In the U.S., jazz first came to be in the early 20th century. Still to this day, the harmonic sophistication and distinctive rhythms make this genre unique, well-known, and loved. And throughout this long history, some artists have taken center stage and become almost synonymous with jazz.
Let’s discuss some of the best jazz musicians of all time and what makes them stand out. It might just give you some inspiration for your jazz playlist.
1. Louis Armstrong
This New Orleans-grown jazz musician is part of this list because he was a double threat—a talented singer and a brilliant trumpeter. His gravely voice perfectly complemented those smooth jazz beats. In the 20s, he assisted other jazz musicians in making this a popular genre. And his “What A Wonderful World” is recognizable by jazz lovers and non-jazz lovers alike.
2. Ella Fitzgerald
Perhaps you know her as the “First Lady of Song” due to her flawless, yet fierce, vocal stylings. This Newport News, Virginia, jazz songstress was a founder of scatting—a technique where you sing without words and try to mimic the sounds of an instrument. Often, it consists of syllables or nonsense words.
Her true claim to fame was during the big band swing era. At this time, she debuted with Chick Webb Orchestra, in 1939 to be exact. Her soft, yet emotionally deep, voice allowed her to establish herself as one of the best jazz musicians of her time and ever at that matter.
3. Duke Ellington
In the late 20s, Duke Ellington began his career playing at Harlem’s Cotton Club. He helped grow the big band swing movement along with his orchestra. As a pianist by trade, Duke had a unique style known as the staccato style—a form of musical articulation consisting of a shortened note followed by a brief silence and then another note.
4. John Coltrane
Maybe it’s his diverse background of being born in North Carolina yet raised in Philadelphia. Or maybe it was his natural ability or dedication to his instrument. No matter the case, this saxophonist made a name for himself that’ll last throughout time. He rose to stardom in the 50s when he was part of the Miles Davis Quintet. His talent far exceeded the group scene, which led him to start a solo career. One of his most noteworthy songs was “My Favorite Things.”
5. Stan Getz
Stan Getz earned the nickname “The Sound.” We’re guessing that was because he quickly became the sound of jazz at the time. While he was an east coast native, west coast cool jazz was emergent in California during his time. And this is the style that he encompassed in his music. Many attribute the bossa nova becoming popular to this musical genius.
6. Miles Davis
Miles Davis is jazz. In fact, he was arguably the most influential musician of all time in the jazz world. This St. Louis, Illinois, talent was known for his ability to play ballads with a style that was uniquely him. While he truly had natural talent, he honed it at Julliard. Once he left, he entered New York’s jazz scene—and its history from there.
7. Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd is the definition of a multi-talented artist. While he was a saxophonist, he could also play the flute like nobody’s business. His career started when he was playing background for Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. However, his love for jazz pulled him in, and thankfully, it did. He’s now known as one of the best jazz musicians in history.
8. Charles Mingus
Like many of the other artists on this list, Charles Mingus was a dual threat. Not only could he play bass, but he also composed. Throughout his time working in the business, he led various groups and produced some well-known hits, such as “Better Git It In Your Soul.” What truly made this musician unique is his gospel and blues background that he emulsified into his music.
9. Eric Dolphy
We don’t think there could be a top jazz musicians list that didn’t include this talented musician. Like many other jazz stars, he was multi-instrumental. He could play the saxophone, flute, and clarinet, and he did so well. At the end of the 50s, Eric Dolphy got his start in Chico Hamilton’s band. He recorded as a sideman with legends like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.
10. Ron Carter
What jazz list would be complete without Ron Carter? He established himself as one of the most well-known, influential artists of all time in this genre. He made more public appearances than any other bass player in history. His rich, full-bodied tone is distinctly his. While he was quite a talent on his own, Ron recorded with other jazz greats, like Eric Dolphy. His claim to fame was truly when Miles Davis took him under his wing and flew him to stardom.
11. Jelly Roll Morton
Don’t let the name fool you; this artist didn’t have sticky, jelly hands. He was a nimble-fingered pianist who created a number of melodies still popular to this day. Known to friends and family as Ferdinand LaMothe, he made the claim he invented jazz. While he was a frontrunner in the jazz industry in 1902, many argue he didn’t invent this genre, though he helped bring it to life.
12. Bill Evans
This Jersey native brought something unique to the jazz industry in the 50s. He had a styling that was truly his own, as he combined his classical music influence with jazz. Mile Davis instantly took notice of Bill Evans’ impressionistic tone, which was when they recorded Kind of Blue.
13. Art Tatum
Art Tatum proved to the world that no disability would hold him back. As a blind pianist from Toledo, Ohio, he showed everyone that anything is possible with desire and drive. This exceptional musician created song after song with swing rhythms and right-hand runs that’ll forever be engraved in the minds of everyone who’s listened to him. He even inspired others in the industry.
14. Chet Baker
Artists on the west coast didn’t inspire the west coast cool jazz movement in the 50s nearly as much as Oklahoma-native Chet Baker. From his movie-star appearance to his trumpeting abilities to his languid vocals, he quickly rose to stardom. At one point, this man was a pop sensation, drawing the attention of swooning teenage girls. While drug addiction and jail took him away from the jazz scene, he reentered in the 80s and continued to show the world what he was made of.
15. Sonny Rollins
While Sonny Rollins was far from the arrogant type, he earned the nickname “Saxophone Colossus.” He may not have been boastful, but producer Bob Weinstock, the man who gave him the moniker on his 1956 album, was for him. And he lived up to that name time and time again. He had a long career spanning 50 years.
