Of course, there’s no way to come up with a definitive list of the best jazz musicians of all time. There are, though, a selection of jazz artists who appear as regular as clockwork when we talk about those players who’ve shaped the development of the music in a big way.
For this article we’ve rounded up our pick of the jazz greats which, we hope, will give you a great starting point to discover more about this amazing style of music…
The musicians on this list are not just some of the most important players in this genre; they’ve transcended their music to become jazz icons.
Some, like Charlie Parker or Django Reinhardt, are almost single-handedly credited with the arrival of a completely new type of jazz. Others, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, have been a catalyst in the evolution of the music, from one type of jazz to another.
And, to top that off, we included Louis Armstrong who is often recognised, by the average music fan at least, as the founder of jazz itself!
So whilst every jazz musician or fan reading this will have their own personal take on the subject (including, for many, that a list of greatest jazz artists is not even possible!) we hope you’ll agree that this list represents some inspirational music and some brilliant jazz musicians…
After growing up in extreme poverty in New Orleans, jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong broke down racial barriers and became a hugely famous mainstream celebrity at a time when this was unusual for African Americans.
He was arguably the first major jazz star, and – with his rhythmically sophisticated, operatic style – remains the greatest jazz musician of all time according to many.
Armstrong helped popularise scat singing, and his gravelly voice was later heard on hits like ‘What a Wonderful World’.
But, at least amongst jazz musicians, he is most remembered for his brilliant trumpet playing; particularly for the 1920s recordings with his Hot 5s and Hot 7s, which helped to change jazz’s focus from collective improvisation to individual soloists,
The original jazz musician: check out Louis Armstrong’s Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Recordings
This 1920s material contains classic tracks like ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’, ‘Potato Head Blues’ and ‘Cornet Chop Suey’, which all feature incredible improvisations, and ‘West End Blues’, with its famous solo introduction.
To hear Armstrong’s later work and vocal stylings, try Ella and Louis, with Ella Fitzgerald.
Before the invention of the amplifier, jazz guitarists largely played an accompanying role within groups, as their solos could not be heard clearly over the rest of the ensemble.
But Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born Romani-French gypsy, changed all that with his jazz group the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which he led with the violinist Stephane Grapelli.
With an instrumentation that only featured string instruments, the band’s softer sound allowed Django’s virtuosic acoustic soloing to be heard clearly.
He is considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, despite the fact that he played without the use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand after they were badly damaged in a caravan fire while he was still a teenager.
The greatest gypsy jazz musician: check out Django Reinhardt’s Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order
Most of Django’s output came before the LP, but this compilation includes much of his classic work with Grapelli as well as transatlantic recordings with big name Americans like Coleman Hawkins.
Swing Era standards make up most of the repertoire, plus a few of Django’s original compositions, including future Gypsy jazz standards ‘Swing 39’ and ‘Hungaria’.
Few people have changed the vocabulary of jazz as drastically as Charlie Parker, and few have proved so influential.
The Kansas-born alto saxophonist was at the forefront of the bebop movement in New York in the mid-1940s and created a new way of playing over chord changes, with chromatic passing notes linking chord tones together, and a fresh rhythmic vocabulary.
The music was also a resolutely intellectual affair, partially in response to the more populist Swing era that had dominated American music since the 1930s.
Parker’s playing was complex and virtuosic, yet bluesy and fabulously swinging. A number of his compositions – often new melodies written over the chord sequences of existing songs – have become part of the standard repertoire.
Sadly, he struggled with substance addiction, and was just 34 when he died in 1955.
Key recording: Charlie Parker with Strings
Much of Bird’s output came before the LP era, and the live recordings are the place to go to hear him really stretch out. But this album, with Parker accompanied by a classical string section and jazz rhythm section is essential.
The solo on ‘Just Friends’ is one of his most acclaimed.
Christian was one of the first performers to embrace the electric guitar during the mid-1930s, popularising it as a jazz instrument and finding national fame with Benny Goodman’s hugely popular swing outfit, which he joined in 1939.
His soloing style is often described as ‘horn-like’, and his linear playing sounds notably similar in improvisational style to the saxophone playing of Lester Young.
He was involved with the birth of bebop, jamming with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Don Byas at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.
He died in 1942, aged just 25, having contracted tuberculosis, but has influenced virtually every major jazz guitar soloist since.
Recommended Charlie Christian album – Solo Flight, The Genius of Charlie Christian
Christian barely recorded as a bandleader, but this compilation brings together some of his most notable work with Benny Goodman, including some with Count Basie at the piano, as well as some quintet tracks under Christian’s name.
Perhaps the best known jazz trombonist of all time, J.J. Johnson was the first one of the earliest musicians on the instrument to play in the bebop style.
Born in 1924, his career started (as with most jazz artists from that era) in the 40’s swinging big bands and orchestras – most notably Benny Carter and Count Basie.
However, in the mid-40s, he was spurred on by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to embrace the new bebop style.
He immediately decamped to New York to play in small group line ups with some of the best jazz artists of the time, including Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell & Charlie Parker.
