The Best Smooth Jazz Songs [Beginner's Guide] (2023)

Smooth Jazz music gets a bad rap from some parts of the jazz community, but if you find the best artists playing in this genre, you’ll discover some excellent tunes to listen to.

So, as part of our round up of the different styles of jazz, we decided to put together a list of 10 essential smooth jazz songs which prove that it is certainly much more than elevator music…

Many devout jazz fans dismiss smooth jazz for its commercial sound and seeming abandonment of the principles that jazz music was built on: improvisation, experimentation and creative freedom.

Those who had followed the trajectory of modern jazz from its beginnings in the bebop era mostly turned their noses up at the polished, easy listening sound of smooth jazz.

However, the generation after them, who grew up listening to the likes of George Benson, Bob James and Anita Baker, received the music with open arms, sampling tracks from across the smooth jazz canon to create what would later become hip hop classics.

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best smooth jazz songs of all time, from George Benson to Lonnie Liston Smith. Perhaps it will change your opinion of this sometimes-maligned sub-genre of jazz!

1. George Benson – Affirmation

George Benson was the epitome of cool in the 1970s and 80s. The renowned guitarist released a string of best-selling albums, from the hard bop classic, ‘Beyond The Blue’ to the iconic Quincy Jones-produced R&B record, ‘Give Me The Night’.

Benson bridged the gap between jazz and pop like no other. He seamlessly alternated between virtuosic jazz guitar solos and smooth R&B vocals, also scat singing in unison with his guitar solos, which became his trademark.

A master of the instrument, he was as much at home playing bop with the likes of Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette as he was singing with Chaka Khan and Minnie Riperton. In recent years, he has even collaborated with contemporary artists like Gorillaz.

His 1976 album ‘Breezin” is the perfect example of his chameleon-like abilities, topping the charts in both the jazz and . The album paved the way for the smooth jazz genre which would hit its peak of popularity in the 80s and 90s.

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Any tune from this seminal album would fit nicely into this list of the best smooth jazz songs of all time, but we’ve picked Affirmation for Benson’s intricate guitar solo which floats over the track’s infectious, laid back drum beat and swelling strings.

This track, along with other cuts on the album, would later be picked up by hip hop producers including the late, great Japanese producer, Nujabes.

2. Bob James – Since I Fell For You

Keyboardist Bob James, who has released dozens of excellent smooth jazz albums, is another composer whose back catalogue made the foundation for countless hip hop beats.

His tracks have been sampled by the likes of Eric B. & Rakim, Ghostface Killah, Common, Missy Elliott, Beastie Boys and loads more.

James’ band was originally discovered in 1962 by Quincy Jones, who went on to produce his first studio album. Interestingly, his first effort was a piano exploration of free jazz – a far cry from the pop-infused sound that he would later become famous for.

Bob James produced records for some of the biggest smooth jazz artists, including the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., before releasing pop-jazz albums under his own name.

‘Since I Fell For You’ is a ballad from his 1986 album, ‘Double Vision’, and features two other smooth jazz greats, Al Jarreau on vocals and David Sanborn on saxophone. It might not be pushing the boundaries of jazz, but you can’t deny the passion in Jarreau’s bluesy vocals and Sanborn’s powerful alto sax solo.

Those with keen ears may also recognise the distinctive bass playing of Miles Davis’ long-time collaborator and jazz fusion legend, Marcus Miller.

3. Lonnie Liston Smith – Rainbows Of Love

Lonnie Liston Smith is a legendary funk, soul and jazz musician who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s playing keyboards with jazz greats like Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas and Art Blakey.

Starting out as a pianist, he began to explore the musical possibilities of the electric piano and other keyboards. In 1973 he formed his own group, The Cosmic Echoes.

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The band’s sound was spacy, funky and smooth.

Needless to say, his departure from straight-ahead jazz and free explorations didn’t go down well with the fans of his earlier work. As is the case with most artists on this list, Smith gained popularity with a new audience of crossover music fans who appreciated the funk and R&B inflections of his later releases.

His 1974 spiritual funk-jazz album, ‘Expansions’, remains a stone-cold classic, but for this list we wanted something smoother. Smith’s 1983 album, ‘Dreams Of Tomorrow’, contains similar themes of spirituality and universal love but with a gentler, pop-inspired rhythm.

