Jazz involves composition, improvisation, wit, and an entirely different language than classical music. But it also has complex chords and fun rhythms which are often good to move to.
This blog for RepeatReplay.com looks at the 21 best jazz songs for dance. Let’s look at the top 10 best jazz songs for dance.
Top Jazz Songs For Dance
“The Boy From Impanema” – Julie London
In the discussion of pop-jazz songs for dance, “The Boy From Impanema” is one of the first that comes to mind. It brought bossa nova, or Brazilian jazz, to mainstream audiences. It has been covered, remixed, and used in various films and television programs. Despite its subject of longing for a mysterious passerby, it feels light-hearted and carefree. “The Boy From Impanema” is one of the best jazz songs to get your feet moving.
“But Not For Me” – Chet Baker
Chet Baker mixed smooth vocals and his iconic trumpet playing to create an unmistakable sound that has never been replicated. In the song “But Not For Me” we have a fast tempo side of Baker that married all of his best features. The melody is soaring yet mannered, and you can’t help but move some part of your body. It’s the perfect (yet unobvious) upbeat jazz songs for dance competitions.
“These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” – Charlie Parker
Charlie “Bird” Parker reimagined what the saxophone could do early in jazz. Every accomplished player since has tried to imitate his style on songs such as “These Foolish Things.” The song itself was not one that Parker wrote, but his version stands up as a dance number.
This piece alternates between patient, melodic, even singable lines and his signature fast notes. Someone looking for instrumental jazz songs for dance would enjoy this song as it changes its form with ease.
“Body and Soul” – Tony Bennet and Amy Winehouse
When legendary jazz crooner Tony Bennet and then-new artist Amy Winehouse teamed up to cover “Body and Soul” in 2011, they were sure to do the song justice. The song was originally composed in 1930, but when this duo sang it, it seemed fresh and new.
Unfortunately, for Winehouse, it was the final recording she ever made. Bennet became the oldest living artist to chart in the Billboard top 100. But despite the bittersweet nature of the song, it’s a slow dance number that will keep people moving together for years to come.
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Another legendary team, Fitzgerald and Armstrong, brought this song to life long ago, but it still works as well today. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” plays with the different pronunciations of words in English and American dialects—it’s also easy to swing to and is a perfect sassy jazz songs for dance. The song has been sampled endlessly on remixes and used in various movies, and no matter the generation you come from, you likely know the words.
“When I Fall in Love” – Nat King Cole
“When I Fall in Love” is a slower ballad by legendary jazz singer Nat King Cole. Its melody is unforgettable and its chord structure is surprisingly tricky for how simple it sounds. In the mid-90s, Cole’s daughter Natalie Cole sang a posthumous duet with a projection of her father for the Grammy Awards that year. This song is a timeless work that you can find as the first dance at weddings across the globe.
“How High the Moon” – Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt is always there to speed things up in jazz. He brought Romani-jazz to the mainstream and was the first European to break into the genre. His style of guitar playing is quick and clever, which is fascinating when you realize he was only playing with two fingers on his left hand.
“How High the Moon” is a perfect showcase of Reinhardt’s unique talents and signature style. This song is also a great example of how Romani-jazz was a European answer to swing. If you are looking for old school jazz dance songs, look no further than this.
“Feeling Good” – Nina Simone
Nina Simone made quite the impact on jazz in her career. Simone, like many of her contemporaries, brought a relaxed feel to jazz that many boppers couldn’t seem to grasp. These elements are perfectly displayed in the classic tune “Feeling Good.” Since her original recording, the song has been covered many times over by acts such as Michael Bublé.
The song is also great for reinterpretation and leaves plenty of space to add artistry for dancers and musicians alike. “Feeling Good” is a classic jazz song for dance solos and will get the audience swaying as Nina intended.
“Rockit” – Herbie Hancock
Skip ahead to the ’80s and you won’t be able to miss Herbie Hancock’s song, “Rockit.” A fusion of electronic, hip hop, and jazz, the song was a hit and received tons of airplay on MTV—an unheard-of feat for jazz. The song won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental. Its uptempo style and DJ scratching made it feel fun and contemporary, even into the 21st century. It is an essential jazz songs for dance competitions.
“Pharaoh’s Dance” – Miles Davis
We couldn’t leave the Godfather of jazz out of this list. By the time Miles Davis released “Pharaoh’s Dance” in 1970, he had already started the majority of jazz trends up to that point. This piece was no exception. It was experimental, like much of Davis’s work.
This song mixes free jazz and African rhythms to create a new and groovy genre within jazz. The mix allows for a perfect space to free dance or improvise. It gives space for interpretation, like any great piece of art.
“Fly Me To The Moon” – Frank Sinatra
This playful jazz track from Frank Sinatra is great for an upbeat dance routine and has been used by many choreographers and dancers over the years. It sees Sinatra singing about a love affair that makes him so happy he feels as if he could fly into outer space. Even simple actions such as holding his beloved’s hand are magical in his current mood.
