Famous Jazz Musicians To Turbo-Charge Your Listening

With so much amazing jazz music out there, figuring our your favourite artists is a good step towards refining your search.

Whilst there are so many new players to discover (hence our extensive new album reviews!) in this article we’ve rounded up a list of the most famous jazz musicians in history as a good starting point.  

Jazz is such a diverse genre and has produced many important musicians that have advanced the music as soloists, bandleaders, composer, arrangers, and often a mixture of any number of the above.

To try and pick just ten musicians barely scratches at the surface of an art form that has been in a constant state of flux through its development over the last 100 years.

As a starting point, pick any one of the artists below, and by listening to a couple of their albums this will lead you to other important musicians within their style of jazz and frequently point towards the next development in the history of the music.

Each of these discoveries will lead to further avenues to investigate and help to build a picture of the 20th centuries most vibrant art forms, that has carried on developing into an even broader and ever widening melting pot that for all its diversity has a strong sense of identity and its origins.

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

Widely regarded as the first great jazz soloist, Louis Armstrong was brought up in poverty spending much of his early life in children’s home.

Taking up the cornet, and later trumpet, Armstrong forged a style of improvisation the likes of that had not been heard before or since. His sense of melody and rhythm was so far advanced of anyone else in jazz.

Coming to prominence in the band of King Oliver, playing second horn to the leader, Armstrong did not realise quite what he was on to.

However, the pianist Lil Hardin, soon to become Mrs. Armstrong, did and if Louis was reluctant to push himself forward, Lil made sure that she did it for him.

With his recordings under the auspices of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Armstrong would lay down some of the most important and influential performances in jazz.

Armstrong would go on to have a prolific and successful career right up until his death.

He would record with Duke Ellington, form his All-Stars band in the forties and record some wonderful albums with Ella Fitzgerald, but it is with the first flush of youth that Armstrong made his greatest recordings.

If Armstrong had never entered a recording studio after 1930 he would still have secured his place as one of the jazz greats.

Essential Listening

The Complete Hot Fives & Hot Sevens
Ella & Louis

Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974)

Ellington’s bands will always be remembered for the impeccable arrangements, loyalty of the musicians that played with the Orchestra, and the quality of the writing often specifically for individual members of the band.

This ability to retain key players helped Duke forge an identifiable sound for the Orchestra.

Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney joined the band in 1927 remaining until his death, and his star soloist Johnny Hodges was with Ellington from 1928 until 1970 apart from a brief period away to lead his own bands between 1951 to 1955.

Throughout his long career leading bands for a quarter of century, Ellington showed continuous development throughout.

It shows that it was possible for an artist to maintain creativity over an extended period of time, both having the ability to change with the times and also follow his own personal agenda.

From the early band the Washingtonians, to the Orchestra of mid-twenties playing for strippers at the Cotton Club Ellington was always striving to elevate his music above just music to dance to.

From this point on Duke’s music would seek to be at the forefront of the music.

Ellington’s compositions such as ‘Ko-Ko’, ‘Jack The Bear’ and ‘Harlem Air Shaft’ would become classics of the forties and his band of this time with bassist Jimmy Blanton is perhaps the greatest period in Ellington’s career.

Other notable moments came with Ellington’s ambitious suite, ‘Black, Brown and Beige’ that was debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. Further suites would follow over the years with ‘The Far East Suite’, ‘Such Sweet Thunder’ and ‘A Drum Is A Woman’.

Duke would continue his ambitious works right thought the sixties and into the seventies with a series of Sacred Concerts.

Essential Listening

Never No Lament
Ellington At Newport 1956

Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955)

Alto saxophonist, Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, commonly referred to as Bird epitomized the popular myth of the jazz life. Live hard and fast and die young.

This he did, but he also left behind a staggering body of work that laid out a road map for much of the modern jazz that would flourish is the following decades.

His first forays into the realms of the improviser did not bode well, and an attempt to sit in a jam session ended rather unceremoniously as he was ‘gonged’ off stage by drummer Jo Jones famously throwing a cymbal at his feet mid solo.

