What is a ballad? What are the best jazz ballads?

Nowadays, people seem to use the term ‘ballad’ to refer to a slow, maybe sentimental, and romantic, song with beautiful lyrics. But did you know, technically, that’s not what a ballad is?

A ballad is a poem or song that narrates a story in short stanzas, usually set to music. Ballads were originally written to accompany dances, amd their name was derived from the Scottish word ‘ballares’ meaning “to dance.” Traditionally, dancers sang the alternating refrains of the song in time with the dance. 

Usually, ballads consist of 13 lines with an ABABBCBC rhyming form, but there’s also many variations on that pattern. Only in the later 19th century did the term begin to be used to describe a slower form a popular love song. 

So, now that you know what a ballad is, let’s look at some of the best ballads of all time! 

Billy Strayhorn – Lush Life

This 1933 ballad tells the story of a person who used to frequent the best places in town and relax on the “axis of the wheel of life,” that is, until he fell deeply in love and, later, became heartbroken. Now, the narrator is reflecting on that failed romance and the wearisome nightlife he used to indulge in. “Only last year everything seemed so sure,” Strayhorn sings. “Now life is awful again.”

A fun fact about this ballad is that Strayhorn was only a teenager when he began composing this classic! Talk about young talent! 

Elsie Carlisle – Body and Soul

Written in 1930 for the British actress and singer Gertrude Lawrence, who performed it first in London, this standard has become the most recorded ballad in jazz history, with over 2,200 existing versions! 

With its poignant and relatable lyrics about a person who wants to make sure she won’t be devastated after opening her heart to a new lover, it’s no wonder that this ballad became so remarkably popular. The narrator wonders if she will “stand alone at the shore.” She’s got to know—“oh, body and soul”—that her new beloved has no doubt “inside and out.”

John Coltrane – Naima

Inspired by his wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs, Coltrane composed this ballad in 1959, which has since become a jazz standard. “Queen of the ages,” Coltrane sings. “She transcends history’s pages.” 

The story of true love, and the utter awe that comes with it, never does seem to get old, does it? We always seem to find new ways to express our emotions to the ones we love, especially in the form of musical ballads.  

Always On My Mind – Janis Siegel & John Di Martino 

Recorded by everyone from Elvis to Loretta Lynn, and, of course, Willie Nelson, this iconic song, first released in 1972, tells the story of a remorseful narrator who is looking back and wishing that she would’ve told her beloved just how much she cared. In this new 2021 version, the classic is reimagined as a jazz ballad, which serves to highlight the bittersweet theme of regret. 

If you’re looking for more ballads, and modern jazz renditions of country favorites, check out our album Cryin’ In My Whiskey, which is available in our store and on all major music platforms today! 

Recommended Posts