Every music fan knows the sound of big band jazz – powerful horn sections, dazzling solos and swinging rhythms. However, those who don’t know the music very well might not know where to find a big band recording that will fit their mood. Therefore, we hope this list of the best big band songs reveals some great new music into your life!
Best Big Band Songs to Enjoy
Let’s begin with the great Count Basie.
One O’Clock Jump by Count Basie (1937)
Count Basie’s orchestra set a new standard for exuberant big band jazz that maintained more than enough volume for lighting up a dance floor while showcasing a blues-driven sound that reinvigorated jazz’s roots in down home Southern black entertainment.
As the title suggests, “One O’Clock Jump” brims with late night dancehall euphoria. This is a perfect song for listeners who are in a mood for some fun, big band style.
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Take the ‘A’ Train by Duke Ellington (1941)
If you get thrilled by the big city, “Take the ‘A’ Train” is the big band anthem for you. Composed by Billy Strayhorn, who made a career out composing and arranging for the Ellington Orchestra, ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ is based on the directions that Ellington himself gave the young Strayhorn for getting to his apartment in Harlem.
These directions included an exhilarating ride on the New York Subway’s ‘A’ line, and the music that this ride inspired is overflowing with the singular feeling of careening through the big city rapids. To this day, listeners connect with the young Strayhorn’s excitement as he arrived in the Big Apple and his musical career left the station.
Summertime by Miles Davis & Gil Evans (1959)
Big bands are best known for their up-tempo dance numbers, but they can also complement quieter moments. Miles Davis’ infamously cool, sophisticated trumpet playing on ‘Summertime’ exudes a satisfied calm, perfect for a relaxing afternoon on the porch in the sweltering summer heat.
The song was recorded for Porgy and Bess, one of a series of collaborations between Davis and big band arranger Gil Evans. ‘Summertime’ is one of the signature songs by the famed Gershwin brothers – composer George and lyricist Ira. While there are countless recordings of ‘Summertime’, Miles Davis and Gil Evans best captured the song’s dreamy, hazy energy.
All of Me by Billie Holiday (1941)
Billie Holiday’s name is synonymous with beauty and tragedy. On “All of Me”, her timeless, hopeful and woeful singing will connect with listeners who are giving love their all but can’t shake the tender feeling that it just might not be good enough.
The big band accompaniment perfectly renders the song’s bittersweet lyrics of an open-hearted woman who doesn’t know what she’ll do if her lover leaves her behind.
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Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing) by Benny Goodman (1936)
You’ve probably wondered at least once how people had fun in the old days. What was the soundtrack to a wild night out on the town for your grandparents, or great-grandparents? If they liked jazz and dancing, they assuredly spent many an evening swinging along to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)’ by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, one of the big band era’s biggest hits.
Star drummer Gene Krupa literally shocked audiences at the time with his over-the-top, electrifying floor tom beat. Immediately recognizable from its presence in films, television episodes and commercials, “Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)” is a 1930s touchstone that gets even young listeners on their feet to this day – nostalgia welcome, but not required.
Our Love is Here to Stay by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)
True love is a cause for celebration, and for many it is also a cause for relief. Ella Fitzgerald’s effortlessly radiant vocals on “Our Love is Here to Stay”, a Gershwin-penned classic, exude the emotional splendor and comfort that couples enjoy when they’re sure they’ve found the one.
Fitzgerald’s voice has the same warm, timeless glow that is described in the lyrics, helping listeners take a moment to appreciate their own piece of romantic heaven.
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Manteca by Dizzy Gillespie (1947)
Some jazz fans can’t go without a little international flavor. Dizzy Gillespie became a star through his early work as a bebop revolutionary with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and others, but his career began in the big bands of the 1930s, and once he had made it into the limelight playing in small groups, he hired a big band of his own.
The Dizzy Gillespie Big Band is essential for listeners who want to learn about the history of Latin American and Caribbean music’s influence on jazz, and they can start with ‘Manteca.’ Featuring bubbling conga drums and a hip-swaying clave rhythm, “Manteca” influenced an explosion in Latin-flavored jazz that diversified jazz into an art form that connected musical genealogies from all over the African diaspora in the Americas.
