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 famous jazz artists who appear whenever we talk about those players who’ve shaped the development of the music in a big way.
For this article, we’ve put together a pretty comprehensive round up of 40 jazz legends 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.
We start with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – the latter considered by many casual fans to be the ‘founder’ of jazz itself – and go through to musicians (like Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett) whose influence was felt well into the 21st Century.
Some, like Charlie Parker or Django Reinhardt, are almost single-handedly credited with the arrival of a completely new type of jazz.
Others, such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, have been catalysts in the evolution of the music, from one type of jazz to another.
So whilst every jazz musician or fan reading this will have their own personal take on the subject, we hope you’ll agree that this list represents hours of inspirational music and some of the best jazz players in history…
Of course, everyone will have their own opinion, but if you’re looking for a specific top 10 famous jazz musicians of all time, here’s ours:
- Miles Davis
- Louis Armstrong
- John Coltrane
- Charles Mingus
- Thelonious Monk
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Charlie Parker
- Duke Ellington
- Chet Baker
- Ornette Coleman
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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
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 pop 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
To hear Armstrong’s later work and vocal stylings, try Ella and Louis, with Ella Fitzgerald.
For many, the Count Basie Orchestra, with its vibrato-drenched, deeply swinging sound, is the quintessential big band in jazz.
Count Basie had played piano with two important early swing bands (Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Bennie Moten’s orchestra) before forming his own Kansas-based outfit in 1935.
The various iterations of his band included future jazz legends like Lester Young, guitarist Freddie Green, drummer Jo Jones and vocalists Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Count Basie’s work in the 1950s utilised charts provided by arrangers like Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico and Quincy Jones – many of which are still performed by big bands around the world today.
Hawk, or Bean as he was also sometimes nicknamed, is widely regarded as the father of jazz saxophone which, remarkably, was not really considered a jazz instrument until his emergence in the 1920s.
His vibrato-laden lines, most notably heard with Fletcher Henderson’s big band, influenced a generation of jazz saxophone players.
A true innovator, he was also present for the birth of bebop, playing on sessions with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach and, even later, in more avant garde settings.
Arguably his finest performances, though, were on jazz ballads, with his version of Body & Soul retaining its place as one of the most famous jazz songs of all time, even today.
Lester Young replaced Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in the mid-1930s, causing quite a stir with his style.
The President, or Prez, as he was nicknamed by Billie Holiday, executed his thoughtful linear ideas with a soft, lithe tone that was almost the opposite of Hawkins’.
His joyous saxophone playing can be heard on many early recordings with the fellow jazz musicians Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, as well as with his own groups.
The hugely popular tenor man was cited as a primary influence by future jazz legends including Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims, as well as the ‘Cool school’ that came to prominence in the 1950s.
Art Tatum was blind from infancy and mostly self-taught as a pianist, but he is considered by many to be the ultimate virtuoso in all of jazz.
Possessed of astonishing technique, his playing is characterised by flamboyantly decorated linear improvisation and lightening-pace right hand flights. He was also a harmonic innovator, taking influence from Romantic classical music, intricately reharmonising jazz standards and ultimately influencing the approaches of bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
Tatum would lead a Nat King Cole-style trio with Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass in his later career, but his best-known recordings are in the solo stride piano and ragtime tradition of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.
Fact: Art Tatum was famous for being able to drink large quantities of alcohol whilst performing without it having any seemingly adverse affect on the music. It did, however, impact his health and he died in 1956, aged just 47.
Mary Lou Williams
One of the first successful women in jazz, Mary Lou Williams was playing with Duke Ellington by the time she was 13 years old and went on to record more than a 100 records with early jazz players including Jack Teagarden, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman.
Performing aside, Williams was a mentor to younger musicians, perhaps most notably Thelonious Monk whose playing incorporated her trademark rhythmic juxtaposition.
Fact: Mary Loui Williams is one of only three women to appear on Art Kane’s iconic photograph A Great Day In Harlem. You can find out who the other two were, here.
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’.
Billie Holiday’s short and tragic career gave subsequent generations of jazz singers big shoes to fill.
The vocal pioneer made her debut with Benny Goodman aged 18 and her collaborations with jazz titans including Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Count Basie and Artie Shaw are milestones in the jazz canon.
Hits in the 1930s paved the way for sustained commercial success in the ’40s and, whilst her health faded throughout the ’50s until her death in 1959, she was still very much in the public eye until the end.
