A difficult question without a ‘right’ answer: who are the best jazz saxophone players of all time?
In this article we’re checking out some of the great saxophonists – on both alto and tenor – throughout history. Plus we’ve also highlighted an essential album from each of them, with some videos to check out too.
For many people, the saxophone will always be the archetypal jazz instrument and the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the genre.
And for good reason too.
A handful of the most famous jazz saxophone players in the history of the music are responsible for many of the greatest jazz albums and bands of all time.
Not to mention that they’re often great innovators, improvisors and language-changers in the jazz style.
We’ve already published a list of 10 great modern jazz saxophonists (who all came to prominence from the 1980s/’90s onwards), so this ‘all-time’ list focuses on earlier players from jazz’s ‘golden era’.
Of course, putting together a list of best sax players like this is always tricky and potentially controversial, as there are dozens of master musicians who could realistically be included here.
Hopefully though, this is a good springboard for you to discover (or rediscover) some of the greatest jazzers of all time.
So here’s our list of 10 of the best jazz saxophonists ever, separated into the alto sax players versus the tenor saxophone legends…
Table of Contents
The most famous tenor saxophone players in jazz history
Hawk, or Bean as he was also sometimes nicknamed, was the father of jazz saxophone: remarkably it was not really considered a jazz instrument until his emergence in the 1920s.
He was a major soloist during the swing era, playing most notably with Fletcher Henderson’s big band, and his vibrato-laden, surprisingly complex arpeggiated lines influenced a generation of jazz saxophone players.
He was also present for the birth of bebop, playing on sessions with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach.
Later his instantly recognisable tenor sound was heard in relatively Avant garde settings, like the 1963 album with Sonny Rollins and Paul Bley.
“When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads” – Miles Davis
Key Coleman Hawkins recording: Body and Soul
This compilation album features Hawkins’ most famous track. Almost entirely abandoning the melody, his two-chorus solo on the 1939 title track is one of the great improvisations in jazz.
Coleman Hawkins’ heavy, muscular tone was very much the dominant early tenor style. But in the mid-1930s, Lester Young replaced Hawk in the tenor chair in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the younger man’s style caused quite a stir.
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’.
After a traumatic experience in the military during the Second World War, Young suffered with substance abuse problems and ill health for the rest of his life, with the quality of his later work arguably suffering.
However, his early efforts with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and his own groups contain some of the most joyous saxophone playing ever recorded.
Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims are just some of the famous sax players who would name him as a primary influence, and the ‘Cool school’ that came to prominence in the 1950s was particularly indebted to him.
Young was also something of a cultural icon: he wore a distinctive pork pie hat and coined a number of expressions that are now commonplace, such as “cool” and the word “bread” to mean money.
Key recording: The Lester Young Story
This compilation includes classic work with Basie, plus plenty of tracks from his magical collaboration with Billie Holiday.
Getz was known as ‘The Sound’ for his famously lyrical tenor saxophone tone.
He first found fame in the jazz world as a member of Woody Herman’s ‘Second Herd’ big band in the late 1940s, with his ballad solo on ‘Early Autumn’ becoming a hit.
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.
In the 1960s he collaborated with Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto, spearheading the Bossa Nova craze that took the US by storm and finding huge commercial success with Getz/Gilberto and the single ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ in particular.
A peerless technician, he rarely sounds less than pristine and was always completely fluent, even at extremely fast tempos.
He is still in fantastic from on his final recordings, the duo sets with Kenny Baron, which were made shortly before his 1991 death from liver cancer.
Key Recording: Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio
In 1957 Getz recorded a swinging selection of standards as guest soloist with Oscar Peterson’s intimate drummer-less trio. His solo on the up-tempo ‘I Want To Be Happy’ is simply flawless.
Sonny Rollins’s tenor saxophone playing is marked by a supreme swagger and incredible rhythmic confidence.
A famed in-the-moment 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 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.
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 and cemented his place as one of the best jazz musicians of all time.
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.
John Coltrane was a relentless practiser who never stopped searching and striving to develop as an artist.
A relatively late bloomer amongst his fellow saxophone players, he did not make his first record 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 albums 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.
He 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 (partly due to his choice of mouthpiece and saxophone) 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.
Henderson showed huge talent as a teenager and was a devoted student of his musical forefathers, including saxophone players Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and others.
