10 of the Most Famous Jazz Saxophone Players of All Time

Whilst it’s impossible to limit an article to just ten of the most famous saxophone players in jazz, we’ve attempted to do just that.

These iconic jazz musicians have influenced not just their peers but also had a major stylistic impact on how the instrument can be played on successive generations.

Sidney Bechet (soprano saxophone)

Lived: 1897 – 1959

Starting out as a clarinettist, Bechet was regarded as one of the first major jazz soloists, making his earliest important recordings a few months prior to Louis Armstrong.

Bechet had a reputation for being difficult and temperamental, he was also very sure of himself, his musical ability and his importance in the history and development of the music.

Bechet was well travelled.

Early experiences were with band leaders Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson and King Oliver, and in 1919 travelled to Europe with Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra.

Finding himself in London with the Orchestra who were to perform at the Royal Philharmonic Hall, Bechet discovered the straight soprano saxophone.

Although notoriously difficult to master, the soprano would quickly become his main instrument. Employing a big sound and wide vibrato, Bechet’s soprano playing brought him wide popular acclaim.

Although now regarded as a major stylist in jazz, Bechet career ran in peaks and troughs. When popularity in early New Orleans jazz declined in the US Bechet would simply travel to wherever he felt his music was appreciated.

His ascendency would rise again in the States at the end of the 1930’s but would fall out of favour with the advent of bebop in the forties.

By the end of the decade, he had permanently relocated to France where he was a household name and where he would remain until his death his death in May 1959.

After Bechet many saxophonists would double on the soprano but there would not be another important voice on the instrument until Steve Lacy in the 1950’s.

Johnny Hodges (alto saxophone)

Lived: 1907 – 1970

Johnny Hodges will forever be remembered as having one of the most beautiful alto saxophone sounds in jazz.

He was a mainstay of the Duke Ellington Orchestra from the early days of the band at the Cotton Club in Harlem and would remain with Duke (apart from a short hiatus in the early fifties) until his death in May 1970.

Hodges was a natural musician, having very little formal study and he never learned to read music.

He started out on drums and piano, taking up the soprano saxophone in his teens and was encouraged in his endeavours by Sidney Bechet.

By the time he joined Duke Ellington in 1928 he also played clarinet, but it was the alto saxophone that was his natural voice and would be his main horn for the rest of his life.

He had a pure and mellifluous sound on the instrument, and when he would stand to solo he would be motionless showing no signs of expression as the music would cascade gently from his horn.

He rapidly became one of Ellington’s star soloists and Duke would write many compositions especially for Hodges including ‘Warm Valley’, ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, ‘The Jeep Is Jumpin’’, and ‘Passion Flower’.

In a surprise move, Hodges left Ellington in 1951 to strike out on his own. Fellow Ellingtonions followed him including drummer Sonny Greer and trombone player Lawrence Brown.

The band also featured a young John Coltrane, who always cited Hodges as an influence and went as far as describing as “the world’s greatest saxophone player.”

After just four years leading his own combos, Hodges was back in the Ellington fold where he would remain from 1955 until his death in 1970.

With his quiet virtuosity, beautiful tone and astute harmonic and melodic sense, once heard Johnny Hodges music is not easy to forget, ensuring that his musical legacy lives on.

Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone)

Lived: 1904 – 1967

It is perhaps to conceive of the modern language for saxophone if it had not been for the example and standards set by Coleman Hawkins.

During the 1920’s he took the tenor saxophone from being an ugly duckling into a viable and expressive voice that culminated in the instrument being a graceful swan with his recording of ‘Body And Soul’ in 1939 that is widely regarded as the first jazz improvisation based entirely on the underlying chords.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Hawkins had a strong musical education.

He first played and studied piano and cello, taking up the tenor saxophone at the age of nine, and later studying harmony and composition.

By his mid-teens he was regularly gigging around the Kansas area.

In 1924 he joined Fletcher Hendersons Orchestra, which also boasted Louis Armstrong among its personnel, and Coleman Hawkins admitted that he learned much from Armstrong.

It was during his tenure with Henderson that Hawkins developed a tone and style on the saxophone that eschewed the rather unpleasant sounds that had been attributed to the tenor, favouring a smoother, lyrical and more harmonically aware style that would make him the pre-eminent voice on his instrument.

After the extraordinary recording of ‘Body And Soul’, jazz would never be the same again as the younger generation of players took up the challenge of playing over chord changes that would become bebop in the forties.

