Ten of The Most Famous Jazz Drummers… EVER

Whilst the horn players at the front may get plenty of attention, almost none of the most famous jazz albums in history are complete without a drummer underpinning the music. 

And, aside from forming the bedrock of the rhythm section, many have become stars and bandleaders in their own right.

So, with a heavy dose of personal opinion, here’s our round up of 10 of the most famous jazz drummers of all time…

Art Blakey (1919 – 1990)

Blakey is possibly the epitome of the modern jazz drummer, after all he was in at the beginning of bebop and instrumental in helping to define the role of the drummer in this exciting new music of the 1940’s.

However, Blakey’s first experience of playing music was not as a drummer but as a pianist.

He had music lessons at school as a youngster and must have showed promise as it is believed that by the early 1930’s he was earning a living from playing music.

His switch to playing drums has never been confirmed, Blakey himself has given different versions of the story, but the popular and much-loved story is that he was forced at gunpoint to vacate the piano stool by a club owner, for Erroll Garner to take over piano duties.

Blakey was instructed to sit at the drum kit. A story that has never been corroborated but makes for a great anecdote.

As a drummer, Blakey at first played in the big band of Fletcher Henderson and toured with Mary Lou Williams.

He was the drummer for the Billy Eckstine band between 1944 and 1947, and it was through Eckstine’s band he met Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and others that would be involved in creating bebop.

Blakey is best known for his Jazz Messengers band that he would lead for most of his life.

The name was first used on a recording in 1954 led by pianist Horace Silver.

The piansit would leave the band a year later, taking two of the band members with him but leaving Blakey the Jazz Messengers name.

Playing in an uncompromising hard bop style, the Jazz Messengers over the years would feature many of the greats of the music.

Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Jymmie Merrit, Keith Jarrett, Terence Blanchard, Joanne Brackeen and Donald Harrison were just a few of the notable players on their respective instruments that passed through the Messengers ranks, as it acquired a reputation of being a finishing school for aspiring jazz musicians.

Personnel changes would be frequent as Blakey would let musicians go as soon as he felt they were ready to progress to leading their own bands.

There has been no drummer since with such an incredible presence at the kit, and Art Blakey’s famous press roll on the snare drum is instantly identifiable as is his way to drive a band.

Buddy Rich (1917 – 1987)

Often cited as the best drummer that ever lived, Buddy Rich is perhaps best loved remembered by fellow drummers for his incredible speed, precision and technique, and music lovers everywhere for the big band that he led on a permanent basis, from 1966 until his death.

The Buddy Rich big band was an experience that few would forget when heard live, the sheer power of the band, and that of the man who drove it from behind the drum kit but there was more to Rich than a showman and a great drum technician.

A child prodigy at just two years old when he started playing drums, he would frequently be on stage with his Vaudeville star parents and would appear on stage at the age of four as Baby Traps the Drum Wonder.

In the thirties his jazz career began in earnest and could be heard playing with the big bands of Bunny Berrigan and Artie Shaw.

He was also a lifelong friend, rival and musical associate of Frank Sinatra.

While identified as a big band drummer, there was much more too Rich than simply powering along a large ensemble.

In 1950 he played bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on the album ‘Bird & Diz’ and was also part of Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic touring band.

Another side to his playing can be heard on the recordings he made with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and he would also record with Oscar Peterson’s famous Trio featuring Ray Brown on bass and guitarist, Herb Ellis.

Multifaceted as a drummer, he was equally adept with brushes as he was with sticks, surprisingly was self-taught and never studied formally.

He was also unable to read music, instead preferring to learn the parts by listening and memorising the music, and it is stated that he only had to hear it once and would have it memorised.

Famously Rich claimed not to practice, believing that the only way to get better was to play with a band.

Gene Krupa (1909 – 1973)

One of nine children, Krupa originally started to learn to play the saxophone in school.

He switched to drums at the age of eleven when working in a music store, as they were cheapest instrument in the shop.

By 1925 Krupa was earning a living as a professional musician, making his first recordings in 1927 with Eddie Condon and Red McKenzie.

Initially influenced by Baby Dodds, the drummer featured on the classic Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. From his early mentor Krupa developed his own early swing style.

Believing that the drums should be more there to simply keep time, Krupa would look to embellish and lift the band with his playing. In order to this successfully, Krupa expanded his kit.

