Countdown To 32 of The Best Jazz Drummers of All Time

For this article, we’ve rounded up more than 30 of the most famous jazz drummers of all time for you to discover, along with some recommended albums and videos to check out.

From the early pioneers such as Max Roach and Art Blakey, through to modern jazz drum greats like Jeff “Tain” Watts and Brian Blade and even younger players keeping the scene alive today in 2022, stay tuned for a snapshot of some rhythmic greats.

From the very beginnings of jazz, rhythm has played an integral part of the music and, as such, drummers have always been at the forefront of its stylistic change.

There was Baby Dodds bringing New Orleans drumming to Chicago in the 1920s. Two decades later, Kenny Clarke was transferring time-keeping duties from the hi-hat to the more legato ride cymbal.

And, even later, Tony Williams’ drum kit provided Miles Davis’ Second Quintet with its drama and gear-shifts.

In short, drummers have a direct influence not only over the rhythms of the ensemble, but also tempo changes, form, dynamics, texture and the idiosyncratic ‘sound’ of the band.

Fast-forward to today and a jazz drummer is expected to be as much an instrumentalist, composer and bandleader as the next musician, and as likely to have albums and projects under their own names as they are to be a prolific sideman.

The list below comprises not only some of the most famous jazz drummers of all time, but also modern players stretching the instrument to its limit and keeping the tradition alive.

So here’s our pick of 32 of the best jazz drummers of all time which cover a range of styles and eras.

Of course, there are many more that could be added, old and new, so feel free to share your comments at the end…

32. Sid Catlett (born 1910)

Sidney ‘Big Sid’ Catlett’s short career spanned a time in jazz music history when musicians were raised on the styles of the 1910s and ’20s, were involved in the swing boom of the ’30s and then had to keep up or be discarded during the modernist innovations of the ’40s.

Catlett was one of the few within his peer group to adapt to the changes around him.

In the ’30s he performed regularly with jazz legend Louis Armstrong, with whom he would play until the end of the ’40s, as well as Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Benny Goodman. In the following decade he appeared on some of Dizzy Gillespie’s most important recordings.

Much admired for his solid beat and swinging accompaniment, Sid Catlett was equally comfortable in big bands, small ensembles, New Orleans groups and bebop rhythm sections. An inescapable influence on those who followed, he was paid tribute affectionately by Max Roach in his solo ‘For Big Sid’.

Album highlight: Dizzy Gillespie – Groovin’ High (on ‘Salt Peanuts’ / ‘Hot House’)

31. Tyshawn Sorey (born 1980)

Tyshawn Sorey evades categorisation, incorporating elements of jazz, folk, drum & bass, free improvisation, and twentieth-century classical music into a style and approach unlike any other.

He has not only studied jazz performance formally, but also holds an MA and doctorate in composition, and in 2017 was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (colloquially known as the ‘genius grant’).

Tyshawn Sorey regularly expands the traditional drum kit set-up to include orchestral and world-percussion instruments and has been known to conduct sections of his own compositions.

Having performed and recorded regularly with jazz visionaries such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and John Zorn, Sorey is clearly a far-sighted artist whose concept of music spans many levels.

His sound world is weird and wonderful: his latest album with violinist Jennifer Curtis Invisible Ritual (2020) is largely freely improvised and is an example of both modern drumming and modern music.

30. Papa Joe Jones (born 1911)

Jo Jones, referred to as ‘Papa’ to distinguish him from younger drummer ‘Philly’ Joe Jones, transformed the way the instrument was played and was a member of Count Basie’s famed ‘All-American Rhythm Section’ in the ’30s and ’40s.

Jones is credited with transferring time-keeping duties from the snare drum to the hi-hat at a time when jazz was developing a more legato approach, and he also pioneered the use of brushes.

His inimitable dancing swing kept him in the business for six decades, and he was idolised by his peers and those who came after him.