Typically, of Hawkins, he wanted in on the action and is credited with leading the first ever bebop recording session on February 16th, 1944.

Hawkins lasting legacy would be his full-bodied tone and harmonic ingenuity.

He also had a way of playing a ballad with deeply tender and rhapsodic lines of pure melody. His influence in the flowing generation of tenor players such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane has been considerable.

Lester Young (tenor saxophone)

Lived: 1909 – 1959

Young is the complete opposite to Coleman Hawkins, the other great tenor stylist of the thirties.

Whereas Hawkins was musically well educated, Lester Young learned to play various instruments in the family band before settling on the tenor saxophone and was unable to read music.

He played with a light tone, and a melodic style that displayed an economy of style.

Coming to prominence in the Count Basis Orchestra in the 1930’s Young was rapidly gaining a reputation as the new stylist on the instrument, and challenging Hawkins as the most influential tenor saxophonist.

Word quickly reached Hawkins who was touring Europe at the time and was worried enough to hot foot it back to the US to assess the competition.

As well as his work with Basie, Young would also make some historical recordings with vocalist, Billie Holiday.

It was Billie that gave the saxophonist the nick name ‘Pres’ or ‘Prez’ short for President and he would call her Lady Day.

The recordings that they made between 1937 and 1941 stand as some of the most exquisite vocal jazz, and the empathy between the two is staggering.

Young would go on to influence players such as Paul Desmond, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker and Warne Marsh.

In 1946 Young joined Norman Granz and Jazz At The Philharmonic, with whom he would tour and record for the next 12 years.

In the 1950’s his health declined due to excessive drinking. However, on a good day he could still produce some of the old magic, recalling his heyday of the thirties.

But by this time his position as a major tenor stylist was secure, and his legacy has continued to live on through his influence in successive generations of saxophone players.

Ben Webster (tenor saxophone)

Lived: 1909 – 1973

The tenor saxophone of Ben Webster is one of the instantly identifiable in jazz.

Not quite an innovator or responsible for a new way of playing the instrument like his contemporaries Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, Webster’s importance should not be overlooked or allowed to dim over time.

Yes, the all-pervading tenor sounds of the day came from the gruff, full toned Hawkins, or the light airy sound favoured by Young; and it was widely perceived that all tenor players fell into one or other camps.

Webster though had other ideas, and while initially he may have favoured Hawkins approach to the tenor saxophone, he would go onto forge his own way of playing that would ensure his place as one of the major exponents of the instrument.

As a child he first learned to play the violin and piano, later taking up the alto saxophone.

His first engagements were to be as accompanist to silent films, and when having mastered the alto sax he joined the band led by Lester Young’s father.

Switching to tenor in 1930, Webster could be heard in the bands led by Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson.

By far his most important and influential work with a big band would be with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra.

Joining Duke in 1940, and staying for three years, Webster was in the band at the same time as bassist Jimmy Blanton and composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn forming close friendships with both.

Tragically Jimmy Blanton’s tenure with the band would be brief as he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1941. The recordings made with Ellington during 1940-41 with Blanton are some of the most important in Ellington’s career, and were particularly important to Websters development.

While his tone on up-tempo numbers could be gruff and with a full round sound, his playing on ballads would become softer with a breathy tone.

This could be seen as the influence of Johnny Hodges’ who Webster held in high esteem.

After leaving Ellington in 1943, Webster worked freelance, and formed an important relationships baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and also pianist Oscar Peterson in the early fifties when he would tour and record as part of the Jazz At The Philharmonic package.

In the mid 1960’suntil his death Webster would choose to spend much of time in Europe where he would regularly be heard playing with visiting American musicians.

Charlie Parker (alto saxophone)

Lived: 1920 – 1955

Perhaps more than any other, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker is the archetypal jazz musician.

A wayward genius with a self-destructive streak, whose playing left everyone else in the shadows, and tragically died young. A bit of a cliché maybe, but that is sadly exactly how it panned out.

Parker became addicted to narcotics at age just 16, and combined with heavy drinking over a long period of time spelled his downfall.

However, his musical legacy tells a different story, of a virtuoso saxophonist and an improviser of staggering invention. But again, this was not always the case.

In 1936 a young Charlie Parker attempted to sit in at a jam session in Kansas City.

