10 best jazz piano songs you need to know

13.03.2022 Ben Maloney Piano

The piano is about as close as it’s possible to get to the heart of jazz. It’s been a constant, throughout the genre’s lifespan. 

From Jelly Roll Morton to Keith Jarrett, the Miles Davis quintet to the Oscar Peterson trio, Duke Ellington’s big band to Bill Evans solo, jazz’s unmistakable strains have been written and sounded from the keys of a piano.

Even though the genre is notable for its emphasis on spontaneity in performance, there’s still a lot of jazz sheet music available, most of it transcribed from recordings. Frequently cutting out virtuosic solos and improvised material, many arrangements are simplified in comparison to the original performances. 

As well as making works easier to play, this also gives players room to perform with spontaneity and add their own musical embellishments. This process is fundamental to jazz practice. 

Below you’ll find ten classics of the genre that should feature in every cat’s repertoire.
 

Best jazz songs to play on piano
 

  1. ’Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk
  2. ‘King Porter Stomp’ by Jelly Roll Morton
  3. ‘Waltz for Debby’ by Bill Evans
  4. ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good’ by Duke Ellington
  5. ‘God Bless the Child’ by Billie Holiday
  6. ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ by Artie Shaw
  7. ‘Birdland’ by Weather Report
  8. ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’ by Count Basie
  9. ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ by Ella Fitzgerald
  10. ‘Watermelon Man’ by Herbie Hancock

1. ‘’Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk

Performed and recorded by generation after generation of artists, jazz standards are those classic compositions that form the core repertoire of the genre. Few are as core as ‘’Round Midnight’, a work that has been interpreted time and again by many of the finest jazz musicians in history. 

Bebop pioneer Thelonious Monk composed ‘’Round Midnight’ at the beginning of the 1940s, first recording it in 1947. He made no fewer than eighteen more recordings, while well over 100 have been made by other leading performers. The song’s legacy was cemented when it inspired a 1986 Oscar-winning film of the same name.

Its iconic melody begins at bar five in this Faber title, with its rising semiquavers being perhaps the most unmistakable gesture. Dense, disjunct block chords also mark the piece, and are among the most distinctive aspects of Monk’s style more generally. There aren’t many songs that capture his essence better than this one.  

2. ‘King Porter Stomp’ by Jelly Roll Morton

Perhaps the first legendary figure in the story of jazz music is Jelly Roll. The pianist plied his musical trade for decades in New Orleans, in whose cultural melting pot jazz emerged. Despite the tall tales that Morton notoriously told about his life and work, there’s no doubt that his music was groundbreaking and his achievements great.

‘King Porter Stomp’ is one of his most famous and innovative compositions, a jazz classic that saw the old ragtime vocabulary evolve into something fresh - something that swung. He claimed it was the first ‘stomp’, written in 1906, but he didn’t record it until 1923. Made popular in the 1930s by bandleader Benny Goodman, it too became a core standard.

What’s more, many composers in the early years of jazz borrowed the chord progressions that feature in ‘King Porter Stomp’, and incorporated them into their own works. This was the process by which Morton’s music became the foundation of the young genre. This version on nkoda includes lyrics later added by Sid Robin and Sonny Burke.

3. ‘Waltz for Debby’ by Bill Evans

Bill Evans hit the stratosphere in the late 1950s after he featured on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, one of the great jazz albums of all time. Ever since, he’s been regarded as one of the finest players to grace the keyboard. Much of his characteristic music features complex textures constructed through a process of harmonic and melodic layering.

Waltz for Debby’ was recorded by Evans before he worked with Davis, but he came back to it repeatedly in the 1960s and beyond. These subsequent versions, and those by other artists would confirm the song’s classic status. One of Evans’ greatest releases, the 1962 live album Waltz for Debby spotlights the composition, arguably in its definitive form. 

Compared to Evans’ wider body of work, ‘Waltz for Debby’ is an altogether more simple tune. This makes sense, considering that the work was written for Evans’ young niece, Debby. It’s in triple time, as you’d expect from a waltz, but Evans’ typical layering obscures a clear sense of pulse. Master that free-flowing feel, and you’ll master the tune.

4. ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good’ by Duke Ellington

It isn’t too controversial to say that Duke Ellington is probably the greatest composer in the history of jazz. Influential, innovative, prolific - few artists have made a more deep and profound impact on the genre, as writers, than the Duke. Having said that, he scores pretty highly by most criteria.

It’s difficult to recommend one work given that Ellington composed more than a thousand, but ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good’ is a very strong candidate. It first appeared in a 1941 musical revue, Jump for Joy, and via versions by Monk, Oscar Peterson and Nina Simone, it’s become yet another bona fide standard. 

It’s also a perfect number for the keyboard. This title features an arrangement by the great jazz pianist George Shearing. The chordal texture emphasises harmonic colour over melodic impetus, but Duke’s beautiful melody still shines through, featuring what might be the most famous major-ninth interval in musical history.

5. ‘God Bless the Child’ by Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is best known as a vocalist, an interpreter of songs written by other artists. But she often turned her hand to composing, and when she did the results were sublime. Co-written with Arthur Herzog, Jr in 1939, ‘God Bless the Child’ is one of her signature songs. 

Holiday recorded the song three times between 1941 and ’56. Its lyrics allude to themes of a religious nature, reflecting powerfully and soul-searchingly on some of the most poignant questions it’s possible to ask. Few can channel their meaning in performance like Holiday herself could. The expressiveness of her delivery is instantly recognisable.