Known not only for his groove but also a volatile temperament, oral history tells us he humiliated a fledgling Charlie Parker by throwing a cymbal at the young saxophonist’s feet at a jam session.

Album Highlight: Jo Jones – The Jo Jones Special

29. Marcus Gilmore (born 1986)

Descended from jazz royalty, Marcus Gilmore is the grandson of the iconic ‘snap, crackle and pop’ Roy Haynes and nephew of Graham Haynes, co-founder of the influential 1980s M-Base Collective.

It therefore comes as no surprise that he has worked with musicians at the forefront of modern music such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman and Ambrose Akinmusire.

His technical prowess on the drums allows him to treat the instrument melodically (musically satisfying sequences of notes), harmonically (combinations of sounds in rhythmic unison) and polyphonically (the layering of two or more melodies).

Often using ‘matched grip’ (where the left hand holds the stick in the same way as the right), he has the freedom to play not only across the drums fluently but also adjust the tone of the drums by how long the stick is in contact with the head.

Listen to Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens’s In Common (2018) and hear for yourself!

28. Dottie Dodgion (born 1929)

Born Dorothy Rosalie Giaimo and raised in California, Dottie Dodgion started out as a singer, working with legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus whilst still a teenager. 

It wasn’t until her early 20s that she took up drums and made that the focus of the rest of her career. 

After moving to New York in the early 60s, she played with a range of established artists, including Benny Goodman, Tony Bennett, Eddie Gomez and George Mraz.

Her long-running collaboration with Marian McPartland was crystallised in late 1970s when they formed an all-female jazz group (alongside saxophonist Vi Redd, guitarist Mary Osborne and bassist Lynn Milano).

Despite being one of the oldest jazz drummers on this list, Dodgion only passed away recently, in September 2021, and her fascinating life story can be discovered in more details through her autobiography The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer.

27. Alan Dawson (born 1929)

The teacher of Tony Williams was always going to have his own playing career overshadowed, but this says more about the jazz press than Alan Dawson’s abilities.

A cursory listening of Dawson’s extensive recorded catalogue reveals a balance of precise execution and bubbly looseness desirable in a post-bop drummer. It’s clear he has mastered the fundamentals, but this does not hinder his creativity.

Alongside his busy playing and recording schedule, Alan Dawson’s contributions to jazz drum set pedagogy made him a magnet for those who went on to have illustrious careers of their own and has been documented by former students.

Album Highlight: Dexter Gordon – The Panther

26. Shelly Manne (born 1920)

Although closely associated with the West Coast jazz of the ’50s, Shelly Manne actually started his career in New York in the late ’30s. In the following decade he performed with beboppers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as well as cool-schoolers Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz and became more widely known by his work with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton big bands.

Manne’s move to California in the early ’50s led to new opportunities, such as leading his own band and running a venue. He became heavily involved with the soundtrack industry, weaving together musical styles and drummer/percussionist roles which in turn informed his jazz playing.

Shelly Manne’s understated style put the music at the centre of the listener’s experience, and he was admired for his melodic approach. His swing was intense without being overbearing, and he was a favourite of singers and horn players alike.

Album Highlight: Ornette Coleman – Tomorrow Is The Question

25. Eric Harland (born 1976)

Well known as a fierce technician and master of odd time-signatures, Eric Harland studied at the Manhattan School of Music at the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis.

His discography shows that his talent is endorsed not only by jazz legends such as Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland and McCoy Tyner, but also cutting-edge modernists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Walter Smith III and Chris Potter.

As a leader, Harland has released three albums, the latest of which 13th Floor (2018) is well worth a listen. Incorporating irregular metres and fusion jazz grooves, the drumming here takes no prisoners.

24. Roy Haynes (born 1925)

Once described by Thelonious Monk as “an eight ball right in the side pocket,” legendary American jazz drummer Roy Haynes has a career spanning almost 70 years.

Well into the 21st Century, he provides a direct line back into jazz history, having performed with the real legends: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan , Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Lennie Tristano, Stan Getz and many more.