During his improvisation on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ he lost his place and was ‘gonged’ off stage by drummer Jo Jones, who threw one of his cymbals at Parker’s feet.

Vowing never to be shamed again, Parker spent time away practicing and by the time of his return on the Kansas jazz scene he was a much more assured and improved musician.

By 1939, Parker was well on the way to working out his methodology for more advanced soloing.

He was getting bored with the standard chord progressions and soling over simple melodies.

He had worked out, while improvising on the tune ‘Cherokee’ that he could use the higher intervals of the chord as a melody line, backing it with the appropriate chords.

This was the breakthrough that a few short years later would lead to the revolutinary new music of the 1940s that would be known as bebop.

The earliest bebop records featuring Parker were made for the Savoy label in 1945, and along with the recordings made for Dial Records are among the most important small group recordings in jazz.

They demonstrate a master musician with something new and vital to say, and paved the way for modern jazz as a serious artform.

Parker’s health and lifestyle would always present difficulties. He was often late or simply did not show up for gigs, and the use of narcotics would finally catch up with him.

Parker’s finest recordings were generally from the mid-forties, but his Charlie Parker With Strings from sessions in recorded in November 1949 and July 1950, and a much cherished dream of the saxophonist to work a string section, have stood the test of time.

The other important recording before his untiled death in 1955 is the famous Jazz At Massey Hall, recorded in Toronto with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, bassist Charles Mingus (who recorded the concert), drummer Max Roach and Bud Powell on piano in an incredible performance.

Parker’s innovation divided jazz fans and some musicians at the time, but his influence is still being felt and assimilated by musicians around the world.

Lee Konitz (alto saxophone)

Lived: 1927 – 2020

Like fellow alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz is a completely original improviser.

Unlike many, Konitz refused to fall under the spell of Parker who was the predominant saxophone stylist of the 1940’s. Instead, he chose to play with a light and vibrato less tone.

The antithesis of Parker’s daring runs and displaced accents, Konitz offered an alternative approach, citing his early influences as Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. In 1946 he met pianist Lennie Tristano.

Tristano would have a profound effect on the young saxophonist, with the pianist’s emphasis on improvisations that were free from pre conceived patterns or licks, and an emphasis on the purity of the line over emotional content.

This cool way of playing would find much favour on the West Coast of the US with players such as Art Pepper, Bud Shank, and was also an influence on Paul Desmond.

Through Tristano he also met tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, another disciple of the pianist’s methods, with who he would frequently collaborate.

In 1947, Konitz joined the Claude Thornhill band where he met Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans who wrote and arranged much f the bands book.

When they collaborated with Miles Davis to form a nonet, initially as a rehearsal band to write for, it was natural that Konitz would be invited to join the band.

The subsequent recordings release as the Birth of the Cool would have a major impact on the music, and what would come to be known as Cool Jazz.

A spell with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the early fifties witnessed a subtle change in Konitz’s playing. His tone became a little firmer and his delivery warmed up becoming more expressive.

His powers of improvisation were sharper than ever, and playing his preferred repertoire of standards he would spin line after line of pure melodic invention.

A perfect example of his skills as an improviser can be heard on the album Motion. Recorded as a trio with bassist Sonny Dallas and the seemingly unlikely pairing of drummer, Elvin Jones.

The resulting album shows the saxophonist in free flowing solos with two perfect accompanists.

Unhampered by a chordal instrument, Konitz is able to allow his fertile mind maximum freedom within his chosen songs.

Throughout his long career, Lee Konitz proved himself at home in contexts from cool jazz, bebop, and avant garde. He has recorded with free improvising guitarist Derek Bailey, and in a trio with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden, and in a duo with pianist Dan Tepfer that would last a decade.

Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone)

Lived: 1930 –

Rollins has been called the greatest living improviser, and while he is no longer able to play his saxophone due to health problems, his recorded legacy certainly substantiates the claim.

He is the most critical person of his own playing, Rollins has taken two extended sabbaticals during his career, the first in the summer of 1959 that lasted until autumn 1961, and a second a decade later from 1969 to 1971.

Bursting onto the jazz scene in 1949 he made a reputation for himself playing on early hard bop recordings with Fats Navarro, J J Johnson, Bud Powell and Roy Haynes.

The early fifties were not a good time for Rollins and problems with narcotics him incarcerated for armed robbery and then for a breach of his parole. In 1954 he recorded some of his most famous compositions, ‘Oleo’, ‘Doxy’ and ‘Airegin’ (Nigeria backwards), with trumpeter Miles Davis.