The 1950’s saw him make his first Blue Note albums – both as a bandleader and with Miles Davis – followed by a highly successful double-trombone project with Kai Windig, for Savoy Records.
The following years saw him capitalise on his status as the go-to jazz trombonist, appearing around the world with most of the jazz legends, including Clifford Jordan, Nat Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers and Max Roach – as well as stints with the Jazz at the Philharmonic show.
After a hiatus from playing that started in the 1960s (he moved to Hollywood to write for film and television) he returned to touring and was turning out critically acclaimed recordings well into the mid-90s.
One of the most important and influential jazz musicians of all time, Miles Davis was a relentless innovator who was a key player in numerous stylistic developments in jazz.
He featured on classic bebop sessions with Charlie Parker in the mid-1940s, fronted the nine-piece Birth of the Cool band, made some of the best hard bop records of the 1950s with his First Great Quintet and pioneered modal jazz on Milestones and Kind of Blue.
His Second Great Quintet experimented with freer forms in the ‘60s, while In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew ushered in the jazz-rock and fusion era.
As a jazz instrumentalist, Davis is noted for his use of space and cool use of the trumpet’s mid register, although some of his post-‘50s work reveals a wilder side.
While other jazz trumpeters could play higher and faster than Miles, his ability to put together fabulous bands and create classic albums is virtually unmatched.
Key Miles Davis album: Kind of Blue
Regularly named as the best jazz album ever, Kind of Blue features Miles at his cool, considered best.
For a lesser known record set that features him, unusually, in an explosively virtuosic mood, try The Miles Davis / Tadd Dameron Quintet in Paris Festival International de Jazz from 1949.
Ella Fitzgerald is a popular figure who transcends jazz, and it’s not hard to see why: her singing is bright, breezy, incredibly swinging, with perfect time and intonation and a real sense of fun.
After first becoming one of the most famous jazz artists of the swing era with the Chick Webb Orchestra – “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was her first major hit – she became a star bandleader herself, recording and performing extensively until the late 1980s and winning 13 Grammy Awards along the way.
One of her greatest achievements is her Song Book series, a selection of albums released between 1956 and 1964 that took detailed looks at individual songwriters and lyricists.
Her 1945 recording of ‘Flying Home’ is a landmark in jazz scat singing.
For anyone looking to learn more, A biography of The First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson comes highly recommended.
Key recording: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
With the singer accompanied by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, this is the only album in the Song Book series where the composer is also featured as a performer.
There are dozens of other classic Ella Fitzgerald albums, including Ella Swings Lightly (with arrangements by Marty Paich), Ella and Louis (her famous collaboration with Louis Armstrong), Ella Sings Gershwin (a duo set with the pianist Ellis Larkins) and Ella in Berlin (a live album with her famous rendition of ‘Mack The Knife’).
Best known as the leader of his long-running Duke Ellington Orchestra, Ellington is the most recorded, and arguably greatest, jazz composer in history, with tunes like Satin Doll, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Mood Indigo, and hundreds of other jazz standards to his name.
However, although he doesn’t offer the same kind obvious instrumental pyrotechnics of someone like Art Tatum, he was also a highly important jazz pianist whose percussive, minimal playing influenced Thelonious Monk and others.
In addition to his dozens of famous Orchestra recordings – Ellington at Newport, The Sacred Concerts, The Far East Suite, etc. – he made a number of great small group recordings, highlighting his folkloric yet surprisingly modern-sounding piano playing.
Key Duke Ellington album: Money Jungle
Placing Ellington in a trio setting with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, Money Jungle is an intriguing, cross-generational meeting of three gigantic personalities, who were all great bandleaders in their own right.
Ellington was 63 years old, while Mingus was 40 and Roach 38, when this was recorded in 1962. Famously, there was tension between the three players during the recording, and some reviews have claimed that this is audible in the music.
Still, Money Jungle has proved highly influential, and many consider it to contain some of Ellington’s most advanced jazz piano playing.
Other brilliant Ellington small group recordings include Piano Reflections, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane and Piano in the Foreground.
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 on drums…
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.
Saxophonist John Coltrane was a relentless practiser who never stopped searching and striving to develop as a jazz artist.
A relatively late bloomer amongst his fellow saxophone players, he did not make his first album as a leader until he was 30 years old. He initially made his mark with mid-‘50s hard bop, as a member of Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and on his own records like Blue Train.
In the mid-1950s and early ‘60s his own compositions – ‘Giant Steps’, ‘Countdown’ and ’26-2’ – explored new harmonic territory, with highly challenging harmonic sequences based on key centres moving quickly in thirds.
The legendary jazz artist was also present for the birth of modal jazz, appearing on Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue. As a saxophonist, ‘Trane is noted for his metallic, snaking tone, and his unique ‘sheets of sound’ approach.
His 1960s quartet is considered one of the all-time great jazz groups, while his work in his final years embraced the new free jazz movement and took on a deeply spiritual direction.
