Whether laying the foundations for a star soloist or taking the lead role themselves, the best jazz pianists through history have been crucial in defining the different styles we know as jazz.
In fact, if you look back from ragtime to swing to bebop to avant-garde and beyond, this versatile instrument has been at the forefront of the development.
As part of our series on jazz piano, we’ve put together our pick of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Not only are they brilliant musicians spanning generations and sub-genres, but each played an important role in the moving the jazz 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.
And, if you’re looking to go deeper, don’t miss out pick of the 10 most essential jazz piano albums.
25. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole is renowned as both a hugely talented and swinging piano player as well as a commercially successful yet highly sensitive singer.
A towering jazz pianist and cultural icon (he sold over 50 million records) his legacy continues to inspire countless musicians to this day.
And whilst it’s his classy vocals that the average music fan will remember, his early piano trio sessions (featuring piano, bass and guitar) had a lasting impact on the likes of Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.
Recommended album: Nat King Cole at the Piano
24. Ahmad Jamal
Across a career that has lasted more than 6 decades, American jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal has not only recorded some of the best-loved piano trio albums in jazz history, but also been credited as influencing many fellow legends.
Hailed as a future great, aged 14, by none other than Art Tatum, the Pittsburgh musician counts early influences such as Billy Strayhorn, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner.
Despite coming through at a time when bebop was king, Jamal was influenced by the emergence of Cool Jazz; something which can be heard in his spacious and considered playing.
Recommended album: At the Pershing: But Not For Me
This 1958 live album stayed in the best-selling charts for more than 2 years and features Jamal alongside bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier.
23. Horace Silver
A pioneer of Hard Bop, Horace Silver’s piano playing can be heard on many of the Blue Note albums of the era and stayed with the label for 28 years.
Whilst he rose to prominence both as a pianist and composer in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, it was his work with his own band in the late 50s and early-60s which really saw him achieve mainstream success.
Several of his compositions – including Song For My Father – have gone on to be jazz standards and his tunes are recognisable for their catchy, bluesy melodies, combined with a more intricate harmonic structure.
Recommended Horace Silver album: Song for My Father
22. Fats Waller
Born in 1904, Fats Waller is credited as laying some of the most important foundations for modern jazz piano.
A true virtuoso, he mastered the stride piano style – arguably surpassing his mentor James P Johnson – but paired this with the skills of a true entertainer.
Despite dying before his 40th birthday, he wrote hundreds of songs – including some, such as Honeysuckle Rose and Ain’t Misbehavin, which are played to this day – and achieved massive mainstream success.
21. Michel Petrucciani
Petrucciani was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition which caused him to have brittle bones and only grow to three feet in height.
But despite this, he became a world-renowned jazz piano player and a national hero in his home country of France.
His extrovert style and virtuosic technique saw him accompanying the likes of Joe Lovano and Charles Lloyd, whilst his own group toured heavily too.
Known for his showmanship, confidence and zest for life, he passed away in 1999 at just 36 years of age.
Key album: Michel Petrucciani – Power of Three
Power of Three, recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1986, features Michael Petrucciani with two giants of American jazz: Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor saxophone, and guitarist Jim Hall.
Despite being only 23 at the time, it was the pianist’s 12th album as a leader and is available to watch on (highly recommended!) DVD.
20. Mary Lou Williams
Beginning her career in 1922 at the age of 12, Mary Lou Williams was one of the first big female success stories in jazz and one of only three women to appear on Art Kane’s iconic photograph A Great Day In Harlem.
One early highlight as a teenager was performing with Duke Ellington in The Washingtonians and the other credits from her career reads like a who’s who of jazz, including Hank Jones, Jack Teagarden, Tadd Dameron, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie & Benny Goodman…
With more than 100 recordings in her discography, she also acted as a mentor to future jazz piano star Thelonious Monk.
19. Wynton Kelly
Whilst Wynton Kelly will perhaps always be known as the pianist on ‘the best jazz album of all time’, his blues-tinged playing both as a sideman and bandleader graces many jazz aficionado record collections.
Starting out as an R&B pianist – perhaps where he developed his trademark ‘happy’ style – he worked with many of the jazz greats in the 1950s, including Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins.
Whilst he struggled to find as much commercial success as a bandleader, his early 1960s piano trio albums are textbook examples of his hard-swinging and subtle comping style.