Marcus Miller’s name pops up again here as producer of the album.

4. Incognito – Pieces Of A Dream

The smooth sound is not exclusive to American jazz. Representing the UK on this list is Incognito, the acid jazz innovator whose music often edged into the realm of smooth jazz.

This joyful, R&B-infused song, from the album ‘Positivity’, has an incredible bassline and features the wonderful vocals of Maysa Leak, a hugely popular artist amongst smooth jazz music fanatics.

5. Sade – Your Love Is King

Sade is another British smooth jazz icon who seamlessly blended jazz and R&B.

Her debut album, ‘Diamond Life’, went multi-platinum in both the UK and US – and for good reason. It contains some of the greatest smooth jazz and smooth soul tracks around, including the album opener and classic R&B number, ‘Smooth Operator’.

Although the album was met with some scepticism from music critics of the time, it is now regarded as one of the best albums of all time and a precursor to neo-soul music which would emerge towards the end of the 90s and early 2000s with the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.

‘Your Love Is King’ is one of the more jazz-influenced tunes on the album and one of her best songs.

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6. Chris Botti – Good Morning Heartache (feat. Jill Scott)

Staying with Jill Scott, this smooth jazz rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic ballad features the singer’s powerful voice which gives the jazz standard a whole new lease of life.

Accompanying her sultry vocal performance is the trumpet player Chris Botti.

He began his career with brief stints in the touring bands of Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich before he relocated to New York and played with saxophonists George Coleman and trumpet legend Woody Shaw.

After five years performing as part of Paul Simon’s band, Botti embarked on a solo career that would frequently fuse pop music and jazz with great success. He has become one of the biggest names in crossover jazz and has earned the loyal support of pop and jazz fans alike.

7. Norman Brown – After The Storm

Rising to fame in the mid-1990s, Norman Brown took the smooth jazz baton from George Benson and pushed the genre forward. He signed to the Motown label Mo’ Jazz in the early 90s and quickly became one of the most talked-about artists on the soul-jazz scene.

‘After The Storm’ is one of the musician’s best-known records and contains many of his greatest tunes. The title track is mid-tempo and carefree, with plenty of smooth synths and intricate guitar work which has led to many comparisons with his idol, Benson.

8. Grover Washington Jr. – Winelight

Grover Washington Jr. was one of the leaders in crossover jazz in the 1980s and 90s. ‘Winelight’ is an early smooth jazz record released in 1980, which earned acclaim on its release and has since become a classic of the genre.

One of the most common criticisms of smooth jazz is its unadventurous solos, but on ‘Winelight’ Washington departs from the melody and offers up an interesting and virtuosic solo, which makes this track well worth a listen!

9. Kenny G – Sade

Okay, we admit that many Kenny G albums sum up what jazz musicians and fans don’t like about this genre… but he did release one or two great tunes!

With his name practically being synonymous with smooth jazz, no ‘best of’ list would be complete without mentioning the divisive sax player.

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‘Duotones’, Kenny G’s 1986 best-seller, is probably the album of his that fared best amongst music critics, with Allmusic editor, Stephen Thomas Erlewine giving it 4 and a half out of 5 stars.

‘Sade’ is a danceable number with a funky synth bassline and R&B-influenced keys which provide the backing to Kenny G’s cheesy yet emotive soprano sax playing.

It’s definitely worth a listen if you’re diving into this style!

10. George Shaw – 6295 SW Fisher

This infectious track is included in a compilation of lesser-known smooth jazz gems via the acclaimed reissue record label, Numero Group.

Although these cuts are by no means classics, the quality of the music is fantastic and they make an ideal gateway into this genre for the listener.

Smooth jazz is here to stay.

Through its use as background music and in the popular smooth jazz radio station format it has become part of everyday life, in a way that many other styles of jazz haven’t.

Thanks for joining us for this top 10 list of our favourite smooth jazz recordings. Have any of these tracks changed your opinion of smooth jazz? Let us know in the comments!

Looking for more articles about the greatest jazz albums of all time? Check them all on our Discover Jazz homepage here.


