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The 100 Greatest Jazz Songs

Here’s our list of classics from the Forties to present time

Sunil Sampat Jun 10, 2015
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Somebody once asked me who my favourite Indian batsman was and rattled off half a dozen names. At first I was deep in thought to take my pick, but then answered happily that I didn’t have to make this choice. I could have them all. Similarly, friends have asked me to pick one trumpet player or one saxophonist. Armed with my “I don’t have to pick just one” answer, I have always gone away satisfied.

Now, my dear editor has put me in a spot. He has asked me to pick the hundred best jazz tunes/songs/numbers of all time, adding generously that I may be “entirely subjective” about such a list. As if there is another way.

It seemed very easy at first. After all hundred is a large number and surely the Top 100 should cater to all favourites. WRONG. It is easier said than done. Jazz is over a century old. Coincidently, so is the recording industry, which means that a huge body of recorded jazz is available for consideration. Also, almost by definition, jazz has not been a seasonal or transitional music as are some other forms of contemporary music such as pop music. This in turn means that a vast majority of all recorded jazz will have to be considered for this list of a hundred. There are further factors, wheels within wheels as it were.

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For starters, there are the preferred tracks from one’s favoured artists. There are many such artists. A hundred numbers could easily be found from among these. Duke Ellington wrote over 5,000 jazz tunes, of which at least 25 which could qualify for the Top 100 list. Likewise with Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and others. Then again each song might have several very good versions. Take for instance that old chestnut, ”˜Summertime.’ I have a friend who has collected as many as forty different renditions of this tune. Then again, Thelonious Monk’s ”˜’Round Midnight’ is very popular and has at least 50 versions in circulation. (In fact, Clint Eastwood made a feature film called ’Round Midnight where saxophonist Dexter Gordon had an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.) The exercise of picking “the” 100 thus becomes one of choosing by eliminating plenty. I have had to bite the bullet and do so. In the process, apologies are due to so many musicians and their great work.

I have adopted a method which I think is quite fair. Apart from the all-time evergreen songs and their specific versions, I have endeavoured to include tunes which have had an impact on jazz listenership. In other words, they may not necessarily be my own cup of tea, but these have created a large following among jazz followers and thus deserve to be included. I hope the exercise yields a list which is fair and reasonably encompasses a majority taste in jazz. However one common thread runs through all the selected tunes: Each has a story to tell. Each one is eloquent in its own way.

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Without further preamble or explanation, here is my list of the hundred best jazz pieces ever, in no particular order.

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