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Top 10 Jazz Vocal Ballads, According To Musicians

The jazz ballad is a collaboration between singer, arranger, writer, and musicians.

These thoughtfully chosen tracks and vocalists represent the cream of the jazz standard songbook.

Listening to these songs and singers will get you well started on the path to jazz literacy.

Jazz Vocal Ballads

Or you could just as well cozy up with a glass of Chardonnay, kick off your shoes and bask in the sounds of real honest vocal jazz.

Interestingly, jazz musicians took most of their repertoire from the Tin Pan Ally writers, and Broadway show tunes. This was because jazz was being played listened to, danced to and sung to by a large swath of America’s population. It was the soundtrack that your grandparents romanced to.

Here is our top ten list of Jazz ballads and the vocalists that made them famous. Enjoy!

Misty – Sarah Vaugh

Sarah Vaughn Misty

As one of the the great classical era jazz vocalists Sarah Vaughan is simply mesmerizing. This version of Misty is the gold standard by which all others are judged. 

When Sarah sings  we are as helpless as kittens up a tree the picture is crystal clear.

Listen to it here.

My One and Only Love – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann

John Coltrane My One And Only Love

If you want one vocal and saxophone recording in your collection or on your playlists, this entire record “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” on imPulse records would be a great choice.

Recorded March 7 1963, in Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, this is a stunning piece of jazz history. All songs but 2 were recorded in one take. 

My One and Only Love has been reinterpreted by many but has never been better than this version with Coltrane playing the melody on verse 2.

A must listen.

Listen to it here.

Save Your Love For me – Nancy Wilson and Cannonbal Adderley

Nancy Wilson Save Your Love For Me

Songwriting as an art. Save Your Love for Me and Nancy Wilson’s heartfelt rendition make it a necessary part of any jazz vocal collection. Luscious tempo and Julian Cannonball Adderley’s unmistakable tone on alto saxophone provide accompaniment in perfect synchronicity.

Ms Wilson, like any great vocalist, has us believing every word when she opens with Wish I knew, why I was so in love with you.

Listen to it here.

Lush Life John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann

John Coltrane Lush Life

Yes. From the same release as My One and Only Love. This song Lush Life was written by a 24 year old from NY who would become Duke Ellington’s right hand. Billy Strayhorn also wrote Take The A Train, Ellington’s signature big band piece. It’s hard to believe a 24-year -old could pen a lyric like, And there I’ll be, while I rot with the rest, of those whose lives are lonely too.

Composed with a set of harmonic tools that stretched far beyond the blues and rhythm changes, Lush Life with Hartman and Trane will leave you breathless.

Listen to it here.

Bewitched – Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald Bewitched

There’s Sarah and then there’s Ella. Ella Fitzgerald made so many great jazz recordings that a top 200 list wouldn’t suffice.

This Rogers and Hart classic recorded in 1956 lets us hear Ella’s ballad singing, delivered with the usual perfect intonation and clarity that Ms Fitzgerald is known for.

Listen to it here.

My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker

Chet Baker My Funny Valentine

With each word he sings we hear a life lived on edge with a monkey on his back. Chet was a naturally gifted trumpet player who could deliver a vocal performance that was almost too authentic.

While not the greatest technical singer, one would be hard-pressed to find a more honest interpretation of this classic.

Listen to it here.

Solitude – Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday Solitude

Lady Day. A totally mesmerizing vocalist. A tone like no other. Tragic. Sad. Deep. Misunderstood.

This take , a song by Duke Ellington , demonstrates Billie’s capacity to wrap you up and take you prisoner.

Listen to it here.

At Last – Etta James

Etta James At Last

This song makes many top 10 lists for many different reasons. In this case, its the raw emotional power of Ms James voice, and the simple yet elusive sentiment of having found “it” at last. There’s a reason why some songs resonate universally, generation after generation.

Listen to it here.

Body and Soul – Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughn Body and Soul

Sarah gets called on twice here. The 1954 recording with the gifted Clifford Brown on trumpet must be in rotation on your playlists.

From the opening lyric, we are convinced that Sarah, et al. are in it body and soul.

Listen to it here.

When I Was 17 – Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra When I Was Seventeen

A global smash hit, a killer arrangement, and Frank’s straight forward delivery made this recording a classic.

Awarded the Grammy in 1966 for best male vocal performance,  Sinatra’s take is still a lesson in love, life, perspective and acceptance.

A brilliant piece of songwriting , Frank’s usual perfect intonation and no vibrato delivery make this song a must listen.

Listen to it here.

These classic interpretations by jazz vocalists is the perfect primer for your learning about this timeless musical art-form. So much more to discover but these 10 will get you well on your way