Saxophones and jazz go together like discos and dancing. We think that there is no more perfect instrument to play jazz on than the saxophone (although we might be a bit biased!).
The saxophone is the perfect instrument for playing something technical yet expressive, and the tone of the instrument lends itself wonderfully to jazz and blues.
Some people might think that jazz is too complicated for beginners, but in fact, one of the most wonderful things about jazz is that, often, it is based around a relatively simple melody. To get you started, we have here ten easy jazz saxophone songs to try.
1. “When the Saints Go Marching In”
Let’s start off this list with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” or “Oh When the Saints,” as it is commonly known. It is a traditional spiritual that started out as a hymn, but one of the most famous versions of the song was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1938 when it became a jazz standard.
“Oh When the Saints” has a very simple melody, consisting of just the first five notes of the major scale. It also has a simple rhythm that is easy to master.
If you are beginning to learn to play by ear or just want to practice playing in different keys, this song is a great place to start—begin in F as per the tutorial above—then try in some of the other keys that you are comfortable with.
With a simple chord sequence, the piece is ideal for beginners to build an improvisation around, whether it is changing the rhythm, embellishing the melody, changing its speed, or going for all-out improvisation.
2. “Ain’t No Sunshine”
Bill Withers’s song “Ain’t No Sunshine” appeared on his 1971 album Just As I Am. It is instantly detectable by its well-known bass line and has been played by both jazz and blues players over the years.
The melody of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is written in a minor key, and most of the notes fit within an octave. The melody’s rhythm is simple and in a 4/4 time signature, but beginning on the second beat. There is plenty of scope for rubato and expression in the melody, rhythm, and when improvising.
For improvisation, the chord sequence is very simple—based around chords I, IV, and V. This means you can make a very simple improvisation, perhaps playing just one or two notes with differing rhythms, to a simple pentatonic scale, all the way through to something more complicated.
3. “Hit The Road Jack”
Written by Percy Mayfield and most famously performed by Ray Charles, “Hit the Road Jack” is another song with a famous bass line that automatically catches your attention. It is a standard in jazz clubs across the world and is one that everyone should play.
The song’s melody is based around the minor triad—in the case above, E minor (for the alto and baritone sax; A minor for the soprano and tenor). It is a fun, quick song that will get everyone singing and dancing along.
Rhythmically, “Hit the Road Jack” is simple, with much of the melody on the beat and some parts with syncopation. It can be played with a straight or swung rhythm according to how you feel!
The song has a repetitive falling chord sequence, which begs for improvisation on the melody, rhythms, or both. A simple pentatonic scale can be used or something more complicated as you improve.
4. “Feeling Good”
Written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, originally for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint: The Smell of the Crowd, “Feeling Good” was made famous by by Nina Simone and, more recently, Michael Bublé. Other versions include those by John Coltrane, Joe Bonamassa, and even Muse.
This version is in E minor, and its melody is based around the E minor triad. The falling bass line is another distinguishing feature, making it instantly recognizable.
“Feeling Good” is written in 12/8—a typical jazz and blues rhythm, and great for practicing triplets. It is played at a slow pace, making it perfect for practicing expression and rubato.
The bass line can drive the melody and make the harmony more interesting, but improvising on this song can actually be as simple as you want it to be.
The iconic saxophone line in The Champs’ “Tequila” is one that every saxophonist needs to have under their fingers.
Written by Chuck Rio and released in 1958, the song is really fun to play. Against the Latin accompaniment, there is plenty of scope to improvise on interesting rhythms as well as the melody.
The song’s well-known melody is relatively simple, based around the minor scale. It has a fun rhythm, full of accents and attack, that needs to be well articulated. Rhythmically, “Tequila” uses a lot of syncopation and upbeats. This is a great one for practicing your rhythm!
Harmonically, although the chords change roughly every half a bar, as far as improvising is concerned, you can jam most of the first part of the song just on chord I. It is a great song to improvise, especially for beginners.