Sinatra recorded the track just before he was about to marry Mia Farrow, which many believe accounts for the extra pep in his recording. ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ was one of the songs included on the Apollo 10 lunar mission.
“Cantaloupe Island” – Herbie Hancock
This jazz standard was composed by Herbie Hancock during his early years as part of Miles Davis’ quintet. ‘Cantaloupe Island’ appeared on Hancock’s 1964 Empyrean Island and is a purely instrumental track with a playful cornet solo. If this version doesn’t quite hit the mark for you, then why not go searching for the jazz funk version that Hancock put out twelve years later?
“Georgia On My Mind” – Ray Charles
Written by songwriters Hoagy Charmichael and Stuart Gorrell, ‘Georgia On My Mind’ doesn’t make it clear whether or not the object of affection is a woman named Georgia or the US state. Whatever the case may be, the track is a gentle, tender and beautiful love song. Many musicians have recorded their own version of ‘Georgia On My Mind’, but the most famous is by Ray Charles.
It was Charles’ driver who first suggested that Charles record his own version, as he kept singing it in the car. Since Charles was actually from the state of Georgia, it is widely assumed that his home state is the muse in his version of the track. Charles’ version of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ went on to win him two Grammy awards in 1960.
“Lullaby Of Birdland” – Ella Fitzgerald
‘Lullaby Of Birdland’ celebrates a famous New York club, Birdland, named after saxophone player Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. The venue was considered a catalyst for many leading jazz musicians. Composed by jazz pianist George Shearing in 1952, ‘Lullaby Of Birdland’ has had many renditions over the years, but one of the most popular is by Ella Fitzgerald, who recorded the track in 1954.
“Mack The Knife” – Louis Armstrong
One of the most famous jazz songs of all time, ‘Mack The Knife’ is a playful with an underlying darkness tune that provides plenty of dance inspiration. It was originally written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1928 for the German play The Threepenny Opera.
The upbeat tune is meant as a deliberate contrast to the murderous subject matter, which describes the actions of the criminal Mack. Although plenty of renditions of the song have been recorded, Armstrong was the first artist to chart with a vocal version.
“What A Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong
Another jazz song perfect for dance is Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’. Recorded in 1967, the orchestral track with Armstrong’s rich, gravelly vocals has been a favourite for decades and is a popular first dance song at weddings. Armstrong recorded this track only three years before his death, making it even more poignant.
“Mood Indigo” – Nina Simone
Simone teaches her listeners about real sadness in this surprisingly upbeat jazz track. “You ain’t never been blue til you’ve had that mood indigo,” she sings, describing an all-encompassing feeling of sadness that she’s been experiencing since her lover left her. Developed from an instrumental called ‘Dreamy Blues’, the eventual track ‘Mood Indigo’ was considered one of the 100 most important recordings in America in the 20th century.
“Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” – Ella Fitzgerald
This sultry jazz number from Ella Fitzgerald sees her suggesting to her partner that they follow the example of the birds and the bees. Written in 1928 by Cole Porter, the track debuted in Porter’s Broadway musical, Paris. Ella Fitzgerald, who sang many of Cole Porter’s songs in her career, first covered the track in 1956 on her double album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook.
“Take Five” – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
For a dance challenge, try this Dave Brubeck track. ‘Take Five’ is so called because it was one of the first jazz songs to be written in 5/4 meter rather than the standard 4/4 or 3/4. Saxophonist Paul Desmond originally struggled to compose the track over the unusual beat from drummer Joe Morello, stating that he couldn’t write a tune in 5/4. However, the band were eventually able to collaborate and work out ‘Take Five’.
‘Take Five’ comes from the album Time Out, a useful dance resource as every track on the album has a different time signature. Although most of the tracks were difficult for the general public to dance to, the album defied record label predictions and became a success.
“Honeysuckle Rose” – Fats Waller
This upbeat, playful song from Fats Waller is built around an infectious jazz piano line perfect for dance. Waller sings about how the girl he is seeing is so sweet that honey bees fill with jealousy when they watch her go by.
He fills the rest of the song with further illustrations of just how sugary sweet she is – she makes flowers droop in embarrassment, she can sweeten tea with just her finger, and honey is veritably dripping from her lips. Piano and guitar solos both offer pleasant variety in the track.
“Cotton Tail” – Duke Ellington, Ben Webster
This 1940 composition from Duke Ellington is based on the rhythm changes from George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ and features a saxophone solo from musician Ben Webster. Dynamic and upbeat, it makes for a fantastic dance song. Ellington later wrote lyrics for the track, which Ella Fitzgerald used when she covered it in 1957 on her album, Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington songbook.
In this article, several different types of jazz were covered, from slow and patient, to fast and loud. There’s no doubt that everyone will find the perfect choice out of these 10 best jazz songs for dance.
Caitlin Devlin is a music, entertainment and lifestyle writer based in London. When she’s not creating playlists for Repeat Replay, she’s reviewing gigs and interviewing artists for Ticketmaster UK and thinking about what her Spotify Wrapped will look like this year.