Jazz has, of course, no shortage of big names stars which populate many of the ‘best jazz musicians of all time‘ lists. But what about those players whose magic flies a little – or a lot – under the radar?
In this article we’ve rounded up some of the most underrated jazz musicians; legends who, in our opinion at least, don’t get the credit they deserve.
Of course, as always, this is totally subjective and only scratches the surface, so feel free to add your own (and tell us who we missed!) in the comments section…
Mark Murphy (1932-2015)
Known for his lyrical dexterity and scat-singing, Mark Murphy was a major force in jazz vocals, recording more than 50 albums after being discovered by Sammy Davis Jnr performing at a New York club.
His music covered a broad range, from songbook classics and Hard Bop vocalese, to Brazilian jazz and even a surge in popularity during the 80s acid jazz craze.
It’s perhaps this multi-faceted career – underpinned by a desire to imitate the style of his hero Mile Davis – which prevented him from achieving the level of commercial success many of his less-talented counterparts did.
Website AllMusic summed it up best, calling him “one of the more underrated singers of his era”.
Listening Tip: Check out his version of ‘Stolen Moments‘ for a masterclass in vocal jazz.
Larry Ridley (1937-)
American jazz double-bassist Larry Ridley is perhaps best known as a trailblazing jazz educator who chaired the Jazz Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and co-ordinated their ‘Jazz Artists in Schools’ Program in the late 70s and early 80s.
But despite plenty of recognition in academic circles, his work as a jazz double bass player who emerged in the 1950s with some of the biggest stars of the day is often overlooked.
Whilst his output as a bandleader is thin, his credits as a sideman include albums with Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley and a whole host of other big names.
Listening Tip: His album “Sum of the Parts” is a great way to discover his sound, whilst his sideman recording on the 1961 Blue Note album Hub Cap is a hard bop classic.
Kenny Dorham (1924–1972)
American jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham was an astoundingly versatile player who contributed to the bebop movement and was a significant presence in hard bop jazz scenes.
His name may not carry the same immediate recognition as Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis, but his impact is undeniable.
Starting his career in the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine, Dorham went on to play with iconic figures like Charlie Parker and Max Roach.
His talent was unquestionable, but he often flew under the radar, partly due to his soft-spoken nature and less flashy approach to the trumpet compared to some of his contemporaries.
Dorham’s work is considered underrated mainly because his subtlety and nuance often made him a “musician’s musician,” highly respected among peers but not as much a household name. His lyricism and melodic improvisation were stellar, but they didn’t grab headlines.
Listening Tip: To get a taste of Kenny Dorham’s unique style, listen to his performance on Joe Henderson’s album “Page One,” specifically the track “Blue Bossa,” a tune he penned that has become a classic jazz standard.
Warne Marsh (1927-1987)
Warne Marsh was an American tenor saxophonist born into a family of musicians. He was a disciple of the Tristano ‘Cool’ school of jazz, focusing on intricate melodic and harmonic ideas. Marsh’s technical mastery and unique approach to improvisation put him in a league of his own, yet his name is often left out when discussing the greats like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins.
He collaborated with a range of artists including Lee Konitz, another Tristano acolyte, and later with Supersax, a Charlie Parker tribute band.
His unconventional style sometimes put him at odds with mainstream jazz scenes, making him less commercially popular but a darling among musicians who could appreciate the nuances in his music.
Perhaps what makes Warne Marsh underrated is his intellectual approach to jazz which, while groundbreaking, may have been too subtle or complex for mass appeal.
His avoidance of clichés and dedication to pure improvisation made him a polarising figure, with a style that was as cerebral as it was soulful.
Listening Tip: For an in-depth experience of Warne Marsh’s intricate playing style, listen to his work on the album “Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh” (1955) and, in particular, the track There Will Never Be Another You. It’s an album that captures the essence of his subtle genius.
Jaki Byard (1922-1999)
Jaki Byard was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose career spanned over four decades. He was known for his eclectic style, seamlessly blending traditional jazz with avant-garde elements.
Although his career was filled with innovations, Byard often didn’t receive the level of attention garnered by some of his more famous jazz piano playing contemporaries like Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner.
