It’s been impossible to miss the heart-filled displays in the stores, signaling the arrival of Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I’ve always wondered why love should be singled out for celebration on a designated day of the year (as opposed to year-round). It got me thinking how tough it must be to have suffered a recent heartbreak and be faced with reminders of romantic love everywhere, and that led me to this playlist of some of jazz music’s greatest torch songs. Surely there are many others outside the jazz arena, but these are the A-list jazz classics that give me goose bumps when I hear them. They are poignant reminders of love and love lost.
- Billie Holiday – “You’ve Changed”: We start with two of the most devastating torch songs I can think of – this track by Billie Holiday and the next one by Frank Sinatra. Holiday recorded this song when she was sick and dying. She couldn’t even make the recording date, so arranger Ray Ellis had to record all the instrumental tracks first. Holiday recorded her vocals later at Columbia studios and released her final studio album, Lady in Satin in 1958. She died a year later from complications caused by liver cirrhosis.
- Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”: A classic recorded after Sinatra’s tumultuous breakup with the actress Ava Gardner, who was more than a match for Old Blue Eyes. Everyone who has been through a rough breakup and can’t sleep can relate to this song. Who can you call at 4 a.m. while lying awake in bed?
- Nina Simone – “You Can Have Him”: Nina Simone’s songs are where you go for a good cry. One of her most indelible songs, this track was recorded live at New York City’s Town Hall in September 1959. I get teary every time I hear this song, with its irony-filled lyrics.
- Nancy Wilson – “Guess Who I Saw Today”: Another masterpiece of irony. A heartbreaking song about the discovery, by chance, of a cheating spouse.
- Chet Baker – “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)”: No torch song playlist would be complete without one by Chet Baker, and this is from his must-have album The Best of Chet Baker Sings.
- Chris Connor – “Cottage for Sale”: While not as well-known as some other female jazz singers, Chris Conner has always been one of my favorites.
- Johnny Hartman – “Down In the Depths”: I discovered this Johnny Hartman song long after his better-known Coltrane duet album. What a superb statement of irony—drinking champagne alone in a New York penthouse. I love this Impulse album Unforgettable.
- Julie London – “Cry Me A River”: This 1955 song is probably London’s signature song. Straddling the divide between pop and jazz, London’s sultry treatment of songs like this one made her a star.
- Little Jimmy Scott – “The Loneliest House On the Street”: Little Jimmy Scott is a singer’s singer, and his unusual-sounding voice (caused by a hormone deficiency) and delivery influenced many other vocalists.