What is the easiest jazz song? ›

Let's take a look at some easy jazz piano songs for beginner pianists.
  • 1) Thelonious Monk – “Round Midnight”
  • 2) Joseph Kosma – “Autumn Leaves”
  • 3) Bart Howard – “Fly Me To The Moon”
  • 4) Frank Churchill & Larry Morey – “Some Day My Prince Will Come”
  • 5) Duke Ellington – “Take The A-Train”
  • 6) John Coltrane – “MR.
Mar 24, 2021

What is considered the best jazz song of all time? ›

Thousands of Jazz24 listeners voted for the songs they felt were the 100 best jazz songs of all time.
The Jazz 100.
1.Take FiveDave Brubeck
2.So WhatMiles Davis
3.Take The A TrainDuke Ellington
4.Round MidnightThelonious Monk
96 more rows

What jazz should I start listening to? ›

Louis Armstrong: Satchmo At Symphony Hall (Decca, 1951)

If you're looking for the best albums for jazz beginners, you need to start with Louis Armstrong. One of jazz's founding fathers, trumpet sensation and gravel-voiced singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong became an ambassadorial figure for the genre in his later years.

Who is the king of smooth jazz? ›

Kenny G – Sade

With his name practically being synonymous with smooth jazz, no 'best of' list would be complete without mentioning the divisive sax player.

What is the most relaxing jazz music? ›

Disc: 2
1Body and Soul - Red Garland
2Stormy Weather - Woody Shaw
3Tenderly - Kenny Burrell
4Never Let Me Go - Bobby Hutcherson
5I Can't Give You Anything But Love - Nat Adderley
5 more rows

Can you learn jazz as a beginner? ›

The good news is – you do not need any prior experience. You also do not need to study classical music prior to starting jazz. You can start as a total beginner, and learn the intricacies as well as the simplicities of this beautiful language.

What is the most sold jazz single? ›

"Take Five" is a jazz standard composed by Paul Desmond. It was first recorded in 1959 and is the third track on Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Frequently covered by a variety of artists, the track is the biggest-selling jazz song of all time and a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.

What is the most popular song of all time? ›

According to Guinness World Records, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1942) as performed by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single worldwide, with estimated sales of over 50 million copies.

What does listening to jazz do for your brain? ›

Improves Cognitive Health, Memory, and Mood

The study at Johns Hopkins Medicine also found that listening to jazz can enhance memory recall, moods, clarity of mind, and even linguistic skills. This makes jazz exposure a perfect form of music therapy for those in a memory care community.

What is the average age of a jazz listener? ›

Defining Your Jazz Niche: How to Identify Your Target Audience. Jazz in the US primarily appeals to adults aged 35+, with higher levels of education and income.

How do I start enjoying jazz? ›

The best thing you can do is listen to a lot of jazz and study it. You can practice scatting by singing along over jazz songs that don't have vocals. That's actually how scatting was created. You can also sing along with some of your favorite jazz songs or sing over karaoke tracks.

Why is smooth jazz not jazz? ›

The basic point of difference between traditional and smooth jazz is rooted in the improvisation technique adopted by the pianist. Smooth jazz is not just about improvisation.

Who is known as the queen of jazz? ›

Legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) became known as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella” for her singular tone. Ella Fitzgerald's voice featured prominently on the 1940s musical soundtrack. She was one of the superstars of the era and an all-time musical great.

Who is the jazz god? ›

Duke Ellington (1899-1974), the famous jazz pianist and orchestra leader, gave prolific artistic gifts to America and the world. His list of movie and musical recordings is amazing.

What is the worlds most calming song? ›

Weightless by Marconi Union: 'World's most relaxing song' used to calm patients before surgery.

What is most calming song? ›

Here are the top 10 most relaxing tunes:
  • Marconi Union - Weightless.
  • Airstream - Electra.
  • DJ Shah - Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix)
  • Enya - Watermark.
  • Coldplay - Strawberry Swing.
  • Barcelona - Please Don't Go.
  • All Saints - Pure Shores.
  • Adele – Someone Like You.

What is the most jazz chord ever? ›

Jazz Guitar Chord Progression 1 – ii V I Major

The 2 5 1 progression is without any doubt the most popular chord progression in jazz.