The song takes the form of a slow, stately ballad. Its rhythmically pronounced, with most beats accentuated and no slurred phrases at all in the vocal part. The music is especially rich, even for a jazz number. Pianists that like intense colour in their jazz harmony will enjoy getting to know this beautiful composition.

6. ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ by Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw made his name in the 1930s as a leader of orchestras and big bands, when swing was king. One of the finest clarinetists that jazz has ever seen, he was also an able composer. With its light feel, jaunty rhythms and catchy hooks, ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ demonstrates the close relationship with pop that the swing era enjoyed.

Shaw liked to draw players from his performing groups and then play with them in more intimate settings. ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ was recorded by one of these smaller ensembles, the Gramercy Five. Instrumentally speaking, it’s an unusual number. There aren’t many jazz recordings that give a harpsichord prominence - not quite a piano, but close enough.

This title is one of Bosworth’s swing arrangements for piano solo. It’s a particularly faithful transcription of the 1941 recording by Shaw and the Gramercy Five. Each of the original solos features in the score, which is marked by a hard swing and a great deal of parallel thirds. 

7. ‘Birdland’ by Weather Report

Fusion was the buzzword at the turn of the 1970s. In a bid to push jazz in new directions, musicians were combining jazz idioms with those of other genres - rock, funk and blues. Weather Report was one of several bands at the helm of this movement, and ‘Birdland’ is the greatest track from their greatest album.

The piece was composed by the band’s keyboardist, Josef Zawinul, who collaborated with Miles Davis to launch the fusion movement in the late 1960s. ‘Birdland’ pays tribute to the mythic New York jazz club of the same time, and the song’s huge popularity helped to fire the aptly named 1977 album Heavy Weather to jazz-fusion immortality. 

Here you can find a ‘Birdland’ piano part drawn from an arrangement for jazz ensemble. It transcribes Zawinul’s own piano part, which drives the performance in Weather Report’s recording. Look out for the ‘head’, the main theme that first appears in bar 66. Instead of a melody proper, it strings together a chord sequence - one of the most memorable in jazz. 

8. ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’ by Count Basie

Alongside Ellington, Shaw and Goodman, Count Basie is part of the esteemed lineage of great bandleaders. For decades, Basie was one of the biggest names in the business, not only a jazz icon but also a pop regular, who collaborated with the likes of Tony BennettBing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

The Count Basie Orchestra recorded ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’ in 1938, and it’s a number that goes right to the heart of what Basie’s group was all about. As well as featuring their trademark ‘jumping’ beat, the song’s named after Harlem’s Woodside Hotel, where they stayed and rehearsed when they were performing in New York. 

Faber’s title on nkoda features lyrics added by Jon Hendricks ahead of his 1957 recording of the tune. Hendricks was a scat specialist, capable of enunciating words extremely fast in performance. So, if you’re tempted to take on the vocal part alongside the piano one, you’ll have to keep up with Hendricks as well as Basie. No mean feat.

9. ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ by Ella Fitzgerald

This song had relatively humble beginnings, starting life as a 19th-century nursery rhyme. It had to wait until 1938 to achieve its iconic status, when Ella Fitzgerald, slightly tweaking the words, transformed it into a hit for herself and the Chick Webb Orchestra. 

Fitzgerald is one of the great jazz singers of all time, famed for her rich tone and abilities as an improviser. She won her fame with ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ and other 1930s recordings made with drummer Webb, going on to interpret practically every standard in the book and collaborate with Basie, Ellington and many more of the greats.

Courtesy of the song’s origins, it’s harmonically straightforward in the arrangement that’s available on the app. Still, it’s demanding enough technically to make for an impressive piano performance. Dotted rhythms feature prominently in the texture, and the balance between straight and syncopated rhythms has to be struck carefully. 

10. ‘Watermelon Man’ by Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock was another piano-playing trailblazer of the fusion era, his Head Hunters one of its great albums. Perhaps its most jaw-dropping tune is ‘Watermelon Man’, but this track was actually Hancock’s second recording of his song. 

‘Watermelon Man’ first appeared in a slightly more subdued guise on Takin’ Off, Hancock’s debut album released through the Blue Note labelIt was performances like this, which showcased his playing and writing talents, that earned the pianist a precious invitation to the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. From then on his star rose, and it’s never come down.

The composition was named after and inspired by a watermelon salesman that did the rounds in Hancock’s native Chicago. The sound of his cart’s wheels on the cobblestone roads is channelled by the rickety bass and drums, while the main riff emulates his call, the instruments’ notes articulating the syllables of the title.  

Your next steps for jazz piano music


As we’ve covered, jazz sheet music works more like a fluid template than a fixed set of performing instructions. The melodic themes and the chord changes are the essence of work, but the rest is fluid - use it as a springboard to try out your own improvisational ideas. Change up the chord voicings, play with the rhythms. 

And there’s plenty more where these came from. Check out nkoda’s jazz piano sheet music to find more amazing music and develop your skills even further. Figure out what kind of jazz pianist you want to be. Do you want to cut like Art Tatum or roam like McCoy Tyner? Do you want to be adventurous like Bud Powell or cool like Dave Brubeck?

Or if you feel like seeing how jazz measures up against other types of piano music, you might like to read this guide to the best piano songs

Discover great music, get inspired, practise hard, and become the pianist you were born to be.

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