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Our Top Ten: A Fourth of July jazz playlist

The Fourth of July holiday is not particularly fruitful for interesting music for jazz musicians. More suited for orchestras and community bands. Nonetheless, we cobbled together this playlist featuring some of the most iconic artists in jazz performing, dare we say it, patriotic songs and anthems.


The Star-Spangled Banner (Live)

“The Star Spangled Banner” by Louis Armstrong from Live at Newport 1960
Given that Armstrong claimed, falsely as it turned out, the Fourth of July in 1900 as his birthday, it’s appropriate that we lead off with this performance from the Newport Jazz Festival. Historians and scholars have quibbled about the birth date, but who better to claim as his date of birth the first day of the 20th century? None better than one of the greatest artists of that century.

Ray Charles - America The Beautiful (Official Video)

“America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles
Okay, it’s not necessarily jazz, but removing jazz from Ray Charles’ music is simply impossible. And there is no question that this is the most iconic version of the song ever recorded. That is all.

The Star Spangled Banner (Live)

“Star Spangled Banner” by Duke Ellington from Ellington at Newport
In yet another performance from the historic Newport Jazz Festival, Duke and his orchestra performed both the first and last sets of the festival. Opening with this tune might have been seen as a patriotic gesture, or perhaps he just didn’t want to waste one of his own tunes without all the members of his band, since several were late to the bandstand. Hey, lots of us have dealt with Newport traffic to the festival site. Of course, what people remember from this performance and album is the famous 27-chorus saxophone solo from Paul Gonsalves. The story of why he went so long is multi-faceted and not just about the beautiful woman who got up and danced in front of the band. But the performance (Paul’s and hers) became legend. As famously said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Duke Ellington is legend.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

“Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Herbie Mann from Memphis Underground
This 1969 album from the flutist was a smash hit with the new generation of jazz fans coming from more popular genres, like rock, soul and R&B. The album features one of the oddest assemblance of personnel on a jazz record, because it was indeed recorded in Memphis in legendary R&B producer Chip Moman’s American Sound studio featuring his house band as the rhythm section, who played alongside jazz stalwarts such as Roy Ayers, Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock, Miroslav Vitous and of course, Mann himself who delivered the funk on soul tunes like “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Chain of Fools.” The result was not just Mann’s best-selling album, but one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite: IV. My Country 'Tis of Thee

“My Country Tis of Thee” by Rene Marie from Voice of My Beautiful Country
Marie recorded this particular tune as part of a suite, largely stemming from her controversial version of the Star Spangled Banner in which she sang the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to the music of the National Anthem. It got her plenty of hate mail and more than a few death threats. However, people didn’t understand just how much the singer loves this country, with all its flaws. This song and suite clearly reflect that. Freedom of speech may be a foundation of our country, but it can be a challenge to accept, from the left or the right.

John Brown's Body

“John Brown’s Body” by Oscar Peterson Trio with Milt Jackson
This song has a remarkable position in our nation’s history because of the origin of the song, its use during the Civil War and its obvious ties to the tragic abolitionist John Brown. I googled it and you should too. The most interesting thing I learned was that less than a month after the Civil War ended in 1865, recently freed Blacks and white missionaries held a parade in Charleston, South Carolina, led by 3,000 Black children singing this marching song, in honor of 257 dead Union soldiers whose remains were transferred from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. Called Decoration Day, this special day would evolve into Memorial Day.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band - Lift Every Voice and Sing [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Preservation Hall Jazz Band from the film MLK/FBI
This performance comes from the film MLK/FBI, directed by Sam Pollard about the ruthless campaign by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to discredit and even destroy Martin Luther King, Jr. The lyrics were originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, whose brother John Rosamond Johnson later put the words to music. The poem itself was recited publicly for the first time in connection with Abraham Lincoln's 100th birthday on February 12, 1900. The song became a fixture in hymnals and churches all over the country. Reverend Joseph Lowery (the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King’s organization) recited the song's third stanza to begin his benediction at the inauguration ceremony for President Obama on January 20, 2009.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” by Jimmy Smith from Crazy! Baby

So many of these tunes are marches, and who better to play a march than the greatest organist in jazz history? I don’t know why he picked this tune. He picked thousands of tunes. I’m just happy that we can include the smokin’ Mr. Smith in this playlist.

Independence Day

“Independence Day” by Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau
W cheated on this choice, because the song composed by indie rock songwriter Elliot Smith has NOTHING to do with the Fourth of July. Sort of like Bruce Springsteen’s earlier tune by the same name. Oh well, we still can enjoy this fascinating collaboration between two giants in their own genres—Thile in Americana and Mehldau in jazz. But that binary classification belies their mutual appreciation for rock and jazz, as well as their commitment to improvisation. Can you name another album featuring just mandolin and piano? I couldn’t.

Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town (Take 1)

"Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town" by Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday
Perhaps the best thing about this tongue in cheek version of the is that we get to hear Billie Holiday in her early years as a big band singer. Years later, her name would be moved by record companies and historians to top billing, but back then she was just another singer with the band. And the whimsical rewrite of what was an obviously silly patriotic song is almost transgressive. But ultimately, we just want to hear Billie sing with Teddy Wilson’s crack orchestra.

Other recommendations:

“Star Spangled Banner” by Marvin Gaye from the 1983 NBA All-Star game

“America the Beautiful” by George Adams from America

“The House I Live In” by Frank Sinatra

“America the Beautiful” by Lesley Odom, Jr.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”