Famous Jazz Pianists (ESSENTIAL Listening Guide)

Looking to dive deeper into the topic of jazz piano? Here’s our round up of the most popular and famous pianists from jazz history…

The role of the piano in jazz is a complicated one, and one that also leads to an exciting road of discovery and has produced a host of original and distinctive pianists who have helped shape the evolution of jazz.

Whether taking the melodic and harmonic lead in a trio or solo recital or accompanying a vocalist or full band the piano can lift the music to greater heights.

Below are just ten such figures whose contribution to the music is immeasurable.

Art Tatum

Tatum is regarded as one of the greatest of all jazz pianists.

Early on he possessed a technique that was the envy of every piano player that heard him, and upon his arrival in New York in 1932 when he got the better of established stride players Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson.

Tatum’s theoretical knowledge stretched much further that stride piano and his harmonic and rhythmic ability influenced countless pianists who came after.

Recommended Album: The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces

Duke Ellington

Revered as a composer and bandleader, he led his Orchestra for fifty years, it is all too easy to overlook Ellington’s wonderful piano playing.

If his music with the big band transcended the different styles of jazz, incorporating elements of new developments in the music only if they would fit within his own concept, then Ellington’s own playing would follow a similar path.

As with all great jazz musicians, it only takes a few notes to recognize the performer and this of course is true of Duke.

Whether introducing a number form the piano or taking a solo or break within a composition Ellington’s touch at the keyboard was unmistakable.

In September 1962 Ellington took a little time away from his Orchestra to record an album a piece for Impulse! and Blue Note.

Both placed the pianist in the company of modern players, and both offer a chance to hear Ellington’s playing at close quarters.

The Impulse! session features the pianist with John Coltrane with his classic quartet, and with Ellingtonians Aaron Bell on bass and drummer Sam Woodyard.

The Blue Note set placed Duke in the company of Charles Mingus and Max Roach in a program of Ellington compositions. Although differences in the styles of the three musicians are clearly audible the resulting music has some fine playing from Duke.

Recommended Album: Money Jungle

Count Basie

Another who primarily led a big band from the piano stool is William ‘Count’ Basie.

Running his own band, Basie was able to secure some of the greatest soloist of the day, and his band in the late thirties would boast a line up that included Herschel Evans and Lester Young on tenor saxophone, trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Dickie Wells.

With his powerfully swinging brass and saxophone sections, Basie added his famous All American Rhythm Section comprising of Freddie Green on guitar, bassist Walter Page and Jo Jones at the drums.

With the presence of Basie’s piano this rhythm section new how to whip up a storm and feed the horn sections enough fuel to keep them aloft.

Within this context Basie’s piano style was sparse, but had a strength and definitive touch that cut through. As the main focus in his work was his Orchestra, recordings that feature his piano playing are relatively few.

He would lead small groups periodically over years, especially during financially lean times for big bands, and in the seventies made a couple of trio records for Pablo.

One of the best places to hear how Basie could whip up excitement in the Orchestra is on the superb The Complete Atomic Mr Basie, playing the arrangements of Neal Hefti, and the excellent piano playing on the opening ‘The Kid From Red Bank’.

Recommended Album:  The Complete Atomic Mr Basie

Oscar Peterson

Peterson is perhaps one of the most well known jazz pianists, and gained a following with audiences that would otherwise not consider themselves jazz fans.

His album Night Train with his then trio of Ray Brown ad Ed Thigpen has been a perennial favorite and steady seller since its release in 1963.

Comfortable in just about any setting, from small groups to big bands, Peterson was the consummate performer.

His accompaniment was second to none and he would frequently tour and record with Jazz At The Philharmonic, however it was the trio that would find favor with Oscar and which would present much of his finest music.

Influenced by Nat King Cole, Peterson’s first trio of note would, like his mentor, eschew drums in favor of guitar.

The records with Peterson, Ray Brown on bass and guitarist Herb Ellis are all impeccably played with a telepathic understanding between the musicians that brings a freshness to even well worn standards.

By the beginning of 1960 Peterson’s trios would dispense with the guitar and usher in a drummer.

Retaining the services of Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen was brought in on drums triggering another series of albums.

Especially fine is the Plays Porgy& Bess with Peterson and company taking a compelling look at Gershwin’s music.

From this point on, piano, bass and drums would be Oscar’s preferred line up and he would continue to perform in this format until ill health forced him to retire.

The record he made however are quite different, a mixed bag that would feature players of his generation that would remind what the ability to swing was all about.

Recommended Album: Night Train

Bud Powell

Perhaps the first pianist to completely come to terms with bebop, and the harmonic language and requirements of his instrument, Bud Powell was a mercurial figure whose genius shone brightly, but ultimately only for a short while.

Originally influenced by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson he would fall under the spell, and tutelage, of Thelonious Monk.

For much of his career Powell was troubled soul, and a racially motivated beating he received in 1945 disturbed his already poor mental health still further.

As a result Powell’s music could sometimes be erratic. At his best, the pianist can be heard forging a new language for the role of the piano in jazz.

The recordings made with Charlie Parker in the forties show him to be Parker’s equal in terms of the originality of his solos, and this is born out in the remarkable Quintet concert in Toronto in 1953 and released as Jazz At Massey Hall featuring Parker and Powell with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

Recommended Album: The Amazing Bud Powell Volumes 1 & 2

Thelonious Monk

The most idiosyncratic of pianists, Thelonious Sphere Monk was an original from the outset.

When hearing him play it was impossible to sit on the fence and you either loved him or loathed him.

He was criticized widely, by people who should have known better who claimed that his technique was clumsy and that he couldn’t play. Unperturbed, Monk simply carried on playing and composing as if waiting for others to catch on to what he was doing.