18. Jelly Roll Morton
Jazz has always featured a mix of different cultural influences, right back to its beginnings in the ‘melting pot’ city of New Orleans in the early 20th Century.
The innovative pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who grew up in the city, referred to a “Spanish tinge” (meaning the influence of Latin rhythms) in his music, and the influential critic Stanley Crouch has described this element as one of jazz’s defining characteristics (along with swing, blues and the meditative ballad).
17. Errol Garner
Born in 1921, Errol Garner was known for his hard-swinging piano playing which came out of the early stride style but quickly developed into something altogether more unique. Right hand-octaves, block chords and voicings and behind-the-beat playing were all trademarks of his style.
A prolific composer, he wrote one of the most famous jazz ballads of all time – Misty – which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson.
Recommended album: Concert By The Sea
16. Alice Coltrane
Born Alice McLeod in Michigan, Detroit, Alice Coltrane started out as a jazz pianist in various straight ahead and swinging settings, including with Kenny Clarke, Lucky Thompson and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.
It was after meeting John Coltrane in the early 60s and becoming deeply spiritual that she developed the freer style of jazz piano – first with his groups, then under her own name – that she is now famous for.
Whilst she is also known as a harpist and organist, her contribution to free jazz piano and experimental, cosmic sounds have proved her legacy.
Recommended Alice Coltrane album: A Monastic Trio
15. McCoy Tyner
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’.
14. Lennie Tristano
A controversial figure in the jazz world both then and now, pianist Lennie Tristano started out as a bebop pianist but quickly pioneered new ways of playing and became a mentor to a whole generation of ‘cool’ musicians – most notably Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
His clean and considered approach meant he didn’t enjoy the commercial success of many jazz pianists from his era, but he is nonetheless a hugely influential and important musician in the development of jazz piano.
Many of his recordings were not released until after his death and often multiple sessions have been combined to albums.
13. Chick Corea
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 Latin jazz influenced ‘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 solo and classical 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.
Pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong was one of the most important musicians in the history of early jazz.
Of course famous for her musical and personal connection to Louis Armstrong, her influence extends far past this and a closer look at her career showcases not only a talented pianist, but a visionary bandleader, composer and arranger.
11. Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau started making waves on the New York jazz scene in the early 1990s, gradutaing from the New School in the same era as guitarist Peter Bernstein and pianist (and now jazz club owner) Spike Wilner.
As a pianist, Mehdlau’s jazz pedigree is indisputable.
His early recordings in particular display a deep appreciation for straight ahead keyboard luminaries like Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, and whilst still a student he played in Jimmy Cobb’s band (Cobb being the drummer on Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue).
But despite these straight ahead stylings, there has also always been a considerable amount of progressivism in Mehldau’s approach.
He has spoken of his love of classical music, whilst his long-standing jazz trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard) has interpreted post-1960s rock and pop songs alongside original compositions and songbook standards.
Recommended Brad Mehldau album: Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard
Mehdlau’s trio is on fire on this live date! The repertoire includes jazz standards (including a 7/4 arrangement of ‘All The Things You Are’) as well as a version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)”
10. Bud Powell
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 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.
He played on a number of classic sessions with 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
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 piano 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.
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, Hancock 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.
8. Count Basie
Count Basie may be most associated as celebrity leader of the big band which powered jazz fans through the 1940s and beyond, but his skills at the piano deserve their time in the spotlight too.
He pioneered comping (a way of playing chords to support the soloist) and his sparse yet effective playing influenced generations of great jazz piano players.
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 .
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 .
5. Dave Brubeck
Born in 1920 in California, Dave Brubeck is widely regarded as one of the great pioneers of cool jazz.
His best-selling album Time Out in 1959 catapulted him to the very top of the A-list in America, but his career both before and after shows a talented musician not content to sit still.
Unlike many on this list, he came from a classical background – his mother was an accomplished classical pianist – but his keen ear and reluctance to learn to read music set him firmly on the path to jazz.
Key Dave Brubeck album: Time Out
This seminal album is a mainstay on most best jazz album lists and it’s iconic hit – ‘Take Five’ – made its way into the standard jazz repertoire.
The album, released in 1959 on Columbia Records, was the first jazz record to sell over a million copies and features the pianist alongside alto sax player Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums.
4. Bill Evans
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.
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.
2. Art Tatum
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 reharmonizing 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.
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.
Thanks for reading!
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 round up of the different styles of jazz, which will take you in whatever direction you want!