Throughout his career he played alongside some of the greats, including Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His work is celebrated for its adventurous spirit, bringing together elements of bop, swing, and free jazz into a harmonious blend that defied easy categorisation.
What marks Jaki Byard out as underrated is perhaps his fearless approach to experimentation. While others settled into particular niches, Byard was constantly pushing boundaries, a fact that possibly made him less easily marketable but incredibly influential among musicians who prized innovation.
Listening Tip: One of Jaki Byard’s most acclaimed sideman appearances was on Charles Mingus’s album “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus“. Dive into it for a great example of his unique, genre-defying talents.
Frank Wess (1922–2013)
Frank Wess was an American jazz musician, highly renowned for his time with Count Basie’s orchestra. Alongside his work on tenor saxophone, though, he was a pioneering jazz flutist, carving out a space for it to be a serious jazz instrument in a genre traditionally dominated by horns and rhythm sections.
Wess was a long-time member of Count Basie’s Orchestra and also played with greats like Billy Eckstine, Clark Terry, and Benny Goodman. He had the rare ability to switch between the flute and the tenor saxophone, performing each with distinction and flair.
Although he won the Downbeat magazine critics’ poll for flute every year from 1959 to 1964, he never achieved the ‘household name’ status of some of his peers, and his innovations with the flute in jazz orchestration remain somewhat under-appreciated.
Listening Tip: From his Basie-era work, check out his contribution to. the “April in Paris” Count Basie album. For his pioneering jazz flute playing, the 1962 Prestige album Southern Comfort is worth a listen; head to the track “Dancing In The Dark”.
Gary Bartz (1940–)
Gary Bartz is an Baltimore-born alto saxophonist who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Known for his robust tone and lyrical style, Bartz has performed in a variety of jazz styles, from hard bop and modal jazz to jazz-funk and beyond.
Over the years, he’s collaborated with a number of jazz greats such as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Max Roach, and McCoy Tyner.
Despite his impressive resume, Bartz remains a bit of an unsung hero, especially when compared to alto sax giants like Charlie Parker or Cannonball Adderley.
The reason Gary Bartz is often considered underrated lies in the versatility of his career, which may have made it difficult for listeners to pigeonhole him into a specific ‘type’ of jazz musician.
His wide-ranging contributions to various styles and his forays into jazz-funk, in particular, might not have endeared him to traditional jazz purists, but they display an inventive and exploratory musician.
Listening Tip: For a taste of Bartz’s hard swinging virtuosity, check out his 1990 offering “There Goes The Neighbourhood” (and in particular the jazz standard “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”) with Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and Ben Riley.
Frank Butler (1928–1984)
Frank Butler was an American jazz drummer whose was most active during the 1950s and ’60s. He possessed a subtle touch and a keen sense of dynamics, which made him a sought-after sideman and session musician.
He performed alongside jazz luminaries such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Despite being heralded by fellow musicians, Butler’s name is often overshadowed by other drumming giants of his era like Max Roach and Art Blakey.
His underrated status could be attributed to a combination of factors, including a lack of recordings as a bandleader and personal struggles that affected his career. Regardless, those who are familiar with his work consider him a drummer’s drummer, embodying the art of subtlety and swing in his performances.
Listening Tip: For a deep dive into Frank Butler’s understated drumming style, check him out Miles Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven track “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”.
He splits drum duties on the record with a young Tony Williams, with the latter going on to get the nod as Miles’ touring drummer – perhaps showing just how close to widespread ‘fame’ Butler was…
Recap: The Underrated Jazz Musicians
The jazz world is brimming with legendary jazz artists who’ve won global acclaim. However, there’s an equally compelling roster of underrated jazz musicians who, despite their virtuosity and contributions, often remain in the shadows of their more famous counterparts.
From vocalists like Mark Murphy to saxophonists like Warne Marsh, these musicians listed only scratch the surface of a sub-section of players whose brilliance, in our opinion, deserves its own spotlight.
Delve into their discographies and you’ll find a treasure trove of jazz artistry that may not have broken through to mainstream consciousness, but has nonetheless left an indelible mark on the genre!
Looking for more? Check out our pick of some of the most famous jazz albums of all time here.