What is the easiest jazz instrument? ›

Saxophone is one of the easiest jazz instruments (compared to say, a trumpet). The fingerings run up and down, are easy to learn.

Can jazz be self taught? ›

Jazz is a topic you can teach yourself at home. You'll need a collection of jazz albums, your instrument, a comprehensive plan and some discipline to get yourself on the right track.

What makes jazz hard to play? ›

The jazz player needs a vast and extensive range of tools, because the music they play is based on sophisticated scales, and those scales are used to generate extremely complex chord structures. There are hundreds of code forms to learn and a great number of scale forms all over the neck in every key.”

Who is the most recorded jazz musician? ›

With an incredible total of 2,221 individual recording credits as of 15 September 2015, legendary American musician Ronald Levin Carter aka Ron Carter (USA, b.

What is the biggest selling jazz album of all time? ›

1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue (1959) is the top jazz album on most 'best-of' lists and is cited as jazz's biggest-seller.

Who listens to jazz the most? ›

Participation rates are consistently higher for men than for women; although men make up only 48 percent of the adult population in the United States, the audience for most forms of participation in jazz is 52 to 54 percent male.

What is the oldest jazz song? ›

And yet this was as significant a moment in US musical history. The date was 26 February 1917, and this novelty song, Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, was the first jazz recording.

What key is most jazz written in? ›

Most Jazz songs are in a major or a minor key, and Minor songs are a great place to learn several things that you need in Major as well, so it is a good idea to really dig into studying some minor songs.

Who is the coolest jazz musician? ›

The Best Jazz Musicians of All Time – 40 Legendary Jazz Artists
  • Miles Davis.
  • Louis Armstrong.
  • John Coltrane.
  • Charles Mingus.
  • Thelonious Monk.
  • Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Charlie Parker.
  • Duke Ellington.
Mar 17, 2023

What is the longest #1 songs in history? ›

"Old Town Road" holds the record for the longest stretch at No. 1 with 19 weeks.
Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" was the first to achieve the feat in 1977.
  • " You Light Up My Life" by Debby Boone. ...
  • " Physical" by Olivia Newton-John. ...
  • " ...
  • " ...
  • "
Dec 20, 2022

Who has the most #1 songs in music history? ›

The Beatles have the most No. 1 hits of all time: 20. Though unclear for how long, the Beatles still reign supreme as the artist with the most No. 1 songs of all time.

What is the most first song ever? ›

The melody, known as “Hurrian Hymn no. 6,” is thought to be from around the 14th century B.C.E. To give you an idea of just how old it is, it predates the use of the Gregorian Calendar (the system we actually still use today).

Why do smart people listen to jazz? ›

Jazz and Your Brain's Biology

According to research, jazz also improves your verbal ability, focus, memory and mood, as was noted in patients that had suffered from a stroke. Going into the nitty-gritty, jazz also activates certain brain waves that lead to better brain function.

Does jazz help with anxiety? ›

Stress Relief

Music is every bit as effective as reducing anxiety as a massage. Science has found that listening to a relaxing piece of music, such as a ballad, causes the brain waves to match the tempo of the music. This has a relaxing, stress-reducing effect on the listener. Jazz can also help induce sleep.

Why does jazz make people happy? ›

The music has a direct effect on your hormones. Listening to the slow classical notes relaxes tense muscles, which releases some of the tension you carry around on a day to day basis. Upbeat Jazz music is known to reduce negative emotions, evoking happy and positive feelings.

What is the personality of people who listen to jazz? ›

Jazz Music Fans

People who prefer jazz music tend to be high in openness to experience and agreeableness. They are typically creative and compassionate. They might also be open-minded and easygoing.

Is smooth jazz still popular? ›

The Smooth AC format is now virtually extinct on commercial radio. Other former smooth-jazz stations have evolved to Rhythmic Oldies formats while maintaining their previous call letters, notably KOAS in Las Vegas, which saw its ratings in the 25-54 age demographics improve after moving to its "old school" format.

What is the personality of jazz listeners? ›

Jazz, Blues and Soul Music

Individuals who listen to jazz, blues, or soul music tend to be more extroverted and have high self-esteem. They also were found to be very intelligent, creative, and at ease.