A hard lesson to earn, Parker went away to woodshed spending countless hours practising/ “( learnt to play ‘Cherokee’ in all 12 keys” said parker, “and then I was ready'”.

The is voluntary and secluded of study saw the return of a very different musician, and one who was brim-full of ideas and the theoretical knowledge and technique to deliver them.

Along with a small group of like minded players from humble beginnings at Minton’s Playhouse bebop was born.

Along with his musical genius, Parker brought with him a self destructive streak over which he had little or no control.

His appetite for music was only matched by his appetite for narcotics, and this would blast his career throughout.

At the top of his game, he was a peerless improviser, as evidenced by the famous alto break on ‘Night In Tunisia’, at others he was barely able to function and his performance on ‘Lover Man’ is sad and painful to listen to.

Bird’s performances for the Savoy, Dial and Verve imprints of the forties perhaps provides the best of his recorded output, but there were late glimpses that the flame that he had once burned so brightly could be reignited as the outstanding Jazz At Massey Hall demonstrates.

A live recording from May 1953 reuniting him with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus that has stood the test of time as one of the great concerts with an all star cast.

Just two years later, Parker would be dead and with it ended an era, yet from out of the shadows there would be others to take the saxophone to new levels of artistry, albeit following a slightly different path.

Essential Listening

The Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings
Charlie Parker With Strings

Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

Like Duke Ellington, Miles Dewey Davis III would prove that it was possible to have a long career whilst constantly moving forward and developing as an artist.

Indeed, it is arguable that no one musician has done more to influence the course of the music as Davis done in a recording career that spanned six decades.

Miles’ legacy to jazz is not just in the large body of recorded work he has gifted us, but in the sheer quality and variety.

In a career that witnessed him change the course of the music not just once, but five times, it is a staggering contribution.

He was in at the birth of bebop offering an alternative way of playing the music and a perfect foil to Charlie Parker, there were the Birth Of The Cool recordings with a nonet arranged for by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan.

In 1955 he led his first Great Quintet with John Coltrane and defining hard bop and they forays into modal jazz on Kind Of Blue followed by the three orchestral recordings with his great friend and arranger Gil Evans.

Then came the second Great Quintet with a rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

This band would take standards playing to the very edge before abstraction would take over, and then immediately follow that with a series of quintet recordings that would lead to experiments with electric piano and bass guitar.

And rock rhythms that would then find their final form in the ground breaking In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew albums.

For many these latter two albums would be where Davis peaked, but he was not done.

A period of retirement from music from 1975 to 1980 saw the trumpeter return to making music.

And if the resulting jazz was very different from what had gone before, Miles was still looking to innovate with his unmistakable sound on the horn returning, and constantly seeking a new context in which to place it.

Essential Listening

Kind Of Blue
Mies Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions

John Coltrane (1926 – 1967)

A Love Supreme is probably one of the best known jazz albums ever, but its creation was hard won.

Coltrane is quite possibly the most influential musician in modern jazz, yet the most creative part of his career spans just twelve years.

Although actively professionally since the latter half of the 1940’s it was not until he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955 that his full potential began to show, and it is much to the credit of Davis that he stuck with the saxophonist.

Coltrane, as many others of the time was addicted to drugs. Miles was criticized for his choice of saxophonist but he knew what he was looking for in his quintet sound, and his decision was justified ten-fold.

The road to Coltrane’s breakthrough was not to without self doubt and severe cost to his health.

Such was the severity of his drug habit, that Miles was forced to let him go. In 1957 after a spell in the band of pianist Thelonious Monk, Coltrane was clean and ready to rejoin the trumpeter.

From here on in there would be continued success with Miles, but also the launch of Trane’s solo career.

The first breakthrough came with Giant Steps, the first album that featured only the saxophonist’s compositions, to be followed at the beginning of the new decade with the formation of the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.

In 1964 the quartet recorded what is their greatest achievement, A Love Supreme, a suite or payer to God in four movements.

This is not just Coltrane’s most personal statement, but also an ensemble recording of intense and magnificent understanding where nothing matters apart from the music, and each member of the quart is subservient to it.