Black & Tan Fantasy by Duke Ellington (1927)
Duke Ellington took big band jazz to new heights by expanding the palette from which jazz composers could build their material. “Black & Tan Fantasy,” one of the Ellington Orchestra’s early hits, presents a figurative panorama of African American life in the 1920s by effortlessly transitioning from one style to another.
A solemn funeral march becomes a cheery downtown stride, before escalating into a bar room stomp and blossoming into a sultry dance in a smoky night club. This classic piece connects with music fans that appreciate stylistic diversity and unexpected musical turns.
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Flying Home by Lionel Hampton (1942)
Home might be down the street, it might be several states away, it might be on another continent – wherever it is, we all know the feeling of trying to get there as soon as we can. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton wrote ‘Flying Home’ while nervously awaiting his first ever flight in an airplane. Hampton first recorded the song in 1939 with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, his employer at the time, but he recorded it again with his own orchestra in 1942.
This version featured a star-making tenor saxophone solo by Illinois Jacquet and became one of the big band era’s smash hits – after all, every audience member out there knew how it felt to be running home as fast as they could.
I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm by Louis Armstrong (1937)
There’s no feeling like being at the top of your game. In the late 1930s, Louis Armstrong had reached the apex of his early career, which he spent touring the world with a hand-picked big band. “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm” is a celebratory song for those who know they’re doing a great job at what they do best – and have all the talent in the world for taking whatever comes next in stride.
A Night in Tunisia by Dizzy Gillespie (1946)
For the music fan who is day dreaming of exotic adventure, “A Night in Tunisia” is a perfect big band song for the soundtrack (there are no lyrics, so the adventure doesn’t have to take place in Northern Africa, but it certainly helps). Dizzy Gillespie wrote this song as a fiery feature for his early bebop small groups but brought it to new heights when he later arranged it for his big band.
The song’s dramatic melody and tantalizing rhythm came to life on concert hall stages with backing by a full horn section, perhaps representing a realization of an exotic adventure that Gillespie himself had once day dreamed of.
You Make Me Feel So Young by Frank Sinatra (1956)
“You Make Me Feel So Young” is obviously about joyous romance, and it can be interpreted as either a young person being made to feel the way they think they should feel or an older person feeling the way they used to feel once again. Listeners might not need romance to connect with this song however – it’s a beautiful ode to life’s restorative moments that can apply to not only a new relationship, but a new home or even a new job.
That last one may sound farfetched, but when this song came out, Sinatra himself was in the midst of a dramatic mid-career renaissance as a popular big band singer.
Solo Flight by Benny Goodman & Charlie Christian (1944)
“Solo Flight” is a triumphant song for listeners who feel like they’ve fully realized themselves on an exciting new level that no one can deny. Electric guitarist Charlie Christian must have been feeling just such a way when he recorded this groundbreaking number with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Christian’s work with Goodman not only made him into a star by showcasing his virtuosic talents but proved the electric guitar itself, which had only recently been invented at the time, to be a serious instrument capable of playing a starring role alongside the King of Swing.
Don’t Git Sassy by Thad Jones & Mel Lewis (1967)
“Don’t Git Sassy” projects confident swagger and affable teasing among long-time friends or lovers. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis’s big band, which held a decades-long weekly residence at New York City’s Village Vanguard night club, became an enduring testament to the power of big band jazz even as the experimental jazz trends of the 1960s and 70s drew in more and more younger listeners.
Perhaps Jones wrote the song as an admonishment to a music world that appeared to be thinking big band was only for old-timers – just to let them know they had another think coming.
Invitation by Jaco Pastorius (1983)
Legendary electric bassist Jaco Pastorius was one of the stars of jazz fusion in the 1970s and 80s, an icon of the jazz vanguard at the time. Like many cutting edge jazz musicians, however, Pastorius loved tradition, and assembled his own big band to showcase this appreciation his own way.
“Invitation” is just that – a top speed, big band-style invitation for adventurous listeners who want to experience something fresh and draw exciting connections between new and old.
Big band jazz brings a magical quality to its emotional narratives. The unique sound created by layers of horns playing in unison to a driving rhythm section can provide a perfect soundtrack for life’s highs and lows. Keep this list of the best big band songs handy so that when you’re feeling grand or feeling blue, you have just the song.