Constantly evolving, touring and recording, he described his music very simply: hard swing.

Album Highlight: The Amazing Bud Powell

23. Viola Smith (born 1912)

One of the earliest well-known female jazz musicians, Viola Smith (originally Viola Schmitz) emerged in the late 1920s playing the popular swing orchestra music of the day. 

She spent a large portion of this early part of her career touring with an all-female band featuring her sisters, called the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra.

She moved to New York City in the early 1940s where she established a reputation as a technically gifted drummer and played, amongst others, with greats including Ella Fitzgerald.

Not just a great drummer, Smith as also an early advocate of gender equality in jazz, writing an article entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break” for Downbeat magazine in 1942 which in which she argued that “instead of replacing [war-drafted drummers] with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?”

22. Mel Lewis (born 1929)

Another graduate of Stan Kenton’s band, Mel Lewis began his career playing in big bands in the late ’40s and, like Shelly Manne, was enticed to Los Angeles in the late ’50s by the proliferation of studio work.

He was a renowned sideman and accompanist in ensembles of all sizes and jazz of all styles.

In 1965, he co-created a big band with Count Basie-alumnus Thad Jones which had a busy touring schedule and a recording catalogue held in high regard by aficionados.

After Jones’s departure to Europe in the late ’70s, Mel Lewis continued to lead the band and maintained a weekly Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard which posthumously remains to this day.

Lewis’s playing approach emphasised the cymbals, and he preferred to play a supporting role rather than be in the limelight. Instead of pushing or pulling the time, he preferred to play in the middle of the beat to give the band the best foundation to play over.

Album Highlight: Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra – Live at the Village Vanguard… Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer

21. Cindy Blackman (born 1959)

Virtuoso jazz and rock drummer Cindy Blackman Sanata (yes, that Santana!) has been a stalwart of the music scene since the early 80s when she was showcased on a popular New York station’s “Jazz Stars of the Future” show. 

Her career in jazz, both as a bandleader and side-woman, has seen her work with some of the contemporary jazz greats including Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano and Steve Coleman as well as living legends like Pharoah Sanders, Ron Carter, Sam Rivers and Joe Henderson.

Away from jazz, she is an in-demand session musician perhaps best-known for her almost 2-decade stint with Lenny Kravitz.

20. Billy Cobham (born 1944)

Known for his work with both Miles Davis (featuring on Tribute to Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew amongst others) as well as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, many regard Billy Cobham to be the most prolific jazz fusion drummer of all time.

Possessing a flawless technique, and ferocious intensity, Cobham fused the complex rhythms of jazz with the raw aggression and attitude of rock and roll.

A key influence on countless drummers to come (Phil Collins when speaking of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame stated that “Billy Cobham played some of the finest drumming I’ve ever heard”), Cobham’s output as a bandleader is of equal value.

Viewed by many drummers as the benchmark for fusion drumming, his playing features a contrasting mix of fiery rock grooves and luscious psychedelic passages, alongside more conventional jazz improvising.

19. Billy Higgins (born 1936)

Raised in Los Angeles, Billy Higgins appeared on many of Ornette Coleman’s first albums and became a house drummer for Blue Note Records in the ’60s. He played on hundreds of recordings, including Lee Morgan’s boogaloo hit single ‘The Sidewinder’.

Higgins’s beat was notable for its width and looseness, and he was as comfortable playing in R&B bands as he was supporting hard-bop horn players. Always relaxed and smiling when he played, his wide dynamic range and legato feel made him the consummate accompanist.

Album Highlight: Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

18. Ari Hoenig (born 1973)

Musicians in 2021 are not only expected to be great technicians, performers, composers, producers and self-publicists, but also educators.

Ari Hoenig ticks all these boxes, and has written several instructional books regarding drumming and music .

Widely regarded as an odd-time-signature specialist with a relentlessly clarified beat, Hoenig spent part of his education at The University of North Texas, playing in the prestigious One O’Clock Band .

