Jazz is one of the most complex and exacting forms of music, especially for the drummers who are responsible for breathing life and energy into the sound. Over time, they became more than timekeepers and were needed to be exceptionally talented soloists on top of providing rhythm. In this article, we’ll go over the 55 best jazz drummers to ever pick up a set of sticks.
1. Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich began drumming at the age of two and turned his love of the instrument into a virtuoso talent of the highest order. Despite being a songwriter and conductor, he never learned to read sheet music. Instead, he listened to the drum parts of songs and played them back from memory. His jazz career began in 1937, and shortly after, he joined big bands until he left to serve in the United States Marine Corps as a judo instructor. After coming back, he was part of the band that backed Frank Sinatra at the Apollo Theater and set the standard for influential jazz drummers throughout the 20th century.
2. Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes is one of the most successful jazz drummers with an 80-year career behind him. He played jazz, swing, and bebop music, eventually becoming a pioneer of jazz drumming as a style. He had two albums, Fountain Of Youth and Whereas, nominated for Grammy Awards, won Grammy Awards for Lifetime Achievement and Best Jazz Performance, and was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1999. Younger, modern audiences that may not listen to jazz music will recognize his voice from the jazz radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV.
3. Jim Chapin
The legacy of Jim Chapin is one of education and excellence. Not only was he one of the most gifted jazz drummers, but he also wrote books and published audio works on complex jazz drum instruction.
Never one to be one-upped, he carried a set of drumsticks in his pocket at all times so he could prove every drum pattern in his first book was possible to play. By his second, more advanced book, he acknowledged he couldn’t pull off every single one. He led bands through the 1980s and authored several music albums. In 2011, he was posthumously inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
4. Gene Krupa
The man that inspired Jim Chapin to pick up the drumsticks and would play across from him at the 1939 World’s Fair was Gene Krupa. He was best known as an astounding jazz drummer who played with an energy and showmanship that was rarely matched by his peers. His drum solo on Benny Goodman’s 1937 single Sing, Sing, Sing brought the role of drummer out of the accompanist spot and showed it could work as an important solo voice in a band.
Modern Drummer magazine credits him as the Founding Father of the Modern Drumset thanks to his role in defining the standard drummer’s kit in big bands.
5. Max Roach
Max Roach is best known as the pioneer of bebop music, but he delved into many other styles of music as well and is considered one of the most important drummers in musical history. He was also influential in the Civil Rights movement, making many statements about social woes in his music. He spent his career working with and for some of the biggest names in jazz and was a co-leader in a couple of stylistic-pioneering groups. He was inducted into not one, but two Halls Of Fame during his life: DownBeat in 1980 and Modern Drummer in 1992.
6. Art Blakey
Art Blakey worked with many of the same big names as Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. After working for two decades and making a name for himself, he formed the Jazz Messengers in the 1950s and stayed with the group for 35 years. His group would become a place to foster some of the greatest jazz talents like Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard. He was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 1982, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1991, and twice into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and 2001 while being awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
7. Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins played on the first recordings of Ornette Coleman, making him one of the pioneers of the free jazz style. He had an extensive career, working with many big names in free jazz and post-bop, and even extending out into rock and funk music. In his life, he played on over 700 different recordings, but his legacy endured as he taught in the Jazz Studies program at UCLA and founded The World Stage, a culture center in Los Angeles that teaches and performs music.
8. Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones is best known for working with John Coltrane and appearing on acclaimed albums like My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme, Ascension, and Live At Birdland. After 1966, he would go on to found his own groups, the most significant of which was Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. He would become one of the most influential drummers in music and be listed as number 23 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. He was also a prolific music teacher and played free concerts in schools and prisons up until his death, earning him an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. In 1995, he was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
9. Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette’s jazz career saw him become one of the best drummers, pianists, and composers of the genre. He worked as both a leader and sideman for other famous jazz musicians like Alice Coltrane, John Abercrombie, and Miles Davis. His first solo records were released in the 1970s, but he still performs today. Throughout his career, he was nominated for six Grammy Awards and won two before being inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2007.
10. Tony Williams
Tony Williams initially gained his reputation as a member of Miles Davis’ band and was instrumental in pioneering jazz fusion as part of that band alongside Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. His skill on the drums made critics in the 1970s name him as one of the greatest drummers of all time, and he was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1986.