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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
Along with saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was one of the founding fathers of the 1940s bebop movement.
Initially inspired by the swing era trumpeter Roy Eldridge, Gillespie developed a new style of playing that was chromatically complex and utilised the trumpet’s high register.
Remembered by many music fans for his iconic bent trumpet and inflated cheeks, he also pushed the envelope in fusing bebop with Cuban music to create Afro-Cuban jazz, as well as leading an influential big band.
“His rhythmic sophistication was unequalled. He was a master of harmony—and fascinated with studying it.” – Wynton Marsalis
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 jazz 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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
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 about this legendary jazz singer, the biography The First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson comes highly recommended.
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole is undoubtedly one of the most popular and important entertainers of the 20th century, selling over 50 million records as an African-American jazz musician and singer.
Hugely influential as a jazz pianist and cultural icon, his legacy continues to inspire countless musicians to this day.
His early trio sessions (usually in the piano-bass-guitar format) influenced future legends such as Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, whilst his countless hit records as a smooth toned balladeer showcase his enduring taste and class.
You can read more about his later work as a vocalist in our pick of the best male jazz singers in history.
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).
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.
Quick listening tips: 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 jazz standard ‘Just Friends’ is one of his most acclaimed.
Pianist Dave Brubeck was an important jazz musician in the 1950s Cool Jazz movement and carved out a niche for himself playing in unusual time signatures.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Paul Desmond on alto sax, achieved massive fame across America and their 1959 album Time Out, featuring the iconic track Take Five, became the first album in jazz history to sell a million copies.
Fact: Dave Brubeck was only the 2nd musician to be featured on the front cover of Time Magazine. Any guesses who the first was?
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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery is remembered as one of the greatest and most influential guitarists in all of jazz.
With his unconventional playing style and frequent use of octaves, he was able to develop a highly distinctive voice that was always joyous, soulful and swinging.
His infectious brand of hard bop and soul jazz would later undergo a stylistic shift towards a smoother, more populist aesthetic, helping him achieve a level of popular success that very few jazz musicians managed, before his life was sadly cut short at the height of his popularity.
As the pioneering jazz drummer of the Bebop era, 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.
Roach played and recorded with fellow jazz legends such as Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis & Duke Ellington and his discography features some of the great bebop albums of that era.
Quick listening tip: “Jazz at Massey Hall” which he co-released with Charles Mingus on their label Debut Records.
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.
Bud Powell is the archetypal bebop pianist, and was the first person to apply Charlie Parker’s chromaticism-filled improvisational language to the keyboard.
Aged just 10 he was apparently able to imitate stride pianists like Art Tatum and Fats Waller and, later, counted Thelonious Monk as an early mentor figure.
He played on a number of classic recordings with Charlie Parker, including the live albums The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall and Complete Live at Birdland.
“If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell. He was in a class by himself” – Bill Evans
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.
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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
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.
Quick listening tip: 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.
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.
Stan Getz was known as ‘The Sound’ for his famously lyrical tenor saxophone tone and first found fame in the jazz world as a member of Woody Herman’s ‘Second Herd’ big band in the late 1940s.
As he launched a career as a soloist, his light, Lester Young-inspired sound saw him categorised in the press as a Cool jazz player, although he was equally comfortable playing with bebop musicians like Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie.
He perhaps best known, however, for his collaboration in the 1960s with Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto, which spearheaded the Bossa Nova craze that took the US by storm.
The height of this Bossa Nova success is arguably the Getz/Gilberto version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.
Fact: The Girl From Ipanema is thought to be the second most recorded pop song in history, after “Yesterday.”
Pianist Bill Evans took the influence of bebop players like Bud Powell and added a flavour of impressionist classical music harmony and an introspective sensibility.
He played a notable role in the development of modal jazz, playing on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is considered by many to be the best jazz album of all time.
Quick listening tip: Portrait in Jazz, recorded live with Scott LaFaro & Paul Motian serves as a great introduction to Bill Evans’ playing.
As the poster-boy for West Coast jazz, Chet Baker’s relaxed trumpet playing always sounded completely natural.
His approach – restrained and largely utilising the mid-register – was influenced by Miles Davis’s early work and can be heard on recording with Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker and many others.
