Who are the best jazz bass players of all time and what were their most iconic albums? We’ve rounded up a selection of 16 famous bass players to tell the story of this essential (yet often overlooked) jazz instrument.
Whilst a definitive list of the best musicians is totally subjective, there are certain players on each instrument who show up on a huge number of the most popular and best-selling albums in jazz.
In this guide, we’ve pulled together 16 of these legends, both from the early days of jazz through to players still forging a trail on the contemporary scene today.
From free jazz to swing, hard bop to fusion, we hope you’ll find at least a handful of new listening tips from this round up.
And, in the case of our #1 pick at the end, you’ll probably hear a bit of everything thrown into his famously wide-ranging style as a bassist, bandleader and composer!
We should also note: whilst the majority of these selections are jazz double bass players, keep an eye out for a couple of legendary musicians who made the electric bass their instrument of choice…
16. Reggie Workman
An immensely gifted and technically superb bassist, Workman established himself as a master of the hard bop idiom.
He played in the bands of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Other frequent gigs would include working with Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Booker Little, Eric Dolphy and Yusef Lateef.
Throughout the 1960’s the bassist would be increasingly drawn to music at the freer end of the spectrum and is still often to be heard at the sharp end of the music.
In 1961 he replaced Steve Davis in the John Coltrane Quartet and can be heard on the albums Africa/Brass, Olé Coltrane, and Live At The Village Vanguard.
He was also present on the sessions for A Love Supreme, although his contribution was not included on the originally released album, the music has subsequently been made available.
As well as working as a sideman and leading his own groups, Workman has also been active in jazz education.
Lived: 1937 –
Album Highlight: Summit Conference
Sideman Highlight: John Coltrane Live At The Village Vanguard
15. Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen
Regarded as one of the best bass players in Europe, this claim was substantiated by his impressive CV, as from an early age NHØP (as would often be referred to) could be found playing with the best jazz musicians from not just Europe but also the America.
After learning piano as a child, NHOP took up the double bass at thirteen. Just two years later he would be a regular at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.
At just seventeen he regrettably had to turn down an offer by Count Basie to join his orchestra being too young to get a permit to live and work in the United States.
Remaining in Denmark, NHOP honed his skills by regular work at the Montmartre accompanying visiting American musicians including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonnny Rollins, Stan Getz and touring with pianist Bill Evans.
His affinity with pianists would also manifest itself in a longstanding working relationship with Kenny Drew, and most notably in his tenure as bassist in Oscar Peterson’s Trio from 1971 to 1987.
First call bassist for many musicians, NHOP recorded prolifically as a sideman as well as making many fine recordings under his own name.
Lived: 1946 – 2005
Album Highlight: Those Who Were
Sideman highlight: Oscar Peterson Trio
14. Stanley Clarke
Although he started his career playing double bass, Clarke really came to prominence with his virtuosic and melodic approach to the bass guitar.
Crucial to his career and development was his musical association with pianist and keyboards player, Chick Corea. With Corea, Clarke would tour and record with saxophonist Stan Getz.
The 1974 album under the saxophonist’s name, Captain Marvel, featured music primarily composed by Chick Corea.
However, a month before recording Captain Marvel, Corea and Clarke had gone into the studio with a similar line up with Airto on drums and percussion and vocalist Flora Purim to record the album Return To Forever.
Released on ECM ahead of Getz’s album, Return To Forever received much critical acclaim becoming the name of the group with which Clarke would record and tour into the ‘80s.
It was during this time that Clarke would also begin playing the Alembic electric bass guitar and developed a unique approach that allowed him to play fleet fingered melodic lines.
His interest in rock and funk also brought an edge to his music that was most appealing.
His composition, ‘Schooldays’ and album of the same name became classics of the fusion genre.
From this point on, much of the bassist’s career would be outside of jazz, but periodically Clarke would appear on double bass in a straight ahead setting reminding us just how fine a player he is.
