Perhaps in jazz more than any other genre, there exists an enormous crossover between the most famous composers and the greatest performers. In this article, we look at that select group of musicians who are possibly best-known as jazz composers.
There is a long tradition of jazz musicians taking popular songs of their day – familiar themes from the radio, musical theatre shows or film – and interpreting them as their own. But alongside this, jazz musicians have always composed their own material to play.
This means that the jazz standards repertoire is split roughly into two categories:
- Songs that weren’t specifically written as jazz compositions, but which became standards after being interpreted by famous jazz musicians (“I Got Rhythm”, “Autumn Leaves” and “But Not For Me”, to give a few examples)
- Tunes that were composed by jazz musicians, for musicians.
This article will look at artists who have contributed to that second category.
They span a range of styles and eras, but all of these musicians have made immeasurable contributions to the lineage and history of jazz composition, and all have written tunes that continue to be performed today.
So, in approximately chronological order, here’s our list of ten of the best jazz composers, with a recommended recording for each one.
NB: Perhaps due to the fact that jazz evolved in the US, this list of jazz composers is an all-American affair. Of course now, well into the 21st Century, there are many great songwriters from all over the world, ready for you to discover!
Table of Contents
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton was famously quick to self-mythologise, and even claimed to have invented jazz.
That might be a bit of a stretch – Buddy Bolden is generally regarded as the first jazz improviser – but the New Orleans pianist certainly made vast contributions to the early development of the style, and was probably the first person to write it down and formally arrange it.
“Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style. Hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.” – Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton songs
As a jazz composer his output features traditional standards “Wolverine Blues”, “Black Bottom Stomp” and “King Porter Stomp”, the latter of which became a Swing era hit for Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson.
Meanwhile “The Pearls” demonstrates his ability to write highly impressive long-form pieces and rags.
Famous Jelly Roll Morton recording: Birth of the Hot
Morton’s recordings with his band The Red Hot Peppers represent, for many, the pinnacle of his career.
From 1926 and ‘27, these ‘Classic Chicago’ sessions combine the perfect mix of intricate arrangements, slick ensemble playing and great early jazz improvising.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, is considered by many to be the most significant of all jazz composers, with some even ranking him as America’s all-time greatest songwriter, regardless of genre.
In fact, Duke disliked having his music referred to as jazz, and felt that being described as “beyond category”, an expression coined by his great friend and colleague Billy Strayhorn, was one of the greatest compliments that could be paid to a musician.
Ellington came to prominence during the big band era of the 1920s and ‘30s, leading his famous Orchestra from the piano chair from 1923 until his death in 1974.
He was known for writing features that were tailor-made for the individual soloists in his band, including the likes of saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, and trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cat Anderson.
“Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.” – Gunther Schuller
Duke Ellington Songs
Ellington tunes continue to be performed regularly by jazz musicians of all stripes, with favourites including “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got That Swing)”. He also wrote a number of suites, extended pieces, film scores and religious works.
Key Duke Ellington recording: Ellington at Newport
This classic live album captures the band’s riotous performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, and includes Paul Gonsalves’ famous 26-chorus blues extravaganza on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”.
Billy Strayhorn’s legacy is inseparable from Duke Ellington’s.
He worked as composer, arranger, lyricist and occasional pianist for Duke’s Orchestra for almost 30 years, although the informal nature of their arrangement meant that the exact extent of his contributions was not always clear, and it has been suggested that he was not always properly credited for his work.
Billy Strayhorn songs
Billy Strayhorn is acknowledged as the composer of some of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s best-loved tunes, including the Orchestra’s theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Chelsea Bridge”.
Other sophisticated Strayhorn standards include “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”, “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “Passion Flower”.
Key recording: The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn
One of his only recordings that he made away from Ellington, this lesser-known album includes his melancholic ballad “Lush Life”, surely one of the greatest jazz songs of all time.
Remarkably, he started writing it when he was still a teenager.
Monk, the “High Priest of Bop”, was known as a highly idiosyncratic and unconventional pianist and, likewise, his work as a jazz composer sound like no one else’s.
He came to prominence in the 1940s, but Monk’s tunes still sound futuristic.
They feature angular melodies, odd forms, unusual phrase lengths and surprising chord movements. And yet they are strangely memorable and incredibly clever, and jazz musicians continue to relish the challenges they provide for those improvising over and interpreting them.