After recording the album, the saxophonist looked to take his music beyond the quartet adding a second tenor player in Pharaoh Sanders or Rashid Ali as an additional drummer.

These experiments gradually spelled the end for the quartet as Coltrane looked for new means of musical expression, a path he would follow until his death from liver cancer at the age of forty.

Essential Listening:

Giant Steps
A Love Supreme

Billie Holiday

For many, Lady Day will forever be the quintessential jazz singer.

The nickname was bestowed upon her by her close friend Lester Young with whom she made some of her most endearing recordings, and who in turn she called Prez; short for ‘The President’.

Born Eleonora Fagan in April 1915, Holiday’s childhood was not a happy one, and as her mother worked long hours she brought up by her grandmother and periods spent protective custody after a neighbor attempted to rape her when she was just eleven years old.

This troubled childhood had a major impact on Holiday’s life from which she was never able to free herself.

Throughout her life she had a series of disastrous relationships with men who appeared only to want her for her success and money.

The man who would stick by her through all her troubles was Lester Young, although their friendship was only ever platonic.

Her interest in music was awakened when hearing the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith at the age of twelve.

By her early teens she was singing in nightclubs around the Harlem area, initially performing as Billie Halliday (adopting her father’s surname) which she later changed to Holiday.

Billie’s big break came in 1933 when she was heard by record producer, John Hammond who recorded her with Benny Goodman.

Greatly influenced by jazz instrumentalists, Holiday would use her voice in a similar way, and her ability to improvise impressed her fellow musicians.

Never possessing a big voice, Billie had a way of expressing the lyric of the song that brought out the emotional content in a manner that had not been heard before.

Her small group recordings featuring saxophonist Lester Young found the two so in tune with each other and their dialogue so intuitive and intimate that it felt like you were listing in on a private conversation.

As her career progressed, ravaged by drugs and alcohol her voice suffered.

Gone was the flexibility and the ability to cover emotions from naivety and the innocence of youth, but there was a world weariness and depth to her singing that was at once engaging and tragic.

Recording right up until her early death in 1959, Billie’s later work is revered by many for the brutal honesty of a life hard lived and the emotions evoked by that once glorious voice.

Essential Listening

Lady Day Swings!
Songs For Distingué Lovers

Thelonious Monk

One of the founders of bebop, along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, it could be said that bebop was never Monk’s natural habitat.

He had a unique way with rhythm and chords that went far beyond bebop, and his recordings made for Blue Note in the forties already reveal an individual stylist and musical thinker.

If bebop struggled to gain acceptance with the jazz audience, then for all his originality Monk and music was left out in the cold.

It would be some considerable time, almost a decade, before listeners and musicians began to come around to his original voicings and rhythmic eccentricities.

The situation was not helped in August 1961 when Monk lost his Cabaret card without which he was unable to work in New York clubs where alcohol was served.

This had a debilitating effect on his career, and not being able to gig in the city was forced to take low key gigs, often poorly advertised in surrounding boroughs .

In the years that followed, prior to the return of his cabaret card, Monk continued to write.

The recordings for Blue Note, much loved by label owner and producer Alfred Lion sold poorly, but Lion would stand by his man, as would his wife, Nellie, who once famously rang a local radio station and requesting that they play some music by “The Loneliest Monk”.

Over the course of his career Monk would record for a multitude of labels including Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and finally Columbia Records where he would make his last records in 1970.

By the mid fifties his Riverside albums were receiving critical recognition and his distinctive if unusual piano playing methods becoming more widely understood.

However, sales were still slow and were considered too “difficult” for less than devout jazz enthusiasts.

Monk’s contribution to jazz is two fold with the uniqueness of his piano style that drew from stride, the fledging bebop and his own remarkable sense of space and rhythm.

To this day has touched many pianists yet produced no direct descendants.

Coupled with this is his compositional style that is like no other, and his music has been played by countless musicians over the years.

Among the many tunes were also ‘Well You Needn’t’, Rhythm-A-Ning’ and ‘I Mean You’ entering the standard repertoire, and ‘Round Midnight’ becoming one of the most recorded jazz compositions of all time.