He persuaded the Slingerland Drums to make him some tom toms that he was able to tune and was also central to help develop the modern hi-hat.

By elevating the role of the drummer from time keeper to fully fledged accompanist, Krupa can also stake a claim to being the first recorded drum soloist with his solo on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ recorded with the Benny Goodman band.

Krupa would go onto play with Goodman at the famous Carnegie Hall Concert of 1938 but would leave the band shortly after.

After leaving Goodman, the drummer would appear frequently with Jazz At The Philharmonic, and would also appear in the films, The Glen Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story.

Krupa would return to work with Benny Goodman’s big band and quartet periodically for the rest of life.

Krupa would continue to lead large and small bands up until his death in 1973.

As well as being an excellent technician, Krupa will be remembered for bringing the drums out front as a solo instrument.

He innovations in developing the drum kit paved the way for the modern kit, and the techniques that later drummers would employ.

He is an acknowledged influence on Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson among countless others.

Max Roach (1924 – 2007)

Although he cut his first records with Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach came to prominence along with Kenny Clarke as the first bebop drummers.

His recordings with Charlie Parker for Savoy in 1945 signalled a turning point for the role of the drums.

Perfecting his craft and new modern approach to the drums at Minton’s Playhouse with other bebop alumni, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell with whose trio he would often work with.

In the early fifties, Roach studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music, and co-founded the musician run label Debut Records with bassist, Charles Mingus and released the famous Massey Hall concert with Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, that is regarded as one of the greats live jazz quintet performances.

In 1954 the drummer teamed up with the rising young trumpeter, Clifford Bown to form the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet featuring Harold Land on tenor (replaced by Sonny Rollins in 1955), Richie Powell on piano and bassist George Morrow.

Along with the Miles Davis Quintet, and the Jazz Messengers group led by Horace Silver and Art Blakey, the Roach/Brown band were considered the forerunners of the hard bop movement.

The albums Study In Brown and Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street are regarded as classics.

Tragically the quintet was to be short lived as both Richie Powell and Clifford Brown were killed in a car accident in June 1956.

Roach would continue his quest to elevate the role of the drums in music, and his use of dynamics and the way in which his patterns would work in conjunction with the melody of any given tune.

Other influential albums include We Insist! (also known as Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite), and Money Jungle a trio recording with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

The album Drums Unlimited would include several solo drum tracks that would demonstrate Roach’s mastery and sheer musicality at the kit.

Using techniques developed from his solo experiments, in the 1980’s Roach played in a series of duets, often freely improvised, with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, as well as the So What Brass Quintet that featured five brass instruments and drums, with n bass or chordal instrument, and again creating a fresh concept for his playing.

From his pioneering use of the drum kit, and innovative switching the pulse from the bass drum to the hi-hat, Roach was instrumental in moving the role of the drummer away from strictly time keeping to that of an equal and fully interactive member of the ensemble, small or large.

Tony Williams (1945 – 1997)

Tony Williams appeared to land on the jazz scene from nowhere, and shake up the roll of the drums again, as had Max Roach and Art Blakey before him.

At the age of just seventeen, the young drummer landed one of the most prestigious jazz gigs when he joined Miles Davis’s new band in 1963.

His first recordings with Davis can be heard on the album Seven Steps To Heaven, and his influence can be heard immediately.

Miles had an all new rhythm section with Williams, bassist Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock on piano and they would rapidly be regarded as the best rhythm section in jazz, and with saxophonist Wayne Shorter joining the band a year later would be referred to as Miles’s Second Great Quintet.

With Davis, Tony Williams would be responsible for helping to open up the rhythm section, His use of polyrhythms and creative disturbance of the pulse would lead the band into new territory.

Often Ron Carter would be the only member of the band to adhere to a time keeping role while Hancock and Williams created an ever changing rhythmic backdrop for the soloist.

Williams would remain with Miles until 1969 and help lead the trumpeter in his jazz rock phase via his late 1960’s albums, Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, and played a vital role on the ground-breaking In A Silent Way.

It was not just Miles that recognised just how special Williams’s talents were, and he played on a whole host of the most famous jazz albums of the sixties including Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, Kenny Dorham by Una Mas, and Maiden Voyage with Herbie Hancock.