Chet Baker’s decision to start singing in the mid-1950s divided public opinion but led to massive mainstream popularity (helped in part, no doubt, by his film star good looks!).
His light, delicate voice did not really sound like any other singers of the time, but this treatment of jazz standards – lyrical swinging vocals, mixed with short melodic trumpet solos – was successful both at the time and still today.
Ornette Coleman sent shockwaves through the jazz world when his quartet arrived in New York in 1959 with a much-discussed residency at the Five Spot.
His new free jazz stylings saw him abandoning traditional chord sequences and structures with a technique known as a ‘time-no-changes’, while Ornette has also referred, somewhat mysteriously, to the concept of ‘harmolodics’ in his music.
A self-taught and highly unconventional saxophone player, high-profile detractors of Coleman included Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
Regardless of personal taste, his playing had an impact of the course of jazz that few musicians could match and his most famous recording – The Shape of Jazz To Come – is frequently listed as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.
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.
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.
Fact: 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.
Acclaimed saxophonist and composer, champion of soprano saxophone, renowned sage and philosopher, Wayne Shorter spearheaded jazz innovations for seven decades until his death, aged 89, in 2023.
He was enlisted in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late ’50s, seen by many to be a finishing school for future stars, contributing his concise tenor saxophone playing and many compositions.
From Art Blakey he went to Miles Davis, becoming an integral member of his Second Great Quintet, making his soprano saxophone debut on the 1969 recording In a Silent Way.
Wayne Shorter’s work with Weather Report in the ’70s and ’80s spearheaded the jazz fusion movement and his later career, well into the 21st century, saw a fresh wave of critical successes and Grammy awards.
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’.
Quick listening tip: Little Girl Blue
Nina Simone’s debut album (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.
Carla Bley was an important figure in the 1960s free jazz movement and, whilst critically acclaimed as a pianist, she has previously described alongside herself as “99% composer and 1% pianist.”
She has recorded extensively for the iconic ECM label and her compositions have been performed by many fellow jazz greats including George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, John Scofield and ex-husband Paul Bley.
Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, Michigan, Alice Coltrane worked as a jazz pianist in various straight-ahead and swinging settings, including with Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke and the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ quartet.
After she met John Coltrane, the pair’s lives and music became more overtly spiritual, and she replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist in John’s band in 1966 as his music embraced freer forms.
After her husband’s death she began to record as a leader. Now heard on harp as well as piano & organ, and accompanied by lush string arrangements and large ensembles, these cosmic sounds have proved highly influential.
Quick listening tip: Universal Consciousness (1871) is Alice Coltrane’s fifth solo album and the mystical and highly spiritual music combines elements of modal jazz, free improvisation and more structured composition.
After beginning his career with trumpeter Donald Byrd in the early 1960s, pianist Herbie 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.
Quick listening tip: Maiden Voyage
Hancock was still just 24 years old when he recorded this 1965 classic which has a nautical theme and includes tunes like ‘Dolphin Dance’ and ‘Maiden Voyage’, which have gone on to become jazz standards .
Pianist Chick Corea began his career as a straightahead jazz settings in the mid-1960s, accompanying the likes of Sonny Stitt and Blue Mitchell, with whom he recorded the brilliant The Thing To Do.
However, he soon developed as one of the major post-Evans/Tyner voices in jazz, playing in a range of settings, including on Miles Davis’ seminal jazz-rock albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and in Avant garde groups with Anthony Braxton.
He embraced crowd-pleasing jazz fusion with his bands Return To Forever and later the Chick Corea Electrik Band, recording well-known compositions like ‘Spain’ and ‘Armando’s Rumba’.
However, he has also made various returns to acoustic jazz, including his Trilogy project with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, as well as making contemporary classical and solo piano recordings.
Tony Williams 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.
Quick tip: 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.
Keith Jarrett initially attracted attention from the mid-1960s as a young sideman with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Charles Lloyd’s quartet and Miles Davis, before launching two quartets of his own in the 1970s.
His ‘American Quartet’ featured Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian playing over raucous, groovy vamps inspired by Ornette Coleman and various folk traditions.
His European Quartet, with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, focused on more overtly melodic tunes.
In the 80s, Keith Jarrett put together a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock, which focused on standards from the Great American Songbook and bebop repertoire, proving extremely popular and recording prolifically until it disbanded in 2014.
