!”
Click here to listen.
10. “My Attorney Bernie” by Dave Frisberg
Frisberg wrote some very clever lyrics. Here is one on which he also sings.
Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and contributing editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]