Essential Listening

Genius Of Modern Music Volume 1
Brilliant Corners

Sonny Rollins

Jazz has found many legendary figures playing the saxophone, and few with more passion and virtuosity then Theodore ‘Sonny’ Rollins.

By the time Rollins emerged on the jazz scene in early 1950 the tenor saxophone had established a clear and definitive lineage in the music.

Coleman Hawkins had been the first to make the tenor a viable instrument for improvisation with his big tone and vibrato setting the standard that many would follow.

An alternative style was offered by Lester Young whose light toned r sound was the opposite to Hawkins, and so another school of tenorists was born.

At the time tenor saxophonists would tend to follow one school of the other, as well as the methods of Hawkins and Young having an influence on other instruments too, and Lester Youngs influence can be clearly heard in the playing of altoist Charlie Parker.

Rollins, always one to be his own man, took elements from both Hawkins and Young, quickly forging them into a style that all his own.

Like many, his early years were blighted by drug addiction. By 1955 he was clean, and enjoyed a brief spell with the Miles Davis Quintet before joining the quintet led by Clifford Brown and Max Roach recording a couple of albums with them.

In June 1956 Clifford Bown and the bands pianist, Richie Powell were killed in a car accident, and Rollins took the opportunity make some albums under his own name.

The following year was the breakthrough for Rollins and he was prolific in the studio with much of the magic being captured for posterity.

His first acknowledged masterpiece is Saxophone Colossus recorded with his friend and musical partner, Max Roach, along with Tommy Flangan and Doug Watkins.

The level of invention from the saxophonist is staggering, and culminates in his original composition ‘Blue Seven’ which itself is a masterclass in improvisation.

The piece has been discussed and dissected in great detail in an article by scholar and theoretician Gunther Schuller.

The album also showcases the first appearance of Sonny’s calypso-based piece ‘St. Thomas’ which would be a staple for the rest of his career.

Amazingly more was to follow, and later that year a live performance was released entitled Live At The Village Vanguard featuring two piano less trios featuring Rollins with Donald Bailey on bass and drummer Pete LaRoca or Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones.

A series of fine albums would follow, but despite his success the saxophonist was plagued by self doubt and in the summer of 1959, he would take the first of two sabbaticals.

During his time away, Rollins could be found practicing on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, later admitting that he would practice for 15 or 16 hours a day.

He returned to public performance and recording in November 1961 with a new recording for RCA simply called The Bridge.

From this point on, the saxophonist would once again throw himself into a busy schedule of live performance along with a recording dates that would produce music of the highest quality.

Rollins formidable powers of invention would continue unabated until almost exactly a decade later he would take a second two year sabbatical.

Disappearing from the scene to take stock of his career, Rollins would spend his time practicing as well as taking time out to study yoga, Eastern philosophies and meditation.

Upon his return we hear a very different Rollins lending an ear to influences from pop, R&B and funk rhythms.

In these settings Rollins still retained his skills as an improviser although at times could be hindered by the material or personnel within the band who were just not up to the job of supporting such an innovative and creative soloist.

Essential Listening

Saxophone Colossus
Live At The Village Vanguard

Ornette Coleman

For many Ornette Coleman will forever the enfant terrible of modern jazz.

Primarily an alto player, Coleman occasionally player tenor, and was self-taught on violin and trumpet, he burst upon an unsuspecting jazz scene playing music that appeared to be without form or any sense of melodic continuity.

Very quickly eschewing the piano, or any other chordal instrument, he made a remarkable series of albums at the end of the 1950’s for the Contemporary and Atlantic imprints the like that had never previously been heard.

His basis for his music appeared little more than a theme, quite often with a blues feel, after which the soloists seem to be free to take their improvisation where ever the fancy took them leaving the bass and drums to follow in their wake.

What was readily apparent to those that cared to listen that while the music relied greatly on the intuition of the members of the quartet their was a logic applied to the methodology employed by the saxophonist.