He has also made numerous solo albums and is an acclaimed classical pianist and harpsichordist, having recorded works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Shostakovich and others.
Pat Metheny burst onto the international jazz scene as a prodigious talent in the mid-1970s, with a three-year stint in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band and, at 19, became the youngest teacher in the history of Berklee College of Music.
His debut album ‘Bright Size Life’ was released on ECM when he was still only 21 but still stands the test of time as one of the great jazz guitar albums of the modern era.
In an extremely wide-ranging career he has collaborated with musicians as varied as minimalist classical composer Steve Reich; jazz legends Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall and Herbie Hancock; Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, and even pop star David Bowie.
His Pat Metheny Group – best described as a jazz fusion band – has generally been his main outlet and one which he continues to record and tour with.
Fact: Pat Metheny was the first person to win Grammys in 10 different categories.
Thanks for checking out this list of some of the best jazz musicians of all time.
Of course, 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.
23 thoughts on “The Best Jazz Musicians of All Time – 40 Legendary Jazz Artists”
I agree, but I don’t know who I would pick to put Dizzy Gillespie on this list.
I simply Love jazz
Thank you for all this info. It really made my day . 😊
Thanks for stopping by Fran!
I must admit that over the years, 68, I’ve loved all genre of music. However, Jazz and Blues are the things that simply display the heart and soul of music. I have become a lover of both. John Coltrane is the embodiment of Jazz, with of course many others right up there with him. Thank you for providing this list, of course as you have admitted, it is not complete. As with any list of (the best) of anything, there is always someone or something that may very well exceed them. I do however, see Coltrane as pretty much the standard from which everyone else should draw inspiration.
Wynton Marsalis is quite an outspoken student on the subject of jazz and it’s origin who refuses to go mainstream as many artists have! He needs to be mentioned since he is now the director of jazz at Lincoln Center New York!
I would like to know if you have ever played an instrument in jazz?
Except for Louis Armstrong, and a few others, the timeless sounds of some of the great New Orleans musicians who played, and carried on the Big Easy’s music contribution remain somewhat ignored. Al Hirt’s 1963 recording of “I Can’t Get Started” is untouchable by other trumpeters. At times, Hirt creates the musical drama of the entire Stan Kenton Orchestra’s brass section. I understand that Hirt became somewhat of a ‘popular artist’ which cut him out, apparently, of serious “jazz discussion.” Pity.
What about recognoition for Chris Barber
Matt, he seems so often forgotten, but Cal Tjader is a treasure. I believe his style causes people to underestimate him. But, like a sports cliche, he makes greatness look easy. Still, a generally great list.
Thanks for the input Scott!
Happy reading indeed. Looking forward to hear about which of them you would put together as a band. The ultimate jazz band with no borders and no time-line.
Ooh yes, there’s a question you could spend several weeks on! What’s your suggestion?
I’m very satisfied with this compilation of some of the greatest innovators of our time; especially since you’ve mentioned John Coltrane G.O.A.T.! Speaking of innovators, we must include Rahsaan Roland Kirk!
This is a great list. However….Dizzy? Benny Goodman?
Yes there are lots of others who could quite easily have been in there… we’re going to try to keep updating it over the coming months and these two are on the list!
very good selection
Thank you sir!
Thanks for all of these suggestions. I will check them all out. I’m trying to expand my knowledge on jazz history. I have been using the following books as guide’s: (1) The Making of Jazz by James Lincoln Collier (1978) and (2) The 101 Best Jazz Albums by Ken Lyons (1980). I realize they are both 40 years old.
What I really need is a more up to date buying guide. Any suggestions.? Thanks.
Thanks for checking this out!
Aside from this guide to some of the great jazz biographies, we actually have an article being written right now about some of the great jazz history books out there; I’ll drop you an email once it’s live. In the meantime, The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia is a very good place to start!
All the best,
Without George Benson this list is not completed 🙁
Yes it’s certainly not a ‘complete’ list; there are more great players than hours in a week!
Good list but, woah. If your listing john coltrane, stan getz, dave brubeck, and sonny rollins. Coltrane maybe the best. Wheres Dexter Gordon???? Hes the one who first influenced coltrane. And had a bigger music career. Sure coltrane has PC and Giant Steps. But Cheesecake by Dex and all his recording of that song. Omg his solos are the jazziest bop/hard bop to ever exist. Easily best tenor player of all time.