Can you enjoy jazz without knowing theory? ›

Yes of course you can play jazz without knowing anything about “jazz theory.” You do not need to know how to analyze chord progressions in a theoretical way or understand why certain scales fit over which chords.

Why does jazz sound so nice? ›

Jazz has all the elements that other music has: It has melody; that's the tune of the song, the part you're most likely to remember. It has harmony, the notes that make the melody sound fuller. It has rhythm, which is the heartbeat of the song. But what sets jazz apart is this cool thing called improvisation.

What are some catchy jazz sayings? ›

"If ya ain't got it in ya, ya can't blow it out." "Never play anything the same way twice." "Man, if you have to ask what it [jazz] is, you'll never know." "All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

Why is smooth jazz controversial? ›

To put things concisely, smooth jazz is a subgenre of jazz (debatable) that was not necessarily created with jazz fans in mind, but a more broad audience. Because of this shift in audience, many “jazzlike” qualities were cut, upsetting many jazz fans. That's why many jazz fans dislike the existence of smooth jazz.

What is the opposite of smooth jazz? ›

Pink Monkey - Grouch we call our genre rough is the opposite of smooth jazz.

Why don't people like jazz anymore? ›

People hate jazz because they perceive it as endless self-indulgent noodling. In other words, they dislike the emphasis on improvisation. At one time, during the Swing Era, jazz was America's popular music, and improvisation was just a small part of the mix.

Which singer was called the Jezebel of jazz? ›

There was a time when Anita O'Day's name was synonymous with scandal. Thanks to drug busts and resulting jail time, the jazz singer was dubbed by the US tabloids as the “The Jezebel Of Jazz”, her hepcat lifestyle causing her to be depicted in a negative light.

Who is the king of American jazz? › Louis Armstrong: King of Jazz (African-American Biographies): 9780894909979: Old, Wendie C.: Books.

Who was the first jazz girl? ›

Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) was an American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the "First Lady of Song", "Queen of Jazz", and "Lady Ella".

Which jazz musician is Jehovah's Witness? ›

Benson describes his music as focusing more on love and romance, due to his commitment to his family and religious practices, with Benson being a Jehovah's Witness.

What country did jazz originate from? ›

Jazz developed in the United States in the very early part of the 20th century. New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, played a key role in this development.

Who was the main star of the jazz singer? ›

The star of the show was a thirty-year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Lithuanian-born Jew who performed in blackface.

What is the easiest jazz instrument to learn? ›

Saxophone is one of the easiest jazz instruments (compared to say, a trumpet). The fingerings run up and down, are easy to learn.

What is the hardest jazz piece to play? ›

Whether John Coltrane's “Giant Steps” is the most difficult jazz standard of all time is a matter of opinion, but most would agree that more than any other contender, its name serves as shorthand for improvisation intimidation.

What is the hardest jazz piece? ›

There are a few tunes that all jazz musicians know, and for good reasons. These are tunes like “So What,” “Summertime,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” and so many more. But there's one tune that has cemented its legendary status because of its difficulty—that's John Coltrane's “Giant Steps.”

Can you learn jazz by ear? ›

Jazz is first and foremost an aurally learned music.

Learning music by ear is not always the easy way, and if you aren't used to it, you may find it quite difficult at first. But it's the best way hands down, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Don't misunderstand me either.

What is the most important chord in jazz? ›

1. Major ii-V-I. The major ii-V-I chord progression is easily the most important jazz chord progression you need to know. This common chord progression is also important in other styles of music as well, but it's all over jazz standards.

What is the coolest jazz instrument? ›

Perhaps the most iconic jazz instrument of all time, the saxophone has been a consistent in jazz through its history, adapting to the different styles that have emerged in it's history.

What is the fastest jazz type? ›

Bebop or bop is a style of jazz characterized by a fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure and occasional references to the melody.

Is jazz harder than metal? ›

Jazz in that it utilizes dissonant chords and more technical melodies. Metal is technical in that it requires speed and good technique to pull off. Generally though, Metal is easier to play than Jazz. That is not to say one is more difficult than the other, though.

What is a 5 piece jazz band called? ›

In jazz music, a quintet is group of five players, usually consisting of two of any of the following instruments, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, flute or trombone, in addition to those of the traditional jazz trio – piano, double bass, drums.


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