There have been dozens of albums by other artists dedicated entirely to his compositions, ranging from Steve Lacy, to Carmen McRae, to Ellis Marsalis.
Thelonious Monk songs
Monk was more than capable of tender melodicism: his ballad “‘Round Midnight” is the most recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician. He is also the second most recorded jazz composer after Ellington.
Frequently-played compositions by Monk include “Straight No Chaser”, “Ugly Beauty”, “Well You Needn’t”, “Epistrophy” and “Blue Monk”.
For musicians looking to learn more Monk songs, the “Thelonious Monk Fake Book” features 70 of his most familiar pieces, as well as a number of obscure and unrecorded tunes, along with bass-lines, piano voicings and ensemble parts for many pieces.
Key Thelonious Monk album: Brilliant Corners
This 1956 album features the brilliant Sonny Rollins tackling tricky Monk material like “Bemsha Swing” and the complex ballad “Pannonica”.
Mary Lou Williams
American jazz composer, pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams occupies a strange position in musical history.
She is not as well known as she perhaps ought to be, but her recorded and written legacy is hugely important, and she also acted as a key mentor figure and teacher to many of bebop’s principal innovators.
The likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie all benefited from her wisdom, with her New York apartment existing as a kind of open-door jazz salon.
Early on she wrote big band arrangements for Gillespie (including the humorous original composition “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee”), Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman, among others.
Her own music is varied and difficult to categorise, taking in stride piano, boogie-woogie, bebop, modal jazz and the Avant garde – she famously collaborated with Cecil Taylor on the two-piano album Embraced.
Mary Lou Williams songs
Some of her most performed compositions include “Ghost of Love”, “Blues for Timme”, “Ode to Saint Cecile” and “Gloria.”
Key Mary Lou Williams recording: The Zodiac Suite
The Zodiac Suite is a series of pieces, all written by Williams, dedicated to fellow musicians born under each astrological sign. It was extremely unusual and innovative when it was recorded in 1945.
The great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon memorably referred to Tadd Dameron as the “romanticist” of bebop.
Dameron had worked as an arranger for major swing era names like Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Jimmie Lunceford, before applying his talents to the revolutionary new jazz music of the 1940s and early ‘50s, his advanced writing helping to expand the scope and parameters of bop.
Dameron did make a number of small group recordings as a pianist, but he is unusual as a bebop musician who is music better known as a composer and arranger than as a performer.
Key later recordings of his include Mating Call, a quartet session with John Coltrane, and the large ensemble record The Magic Touch.
Tadd Dameron songs
Dameron wrote the standards “Lady Bird”, “Half Nelson”, “Hot House” (a new melody over the chords sequence to Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) and “If You Could See Me Now”, which became a favoured ballad feature for jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.
There are five Dameron tunes on Joe Lovano’s excellent album 52nd Street Themes, including the lesser-played “The Scene is Clean”.
Key Tadd Dameron recording: In Paris Festival International de Jazz (with Miles Davis)
A young Miles Davis, usually so cool and reserved, is in unusually explosive form here, while James Moody also sounds excellent on tenor.
The quintet plays a number of Dameron compositions, including “Rifftide” and “Good Bait”.
Trumpeter and composer Thad Jones was the middle brother in one of the most impressive families in jazz: younger sibling Elvin was a drummer, while big brother Hank played piano, and all three are considered amongst the greats on their respective instruments.
In the 1950s Thad joined the Count Basie Orchestra, to which he contributed a number of compositions and arrangements, and it is for his large ensemble work that he is best known (although he also played on many excellent small group sessions, including Monk’s 5 by Monk by 5.)
In 1965 he formed The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, which took the legacy of the Basie band into a more modern, challenging dimension, although the ensemble’s music was always deeply rooted in the jazz and big band tradition.
Thad Jones songs
The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Jones’ writing, influenced following generations of large ensemble composers including Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer, and tricky Thad charts like “Little Pixie”, “Groove Merchant” and “Three in One” remain favourites of advanced big bands today.
The Jones/Lewis band was renamed the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in 1990 and continues to maintain a weekly Monday night residency at the Village Vanguard in New York.
The Rossy & Kanan Quartet recently released Tadd and Thad, which programmes Jones compositions alongside Tadd Dameron tunes in a vibraphone-led quartet setting. Thad’s tunes are the perfect combination of complexity and feel-good blues.