He emerged in the 1960s, becoming almost the in-house sax player for Blue Note Records.
His sideman appearances for the label ranged from the funky hard bop of Horace Silver’s Song For My Father and Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, to the modal jazz of McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, to the more Avant garde-flavoured Point of Departure by Andrew Hill.
His own Blue Note albums from that period are excellent too, including Page One, Our Thing, Inner Urge and Mode for Joe.
Later highlights include the live trio date State of the Tenor and his early ‘90s major label come back albums on Verve, which paid tribute to Billy Strayhorn, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Miles Davis respectively.
Key Joe Henderson album: Inner Urge
The title track of this 1966 classic has become something of a modal jazz standard, while the set finishes with a reharmonised version of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’. McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw and Elvin Jones form a brilliant rhythm section.
Brecker is one of the most famous jazz saxophone players since the death of John Coltrane. Noted for his incredible technical prowess, and for his impressive range and versatility, he is often seen as the important link between the legends of the 50s and 60s and the modern jazz saxophone players who emerged in the 80s and 90s.
His career began in the late 1960s as fusion and jazz rock were becoming the dominant styles, with Brecker working with Steps Ahead and co-leading the Brecker Brothers with his trumpet-playing brother Randy.
However, the tenor saxophone player was no slouch when it came to playing in a more traditional, straight-ahead style either, as he proved with a stint in hard bop pianist Horace Silver’s quintet, and appearances on albums by elder statesmen Chet Baker, Ron Carter and Charles Mingus.
He also had a parallel career as an A-list session musician, contributing classic pop solos to songs by Paul Simon, Donald Fagen, Elton John and countless others.
Brecker died from complications of leukaemia in January 2007. He was inducted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame the same year and awarded a number of posthumous Grammy Awards, taking his total to 15.
Key Michael Brecker recording: Tales From The Hudson
Released in 1996, Brecker’s fourth album as a bandleader won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.
The best alto saxophonists in jazz history
Few people have changed the vocabulary of jazz as drastically as Parker, and few musicians 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 Charlie Parker’s recorded 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.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was one of the most distinctive and important alto saxophone voices to appear on the jazz scene in the aftermath of Charlie Parker’s bebop revolution.
Adderley was certainly influenced by Bird, but had a distinctive and soulful style all his own.
In 1957 he met Miles Davis, who was impressed with the young alto sax player and agreed to play on Cannonball’s record Somethin’ Else (featured here in a list of great Cannonball Adderley albums) which would turn out to be one of the trumpeter’s final appearances as a sideman.
In return, the jazz saxophonist joined Davis’ group, recording the seminal albums Milestones and Kind of Blue, both of which were important documents of the new modal jazz approach that was being explored at the time.
Adderley also led a quintet with his brother, trumpeter Nat. Their group pioneered Soul jazz, a funky variation on hard bop, and would later experiment with funky electric instrumentation.
Key Cannonball Adderley recording: Somethin’ Else
Cannonball’s most famous album features the alto saxophonist as his ebullient, blues-drenched best.
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.
Coleman was a self-taught and highly unconventional saxophone player.
His high-profile detractors included Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and, while he couldn’t tear through chord changes at any tempo and in any key in the way that Stan Getz or Sonny Stitt could, for example, he had an impact upon the narrative of jazz that few others could match.
Key Ornette Coleman recording: The Shape of Jazz to Come
From 1959, this album is Coleman’s best known. It features a number of his most memorable compositions, including ‘Lonely Woman’ and ‘Peace’.
An utterly unique voice, his alto playing is somewhat unpolished, but undeniably melodic and steeped in the blues. Ornette’s most important collaborator, Don Cherry, is heard on cornet.
Thanks for checking out this list of jazz saxophone legends and hope it helped you rediscover some brilliant music in lots of different styles.
There are, of course, some super famous saxophonists missing from this list, on both alto and tenor. We’ll be expanding it soon but, in the meantime, we’d highly recommend also checking out the music of Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Lee Konitz and Art Pepper to name just 4 more!
If you’re looking for a more modern list, check out this round up of saxophonists who emerged on the 80s & 90s jazz scene. If you’re looking for tips, articles and guides on playing saxophone, you can all related articles here.
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!