One of Ari Hoenig’s many contributions to modern jazz is an interest in ‘metric modulation’, where the tempo of the music seems to change to a faster or slower rate; this gives the impression of gear shifts.

Another is playing melodies quite literally on the drums – this is better heard than described, as a listen to his album Inversations (2013) should demonstrate!

17. Mark Guiliana (born 1980)

Mark Guiliana caught the jazz scene’s attention when Avishai Cohen employed him in his group, after graduating from William Paterson University in 2003.

Guiliana went on to perform and record with many of modern jazz’s leading lights, including Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas and Lionel Loueke, and his interest in electronic music has led him to form his own project, Beat Music.

For Mark Guiliana, combining electronics and acoustic drums means both using drum loops and drum machine sounds (such as can be found on the famed Roland TR-808 drum machine ), but also mimicking the sound and style borne out of the electronic music movements of the ’80s and ’90s .

In a jazz context, this means assimilating a rhythmic approach not found in traditional drumming, and in this Guiliana has discovered a niche.

He found a wider audience when asked to participate in David Bowie’s final album Blackstar (2016) by colleague Donny McCaslin, which is highly recommended.

However, if you want to hear his output as a composer, bandleader, producer as well as drummer, check out his latest release Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! (2019)

16. Bob Moses (born 1948)

As a precocious teenager, Bob Moses started his career playing with Roland Kirk and soon after was working with some of the early pioneers of jazz fusion, such as Gary Burton, Larry Coryell and Carla Bley.

Besides featuring on some of Gary Burton’s most important albums, he is well recorded as a bandleader and composer. His unique blend of jazz and rock made him a trailblazer, and many have since imitated without surpassing.

Moses has a holistic approach to music which incorporates all areas of life, as detailed in his book Drum Wisdom, and his involvement with The New England Conservatory has enabled him to pass on his concepts to the next generation of musicians.

Album Highlight: Pat Metheny – Bright Size Life

15. Peter Erskine (born 1954)

New Jersey jazz drummer Peter Erskine is perhaps best known for his work in the jazz-fusion arena, working with Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report and Michael Brecker – amongst others – as part of Steps Ahead .

As a bandleader, he’s released more than 30 albums; something dwarfed by his tireless work as a sideman which has included records with a who’s who of modern jazz: Gary Burton, Bob Mintzer, John Abercrombie, Vince Mendoza, Mike Stern, Kenny Wheeler and many more.

As one of the youngest on this list of best jazz drummers, he continues to tour, record and teach into 2021 and beyond…

Album Highlight: Some Skunk Funk (Michael Brecker)

14. Jeff Tain Watts (born 1960)

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts is one of the most influential jazz drummers of his generation.

He spent his formative years playing with Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis , resulting in some of the most famous jazz albums of the late 80s: Black Codes From The Underground , Standard Time , I Heard You Twice the First Time and Contemporary Jazz .

His long-time association with remarkable pianist Kenny Kirkland (until the piano player’s untimely death in 1998) can be heard on more than a dozen records from this period, including Kenny Garret’s brilliant Songbook album.

Album Highlight: Citizen Tain (Sony, 1999)

13. Bill Stewart (born 1966)

Growing up in Iowa in the 1970s, Bill Stewart began by playing in cover bands and was propelled to fame when working with John Scofield as well as funk legend Maceo Parker in the early ’90s.

He is a member of a powerhouse organ trio with Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein, one of the longest running groups of today, and has proved himself as a multifaceted musician, composer and bandleader.

Stewart’s drumming style is lilting and dynamic, with a melodic focus. He tends to lend equal significance to all areas of the drum kit, layering polyrhythms to great effect.

The album Toy Tunes (2018) with Goldings and Bernstein showcases not only his unique playing but also his quirky compositional approach.