11. Paul Motian
Stephen Paul Motian became one of the most important figures in freeing jazz drummers from their strict timekeeping duties and allowing them to be more expressive. His work with younger jazz talents would help set standards in the bebop genre. He would enter the jazz scene in the 1950s as a piano player, but by the 1970s, he would start his career as a bandleader and composer where he would often not include pianos in his ensembles.
12. Philly Joe Jones
Before he became an influential jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones was a featured tap dancer as a child on The Kiddie Show. During World War II he would serve in the United States Army, but by 1947, he became the house drummer at Cafe Society in New York City. After that stint, he would tour and record with Miles Davis before moving to Europe and teaching and recording music there. He was a founding member of the group Dameronia, a tribute group dedicated to Tadd Dameron, and played with them until he died in 1985.
13. Louie Bellson
Louie Bellson is credited with pioneering the use of two bass drums instead of a singular one in jazz music. His career saw him become a successful composer, arranger, drummer, and educator. He was married to actress and singer Pearl Bailey, with whom he frequently performed within most of the major capitals around the world; the duo also has the second-most performing appearances at the White House. He also became the vice president of the REMO drum company and was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1985.
14. Omar Hakim
Omar Hakim began playing the drums at the age of five, and by ten years old, he was performing with his father’s band. He has worked in jazz, jazz fusion, and pop music, racking up appearances and working with huge names in the music industry such as Journey, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Miles Davis, Daft Punk, and The Pussycat Dolls. He was able to transition from a strict jazz drummer into an electronic percussionist, which allowed him to work in a variety of other genres and appear with those music industry names, showing his flexibility and eventually helping him into the role of Chairman of the Percussion Department at the Berklee College of Music.
15. Pete La Roca
Pete Sims studied music in New York and spent the beginning of his career playing the timbales in Latin bands, where he took on the moniker “La Roca.” In 1957, he was noticed by Max Roach who recommended him to Sonny Rollins. He played with him before moving on to the Coltrane Quintet, Slide Hampton, and others. His career in jazz and music itself was an on-and-off affair, but that didn’t change the fact that he was one of the best drummers to spend time in the genre.
16. Tony Oxley
Tony Oxley was a self-taught pianist who picked up the drums at the age of seventeen. His study of music theory allowed him to be more of a free improvising drummer than many of his contemporaries, helping him land a spot as part of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. He would go on to become one of the best jazz teachers in England, working as a tutor in Wales. His career also saw him become a founding member of Incus Records.
17. Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke Spearman was one of the biggest innovators of the bebop style of drumming and was one of the first to forgo the hi-hat cymbal in favor of the ride cymbal. He was also one of the first to use the bass drum for “dropping bombs,” the use of the bass for irregular accents instead of just timekeeping. He was an important part of early Miles Davis’ recordings before moving permanently to Paris and playing there.
18. Chico Hamilton
Chico Hamilton started his career as a sideman for prominent bands featuring Lester Young and Gerry Mulligan. As a bandleader, he became one of the first to feature a cello in a quintet and would go on to perform cool jazz, post-bop, and jazz fusion. His groups would play on prominent jazz stages, including the Apollo Theater, and he would go on to record and perform music until health setbacks near the end of his life.
19. Shelly Manne
Shelly Manne was one of the most versatile jazz drummers on the West Coast. He would eventually go on to play a wide variety of styles and see his music featured as background music for numerous films and television programs. He is celebrated as one of the best experimental drummers of his time, incorporating the styles of other influential jazz drummers like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke.
20. Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham’s career would make him one of the greatest drummers in all of fusion jazz. He spent time working with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra before becoming a bandleader himself and laying down some of the most energetic styles to combine jazz and rock and roll. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2013.
21. Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd is one of the best jazz and jazz-rock drummers to bless the ears of listeners, as well as one of the greatest session and studio drummers in history. At age 11, he won a contest that gave him the chance to meet Walt Disney and appear on the show, The Mickey Mouse Club. He’s worked with popular musicians across a number of genres including Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Kenny Loggins. His jazz career saw him help found the Manhattan Jazz Quintet and go on world tours with jazz great Michel Petrucciani. His talent and work as a drummer would see him inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1985.
22. Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb was a member of Miles Davis’ First Great Sextet, with his best-known work being on Davis’ Kind Of Blue album. When he was replaced in the band by Tony Williams, he went on to form his own musical groups, including The Great Jazz Trio, and eventually, worked with a long list of jazz greats. His career saw him awarded the Don Redman Heritage Award and the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts NEA Jazz Masters award.
23. Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine’s time as a member of the jazz fusion groups Weather Report and Steps Ahead would help him become one of the most recognized names in jazz and also a music professor. He splits his time between teaching at the Thornton School of Music at USC and touring. In 1992, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music.
24. Joe Morello
Joe Morello spent nearly twenty years as the drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet and is best known for playing unusual time signatures that gave his group the ability to play a unique sound. Take Five, one of the quartet’s singles, was written to showcase his talents and became the first jazz single to sell more than one million copies. Among his biggest awards, the most impressive was being named the best drummer of the year by DownBeat magazine five years in a row.
25. Idris Muhammad
Idris Muhammad was one of the most prolific jazz, funk, and soul drummers of the 1900s. Born in New Orleans, one of his earliest performances was at age nine when he played in a Mardi Gras parade. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Apollo Theater’s house band and toured with a few big names in jazz. In the 1980s, he moved to Europe where he continued to play and record music but moved back to New Orleans before his death in 2014.
26. Alphonse Mouzon
Alphonse Lee Mouzon gained notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s as a jazz fusion drummer that would perform with prominent musicians like Miles Davis and Billy Cobham. He went on to found his own label Tenacious Records, which mostly released his albums. He would work outside of the jazz genre as well, playing for rock legends like Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, and Eric Clapton.
27. Sonny Greer
Sonny Greer is best known for his work with Duke Ellington as part of the Washingtonians and his immense drum set that featured additional instruments like gongs, chimes, and vibes. He eventually became part of a tribute band honoring Ellington in 1974 despite some differences that led to their split in years past, which found quite a lot of success in the United States markets.
28. Chick Webb
Chick Webb was another virtuoso drummer who couldn’t read music. He directed music from a central stand and played back drum beats after listening to and memorizing them. His skill made him one of the best swing-style musicians of the time. Like many of the greats, he had his own style and used custom parts on his set like his foot pedals.
29. Harvey Mason
Harvey Mason studied music at Berklee in the 1960s and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from them in 2015 for his contributions to culture and music during his lifetime. Today, he works as a record producer and member of the band FourPlay, as well as an endorsement artist for his signature drumsticks.
30. Al Foster
Aloysius Tyrone Foster began his jazz career in the 1960s and worked with Blue Mitchell before going on to work with Miles Davis in the 1970s. He is the only member of Davis’ bands to work with him both before and after retirement and has toured with his own bands in the years since.
31. Joe Chambers
Joe Chambers spent time working with a long list of jazz greats, including Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, and Max Roach. In addition to illustrious solo and high-profile group careers, he spends time teaching at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the department of music.
32. Connie Kay
The replacement for Kenny Clarke in the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1955 would end up being Connie Klay. He would incorporate numerous percussion instruments into his drum sets like the triangle, small cymbals, and bell trees, giving them an exotic look and sound. While he was never a session leader, he would receive an Honorary Doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music thanks to being featured on hits like Shake, Rattle, and Roll and his appearances with numerous big names in jazz.
33. Sid Catlett
Sid Catlett was one of the best and most versatile drummers of the early 1900s and was around for the beginning of the bebop scene. He spent some time with Duke Ellington and led a few of his own groups, with his contributions to music earning him a place in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996.
34. Sonny Payne
Best known for his work with artists like Count Basie and Harry James, Sonny Payne had an infectious energy that made all of the bands he joined sound better. Any time Frank Sinatra sang with Basie, they made sure Payne was the drummer. His influence lived on as Harold Jones, the man who took over for him in Basie’s band, was quoted as saying he mirrored everything after Payne and took everything he could from listening to those records.
35. Albert Heath
First breaking onto the scene as a recording member with John Coltrane, Albert Heath would go on to record with high-profile jazz groups before forming The Heath Brothers with his siblings. While today he works as the producer and leader of The Whole Drum Truth, he is a part-time instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop.
36. Eric Gravatt
Born in Philadelphia, Eric Gravatt is best known for his time as a member of Weather Report from 1972 to 1974. He was instrumental in launching the career of saxophonist Byard Lancaster on his debut album It’s Not Up To Us, and would go on to record with Lloyd McNeil and McCoy Tyner.
37. Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis is a fourteen-time Grammy-nominated artist specializing as a jazz drummer and session musician. He would also work as a professor and author of multiple books including memoirs of his time in bands.
