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Best Jazz Musicians: 20 Revolutionary Talents That Changed The World
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List & Guides

Best Jazz Musicians: 20 Revolutionary Talents That Changed The World

From dazzling hornblowers to soulful singers and visionary composers, the best jazz musicians were innovators who expanded the genre.


From trad to swing, bebop to cool, free jazz to fusion and beyond, jazz music has taken many different forms since it was born in a New Orleans bordello at the dawn of the 20th century. Primarily an instrumental music defined by improvisation, jazz ruled the world between the 20s and 50s but went into a steep commercial decline with the rise of rock’n’roll. That didn’t stop the music from continuing to evolve, however, even while the fickle gods of fashion dictated that its popularity would ebb and flow for the rest of its life. But thanks to exciting new talents such as Kamasi Washington, Sons Of Kemet and Nubya Garcia, jazz is back in vogue. Yet these young lions and lionesses still have a way to go if they’re to match the accomplishments of the revolutionary trailblazers listed below, in our countdown of the 20 best jazz musicians of all time.

Best Jazz Musicians: 20 Revolutionary Talents That Changed The World

20: George Benson (1943-)

George Benson’s iconic album Breezin’, featuring the hit single This Masquerade, was a game-changer that transformed the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born singer-guitarist into a jazz superstar in 1976. But Benson was no overnight sensation. He made his recording debut as a vocalist aged ten, in 1953, and then relaunched his career in the 60s as a soul-jazz guitarist who recorded for Columbia and CTI before landing at Warner Bros and reinventing himself as singing guitar player. Noted for his nimble-fingered fretwork and soulful voice, Benson patented a technique in which he sang an improvised “scat” vocal while doubling the same melody on guitar. It became his much-imitated hallmark, influencing several generations of smooth-jazz musicians, including Jonathan Butler, Norman Brown and Victor Bailey.

Must hear: Breezin’

19: Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987)

Combining slithery funk grooves and percussive harmonics with soaring lyrical melodies in a union of jaw-dropping technique and deep emotional intelligence, Florida-born John “Jaco” Pastorius III revolutionised bass playing when he arrived on the world stage with his fretless Fender in 1976. A key member of the fusion supergroup Weather Report from 1976 to 1982, Pastorius also made his mark as a composer with several solo albums, including 1981’s Word Of Mouth, which featured a large supporting cast and telling cameos from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He also helped Joni Mitchell further her groundbreaking foray into jazz on albums such as Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. One of the best jazz musicians of his generation, the bassist’s career came to a tragically premature end in 1987 when, at the age of 35, he died after being beaten up in a nightclub.

Must hear: Three Views Of A Secret

18: Chet Baker (1929-1988)

Chesney Henry Baker was born in Oklahoma before moving with his family to California, where his chiselled good looks and seductive trumpet tone helped him become the poster boy of the West Coast “Cool School” scene of the early 50s. When Baker began singing on his records in 1953 – in an androgynous mellow croon – he substantially widened his audience and even won an acting role in a Hollywood war movie, Hell’s Horizon. But music was Baker’s principal interest, though his career was a chequered one, defined by lots of ups and downs due to a long period of heroin addiction. He died aged 58 after mysteriously falling out of a hotel window in the Netherlands.

Must hear: I Love Too Easily

17: Count Basie (1904-1984)

William “Count” Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but first made his mark as part of the Kansas City jazz scene in the late 20s and early 30s, during a spell playing piano in Bennie Moten’s influential group. After that, he formed his own orchestra, whose punchy horns, tight ensemble work and syncopated rhythms came to epitomise the sound and style of the big-band swing era. After World War II, when swing music fell out of fashion, Basie dissolved his band for a while, only to reboot his orchestra in 1952 and enjoy a renaissance with the help of albums such as April In Paris and Atomic Basie, which re-established his position among the best jazz musicians of all time.

Must hear: April In Paris

16: Stan Getz (1927-1991)

Though born in Philadelphia, in the US East Coast state of Pennsylvania, Getz’s mellifluous tenor saxophone style came to epitomise the cool sound of California’s West Coast jazz scene. Influenced by the smooth, melodious style of his hero, saxophonist Lester Young, Getz blew his horn with a distinctively light, feathery tone that earned him the nickname “The Sound”. In the early 60s, Getz helped to popularise the bossa nova style with his album Jazz Samba, which led to a collaboration with Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil (Getz/Gilberto) and produced the international hit single, The Girl From Ipanema, featuring Gilberto’s then wife, Astrud.

Must hear: Desafinado (with Charlie Byrd)

15: Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

Nicknamed “Long Tall Dexter” because he stood at a towering six feet six inches, Gordon was one of bebop’s first notable tenor saxophonists and quickly took his place the best jazz musicians of the late 40s. A fluid improviser whose tone was big, round and warm, he was particularly adept at infusing ballads with deep emotion. Like Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, Gordon’s life was blighted by drug addiction; though his troubles derailed his career in the 50s, he got back on track in the early 60s, recording several acclaimed albums, including the iconic Dexter Calling. He spent most of that decade and half of the next one living in Denmark before enjoying a triumphant return to America in 1976. At that point, Gordon’s career gained a new impetus, which culminated with him getting nominated for his acting role as an itinerant jazz musician in the 1986 movie Round Midnight.

