Hit The Road Jack was a number one song for Ray Charles in 1961. I started performing this song several months ago. I figured this would be a great song to draw in more of a mainstream audience, since most people know and enjoy the tune.
The idea of performing popular tunes within a jazz context isn’t new. Most of the jazz standards came from The Great American Songbook. They were performed mainly because jazz musicians knew that most of the general public was familiar with the songs. They also lent themselves well to jazz improvisation because they were very well written and had really interesting chord changes to solo over.
It’s more difficult for jazz musicians to find recognizable songs to solo over today. The majority of American popular songs that have been written since the 1950’s have very simple chord changes that simply don’t translate well in a jazz context.
Ray Charles is one example of an exception to this musical trend. As well as being a successful rhythm and blues singer, Charles was heavily influenced by jazz artists. That really comes through in some of his music compositions, making them great vehicles for modern jazz musicians who would like to bridge the gap between the jazz elite audience and the general listening public.