Key John Coltrane album: A Love Supreme
Coltrane’s 1964 masterpiece A Love Supreme features his classic quartet – with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in the rhythm section – on an intense suite of religion-inspired modal jazz.
Not only one of the best bassists and most creative jazz musicians of all time, Charles 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.
Key album: Charles Mingus Ah-Um
With a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame, this legendary album was described by The Penguin Guide to Jazz as “an extended tribute to ancestors”.
Listen out for the Gospel-inspired “Better Get It In Your Soul” which features an ecstatic band with the bassist driving a seething gospel hard bop feel. It culminates in a solo by tenor saxophonist Booker Erwin where he plays like a preacher over the clapping of the entire band.
Monk was instrumental in the birth of bebop, playing in famous jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse with Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke in the late 1930s, but his sparse, angular playing is very different to the typical bebop piano sound.
With a unique, almost childlike approach, critics and club owners initially dismissed this highly eccentric figure, but he has eventually come to be regarded as a jazz genius who was ahead of his time.
He is the second most recorded composer in jazz, after Duke Ellington, and his angular tunes have inspired generations of musicians and been the subject of dozens of Monk-themed albums.
Key Monk album: Thelonious Alone in San Francisco
Monk’s third solo piano album includes originals and standards, and demonstrates that, despite his modernism, his playing was deeply connected to the stride pianists of the 1920s and 1930s.
Sonny Rollins’s tenor saxophone playing is marked by a supreme swagger and incredible rhythmic confidence.
A famed in-the-moment jazz improviser, he is capable developing a simple melodic motif through a seemingly limitless number of variations without the well of ideas running dry.
As early as 1949, aged just 19, he was recording with famed bebop jazz pianist Bud Powell.
The mid-to-late ‘50s saw him make a brilliant run of albums under his own name, including Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, The Sound of Sonny and Newk’s Time, among others.
As a jazz musician Rollins is famously self-critical and, between 1959 and 1961, feeling that his playing didn’t live up to the hype he was receiving in the press, he took a sabbatical from recording and performance, practising for up to 16 hours a day under the Williamsburg Bridge in New York.
His comeback album, The Bridge, is one of his finest.
Through the ’60s he explored raucous free jazz-inspired sounds on albums like Our Man in Jazz and East Broadway Rundown, while his later work has often taken on a calypso flavour.
Rollins has now retired from playing due to medical issues, but continues to give deeply insightful interviews.
Key Sonny Rollins recording: Saxophone Colossus
This 1956 set features ‘St Thomas’, Rollins’ best-known composition. His performance on ‘Blue 7’ has been analysed extensively for its use of clever motivic development.
After beginning his career with trumpeter Donald Byrd in the early 1960s, Hancock released 1962’s Takin’ Off, which includes his famous hit ‘Watermelon Man’ and is surely one of the most impressive debuts of any musician in jazz history.
He made a whole host of great albums, mostly for Blue Note, during the ‘60s as both bandleader and sideman, as well as playing piano in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.
That band also included jazz greats Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and took a freewheeling approach to traditional structures and harmony.
Later, Hancock embraced fusion, funk and disco, with pioneering electric albums like Headhunters and Thrust. His 2007 album of Joni Mitchell covers (River: The Joni Letters) won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, as his extremely varied career showed no sign of stopping.
Key Herbie Hancock album: Maiden Voyage
Hancock was still just 24 years old when he recorded this 1965 classic.
The programme has a nautical theme and includes tunes like ‘Dolphin Dance’ and ‘Maiden Voyage’, which have gone on to become jazz standards.
Alongside Herbie on piano, the superb band features George Coleman on saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums – so the rhythm section here is the same as that of the Miles Davis quintet of the era.
Despite rising to prominence during the bebop era of the 1940s (where he played with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) legendary 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 artists 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).
Married to Ella Fitzgerald and performing in one of the greatest jazz piano trios of all time, Ray Brown is surely one of the most legendary bassists in the history of the music.
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.
Nina Simone was something of a prodigy as a classical pianist, and she combined a classical influence with the sounds of gospel, blues and folk to create a unique musical palette.
Like Nat King Cole, her soulful singing became as popular as her instrumental work, but she continued to accompany herself at the piano, and was noted for her ability to improvise complex Bach-style counterpoint as part of her solos.
She was a prominent Civil Rights activist, recording a number of protest songs from the 1960s onwards, like ‘Mississippi Goddam”.
Recommended Nina Simone recording: Little Girl Blue
Simone’s debut (also sometimes titled Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club) includes her best-known song, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, with that distinctive descending piano introduction.
It also includes ‘I Loves You Porgy’, which gave Simone her first hit, as well as three instrumental numbers, with Jimmy Bond on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.
Thanks for checking out this list of some of the greatest jazz musicians ever.
Remember: these jazz artists just scratch the surface of a rich and complex history which is there to be discovered! So dive into the music and see where you end up…
Looking for more tips on some of the best jazz around, both old and new? Head over to our Jazz Music homepage.
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