Other important sideman appearances were with Andrew Hill on his Point of Departure album and the debut album of Sam River’s, Fuchsia Swing Song.

As a leader Williams recorded frequently, he made his first two leadership albums for Blue Note, Lifetime and Spring, and upon leaving Miles in 1969 formed the Tony Williams Lifetime trio with John McLaughlin on guitar and organist Larry Young.

In 1976 he was reunited with his former bandmates from the Second Great Quintet, and under the name V.S.O.P. with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. With the quintet he would tour and record several albums.

Returning to Blue Note records in the mid-eighties he would record a number of albums with a new band that featured Wallace Roney on trumpet and pianist, Mulgrew Miller.

Williams would continue to perform and record up until his death from a heart attack following routine surgery for a stomach ailment.

Elvin Jones (1927 – 2004)

Most famous for his role within John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, Elvin Jones was the latest in the long line of drummers that over the history of music was responsible for the continued development and evolution of his instrument.

Jones became fascinated with the drums at the age of two and learned his craft from watching circus drummers in parades near his home and playing in the school’s marching band.

Beginning his professional career in 1949, he would eventually establish a reputation for himself which would lead to gigs with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1955, after moving to New York, Jones was working with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, appearing on the trumpeter’s Blue Moods album.

The drummer would also appear with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, making a vital contribution to Rollins’s pianoless trio captured on the outstanding live album A Night At The Village Vanguard.

In an unlikely association, Jones would weave his magic in another important trio album with altoist Lee Konitz and bass player Sonny Dallas.

In 1960 the drummer joined the quartet led by John Coltrane playing on some of the saxophonist’s early albums for Atlantic and Impulse! Records where his use of dynamics and polyrhythms were exactly what Coltrane required in his music.

When bassist Jimmy Garrison joined Coltrane, Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner the Classic Quartet was finally realised, culminating in the recording of A Love Supreme in 1964.

As Coltrane’s music moved further and further towards freedom, Jones felt that he was no longer able to contribute to the saxophonist’s musical ideology he left to lead his own bands.

In the eighties he formed his Elvin Jones Jazz Machine which he would lead through various different line up.

A complete original, Elvin Jones contribution to the language of modern jazz drumming is incalculable and his influence has permeated down through to younger generations of players.

Jack DeJohnette (1942 – )

Starting out on piano at the age of four, DeJohnette has continued to play the instrument at an extremely high level throughout his career.

However, it as a drummer that he is held in the highest regard, and his playing career has covered a wide range of styles spanning the last six decades.

In that time, he has been a pioneer in the freer end of the music with his early involvement with fellow Chicagoans Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Always a multi-genre aware musician, DeJohnette would bring elements of R&B, bebop and the avant-garde to his playing, and through his innate sense of musicality and gift for what would and wouldn’t work contributed to some of the key musicians of the 1960’s and ‘70s.

His move to New York would find him as vital contributor the resounding success of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with the drummer totally at home with the saxophonist’s wish to incorporate elements of rock into the quartet’s music.

At the same time, the drummer also worked with pianist Bill Evans in a completely contrasting musical situation.

Upon leaving Lloyd’s band after a tenure of three years, DeJohnette found himself catching the ear of Miles Davis playing an important part in the multi percussion ensemble assemble for the sessions that produced the Bitches Brew album.

The drummer would remain with Davis’s band from 1969 until 1971 contributing to some of the trumpeters darkest and most difficult music.

Never content to remain merely a sideman, DeJohnette would frequently lead his own bands, most notably his bands Directions and Special Edition which recorded for ECM.

His work for the Munich based label has been far ranging with DeJohnette enjoying a long and fruitful partnership with the English saxophonist, John Surman.

One of the most important associations of DeJohnette’s is the musical relationship with Keith Jarrett that has endured from their time together in the Miles Davis bands of the early seventies.

From this association, and Jarrett’s desire to focus on playing acoustic piano, the Ketih Jarrett Trio, also known as the Standards Trio, was formed with the drummer, Jarrett and bassist Gary Peacock who for more than thirty years would reinvent the piano trio and the way in which standards were played.

Paul Motian (1931 – 2011)

As the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio that featured the ill-fated bass virtuoso Scott LaFaro, Motian helped define the piano trio in jazz.