38. Norman Connors
Norman Connors was an astounding jazz and R&B drummer who was featured on multiple hit songs, including You Are My Starship in 1976. While in middle school, John Coltrane came to perform at the school and Connors sat in and played for an absent Elvin Jones.
39. Brian Blade
Brian Blade started out as the drummer at the Zion Baptist Church but was inspired by the work of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Elvin Jones. In 1997, he formed the Fellowship Band which is still active today. Outside of the band, he works as a singer and songwriter who has been featured as part of The International Jazz Day Global Concert.
40. Jeff Watts
Jeff Watts attended Berklee College of Music where he met Branford Marsalis, who he would go on to collaborate with on jazz records. In later years, he would go on to work with multiple members of the Coltrane family, Betty Carter, and Michael Brecker. In 2017, he was given a Guggenheim fellowship in music composition.
41. Manu Katché
Manu Katché is a French drummer whose solo work has been an extensive list of jazz fusion music. As a session leader, he has worked and toured with numerous artists including Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Dire Straits.
42. Jeff Ballard
One of the most notable places Jeff Ballard has played has been as part of groups like the Origin and Chick Corea New Trio, but he’s also played with Ray Charles and Pat Metheny. Today, he plays in both Fly and Jeff Ballard Trio.
43. Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali is best known for being a member of John Coltrane’s group near the end of Coltrane’s life and for his avant-garde and free jazz styles. He would eventually go on to lead his own quartets and produce music as recently as 2007.
44. Dave Weckl
Leader of the Dave Weckl Band and one of the most influential drummers in the modern jazz fusion style, Dave Weckl earned an induction into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2000. His formative years were spent as a drummer for Chick Corea, and he would go on to play and tour with Mike Stern.
45. Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta is an American session music drummer with his roots planted in jazz drumming. In his career, he’s worked across numerous genres and played drums for artists like Sting, Joni Mitchell, and Frank Zapata. His accolades include two Grammy nominations with one win and inductions to both the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2014.
46. Steve Smith
Steve Smith spent three separate tenures in the band Journey, earning him an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. Modern Drummer Magazine readers voted him as the best all-around drummer five times, and he was named one of the 25 best drummers of all time by the same magazine. He has also been inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, an honor he received in 2002.
47. Mark Guiliana
Mark Guiliana graduated from William Patton University with a degree in Jazz Studies and Performance and is one of the greatest modern jazz drummers alive. He’s a drummer, teacher, and composer who’s been featured on albums like David Bowie’s Blackstar and toured across most of the world.
48. Lenny White
Lenny White was one of the original jazz drummers to introduce jazz fusion to the genre. He spent a lot of time with Chick Corea in the 1970s before going on to solo work and becoming a teacher at NYU Steinhardt. He has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, winning three of them, and has another win at the Latin Grammy Awards.
49. Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille became a disciple of Philly Joe Jones and would go on to work in collaboration with Cecil Jones for over fifteen years. He’s best known for his work as a member of the group Trio 3 with Olivia Lake and Reggie Workman.
50. Baby Dodds
Warren Dodds or Baby Dodds is known as one of the best jazz drummers before the era of the big band and one of the first to be recorded improvising while performing. His flourishing style is one that allowed him to keep time while also playing buzz rolls on a snare drum.
51. Johnny Vidacovich
Johnny Vidacovich is a member of the band Astral Project, which still performs today. His jazz drumming knowledge landed him a role as a teacher at Loyola University New Orleans in 1982 where he still gives lectures.
52. Dannie Richmond
Dannie Richmond is best known for his work with Charles Mingus and is integral to the unique sound the band was able to put together. Originally a saxophone player, he took up the drums by age twenty and his career took off, eventually seeing him work with artists like Elton John and the Paul Williams Band.
53. Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez spent a lot of time collaborating with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, whose work together landed them a Grammy Award for the album Speaking Of Now. He would go on to be the composer for film soundtracks like from the movie Birdman in 2014, earning him a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA award.
54. Panama Francis
Panama Francis was one of the best jazz swing drummers of the 1950s, and he was featured in numerous hit songs. He spent much of his time playing drums for R&B and rock and roll tracks during that time before forming his own quartet later in life and reviving the Savoy Sultans band in 1979.
55. Ed Shaughnessy
Ed Shaughnessy was a prominent member of The Tonight Show Band and spent much of his time as part of the band for The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Outside of those, he was one of the members who worked in early versions of the Sesame Street orchestra and was married to the original voice actress of Cinderella.
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