Must hear: Sticky Wicket

14: Sonny Rollins (1930-)

In terms of his melodic fluency, musical wit, emotional intelligence and improvisational flair, Rollins had few equals and fully justified the nickname “Saxophone Colossus”, bestowed upon him after he recorded the album of the same name. Initially influenced by bebop, Rollins recorded with pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Miles Davis before establishing himself as a jazz pathfinder in the late 50s with the landmark records Way Out West and Freedom Suite. Famed for taking several sabbaticals during his long career, Rollins always returned to the jazz scene energised and full of fresh ideas. His status as one of the best jazz musicians of all time long assured, he kept playing until the age of 82, when respiratory issues forced him to retire.

Must hear: Night In Tunisia (with Modern Jazz Quartet)

13: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Frayed and careworn yet luminously soulful, Holiday’s voice is one of the most recognisable in jazz. Nicknamed “Lady Day”, she was born Eleanora Fagan and endured a tough childhood growing up in Baltimore, but found solace in singing during her teenage years. Holiday cut her first records at 18, in 1933, and, by the late 40s, was a bona fide jazz star renowned for the deep feeling she could invest in her performances. A combination of drug addiction and alcoholism conspired to bring the curtain down early on Holiday’s life; she died aged 44 from cirrhosis of the liver. Despite the brevity of her career, Holiday’s influence on other singers has been profound and can still be felt today in contemporary artists ranging from Cassandra Wilson to Celeste.

Must hear: Lady Sings The Blues

12: Keith Jarrett (1945-)

From Allentown, Pennsylvania, Jarrett was a child prodigy who began playing classical music before turning to jazz. After performing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ electric band in the 60s, he established himself as a solo artist, first at Atlantic Records, where his unique blend of bebop, free jazz, gospel and country elements marked him as unique. But it was at the German independent label ECM where Jarrett released his iconic 1975 album, The Köln Concert, and his career really blossomed. Jarrett has worked within many formats, both in the jazz and classical music fields, with duos, trios, quartets and even orchestras, but he is best known for the improvised lone-piano recitals which first brought him fame in the 70s and still claim him a place among the best jazz musicians today.

Must hear: Gypsy Moth

11: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Dubbed “The First Lady Of Song”, this Virginia-born singer possessed a gorgeous, caressing tone but could also use her voice to improvise like a horn player, using a technique known as scatting. Responsible for popularising many of the best jazz songs collected under the “Great American Songbook” banner, Fitzgerald’s career began when she won a talent contest at 17 which led her to join drummer Chick Webb’s band. Her fame accelerated in the 50s when she recorded Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook, which began an acclaimed series of themed songbook albums for the Verve label. In the late 60s and early 70s, Fitzgerald modernised her sound at Reprise, recording many contemporary pop songs, including ones by The Beatles, Smokey Robinson and Randy Newman.

Must hear: I’ve Got You Under My Skin

10: Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

This revolutionary Texas alto saxophonist shook the jazz world in 1959 when Atlantic Records released his third album, the prophetically titled The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Dispensing with conventional chord changes, Coleman’s radical free-jazz manifesto redefined the concepts of melody and harmony with its unfettered improvisations. Though the saxophonist – who later added trumpet and violin to his musical armoury, and went on to enjoy a long and much-garlanded career – recorded for a variety of different labels, the six groundbreaking albums he cut for Atlantic between 1959 and 1962 arguably capture him at the peak of his creative powers, and ensure his continued placement among the best jazz musicians the world has known.

Must hear: Ramblin’

9: Charles Mingus (1922-1979)

Plaintive blues cries and sanctified gospel cadences figure prominently in the music of this visionary bassist and composer whose career blossomed in the 50s. Originally part of the bebop scene – he once played alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in a short-lived supergroup called The Quintet – Mingus developed a highly personal style that referenced jazz’s past (by alluding to ragtime and New Orleans “trad jazz”) while pushing the music forward towards free and avant-garde styles. He recorded for a variety of labels during his 35-year career, but arguably some of his greatest music was made during a late-50s stint at Atlantic Records, where he recorded the iconic albums The Clown and Blues & Roots.

Must hear: Moanin’

8: Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)

Described by one jazz critic as a “puff-cheeked wind demon”, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie brought a new level of virtuosity to jazz trumpet playing between the late 40s – when he was at the vanguard of the bebop revolution, which supplanted big-band swing – and his final recordings, in the early 90s. With his trademark beret and goatee beard, Gillespie helped establish bebop’s distinctive iconography but, with his assimilation of Afro-Cuban rhythms, was also crucial in the development of big-band Latin jazz. Always keen to stay current, in the 80s Gillespie ventured into jazz fusion with the Atlantic album Closer To The Source, featuring soul star Stevie Wonder. Later that decade, he guested on producer Quincy Jones’ chart-topping hip-hop/jazz crossover album, Back On The Block.

