If you look back through the history of jazz, the piano has been a key instrument in pretty much every style along the way. For this article, we’ve highlighted 10 of the best jazz pianists of all time, who played their part in moving the tradition forwards.
Of course, there are lots of other musicians who could be here too, but we hope this list will give you a good starting point for (re)discovering some of these legendary jazz piano players of all time.
The piano was crucial in the development of jazz in the early 20th Century, as the influence of Ragtime composers like Scott Joplin was fused with the marching band tradition in the melting pot of New Orleans.
Since then, jazz piano has been central to almost all of the major innovations in the music, from swing to bebop, modal jazz to the European Avant garde. And although this list spans generations and sub-genres, all of these musicians have distinctive improvisational and pianistic voices.
Piano is surely one of the most versatile jazz instruments out there, and the diverse characters on this list have played in settings ranging from solo piano to big band.
Unlike, say, the saxophone or trumpet, it also offers equal opportunity for both linear soloing and chordal accompaniment.
So, in roughly chronological order, here’s our list of some of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
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 tradition of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.
Art Tatum was famous for being able to drink large quantities of alcohol whilst performing without it having any adverse affect on the music, but unfortunately it impacted his health and he died in 1956, aged just 47.
Key Art Tatum recording: Piano Starts Here
Most of Tatum’s classic work was recorded before the LP era, but this compilation includes classic 1933 solo takes like ‘Tea For Two’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and the famous ‘Tiger Rag’, as well as some live tracks from 1949.
Best known as the leader of his long-running Duke Ellington Orchestra, Ellington is the most recorded composer in jazz, with tunes like ‘Satin Doll’, ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ 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 jazz piano style.
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.
Thelonious 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 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.
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 Thelonious Monk was an early mentor figure who helped nurture his talent.
In 1945 he was beaten over the head in a racially aggravated assault by a policeman, which contributed towards the psychiatric problems that plagued him for the rest of his life, and the consistency of his later work is patchy in comparison to his mercurial early recordings.
“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
Key Bud Powell album: Jazz Giant
These trio tracks, with Max Roach on drums and either Curly Russell or Ray Brown on bass, include famous solos on the likes of ‘Cherokee’ and the Powell original ‘Celia’ – the latter of which we included on our list of essential jazz solos to transcribe.
The Amazing Bud Powell series (especially the first two volumes) is also essential.
Evans took the influence of beboppers like Powell and added the flavour of impressionist classical harmony and a more overtly introspective sensibility.
He played a 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.
His group with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian broke new ground in the jazz piano trio lineage: where previous trios had placed the pianist front and centre, here Evans, LaFaro and Motian played together as equals in a highly conversational and interactive fashion.
Other notable Evans recordings include Conversations With Myself, which uses unusual overdubbing techniques, and the duet sessions with singer Tony Bennett, which we highlighted in our round up of the 10 best Bill Evans albums.
Key Bill Evans album: Portrait in Jazz
As a kind of mid-way point between the earlier albums with more straight ahead rhythms sections, and the classic but extremely introspective live sessions from the Village Vanguard, this first trio record with Scott LaFaro & Paul Motian serves as a great introduction to Bill Evans’ playing.
Oscar Peterson was a show-stopping virtuoso in the Art Tatum mode, and apparently the Canadian jazz pianist was always both inspired and intimidated by Tatum, although the two later became friends.
Like Tatum, Peterson was influenced by classical music, and particularly the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, but his work is most obviously characterised by a hard-swinging, dense, bluesy sound.
Oscar first led a Nat King Cole-style trio with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass, but later replaced the guitar with Ed Thigpen on drums.
He made a series of albums where his trio was joined by a guest soloist – Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster to name just three – and also appeared as a sideman on important albums by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Fred Astaire.
Key Oscar Peterson album: Night Train
Peterson’s most famous album, recorded in 1962, features the classic Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen rhythm section. Night Train is highly swinging and accessible, with fairly short track lengths, making it a perfect introduction for newcomers to jazz.
McCoy Tyner is most famous for his role in John Coltrane’s great 1960s quartet, with which he recorded classic albums like My Favourite Things and A Love Supreme. But he was a highly experimental jazz pianist and the extent to which Tyner changed the ‘language’ of jazz piano is perhaps somewhat overlooked:
“No one — not Art Tatum, not Powell, not Monk, not Bill Evans — dropped a bomb on jazz pianists quite like McCoy Tyner. There was pre-McCoy and post-McCoy…” – Ethan Iverson
Tyner’s favourites as a teenager in Philadelphia were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he always strived for an original sound of his own, and his heavy chords stacked in fourths are particularly distinctive.
While many of his peers experimented with electric instruments and fusion during the 1970s and ‘80s, Tyner remained faithful to the acoustic jazz piano tradition until his death in 2020.
Key McCoy Tyner album: The Real McCoy
Tyner’s 1967 Blue Note debut features the pianist accompanied by Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and fellow Coltrane quartet-alumnus Elvin Jones. It includes the intense modal jazz classic ‘Passion Dance’.
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 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 Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and took a freewheeling approach to traditional structures and harmony.
Later he 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.
Chick Corea began his career in straight-ahead 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 (who we interviewed here) and Brian Blade, as well as making contemporary classical and solo piano recordings.
Key Chick Corea album: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
Recorded in 1968, this was Corea’s second album as a bandleader.
It features Chick in a classic piano trio lineup with Miroslav Vitouš on bass and drummer Roy Haynes, who had previously featured on classic bebop recordings with Bud Powell and Charlie Parker.
It mixes Corea’s originals, the Monk tune ‘Pannonica’, the standard ballad ‘My One and Only Love’ and passages of free improvisation.
Corea had recorded ‘Windows’, one of his best known tunes, with Stan Getz the previous year on Sweet Rain.
During the 1970s he led two contrasting quartets: his ‘American Quartet’ featured Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian playing over raucous, groovy vamps inspired by Ornette Coleman and various folk traditions.
Meanwhile, his European Quartet, with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, focused on more overtly melodic tunes.
He has had a long relationship with ECM Records (as we discovered in this article about the legendary label) and, in 1983, producer Manfred Eicher suggested he try a new direction.
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.
Key Keith Jarrett album: The Köln Concert
This is a kind of free jazz, in that it is a completely improvised solo piano concert.
But, unlike, say, Ornette Coleman’s sometimes-dissonant conception, Jarrett plays over vamps with strong key centres to create a hypnotic, highly consonant sound.
It proved extremely popular, with sales over 3.5 million, making The Köln Concert he best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album.
We included it in our round up of the 10 most iconic jazz piano solos of all time.
That’s all 10!
Hope you managed to listen to some of these great jazz piano players whilst checking out our list, and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.
If you’re interested to discover some of the other great musicians we mentioned in this article, you might be interested to head over to our lists of best bebop artists, best cool jazz musicians or best free jazz & Avant Garde albums…
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!