Setting the bar incredibly high the trio would develop a style of playing that was engaging, yet deeply intuitive with an interplay and improvisational sense that has rarely if ever been equalled.

Starting out on guitar as a child, Motian switched to drums at the age of twelve.

He quickly developed his own individual voice on the instrument, and by the time he was playing with Bill Evans was investigating ways to free the drums from its traditional role of timekeeper and finding ways in which the drums could interact with the bass and piano in a genuine three way dialogue.

After the death of Scott LaFaro in 1961 in a car accident, Motian would re-join Evans’ new trio with bassist Chuck Israel staying until 1964.

The trio did not attain the dizzying heights of the earlier line up, but the drummer’s affinity with pianists was by now firmly established.

Other notable pianists that the drummer was drawn to play with included Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Lenny Tristano and Marylyn Crispell.

As a leader, Motian would turn to another chordal instrument, and perhaps his first love, the guitar in his bands.

The trio with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone and guitarist Bill Frisell was to prove hugely popular recording a number of outstanding albums for ECM, Soul Note and JMT. Motian also led his Electric Bebop Band that would often feature two or three guitarists.

The band would often be comprised of young musicians exploring the bebop repertoire and compositions by Motian himself.

At one time or another, saxophonist, Chris Potter, Tony Malaby and Joshua Redman have passed through the ranks, along with guitarists Jakob Bro, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder and Wolfgang Muthspiel.

A complete original, Paul Motian has a rich legacy as drummer, bandleader, composer and educator.

Jon Christensen (1943 – 2020)

During the course of his long career the Norwegian drummer could almost have been regarded as the house drummer for ECM Records.

He played on many of the early recordings of the imprint helping to lay down what would become known as the ECM sound.

If often his role was a sideman on sessions his contribution to the development of modern European drumming cannot be underestimated.

A listening musician, Christensen’s strengths lay in not just knowing what to play but when to play, and even more importantly when not too.

He would leave space in the music but could also drive the band along with a rhythmic intensity of no little power.

Modestly, Jon Christensen was content to build a career making others sound good, and for much of the time did so in the ECM recording studios.

He would be featured on early recordings by Jan Garbarek, and with the saxophonist was a member of the Keith Jarret European Quartet or the Belonging band as it was affectionally referred to after the band’s album of the same name.

A more edgy and rockier side to his playing would be heard with guitarist Terje Rypdal, and his more recent work with younger musicians Jakob Bro and Jacob Young would take on a gentler more lyrical and interactive stance.

His desire to play with and encourage young musicians and can be traced back to the band Masqualero in the eighties that featured a rhythm section of Christensen with Arild Andersen on bass and keyboard player Jon Balke with a frontline of Tore Brunborg on saxophones and trumpeter, Nils Petter Molvaer.

Jon Christensen quietly went about his craft. Yes, he made a huge contribution to the contemporary European jazz but did so in a manner that was like his playing; subtle and unassuming, letting the music speak for itself.

It is therefore gratifying that much of his work for ECM, in all it different guises, is still in print and readily available.

Terri Lyne Carrington (1965 -)

Somewhat of a child prodigy, Terri Lyne took up the drums at the age of seven and just three years later played with trumpeter, Clark Terry at the Wichita Jazz Festival.

At the age of just eleven she was awarded as full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with the legendary drummer, Alan Dawson.

Like many of her generation, Terri Lyne is a multifaceted artist who as well as being a virtuoso instrumentalist is also extremely adept at writing and producing her own music and is also involved in music education.

As both leader and sidewoman she has toured and recorded with all the most influential musician of her generation including Wallace Roney, Kevin Eubanks and Gary Thomas as well as jazz legends Pharoah Sanders, Lester Bowie and James Moody, Joe Henderson and Wane Shorter.

As a leader and wanting to compose and produce her own work she recorded her Grammy nominated debut album, Real Life Story, in 1989.

As if to acknowledge the tradition and her place in it, Terri Lyne released Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, playing some of the compositions recorded by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach on their classic Money Jungle album from 1962.

For her efforts Terri Lyne scooped a Grammy Award in 2013 for the Best Jazz Instrumental Album, and I doing so was the first female artist to win an award in that category.

Acutely aware of the important role women have played in the development of jazz, Terri Lyne has just published her book New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers.


Leave a Comment