Lived: 1951 –
Album Highlight: Schooldays
Sideman Highlight: Chick Corea / Return To Forever
13. Eberhard Weber
German bassist, Eberhard Weber, has carved out a unique and distinctive on his instrument.
Starting out a double bassist, for most of his career he has played his custom designed and built electric bass.
With a cutaway slim body, it is held like a double bass which Weber often played sitting on a stool. It has five strings that enables Weber to extend the bass’s range into the cello register.
He led his own group, Colours, featuring American saxophonist, Charlie Mariano and was and for more than twenty five years was a member of Jan Garbarek’s various groups.
Weber’s orchestral approach to the bass was well suited to the saxophonist and the music they produced together would encompass European classical music, chamber jazz and at times a gentle ambient flavour.
In the 1980’s and 90’s Weber would also give solo bass recitals that showed the depth and variety of his playing.
In 2007, at a sound check prior to a concert with the Jan Garbarek Group, Weber suffered a stroke which left him unable to play.
Lived: 1940 –
Album Highlight: Yellow Fields
Sideman Highlight: Jan Garbarek Grou
12. Gary Peacock
Starting out as a pianist, Gary Peacock switched to bass when in Germany doing his National Service in the mid-fifties.
Initially influenced by Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Scott LaFaro, Peacock was to re-examine his role as a bassist after hearing Ornette Coleman’s quartet in 1959.
He began to question his place in the band as a mere timekeeper, and became interesting in playing without stating the time, but “just allowing it to be there”.
Important associations were with Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, Archie Shepp, George Russell and Bill Evans.
His interest in freeing up time and the role of the bass in the music naturally gravitated towards fee jazz, and he played an integral part in the music of Albert Ayler, playing on the saxophonist’s influential Spiritual Unity album.
A distinctive and intuitive musician, Peacock will probably be most remembered for his work with the Keith Jarrett Trio, or as they became known, the Standards Trio.
The most influential trio in jazz since Bill Evans group with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, for thirty years Jarrett, Peacock and Jack DeJohnette pushed the boundaries of, and redefined the piano trio and their approach to the standards repertoire.
Lived:1935 – 2020
Album Highlight: Tangents
Sideman Highlight: Keith Jarrett / Standards Trio
11. Scott LaFaro
Despite being born in New Jersey, Scott LaFaro first established himself on the West Coast Los Angeles jazz scene performing with the cool school of musicians including Chet Baker, Victor Feldman and, most famously, Bill Evans.
He also played an important role on the most free scene, performing and recording with Ornette Coleman in the early 60s, before his untimely death in a car accident in 1961.
The jazz bass player view: “Bill Evans Trio’s Live at the Village Vanguard was one the of the first albums I bought and I still can’t stop listening it over and over. Scott’s playing is so intense and his sound is so big and deep that it blows me away every time.
He set a new standard for bass playing, pushing forward the instrument’s technique and the way of conceiving interplay, still playing very lyrically and inspired.” – Ferdinando Romano, Italian jazz bassist
Album Highlight: Portrait In Jazz
Sideman highlight: Bill Evans Trio
10. John Patitucci
New York bassist John Patitucci is the second youngest bassist on this list and made his name in the 80s and 90s as part of Chick Corea‘s various bands.
Aside from 15 albums under his own name (starting with the self-titled John Patitucci 1987), he’s recorded with many of the jazz legends from the last 4 decades: John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Victor Feldman, Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Kurt Elling…
More recently, in the 2000’s, he’s toured and recorded heavily with the great Wayne Shorter Quartet alongside Brian Blade and Danilo Perez.
Album Highlight: Beyond the Sound Barrier
Sideman highlight: Wayne Shorter Quartet
9. Charlie Haden
With a career spanning more than 50 years, Charlie Haden established himself as a central figure in Ornette Coleman’s band, performing on arguably the most celebrated ‘free’ jazz album in history, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959).
His creative output both as bandleader and sideman continued to grow and evolve over the years, with highlights including his work on European jazz label ECM: albums with the Liberation Music Orchestra co-led with Carla Bley and as a sideman with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Lee Konitz.