Finally clean in 1955, he joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet recording a couple of classic studio albums with them, Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4.

Following the trumpeter’s tragic death in a car accident in 1956, Rollins would continue to work with Roach.

Widely regarded as his breakthrough album, Rollins recorded Saxophone Colossus in June 1956, a superb quartet album with Tommy Flanagan on piano, bassist Doug Watkins and Max Roach.

The album is revered for the the first recording of Rollins’ calypso tune ‘St.Thomas’, and for the long tenor solo on ‘Blue 7’.

The solo was held in such high regard that the composer and arranger, Gunther Schuller analysed in depth in an article written in 1958.

The following year also saw the release of another classic Rollins album with Way Out West.

Recorded in California with bassist Ray Brown and Shelly Manne on drums, and featured versions of unlikely material in county and western songs ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’ and ‘Wagon Wheels’.

The album is notable for the fact that there is no guitar or piano to state the chords, and is Rollins’ first outing in a trio of this nature.

Soloing without a piano accompaniment would become known as ‘strolling’ and would be something that the saxophonist would return to frequently during his career; most notably on his A Night At The Village Vanguard album also recorded in 1957.

Despite the critical acclaim for his music, Rollins was crippled with self-doubt and unsure about his playing and took the first of his sabbaticals.

In an intense period of practice, Rollins could be heard high up on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg bridge.

He announced his return with a residency at the Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village, and in 1962 recorded The Bridge which would become one his best selling albums.

Rollins continued to record throughout the sixties for RCA Victor and Impulse! In a variety of contexts. He would explore Latin rhythms, avante garde jazz and record with his hero Coleman Hawkins along with releasing the soundtrack for the film Alfie in 1966.

In 1969 he took his second sabbatical visiting Jamaica and India, and studying yoga and meditation.

Upon his return, his music in the seventies and eighties would incorporate elements from funk, R’n’B and pop music, and he would frequently use electric guitar and bass guitar in his line ups.

His penchant for extended improvisations would often take the form of unaccompanied introductions or cadenzas, and show that his powers of invention were as sharp and coherent as ever.

Until his retirement from performing in 2012, Rollins had preferred to present his music in large concert halls around the world, as opposed to playing small clubs.

Many of these concerts have been recorded by Rollins. A few have been released commercially, and it is hoped that more may be made available in time.

Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone)

Lived: 1934 – 2004

Perhaps not as famous as some of the other saxophone players of his generation, Lacy’s contribution to the music should not be overlooked.

Unusually Lacy played only soprano saxophone, dedicating his entire career to mastering the difficult straight horn and eschewing the temptation to double on other members of the saxophone family.

Other musicians had been playing the instrument, but only ever as a second horn in an ensemble, and the only serious stylist on the soprano had been Sidney Bechet in the 1920’s.

The instrument was at this point identified with the earlier styles of jazz, and Lacy himself when he emerged on the scene in 1950’s was playing Dixieland jazz with the older generation of musicians such as Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton and Zutty Singleton.

In a surprising and unpredictable move, by passing bebop, Lacy joined pianist Cecil Taylor’s band in 1956 playing avant garde jazz.

While he has made frequent forays in to free jazz and improvised music throughout his career, Lacy’s music is far too disciplined and structured to have found a permanent home in such a setting.

In fact, Lacy has found himself absorbed in the music of Thelonious Monk with who he played and studied in 1960, and has returned to Monk’s music in many settings from solo saxophone to duo performances to big bands.

Lacy’s own compositions and improvisations are based on fragments of melodies or melodic motifs that are repeated and patiently reworked and developed into lyrical lines that spin out from their original starting point.

As well as playing in solo and duet situations, Lacy led his own sextet for many years featuring his wife, Irene Aebi and saxophonist Steve Potts.

Spending much of his career in the seventies until 2002 in Europe, only returning to the US to play and teach just a coupke of years before his death in June 2004.

Steve Lacy recorded prolifically both as leader and sideman, but his dedication to the treacherously pitched soprano saxophone and his exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk mark him as true original in jazz.

John Coltrane (tenor & soprano saxophones)

Lived: 1926 – 1967

Another saxophonist, like Charlie Parker, whose influence on the music is monumental but who sacrificed their physical health to narcotics.

Although, unlike Parker, Coltrane was clean for the last decade of his life, the damage had been done.