12. Jack DeJohnette (Born 1942)

Inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2007, Chicago jazz musician Jack DeJohnette has performed with many of the biggest names in jazz: Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, John Abercrombie, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield…

But it’s perhaps his collaboration with two musicians in particular that provides the backbone to his career: his work in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with Miles Davis ‘s first forays into electric and then throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000’s as part of Keith Jarrett’s seminal piano trio.

Album Highlight: Bitches Brew (Miles Davis)

11. Elvin Jones (born 1927)

Rising to prominence in the post-bop jazz era Elvin Jones is, quite rightly, best known for his work on one the most famous jazz albums of all time: John Coltrane’s Love Supreme – along with Jimmy Garrison on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano .

However, this spell with the saxophone great in the 60s was one of just several periods of jazz history to which Elvin Jones contributed…

The late 50s saw him working with Miles Davis (Blue Moods, Sketches of Spain) and Sonny Rollins (the excellent Night at the Village Vanguard).

During the 60s, he also performed on some of the best Wayne Shorter albums (JuJu, Speak No Evil), Ornette Coleman’s New York Is Now! and, again, with McCoy Tyner.

Alongside his own releases, which continued up until the late 90s, he performed in later years with more jazz greats including Art Pepper, Ray Brown, Pharoah Sanders & Michael Brecker .

Album Highlight: A Love Supreme Sideman highlight : John Coltrane Quartet

10. Kenny Clarke (born 1914)

Kenny Clarke did for the ride cymbal what Jo Jones did for the hi-hat. The trend towards a smoother rhythm section sound continued into the ’40s, and Clarke is recognised as making this final adjustment to the functions of each part of the drum set, bringing it into the modern era.

As a participant of the legendary Minton’s jam sessions of the early ’40s, Kenny Clarke was at the forefront of the bebop movement. As well as using the ride cymbal to outline the time, Clarke also began to use the bass and snare drums melodically and for accompaniment figures.

First-call drummer in early-’50s New York City, Kenny Clarke succumbed to the trappings of night life and developed a dependency on hard drugs. A move to Paris in 1956 was an effort to break the cycle, and he lived out the majority of his later years playing and teaching in Europe.

Album Highlight: Dexter Gordon – Our Man In Paris

9. Paul Motian (born 1931)

Pennsylvanian-born Paul Motian had a career that spanned almost 60 years; something which explains the fact that he’s worked with a long line of jazz greats throughout history.

This jazz drum great rose to prominence in the late 1950s alongside Scott LaFaro in Bill Evans ‘ piano trio – where he stayed for 5 years – before recording and performing with many West Coast legends including Lennie Tristano , Warne Marsh , Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden .

Later in his career he recorded extensively for ECM and worked closely with some of the best jazz musicians 80s and 90s in Keith Jarrett , Joe Lovano , Paul Bley & Bill Frisell .

The jazz drummers point-of-view: “Of course Paul Motian always provided a deep and swinging time feel, but what struck me about his playing was his distinct, melodical approach, even in his comping.

Whilst making me want to dance every time he played time, there were numerous times when he stepped out of the classic drum role and really expanded the jazz drummers vocabulary.

That could be in a radical change to sparse, almost orchestral playing (often heard in his later works) or simply the way he tuned and played the drums, making his snare drum ring out, deliver full melodies in his soloing or comping” – Clemens Kuratle, Swiss drummer & composer

Album Highlight: Psalm (ECM, 1982) Sideman highlight : Bill Evans Trio

8. Jimmy Cobb (born 1929)

Recommended by Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb joined the Miles Davis Sextet in 1958, the group which went on to record the seminal Kind of Blue. Cobb had played and recorded with heavyweights such as Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday through the ’50s, but it was the gig with Davis that put him on the map.

During the ’60s and ’70s Jimmy Cobb had long stints with Wynton Kelly’s trio and Sarah Vaughan, but it was only in 1983 that he recorded his first album as bandleader. From then until his death, he led various projects and was a mentor to several generations of musicians.