6. “In The Mood”
Glenn Miller’s classic jazz piece “In the Mood” is a song that most saxophone players will be asked to play at some point. It is one of the most famous saxophone-based big-band pieces, based on Wingy Manone’s “Tar Paper Stomp” and recorded by Miller and his band.
The piece’s melody revolves around rising and falling arpeggio sequences and a chromatic section. Rhythmically, the piece is in 4/4, but it uses interesting rhythms and a lot of syncopation. You will probably already know this song, and that will undoubtedly help you to remember the rhythm!
For improvisation, the first section is based around chords I, IV, and V and is a great place to start. As you grow in confidence, you can then go on to try your hand at the second section.
This backing track is great for practicing—the chords are, however, written at concert pitch, with chords I, IV, and V on the alto; F, Bb, and C on the baritone; and Bb, Eb, and F on the soprano and tenor.
George Gershwin’s “Summertime” was written for the opera Porgy and Bess, composed in 1934. It has since been recorded by numerous artists, including Billy Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Summertime” has a jazzy, bluesy feel and has a simple melody that uses transposing patterns. Rhythmically, the song can be played straight or swung 4/4 or 6/8 and is ideal for introducing swung rhythms and rubato.
Harmonically, “Summertime” is simple and based around chords I, IV, and V. Improvisation can be as complicated as you like—it is easy to improvise around the simple melody or perhaps the chromatic accompaniment that is in the original version.
8. “Blue Bossa”
The music genre bossa nova is from Brazil and often includes interesting chords and a jazzy feel. “Blue Bossa,” written by North American Kenny Dorham, takes elements of this style, creating a well-known piece of instrumental music with rich harmony and a simple main melody.
The piece’s melody uses sequences of falling notes with few accidentals. The rhythm is somewhat trickier but, like much other Latin music, can be easier to learn by ear than reading the sheet music, using syncopation and upbeats. It is a piece that sounds a lot trickier than it plays—for the main melody, at least.
Improvising is more complicated, but “Blue Bossa” is an excellent piece to get your teeth into once you are a bit more confident.
9. “Cantaloupe Island”
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock wrote “Cantaloupe Island” while he was playing in Miles Davis’s band in 1964. It is iconic, especially for saxophonists and trumpeters, and is a song that every sax player should know.
“Cantaloupe Island” is based on a short, simple, memorable melody based on a minor seventh chord. The rhythm is relatively simple, with features including off-beats, accents, and syncopation.
Harmonically, the song is broken into four groups of 4-bar phrases, the first two staying on chord I. The second half gets a little more complicated as it goes up to a flattened VI and then chord VI.
In the video above, there is a good explanation of how to begin to improvise this song once you want to have a go at improvising, practice with a backing track.
10. “Watermelon Man”
The jazz standard “Watermelon Man” was also written by Herbie Hancock and was first released on his album Takin’ Off in 1962. The song has subsequently been covered by an array of different artists and is a solid favorite at jazz jam sessions across the country.
“Watermelon Man” consists of a short, 16-bar melody split into two distinct phrases. The melody is memorable with a lot of repetition, meaning that it is simple to play without the need for sheet music. The second half of the melody is slightly more complicated, but nothing you cannot get the hang of with a little practice.
The song is harmonically based on 16-bar blues, around those same three chords—I, IV, and V. You can use simple pentatonic or blues scales to improvise and make it as complicated as you like.
Summing Up Our List Of Jazzy Saxophone Songs
That’s it for our list of easy jazz songs for the saxophone. Now, these songs might seem tricky at first, but the trick is to have a go—as you’ll never know if you don’t try. You will see that the main melodies are pretty simple and a great introduction to jazz.
Once you’ve got the hang of the melodies, give improvisation a try. There are plenty of backing tracks online to help you practice with improvs if you’re interested. Then, with a bit of creative improv, you can make these songs uniquely your own.