Recommended Thad Jone recording: Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra
This, the 1966 debut of the band, features four Jones originals. Thad plays flugelhorn, with his brother Hank at the piano.
Bassist Charles Mingus played with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker and, very briefly, Duke Ellington in the 1940s and ‘50s before establishing himself as one of the most fascinating musical personalities and famous jazz composers ever.
His music demonstrates the influence of bebop, swing, early New Orleans jazz, gospel and free jazz, and he was innovative in applying the idea of Dixieland-style collective improvisation in a more modern context.
Due to his vast charisma as a bandleader and the uncategorisable nature of his work, Mingus was often viewed as the heir of Duke Ellington. Indeed, the two men would collaborate (in a trio with drummer Max Roach) on the 1962 album Money Jungle.
Like Ellington, he was a master at writing features especially to suit the personalities of his band members.
Mingus was a famously fiery character, and his autobiography Beneath The Underdog contains some scarcely believable material.
The Mingus Big Band continues to perform his work with regular tours and a residency at the Jazz Standard in New York.
Charles Mingus songs
Some of Charles Mingus’ best known jazz songs include “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, “Better Git It in Your Soul”, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors.”
He was also politically engaged: his tune “Fables of Faubus” is a musical protest against racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus.
Key recording: Mingus Ah Um
Mingus Ah Um sits alongside Kind of Blue, Time Out and The Shape of Jazz To Come as one of an astonishing number of all-time classic albums to be released in 1959. It features a beautiful tribute to the then-recently-departed Lester Young in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.
As of 2021, Benny Golson is still going strong and performing regularly at 91 years old.
The tenor saxophonist is one of an impressive number of notable jazz musicians to emerge from Philadelphia: he played with John Coltrane, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones whilst still in high school.
After a stint in Tadd Dameron’s band – he considers Dameron to be his most important compositional influence – he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with whom he recorded Moanin’.
The 1958 album is Blakey’s best-known and is considered one of the greatest jazz albums ever: four of its six tracks are composed by Golson.
Benny Golson songs
Jazz musicians continue to relish playing the rich and surprising harmonies that make up Benny Golson’s hard bop themes. Favourite Golson standards include “Along Came Betty”, “Whisper Not”, “Stablemates”, “I Remember Clifford” (a heartfelt tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown) and “Blues March”.
Key Benny Golson recording: Meet the Jazztet
The Jazztet was a six-piece band that Golson led jointly with trumpeter Art Farmer. This, the band’s first album from 1960, closes with “Killer Joe”, one of four Golson original compositions here.
Like Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter is still composing and performing as an elder statesman of the tenor saxophone in jazz and a genuine living legend.
And, like Golson, Shorter got an early career break in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
He played on 22 albums with the Jazz Messengers between 1959 and 1964, becoming musical director and contributing dozens of compositions – most of which fall into the category of hard bop-with-a-twist – to the band’s pad.
But Shorter has always been a unique forward thinker.
He was a key player in the modal jazz revolution with his own ‘60s albums, which are full of tunes that blur the lines between functional and non-functional harmony. He was also a member of Miles Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet’, where his compositions were interpreted in loose and innovative fashion on albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles and Nefertiti.
In the 1970s and ‘80s he wrote intricate fusion for Weather Report, the band he co-led with keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
To hear an impressive example of his more recent work as a composer and performer, try “Pegasus”, a 23-minute piece for his long-running current quartet and the woodwind and brass ensemble Imani Winds, from his 2013 album Without a Net.
“Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, writes the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. … Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste.” – Miles Davis
Wayne Shorter songs
Well-known Wayne Shorter compositions include “The All Seeing Eye”, “Witch Hunt”, “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, “Speak No Evil”, “Footprints”, and “Infant Eyes”.
Key recording: Speak No Evil
This 1964 recording features six classic Shorter compositions played by an all-star quintet, making it a regular on ‘best jazz album of all time’ lists. It includes favourite Wayne tunes “Witch Hunt” and the ballad “Infant Eyes”.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a musician, then hopefully this showed you of some of the great inspiration out their for your own jazz composing.
And, if you’re a fan, we hope this gave you some more insight into some of these most famous jazz composers of all time.
Of course, there are many more to discover in the world of jazz, so keep digging…
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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