The musician’s view: “Charlie Haden has a sound that is recognisable by everyone; each of his notes being charged with a rare intensity.
In his solos, his lyricism can make us lose the pulse but never the ideas – which are always clear. His songs “Silence” and “First Song (for Ruth)” are made of this Hadennian lyricism and have become jazz standards!
I particularly love the record “Steal Away” in duet with Hank Jones where they play Spirituals” – Theo Girard, French bassist
Lived: 1937 – 2014
Album Highlight: The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM)
Sideman highlight: Ornette Coleman Quartet
8. Christian McBride
Over the last 3 decades, Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride has become one of the most requested, most recorded and most respected figures in the music world.
Born in Philadelphia and educated at Juilliard, he left music school at the age of 17 to tour with Bobby Watson; he quickly became one of the most in-demand players on the US jazz scene.
In a Jazzfuel interview, he talked about his early days as a sideman with the jazz greats. “I learned a little bit from every band leader I’ve ever worked with. Freddie Hubbard was much different than Benny Golson. Benny Golson was much different than Joe Henderson and Benny Green…”
Album Highlight: The Good Feeling (Grammy for Best Large Ensemble Jazz Album)
Sideman highlight: Freddie Hubbard
7. Larry Grenadier
Californian bassist Larry Grenadier has played with a who’s who of modern jazz history – both from the North American and European jazz scenes, but is perhaps best known for his long-time work as part of the Brad Mehldau Trio.
His first high-profile gig out of school was with vibraphonist Gary Burton, before moving onto the New York jazz scene, as part of the new generation of players including Kurt Rosenwinkel (who spoke with Jazzfuel here), Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Jorge Rossy, Kevin Hays and Chris Cheek.
Alongside a huge discography with these fellow musicians, on labels such as Criss Cross, Fresh Sound, Origin & Nonesuch) he’s also performed and recorded with some of the jazz legends who are still active, such as Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny & Jack DeJohnette.
Album Highlight: Lift Every Voice
Sideman highlight: Brad Mehldau Trio
6. Jaco Pastorius
Electric bassist Jaco Pastorius is yet another artist in the history of jazz who managed to influence a generation of musicians, despite a life cut tragically short.
With his trademark fretless electric bass in his hands, he had one of those instrumental voices that’s inimitable and unmistakable.
It may sound over the top to say that he was an astounding virtuoso or even a genius, helped revolutionize the world of jazz, and actually reinvented the possibilities of his instrument.
Nonetheless, that’s no exaggeration – nobody before him even conceived of doing so much with only four strings, and just about everyone since has still struggled just to catch up.
Read the full Jaco Pastorius profile by American jazz critic Geno Thackara here.
5. Ron Carter
With over 2,000 albums in the Ron Carter discography, this jazz bass legend is still touring as of 2022.
He started his professional career in the 1950s with Jaki Byard, Chico Hamilton and Eric Dolphy, before joining Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams in the Miles Davis Quintet in the mid 1960s.
Album Highlight: Four & More
Sideman highlight: Miles Davis Quintet
4. Dave Holland
The only non-American jazz bassist to make the list, Dave Holland was born & raised in England where he established himself on the London jazz scene as the resident bassist at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. It was there, in 1968, that Miles Davis heard him and, soon after, invited him to join his band.
His recordings with Miles in that period include some of the most renowned: Filles de Kilimanjaro (with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams), In a Silent Way and Bitches’ Brew.
He remained in the US, where he’s lived for over 40 years now, but kept his European jazz ties in place with a long-standing relationship with the German record label ECM. It’s there that he recorded many of his own albums as bandleader, as well as with Charles Lloyd, Sam Rivers, Tomasz Stańko & Kenny Wheeler.
The bassist’s view: “Dave represents one of the highest level of versatility, you can hear him playing at the top in the most different contexts, from solo bass to big band, even in styles you would never expect like in the case of the flamenco album in duo with Pepe Abichuela.
