From the very beginnings of jazz music, rhythm has played an integral part of the style. For this article, we’ve rounded up 20 of the most famous jazz drummers of all time – from the early pioneers such as Max Roach and Art Blakey – through to modern-day greats like Jeff “Tain” Watts and Brian Blade.

Alongside a brief recap of their career highlights and a top listening tip for you, we also asked jazz drummers today for their input as to why each of these musicians are so important in the history of jazz, both in terms of the music and drums.

So here’s our pick – in chronological order – of 20 of the best jazz drummers of all time! 

Sid Catlett

Born: 17th January 1910
Album highlight: Dizzy GillespieGroovin’ High (on ‘Salt Peanuts’ / ‘Hot House’)

Sidney ‘Big Sid’ Catlett’s short career spanned a time in jazz 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’.

Papa Joe Jones

Born: 7th Oct 1911
Album Highlight: Jo Jones – The Jo Jones Special

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.

Kenny Clarke

Born: 9th Jan 1914
Album Highlight: Dexter Gordon – Our Man In Paris

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, 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.

Buddy Rich

Born: 30th Sept 1917
Album Highlight: with Lester Young & Nat Cole – The Lester Young Trio

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.

Art Blakey

Born: Oct 11th 1919
Album Highlight : Moanin’ (what else?!)

Despite rising to prominence during the bebop era of the 1940s (where he played with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) jazz drummer Art Blakey will always be known for his role in the emergence of Hard Bop and, more specifically, his work with his Jazz Messengers band.

Recording & touring for more than 30 years, Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers provided a launchpad for many of the most famous jazz musicians of the 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).

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

The musician‘s view: Art Blakey brought and incorporated many African rhythms into his playing.

His beats and his way of playing solos were sounding more like an ancient primitive ritual. He was also one of the most important bandleaders as a drummer, counting 76 recordings with his band ‘The Jazz Messengers’.

He also had a lot of the marching drums tradition (military beats) in his playing” – Billy Pod , Greek jazz drummer & bandleader

Shelly Manne

Born: 11th June 1920
Album Highlight: Ornette Coleman – Tomorrow Is The Question

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.

Philly Joe Jones

Born: 15th July 1923
Album Highlight: Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

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.

Max Roach

Born: 10th Jan 1924
Album Highlight: Drums Unlimited

As the pioneering jazz drummer during the Bebop era, Max Roach played and recorded with, amongst others, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis & Duke Ellington.

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.

The musician‘s view : “Max Roach is father of modern drumming!

He shaped bebop drumming with his elegance , intellectuality and musicality . Also one of the first great band leaders who added a more political approach to his music trying to address society issues like racism, discrimination and violence.

A real innovator on the jazz drumming by bringing the main swing beat on the cymbal instead of the bass drum and Hi-Hat ” – Billy Pod, Greek jazz drummer & bandleader.

Roy Haynes

Born: 13th March 1925
Album Highlight: The Amazing Bud Powell

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.

Elvin Jones

Born: 9th Sept 1927
Album Highlight: A Love Supreme Sideman highlight : John Coltrane Quartet

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 .

The musician‘s view: “Elvin Jones was the drummer who played behind one of the most influential musicians of 20th century: John Coltrane.

His elastic beat and dynamic flow made the instrument sound like never before. His sense of polyrhythm and legato phrasing introduced a new era on how the drums are played in the world of jazz.

Also a great band leader with his band Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, which released several recordings” – Billy Pod, Greek jazz drummer & bandleader

Jimmy Cobb

Born: 20th Jan 1929
Album Highlight: Miles DavisIn Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk

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!

Mel Lewis

Born: 10th May 1929
Album Highlight: Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra – Live at the Village Vanguard… Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer

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.

Alan Dawson

Born: 14th July 1929
Album Highlight: Dexter Gordon – The Panther

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.

Paul Motian

Born: 25th March 1931
Album Highlight: Psalm (ECM, 1982) Sideman highlight : Bill Evans Trio

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

Billy Higgins

Born: 11th Oct 1936
Album Highlight: Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

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.

Jack DeJohnette

Born: 9th August 1942
Album Highlight: Bitches Brew (Miles Davis)

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 .

Tony Williams

Born: 12th Dec 1945
Album Highlight: Believe It

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.

As a band leader leading his own group with the name ‘Tony Williams Lifetime’ he made several recordings that are really influential even today” – 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.

Bob Moses

Born: 28th Jan 1948
Album Highlight: Pat Metheny – Bright Size Life

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.

Peter Erskine

Born: 5th June 1954
Album Highlight: Some Skunk Funk (Michael Brecker)

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…

Jeff Tain Watts

Born: 30th January 1960
Album Highlight: Citizen Tain (Sony, 1999)

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.

Brian Blade

Born: 25th July 1970
Album Highlight: Brian Blade Fellowship (Blue Note)

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 , Jon Cowherd 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?!

So that’s our rundown of some of the best jazz drummers of all time. Let us know in the comments section who we should add next and what your favourite albums are by the musicians in this list.

You might also be interested to check our run down of 10 of the best modern jazz drummers today, featuring names such as Nasheet Waits, Tyshawn Sorey, Eric Harland and Ari Hoenig.

And, if you’re a drummer yourself, we put together a guide to 5 of the best jazz cymbals you can buy today.

Matt Fripp
Matt Fripp

International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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