Jimmy Cobb’s drumming epitomised swinging hard bop, and his contribution to the canon cannot be overstated. Always tasteful, if you want classy vocab, listen to Jimmy!

Album Highlight: Miles Davis – In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk

7. Philly Joe Jones (born 1923)

Philly Joe Jones is best known for his work in the Miles Davis’ first great quintet . He performed and recorded prolifically with this project during the late 50s alongside Red Garland on piano, John Coltrane on saxophone and Paul Chambers on bass .

He went on to record more than a dozen albums as bandleader which featured, amongst others, Jimmy Garrison , Pepper Adams , Ron Carter , Nat Adderley and Dexter Gordon.

Album Highlight: Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

6. Buddy Rich (born 1917)

A child prodigy who featured in his parents’ vaudeville acts aged two, Buddy Rich cut his teeth first in big bands lead by Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey in the ’30s and ’40s, then in small band sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.

Rich went on to have great success with his own big band from the mid-’60s and became a household name through his television appearances. Besides broadcasted performances and guesting on talk shows, Buddy Rich may be best known to those of a certain age for his 1981 drum battle with Animal on The Muppet Show.

In contrast with Mel Lewis, Rich placed his ferocious technique and musical fireworks at the centre of the proceedings. He reputedly could not read, but this did not hinder flawless performances of intricate arrangements from his band’s sizeable pad.

Album Highlight: with Lester Young & Nat Cole – The Lester Young Trio

5. Brian Blade (born 1970)

Born and raised in Louisiana, Brian Blade established himself first as one of the go-to jazz drummers of his generation, then as an astute and exciting bandleader.

His project – The Fellowship Band – has been releasing for more than 20 years now, starting with his self-titled Blue Note debut in 1998, and has featured the likes of Myron Walden and Kurt Rosenwinkel (who we interviewed here) along the way.

He’s performed on some of the great jazz records of the 21st Century, including those with Kenny Garrett, John Patitucci, Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Chick Corea and even Joni Mitchell .

Perhaps his most high-profile work of recent years, though, is his work as part of the Wayne Shorter quartet, with whom he’s and recorded the critically acclaimed albums Footprints Live!, Alegria, Beyond the Sound Barrier, Without a Net and Emanon.

Surely a current contender for best jazz drummer of the 21st Century?!

Album Highlight: Brian Blade Fellowship (Blue Note)

4. Terri Lyne Carrington (born 1965)

Born into a jazz family (her grandfather played with Fats Waller!), Terri Lyne Carrington emerged as a child prodigy in the late 70s and has been a fixture of the international jazz scene ever since. 

Mentored first by Clark Terry then Jack DeJohnette, she moved to New York in the early 80s and has since played with fellow jazz greats including Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and countless others. 

Her debut recording in 1989 was Grammy award-nominated and she has released a host of acclaimed releases for labels including Concord, Verve, Motema and ACT Records.

Arguably the most influential female jazz drummer of all-time, she serves as founder and artistic director of Berklee’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice which you can read more about here.

3. Tony Williams (Born 1945)

As discussed in our in-depth guide to the career of Tony Williams, he was a child prodigy who became the drummer in Miles Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet’ aged just 17! With this group he recorded, amongst many others, Seven Steps To Heaven, E.S.P, Four & More and Nefertiti.

Alongside his role in this seminal jazz group, he was also integral to several other albums which can easily claim a place in the list of best jazz albums in history: Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage & Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, to name just three.

You’ll find one of his own projects in this list of best jazz trio albums of all time too…

The musician’s point of view: “Drums never sounded the same before and after Tony Williams.

His textures, dynamics and flow are incomparable and changed not only the way drums were played, but also how the rhythm section interacts within a group. Definitely the milestone of todays modern jazz drumming.” – Billy Pod (drums, Athens/London)

For drummers looking to learn more about his playing style, The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary is a fascinating insight into the method of his teacher Alan Dawson.