It appears that the saxophonist was fully aware of this, and conscious of his own mortality went to herculean attempts to push himself and his music as far as he could before his time ran out.

Coltrane’s earliest musical education was playing the clarinet in school, later switching to alto saxophone.

He continued playing the instrument throughout high school and throughout national service in the US Navy.

After he was discharged, he continued t gig around the Philadelphia are, and switched to tenor saxophone during a stint playing with Eddie Vinson.

In 1955 he received a call from Miles Davis who putting together his first quintet.

The bands success was immediate, following a successful performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, and the band comprising of Miles, Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, the teenage bass player Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on drums became known as the trumpeter’s ‘First Great Quintet’.

The quintet made many successful albums, but Miles’ practice of the day of treating recording sessions like club gigs resulted in the four albums recorded in two days in May and October 1956.

The albums, Cookin’, Workin’ Relaxin’ and Steamin’ are regarded as classics and are the best representation of the bands progress at that time.

Coltrane’s drug addiction was becoming an increasing issue for Miles’ who decided to disband the quintet in 1957. During this time away from the trumpeter, Coltrane spent time studying and playing with Thelonious Monk.

He also made the effort to free himself of his dependence of narcotics, and was then ready to re-join Miles when he put together his sextet.

The new group reconvened the classic quintet with the addition of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley on alto, and recorded the incredible Milestones album in 1958, featuring the track ‘Miles’ (subsequently know as ‘Mlestones’) as a first foray into modal jazz.

The following year proved to be monumental for Coltrane.

Davis’ sextet now comprised of Adderley, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and Coltrane, and with Miles brining back Bill Evans (who had left the band short while earlier) on piano they recorded Kind Of Blue.

Entirely modal in concept the album proved to be a huge success and innovative in the way the soloists would improvise, revolutionising small group jazz in the process.

At the same time the saxophonist was recording his own album, Giant Steps.

A complete contrast to the modal setting of the Miles’ sextet, Giant Steps was fast moving and packed with rapid chord changes, and the title track has become a test piece for all aspiring saxophonists.

The album was not Coltrane’s first, but was important that it was the first to feature all original compositions by the saxophonist, and such was the impact the recording has had since its release all seven pieces have entered the standard jazz repertoire.

This success would spell the end for Coltrane’s association with Miles and sure enough in 1960 the saxophonist left to form his own band and strike out on his own.

He also took up the soprano saxophone in addition to his tenor, inspired not just by Steve Lacy who was a soprano specialist playing with his former boss Thelonious Monk, but also by Sidney Bechet whose Blue Note records Coltrane had listened to while he was recording his only album for the label, Blue Train.

He made his debut recording on the straight horn on a thirteen minute version of the song ‘My Favourite Things’ on the album of the same name.

Forming his own quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and a succession of bass players that included Steve Davis and Reggie Workman, eventually he settled on Jimmy Garrison and the classic quartet was born.

Without doubt, the quartet’s finest achievement can be heard on A Love Supreme. Recorded in December 1964 and released the following year, this was Coltrane’s prayer to God in thanks for his spiritual awakening a seven years earlier.

The music is at once torrid, tender and heartfelt, and a sincere and genuine outpouring of emotion that has rarely been heard on record before or since.

With A Love Supreme, Coltrane had taken the quartet as far as he could, and his increasing quest for a new direction for his music ultimately saw the quartet gradually disintegrate.

In an increasingly spiritual quest that would lead the saxophonist into free realms of the new music of the sixties, Tyner, Garrison and Jones would grow disenchanted with the direction of the music and one by one would leave the band.

For the remainder of his life, and the three short years left to him, Coltrane’s music pushed at the boundaries of the music working with multiple bass players and drummers.

Taking his music out into free jazz, the saxophonist did not always take his followers with him.

By the time of his death in 1967, Coltrane’s truly creative musical life had spanned a dozen years. Like Charlie Parker before him, he had taken the musical style he had pioneered to its logical conclusion.

In 1955, Parker had expressed frustration by the confines of bebop, and indeed just prior to his death Coltrane had confided to a colleague that he could find nothing new to play.

Just how things may have developed had he lived longer are open to speculation, but one thing is sure that Coltrane’s legacy has provided food for thought for successive generations of musicians and listeners.

Thanks for reading! 

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the most famous saxophone players of all time, but we hope it’s given you some inspiration for future listening discoveries!

Leave a Comment