Others did indeed catch on, but it took time.

Aside for occasional gigs and recording sessions for Blue Note things were slow for the pianist, not helped with the confiscation of cabaret card by the police, without which he could not work in any New York club that served alcohol.

By the mid fifties things were changing for Monk, and while not huge sellers he was able to record regularly for Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside.

These albums have served to build a body of work that now universally revered, and Monk’s stature as one of the music’s original pianists and composers.

Recommended Album: Genius Of Modern Music Volumes 1 & 2

Bill Evans

Without doubt one of the giants of the music, Evans’ has been a major influence of countless pianists, and this does not appear to ending anytime soon as his music continues to be re-issued along with previously unreleased material.

The music left behind in the recordings of his most famous trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian have still not been fully assimilated.

Evans’ playing was the polar opposite to the hard bop style prevalent in the fifties.

The pianist’s music was more quietly spoken even at a brisk tempo, and showed little of the flamboyant runs, but more like clearly and concisely developed statements that used space in a truly creative manner.

As well as his fascination with jazz and improvisation, Evans’ was steeped Western classical music, and while this was never overtly stated in his music the theoretical knowledge that the pianist possessed meant that some of his ideas and voicings did not necessarily come from the jazz or the blues.

Evans’ played an integral part on Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind Of Blue, and it is possible that his input to the music is much greater than has been acknowledged.

Then going on to lend credence to the argument by recording four albums, two in the studio and two live recordings that would change the piano trio forever, with his trio comprising of the virtuoso bassist, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian.

Tragically, LaFaro was killed just ten days after the live recordings at the Village vanguard and we have been left wondering what might have been.

After a period of mourning Evans’ returned to playing again, devoting most of his energies to the trio format.

If nothing was quite as innovative as the trio with LaFaro and Motian, Evans’ made many fine recordings in which he took a relatively small number of standards to explore in greater detail.

Recommended Album: Waltz For Debby

Herbie Hancock

Hancock is one of the finest musicians of his generation at home in a multiple of jazz styles. His early albums for Blue Note are quite remarkable in the maturity shown.

He brought to these recording a compositional sense that were perfect for small group improvisation and also displayed a very individual concept as a composer, as was evidenced in his debut for the imprint, Takin’ Off.

Hancock’s career received huge boost in 1963 when Miles Davis, looking for a new band, hired him as pianist for his rhythm section along with bassist Ron Carter and the seventeen year old drum sensation, Tony Williams.

The three young musicians quickly formed a rapport and level of interplay that would lift Davis’ small group playing to a new level.

He would also continue to record under his own name, records such as Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage regarded as classic jazz albums.

Hancock wold remain with Davis until the 1968, although would frequently record with the trumpeter after his tenure had officially ended, appearing on the influential jazz-rock albums In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson.

This exposure to electric instruments stimulated his interest in new sounds and textures and from this Hancock went on to form his own highly influential bands and recordings such as Head Hunters showed that Hancock was a most adaptable musician, and always open to new developments in the music.

Recommended Album: Maiden Voyage

McCoy Tyner

Forever associated with John Coltrane’s classic quartet, McCoy Tyner’s place in jazz history would be secured, however there is much more to enjoy when one digs a little deeper.

His first serious engagement was in 1960 with The Jazztet, co-led by Art farmer and Benny Golson after which he joined Coltrane who he had known as a teenager growing up in Philadelphia.

His time with Trane would last some six years with the pianist contributing to some of the greatest jazz albums ever made, and refining his own original sound distinctive use of chords stacked in fourths.

After his departure, hastened by the break up of the classic quartet and the saxophonist’s desire to pursue a more radical improvisational approach with the addition of another drummer and tenor player, Tyner set about launching his solo career.

Recordings for Blue Note were plentiful with the pianist releasing five albums between 1967 and 1970. A shift of labels to Milestone saw further recordings using his grounding with Coltrane’s quartet as a basis for his own music.

Going forward he would regard some highly regarded albums that fell under the sub-genre of spiritual or astral jazz as heard on the excellent Sahara.

For the remainder of his career Tyner would concentrate primarily on trio and quartet recordings that allowed his full prowess at the keyboard full reign.

Recommended Album: The RealMcCoy

Chick Corea

Another pianist who was happy to span multiple, genres while drawing influences from Hispanic and Latin American music is pianist, keyboard player and sometimes percussionist Amando ‘Chick’ Corea.

Encouraged to take up the piano at the age of four by his trumpeter father, Corea progressed quickly studying classical music as well as jazz.

His early influences were Bud Powell and Horace Silver, and his first professional engagements were with Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Blue Mitchell, and Stan Getz.

He went on to release two highly regarded albums of his own in Tones For Joan’s Bones and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

In 1968 he also began his collaboration with Miles Davis, replacing Herbie Hancock.

His arrival coincided with Davis’ increasing interest in electric instruments, and so he would spend much time playing the electric piano, often processing the sound through a ring modulator.

He would appear on many of the trumpeter’s influential albums of the time.

Leaving Miles’ band in 1970 he formed the quartet Circle with hassist Dave Holland recording for ECM records, and the following year two albums of solo piano improvisations.

Finding a home with the Munich based label he went on to record Return To Forever (which was to become the name of his group) with Joe Farrell , Flora Purim and Airto on drums and percussion.

The second incarnation of the band found Corea taking a more funky, jazz-rock direction.

In an eclectic carer the pianist has alternated between acoustic jazz, electric fusion, and forays into classical music.

Another fruitful association was with the vibraphone maestro, Gary Burton with who he recorded several well received duet albums.

This wonderful blend of tradition and discovering new sounds and rhythms coupled with his extraordinary lyricism has marked out Corea as one of the leading pianists of his generation.

Recommended Album: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs

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