Must hear: Mantec

7: Herbie Hancock (1940-)

A musical shapeshifter whose albums have spanned everything from hard bop to disco and hip-hop, Chicago-born Hancock is an intrepid sonic explorer who has never been afraid of crossing musical boundaries. One of the best jazz musicians of his generation, Hancock rose to fame playing with Miles Davis in the early 60s before quickly establishing himself as a gifted composer in his own right. His first foray into electric funk began with his 1969 Warner Bros album, Fat Albert Rotunda, and developed further in the 70s with groundbreaking records such as Head Hunters, which made Hancock a household name. The keyboard wizard’s fascination with new technology saw him pioneer the vocoder effect in the 70s and, in the 80s, he scored an international hit with Rockit, which fused jazz with computerised techno-funk and hip-hop elements.

Must hear: Tell Me A Bedroom Story

6: Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

One of jazz’s most original musical minds, and second only to Duke Ellington as the US’s most prolific jazz composer, Thelonious Sphere Monk pioneered an idiosyncratic style defined by angular but catchy melodies and dissonant chords welded to addictive swing rhythms. One of the best jazz musicians of the bebop era, Monk emerged as part of the fledgling movement in the late 40s, but his unique musical approach quickly found him forging a separate path. Though he recorded for the Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Columbia labels, one of Monk’s most memorable sessions was a one-off 1958 collaboration with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for Atlantic Records, which included a fabulous rendition of his iconic song Blue Monk.

Must hear: Blue Monk

5: Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

The grandson of a slave, pianist and bandleader Edward Kennedy Ellington was a high-school dropout who went on to become not only one of the world’s best jazz musicians, but one of its greatest composers, enjoying a long and glittering career that took him from Harlem’s Cotton Club all the way to The White House. His popularity began in the late 20s, with the hit East St Louis Toodle-Oo, but, later in his career, Ellington would expand his creative horizons by composing film scores, symphonic works and even sacred music. Though big-band swing’s popularity dipped after the Second World War, Ellington continued to lead his orchestra, enjoying a commercial revival in the 50s. In the following decade, he recorded an album with John Coltrane, and then made Afro-Bossa, a collection of bossa nova-influenced songs, for Reprise, proving that, even in his 60s, Ellington had his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary jazz music.

Must hear: Take The “A” Train

4: Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

Nicknamed “Bird”, the Kansas City, Missouri-born alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was the main architect behind bebop, a virtuosic jazz style performed mainly by small groups that was characterised by rapidly-played melodies over complex chord sequences and highly syncopated rhythms. Redefining jazz music as an art, Parker, together with his co-pilot, Dizzy Gillespie, brought about a musical revolution that shaped jazz from the mid-40s to the 60s. Though heroin addiction tragically ended Parker’s life when he was 34, his influence can still be felt today – and his immortality is assured by the many fine recordings he left behind. Among his masterworks is the 1949 album Charlie Parker With Strings, which was deemed controversial at the time for purportedly diluting jazz’s authenticity.

Must hear: Just Friends

3: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.” So said Miles Davis, acknowledging the deep influence of the celebrated New Orleans-born trumpeter who was affectionately dubbed “Satchmo” or “Pops”. Rising to fame in the 20s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, Armstrong was one of jazz’s early pioneers and, with his winning combination of blazing trumpet improvisations and distinctive gravelly vocals, quickly became one of the best jazz musicians in history. Successfully weathering the bebop revolution of the late 40s, in his twilight years Armstrong became an elder statesman of the music he helped to bring to prominence. His final big hit was the iconic ballad What A Wonderful World, a pop crossover which topped the UK charts in 1968.

Must hear: Mack The Knife

2: John Coltrane (1926-1967)

The only jazz musician to be canonised (he inspired the St John Coltrane Church, founded in San Francisco in 1969), this North Carolina-born saxophonist and composer brought a marked spiritual dimension to jazz with his iconic magnum opus, A Love Supreme, in 1965. Back in the 50s, “Trane” had started out as a journeyman blues player before Miles Davis spotted his potential and recruited him for the legendary band that cut the groundbreaking album Milestones and Kind Of Blue. John Coltrane’s solo career began at the Prestige label, but it was at Atlantic Records where he truly took off, with the titanic albums Giant Steps (1960) and My Favorite Things (1961). The latter’s title track, a classic example of a style known as modal jazz (based on scales rather than chords), helped Coltrane to popularise the soprano saxophone, establishing himself as one of the world’s best jazz musicians in the process.

Must hear: My Favorite Things

1: Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Topping our list of the best jazz musicians is the enigmatic trumpeter renowned for his delicate lyricism, hauntingly beautiful tone and mysterious personality. The Illinois-born Davis rose to fame as a disciple of the bebop revolutionaries Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during the late 40s before becoming one of modern jazz’s greatest bandleaders and creative forces. Never one to stand still or repeat himself musically, Davis was a master of reinvention; his thirst for innovation stemmed from a restless creativity which led him to explore everything from jazz-rock to hip-hop. He spent many years at Columbia Records – where he recorded his influential masterpiece, 1959’s Kind Of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time – but also enjoyed a notable revival during his twilight years in the late 80s at Warner Bros, with the techno-funk albums Tutu and Amandla.

Must hear: Summertime

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