Album Highlight: Believe It

2. Max Roach (1924)

As the pioneering jazz drummer during the Bebop era along with fellow drummer Kenny Clarke, Max Roach laid the foundations of modern jazz drumming by formulating a style where the pulse is stated primarily on the ride cymbal, rather than on the hi-hats or bass drum.

He played on many of bebop’s most important early sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and was also a prominent civil rights activist and a bandleader who recorded dozens of albums under his own name.

The Max Roach discography features some of the great bebop albums of that era, including the legendary “Jazz at Massey Hall” which he co-released with Charles Mingus on their label Debut Records, as well as recordings with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis & Duke Ellington.

Album Highlight: Drums Unlimited

1. Art Blakey (born 1919)

Aptly described as the ‘volcano’ of jazz drumming, Blakey was an early adopter of bebop (he played with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) but went on to make his name as the pioneering force behind the ‘hard bop’ style, most notably with his band The Jazz Messengers.

The group, which toured and recorded for more than 30 year,s provided a launchpad for many of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, including – to name just a few – Freddie Hubbard (Mosaic), Woody Shaw (Child’s Dance), Wayne Shorter (The Big Beat), Lee Morgan & Benny Golson (Moanin’) and Wynton Marsalis (Album of the Year).

Although Art Blakey’s contribution to jazz is inextricably linked to The Jazz Messengers, he also made an impact as a sideman.

Important albums by the genre’s heavyweights featured his name on the personnel list, including those by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt and Jimmy Smith.

After a trip to Africa with Eckstine, he briefly converted to Islam in the late ’40s and early ’50s, changing his name to Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, which resulted in his nickname ‘Bu’.

We looked at Blakey’s jazz drum setup in more detail as part of our round up of 10 jazz greats & their preferred gear.

Album Highlight: Moanin’ (what else?!)

Thanks for reading and hope you found some new top jazz drummers to check out from this roundup of modern and historical greats!

If you’re looking for more recommended listening tips, you can find most of these drummers on our list of best jazz albums of all time, as well as in their respective stylistic categories here.

You can also find our guide to the most iconic blues drummers here. 

Of course, there are more prolific drummers emerging all the time, and you can check out more of the contemporary jazz drum stars on our round up here.

16 thoughts on “Countdown To 32 of The Best Jazz Drummers of All Time”

  1. Oh man, I gotta put Elvin & Philly Joe in the Top 5. Where’s Joe Morello and Jimmy Cobb? Those are my guys! Good list though, love Bill Stewart! He’s the man!

  2. Great work on the drummers…….pls listen to William Kennedy…..I discovered him on some of the Yellowjackets projects……its my understanding that he left and re-joined their latest edition…….Lenny White and Dave Weckl (mentioned earlier) and Steve Gadd…..but William Kennedy is my fav…..the best complimentary drummer of his time……wow good work….

  3. Glad to see you included Shelly Manne, who’s left off too many other top drumming lists. His live at the Blackhawk albums are some of the best sounding recordings of that era. So many great drummers. Need more numbers on the list 🙂 Dave Weckl. Dennis Chambers. Louis Hayes. Steve Smith. Horacio “El Negro” Hernández. Lewis Nash. Ed Thigpen. Lenny White. Ed Shaughnessy. Joe La Barbera. And for a great lesser known drum talent, treat yourself to Clifford Jarvis on Jackie McLean’s Right Now! or his work with Freddie Hubbard. Good on ya Jazzfuel. You have a new follower!

  4. What about Barrett Deems? They say he was faster than Buddy Rich, just never got that global recognition.

    • Barrett Deems was one of the major influences on me, with Gene Krupa and Joe Morello, ask in the early/mid-1960s. BD was awesome; can’t figure why everybody who knows jazz drums history wouldn’t have him near the top of the list.

  5. You failed to list the greatest all around drummer of all time. He is the drummers drummer and drummer to the stars. His name is Buddy Williams of Brooklyn, New York City.


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