To answer this question, we must think about why we listen to music in the first place. Why do we pop in earbuds and jam to our favorite tune during our commute to work? Why do we play music at parties, weddings, funerals, and sports games? Why do we sing along to the radio?
Well, it’s because music is a powerful experience that has been a part of our shared human culture since prehistoric times. As you know, when you listen to a particularly satisfying song, your body undergoes a visceral reaction—you become giddy, you feel chills, or maybe you’re even moved to tears. There’s something magical and transcendent about how music can tap into a deeper part of ourselves.
Jazz, like all music, expresses ideas and emotions that may be difficult to articulate through a normal conversation. We also must remember that jazz is a fundamentally diverse and wide-ranging genre, borrowing elements from other styles, like swing, bebop, blues, and hard bop, so there are not exactly strict distinctions when it comes to defining the subject material of jazz. Nonetheless, there are some recurring themes in jazz music that are best explained with examples. Check out the song list below to learn more about the themes of jazz!
The WJ3 All Stars – I’ve Never Been in Love Before
Probably the most obvious theme that first comes to mind when you think of jazz is love. With hits like John Coltrane’s “My One And Only Love,” Johnny Hartman’s “How Sweet It Is to Be in Love” and Nina Simone’s “I Love My Baby,” jazz definitely pays homage to the romantic passion that overcomes us all from time to time.
Published in 1950, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” is a great example of a jazz love song. It first appeared as a duet in the musical Guys and Dolls, sung by the main characters Sky Masterson and Sister Sarah Brown when they spontaneously realized that they had fallen in love. Now all at once it’s you, it’s you evermore…
Since that first showing, the song has become a jazz standard, recorded by many artists including Shirley Bassey, Bing Crosby, and Doris Day. And most recently, the classic has been recorded by the WJ3 All Stars, offering a heartwarming, modern rendition that’ll sweep you off your feet on a romantic journey through the ages.
Billie Holiday – Good Morning Heartache
Unfortunately, lots of jazz songs about love means that there will also be lots of songs about heartbreak. It is utterly devastating when that all-consuming love turns sour and what better way to lament than through music, like Billie Holiday’s 1946 song, “Good Morning Heartache” I’ve got those Monday blues straight through Sunday blues…
Duke Ellington – Black, Brown, and Beige
Since jazz was conceived by a fusion of traditional African music, brought to the country by enslaved peoples, and “New World” ideas of creative expression found in the cultural melting pot of Caribbean, French and Spanish cultures in New Orleans, it comes as no surprise that the genre often celebrates diversity.
This extended jazz work, written in 1943, is composed of three movements that Ellington said offer, “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” The piece begins with a work song and spirituals, which represent the religious songs that black enslaved people sung, then it moves into more West Indian influences, a celebration of Emancipation and the conception of the blues. Lastly, the piece depicts the African Americans of the 1920s, 30s and World War II.
The Lorca Hart Trio – Introspection on the 401
Jazz songs don’t always have lyrics and instrumental tunes can provide a listener with a wordless moment of introspection. As we’ve discussed, music often stirs up emotions and thoughts, thus providing an excellent backdrop to do some thinking. This new song from The Lorca Hart Trio creates just the right ambience to do some self-reflection as you drive down the road to work.
If you’re interested in listening to more jazz songs, and uncovering more themes and meanings, I would recommend our albums, Lovers & Love Songs, and Colors of Jazz, both of which are available in our store and on all major music platforms!