Halloween jazz: 20 songs for a hip and haunting night

Silence can be scary, but Halloween deserves a spooky soundtrack.

For decades, jazz musicians have explored Halloween themes in a variety of ways. Sometimes the eerie imagery is incorporated into lyrics about love; other times the haunting sounds of the music demand a fittingly spine-chilling title; and then there are the songs that are simply zany, fun-filled celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve itself.

Ghosts, ghouls, monsters, witchcraft, skeletons and spirits — you’ll find all these and more throughout this thrilling playlist of Halloween-themed jazz classics both old and new.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put a Spell on You

The story goes that I Put a Spell on You was originally intended as a blues ballad, until producer Arnold Maxin “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version,” according to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The song was banned by most radio stations due to its outrageous style, but it became a cult hit and reportedly sold more than a million copies. Famously (and spectacularly) covered by Nina Simone for her 1965 album of the same name, Screamin’ Jay’s version of I Put a Spell on You stands out as being exactly the kind of monstrously over-the-top horror-film performance that sets a gruesomely spooky mood for Halloween night.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross – Halloween Spooks

“Halloween, Halloween, oh, Halloween / Ghostly things are gonna happen.” It doesn’t get much more Halloween-y than this highly theatrical tune by the vocalese trio of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross. Appearing on the deluxe re-release of the group’s 1960 album, Halloween Spooks is a whirlwind of vocalization imitating all manner of ghosts, witches, monsters and ghouls.

Glenn Miller – That Old Black Magic

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote this song in 1942, and Glenn Miller recorded it with vocals by Skip Nelson and the Modernaires. It turned out to be Miller’s final No. 1 hit, spending 14 weeks on the Billboard charts in 1943. It’s a warm, romantic tune, but the combination of the big band’s dramatic playing, the crackle of the old recording and, of course, the lyrics about magic and witchcraft make it a great addition to your Halloween playlist.

Ella Fitzgerald – Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead

Here’s another Harold Arlen composition, this one written for The Wizard of Oz with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. In the film, the song belongs to the Munchkins. But Ella Fitzgerald made it her own for this 1961 big-band recording with Billy May and His Orchestra, infusing the tune with her signature voice and personality.

Sammy Davis Jr. – The Candy Man

The Candy Man originally appeared in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, but for this list we’re picking Sammy Davis Jr.’s swinging cover version. It became one of Davis’s signature songs and was his only No. 1 hit, earning him the nickname “The Candy Man” later in his career. Whether you’re a child or a grown-up, it’s a perfect soundtrack for tucking into a bag full of Halloween treats.

Frank Sinatra – Witchcraft

Composed by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Witchcraft was released as a single by Frank Sinatra in 1957. It was later recorded by many others, including Elvis Presley, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Bill Evans. Why is this song so irresistible? It’s witchcraft.

Paul James Band – It’s Halloween

This bluesy haunter by Canada’s own Paul James has everything you could want in a Halloween-themed tune: ghosts, goblins, Dracula, Frankenstein, witches, spirits and much more. It’s a spooky, sinister song in a Dr. John-esque style, and James even goes above and beyond to seal the deal with some highly convincing bouts of ghastly, maniacal laughter. Don’t miss out on this one.

The Puppini Sisters – Spooky

Written by Mike Shapiro and Harry Middlebrooks Jr. and later popularized by the group Classics IV, Spooky has been a Halloween favourite since the late ’60s. In 2007, the close harmony trio The Puppini Sisters turned up the tune’s tempo for some fast-paced vocal jazz — accompanied by a music video complete with a haunted mansion and dancing skeletons.

Joshua Redman – Ghost

This ghostly instrumental appeared on Joshua Redman’s 2009 trio album Compass. His playing on the sax is thoroughly eerie; meanwhile, Larry Grenadier’s bass line sounds like it’s creeping through the darkness and Brian Blade’s sparse percussion sounds like creaking floorboards and suddenly slammed doors. Look out, there just might be a ghost in here.

Holly Cole – Whistling Past the Graveyard

Holly Cole takes some of the edge off of this macabre Tom Waits tune from 1978’s Blue Valentine and replaces it with a sly, mischievous and subtly haunting sound. It’s the kind of performance that can give you the illusion of comfort and safety while keeping you on your toes the whole time.

Louis Armstrong – The Skeleton in the Closet

“Don’t you know that house is haunted?” Louis Armstrong warns in this show-stopper from the 1936 musical comedy Pennies From Heaven. The film was one of Armstrong’s first film appearances; he was cast at the insistence of star Bind Crosby. The song depicts an “old, deserted mansion” filled with ghosts, goblins and skeletons having themselves a dance party.

Billie Holiday – Ghost of Yesterday

The voice of Billie Holiday can be haunting enough on its own. Combine it with a song about the ghostly presence of the past and the soft, subtle and shadow sound of her orchestra, and you’ve got a soundtrack for a dark and mysterious Halloween.

Cab Calloway – The Ghost of Smokey Joe

This song is written from the perspective of a ghost, so it easily fits the Halloween mood. Among the lyrics is a reference to “Minnie” from Calloway’s chart-topping hit Minnie the Moocher.

Eartha Kitt – I Want to Be Evil

This hit from the early ’50s finds Eartha Kitt embracing the supposed madness and wickedness of women’s independence. Recording the song for her 1954 album That Bad Eartha, she equates female freedom with “evil” in order to satirize the sexism of society. If being free to express herself would make her a monster, then a monster she’d be.

Carmen McRae – Old Devil Moon

Carmen McRae’s take on the popular song Old Devil Moon appeared on the 1996 reissue of her 1987 duet album with Betty Carter (though this particular track does not include Carter). Recorded live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, it’s an impressive display of vo

Patricia Barber – Black Magic Woman

Is there an instrument that sounds more like Halloween than the organ? Patricia Barber plays the Hammond to great effect for this extended take on Black Magic Woman by Fleetwood Mac (and later popularized by Santana). Beginning with an eerie, haunting atmosphere, the song gradually works up into a fast-paced jazz-fusion beat with sweltering solos.

Louis Prima – Mr. Ghost Goes to Town

Singer, trumpeter and bandleader Louis Prima formed his New Orleans Gang in 1934 with pianist Frank Pinero, bassist Jack Ryan, guitarist Garrett McAdams and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. This Dixieland take on the 5 Jones Boys’ tune has enough swing to get all the ghosts, monsters, critters and crawlers in your home dancing to the music.

Diana Krall – I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You

Originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1932, this song became a jazz and pop standard that has now been covered by more than 50 different artists. Canadian singer Diana Krall recorded the song for her 1997 album Love Scenes, interpreting it in her sparse, warm and tender style.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – The Witch Doctor

The title track from the Jazz Messengers’ 1961 release was composed by trumpeter Lee Morgan and features solos from pianist Bobby Timmons, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Morgan himself.

Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley – The Masquerade Is Over

When Halloween night has come to an end, the costumes have been removed and hung up in the closet, and the bags of candy have been safely stowed away (or already torn apart), there are few better ways to unwind than with this.