To me his desire for self development and growth is a great source of inspiration. He is also a great composer that I continuously dig; besides being one of the most relevant modern bassists he has a deep knowledge of the history and the tradition of bass playing.
I had the chance to talk with him once after a great concert he had with Kenny Barron and he was very nice and kind; we talked about the role of the bass in a duo context, it was deeply inspiring for me. A couple of listening suggestions: Ones All (solo bass album) and Jumpin’In.
Album Highlight: Extended Play (Live at Birdland)
Sideman highlight: Miles Davis Quintet
The fact that both John Coltrane and Red Garland named tunes after this bass player (do you know both without Googling it?!) goes some way to showing his influence on the history of jazz. His performances as part of “the rhythm section” saw him most frequently alongside either Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Cobb on drums.
We’d already compiled and published a list of 10 of the best Paul Chambers albums of all time when we put this article together – which only made his inclusion easier! Despite dying at the tragically young age of 33, Paul Chambers appeared on more than 100 albums, including many of the most legendary recordings of the 1950’s and 1960s.
The bassist’s view: “His bass lines are a total reference, for the incredible bounce in his swing and for the choice of notes, his great ears also let him be always very creative inside the song form.
He was able to synthesise the bop language and make it personal, playing also great bowed solos.
Paul is the bassist in many of the albums that a have become milestones in the jazz history, I think that digging deeply in to the study of his lines is a must for all jazz bass players.
As a listening suggestion I would mention an album I love a lot, one of his first as a leader, Whims of Chambers, with a stellar line-up. I also love The Complete Vee Jay Paul Chambers – Wynton Kelly Sessions 1959-1961″ – Ferdinando Romano, Italy
Album Highlight: Kind of Blue
Sideman highlight: Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet
2. Ray Brown
Married to Ella Fitzgerald and performing in one of the greatest piano trios of all time, Ray Brown is surely one of the most legendary jazz bass players in history.
With a career that spanned 6 decades – from the 1940’s bop with Dizzy Gillespie through to his death in 2002 – he was releasing music right up until the end.
Whilst the Ray Brown discography contains some of the best records made, bass players and fans should also check out his work from the 90s as part of Superbass, alongside Christian McBride and John Clayton.
He also dived into the world of jazz education with an excellently reviewed book called Ray Brown’s Bass Method: Essential Scales, Patterns and Exercises. You can find that – and several more – in our round up of the best books to learn jazz.
The jazz bass players view: “I first discovered Ray Brown on a compilation around the double bass.
The theme “Song Of The Volga Boatmen” played with Hank Jones (piano) and Buddy Rich (drums) presented a mainstream interpretation of this traditional melody with such swinging phrasing and perfect intonation. And a few tracks later, he was back with a much more modern and free solo piece. Beautiful.
For me that’s what Ray Brown is all about. He has been through the generations of jazz and is part of the very heart of this music” – Theo Girard, France
Album Highlight: Bass Hit! (Verve)
Sideman highlight: Oscar Peterson Trio
Not only one of the best and most creative jazz bassists of all time, Mingus also broke ground with his compositions. Whilst he is mainly remembered for his work as a soloist and bandleader, he did play with some of the greats in his early days, including Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington (briefly, until he got fired for fighting…) and Lionel Hampton.
Such is his legacy, the Mingus Big Band still tours and performs and fans can attend the annual Charles Mingus Festival in New York.
The bassist’s view: “Charles Mingus is for me the double bass player/conductor par excellence.
For me, the strength of his right hand drives the whole orchestra and propels the soloist; Eric Dolphy being one of the best examples of this.
Album Highlight: Mingus Ah Um
Sideman highlight: Charlie Parker
Thanks for reading!
So that’s our rundown of some of the best jazz bass players of all time.
If you’d like to learn more about Christian McBride, we interviewed him for this site a little while ago and you can read it here.
Want some more Paul Chambers music? We posted a list of the 11 most legendary recordings he played bass on.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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