Even if the conventions of melody and harmony were blurred or indistinguishable.

His frontline partner was trumpeter Don Cherry who seemed to grasp Coleman’s concepts immediately.

Bassist Charlie Haden was also an inspired choice and embraced the role he was offered to improvise supporting lines to the soloist with no set harmonic route to help or hinder.

Drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell were also to prove invaluable to the altoist’s concept, although each brought a very different approach to their instrument as can be heard on the resulting albums.

Ornette would remain faithful to his concept of musical organization which he called ‘harmolodics’ throughout his career, branching out with the concept he would incorporate this theory of music making into a double quartet with all the instruments having a ‘ double’ the album Free Jazz in 1960.

This was a collective improvisation that also featured fellow saxophonist Eric Dolphy, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard alongside Don Cherry. By the mid sixties Ornette was had paired his group down to a trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt.

In the seventies Coleman experimented with long form composition on his album Skies Of America and formed a new small group that would use amplified instruments, usually bass guitar and multiple guitarists.

They brought a harder funkier edge to his music remaining true to his theory of harmolodics until his death in 2015.

Essential Listening

The Shape Of Jazz To Come
At The Golden Circle, Stockholm: Volumes 1 & 2

Keith Jarrett

The body of work that Jarrett has packed in his career is more than many musicians could contemplate, or dream of achieving.

It is also quite possible that he is as close to the complete musician that anyone is likely to ever be.

He has recorded a vast number of albums across multiple genres from solo piano improvisations, jazz fusion, straight-ahead jazz and classical music.

All are of the very highest standard, and all are unmistakably Jarrett.

Looking at his work from a purely jazz perspective, Jarrett spent the early part of his career in the bands of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger and the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

He also spent time playing with Miles Davis at a time when the trumpeter’s music was a t its most turbulent.

Although never an official member of the band, Jarrett would play with the trumpeter when available, although it appears that his role with Davis was never an entirely comfortable one for the pianist.

Asked to play electric piano and organ in the band, these were not Jarrett’s instruments of choice and when his time with Davis was over he eschewed electric keyboards in favor of the piano to which he has subsequently dedicated all his attention.

Early recordings as leader were on US imprints Atlantic, Columbia and Impulse; however, it is the pianist’s work for the Munich based ECM and the body of work recorded with producer and label boss Manfred Eicher over five decades that will confirm Jarrett’s status as one of the most formidable and innovative jazz pianists.

The first album recorded for Eicher’s fledgling label was Rutya And Daitya, a duet recording with drummer Jack DeJohnette. Well received at the time, it was the series of solo piano albums that would follow that would catapult Jarrett into the spotlight as a major stylist.

The most well known and loved of these is The Köln Concert, a magnificent performance of solo piano improvisation that were recorded in the most unfavourable conditions with a piano that was unfit for the purpose.

Against these odds, Jarrett wrestled with the cumbersome instrument to produce music of incredible beauty and passion.

From her on in, Eicher would regularly record the pianist’s solo concerts in different locations around the globe and te resulting music provides some absorbing listening.

Alongside these exhausting solo concerts of spontaneous composition, Jarrett would also demonstrate his complete mastery of the jazz trio in a group featuring bassist Gary Peacock, and his old friend Jack DeJohnette.

While the trio has at time explored free improvisation in their concerts for the most part the material comprised of standards and material from the Great American Songbook.

Over time the trio’s music became so intuitive that they were not only playing the material to an impossibly high standard but reinventing the way the songs were approached so each sounded fresh and exciting, and far removed from previous versions yet paradoxically comfortably familiar.

The above gives merely a snapshot of Keith Jarrett’s contribution to the music over his long career, and we have touched upon his American and European Quartets of the seventies.

Yes, there are albums that failed to fulfil their promise, and others do suggest a self-indulgence on behalf of the pianist but there is no mistaking the important contribution that Jarrett has made to the art of the improviser over the last half a century.

Essential Listening

The Köln Concert
Bye Bye Blackbird

Looking for more great music?

Check out our pick of essential modern jazz trumpeters.

Leave a Comment