16. Freddie Hubbard
A list without Freddie Hubbard wouldn’t be complete. He made appearances on albums with greats like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, but he was great in his own right. His ability to compose and blow the trumpet was unparalleled. Although a lip injury held him back from doing what he loved and was oh-so-good at, he made a comeback in the early 2000s. He forever left his mark on the industry.
17. Bud Powell
Bud Powell, although this career was cut short, paved the way for modern jazz musicians. His influence on the industry will never be forgotten. The music industry credits him with being the first one to adopt the bebop stylings of horn players to the piano. A combination of horn-like melodies and technical skills unmatched by many of the other musicians in his field. Fellow pianist Erroll Garner touted him as “the second greatest thing to Art Tatum.”
18. Max Roach
Max Roach dramatically changed jazz drumming, pushing it into the bebop era from what was once a rigid backbeat. He was particularly fond of using the ride cymbal, which gave him the ability to use the drum more effectively and for dramatic effect. Like many of the other icons on the list, Max was multifaceted. Not only was he an impeccable drummer, but he was also a band leader. He will forever be remembered for helping to create hard bop. As a Civil Rights activist, he also used his work to inspire change.
19. Dizzy Gillespie
While he initially put a dash of humor in his music, it didn’t prevent his true talent from shining through. People revere this man as a true gem in the music industry. And nobody can deny that the puffer fish-like way he blew the horn was part of his charm and what made him stand out. Dizzy revolutionized the jazz industry and from his efforts created Latin jazz.
20. Wayne Shorter
New Jersey’s Wayne Shooter was a sharpshooter in the jazz music world, with his robust sound and raw talent. While serving as an apprentice to Art Blakey, he proved himself as a top composer and artist. Miles Davis saw the talent in this man and brought him on to join his quintet as a lead writer. At the same time, his solo career was thriving. He co-founded Weather Report, an electric fusion group, but eventually returned to acoustic jazz before he closed out his jazz career as one of the best jazz musicians of all time.
21. Billie Holiday
Bill Holiday will be forever remembered for her haunting voice and that bittersweet tone. She could make music out of anything. And although she truly was talented, singing is what helped her through her struggles throughout her childhood, beginning with living with her mother’s half-sister. When she turned 18, she moved to New York and her unique sound quickly took her right to the top. Although she had quite a repertoire, her most famous number was “Strange Fruit,” which was a controversial ode discussing the lynching of black Americans.
22. Charlie Parker
We attributed the demise of big bands and the transition to bebop to Charlie Parker. Also known as “Bird,” he and Dizzy Gillespie developed a fresh style that combined complex chord patterns and melodic lines. Charlie, while having help from other musicians, transformed jazz into an art. It proved that jazz wasn’t just dancing music.
23. Thelonious Monk
Interestingly enough, on his birth certificate, you can see his name written as “Thelious.” While the poorly written certificate didn’t get his name right, his music made him a name in jazz that will live on forever, spelled the correct way. Initially his angular, yet melodic style didn’t get the respect it deserved. By the 60s, it was evident that he was a force in the genre when he earned himself a spot on the front cover of Time magazine.
24. Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman was a master clarinetist. During the swing era, he led one of the most successful big bands. He transformed what the country thought about jazz when he became the first-ever bandleader to hold a concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, New York. He also created one of the first racially integrated groups, consisting of guitarist Charlie Christian. Unlike many artists of the big band time, he didn’t let the demise of this subgenre stop him. He went on to perform bebop as well.
25. Nat King Cole
First, we’d like to ask what couldn’t Nat King Cole do. He was a pianist, actor, songwriter, and singer. Throughout the course of his career, he recorded over 100 songs that earned spots on the pop charts. His career started in the 30s, and he noted Earl Hines as his inspiration. Even when he took off on his own, Nat’s career continued to flourish. But he, unfortunately, had a short-lived life, due to lung cancer, which ended his career early.
26. Tony Williams
Tony Williams proved his worth in the jazz industry early on. This prodigy joined the Miles Davis Quintet when he was only 17 years old. Tony was quite versatile and dipped his toes in everything from avant-garde jazz to rock and roll to disco funk. He even played drums for Santa and Yoko Ono.
27. Herbie Hancock
When we talk about versatility in jazz, we must talk about Herbie Hancock. He propelled his career with his wizard-like genius on the keyboard. Throughout his career, he played everything from modal jazz to spiritual meditations to techno-funk. He was sought after by Miles Davis but enjoyed a solo career with Blue Note Records. What made him unique was his adaptability to change with the times.
28. Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan is another prodigy on the list. He released his debut album at only 17 years old. He entered the industry playing alongside Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-50s. He then launched his solo career and played with Art Blakely. Sadly, his career was cut incredibly short by a gunshot when he was only 32. While he was able to establish himself, who knows what he could have been capable of with a little more time?
29. Wes Montgomery
While his real name was John, he went by Wes in the public eye. But it didn’t matter what name he went by, his jazz guitar playing was more than enough to earn him respect. And he took jazz guitar playing up a notch. During this time playing, he touched on every subgenre from hard bop to smooth jazz. Shockingly, despite the immense amount of talent he had, he couldn’t read music and chose to use his thumb as opposed to a pick—two traits that still to this day are thought of when someone hears his name.
30. Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane, which you probably recognize as the last name mentioned before, was the wife of saxophonist John Coltrane. And just like her husband, she was a multitalented wonder in the jazz industry. She was an organist, harp player, and pianist. She played in her husband’s band until his quartet dissolved. She began a solo after and focused on comic meditations that were a cross between Indian and jazz.
31. Frank Sinatra
This is another talent no jazz list would be complete without. Frank Sinatra, also known as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” because of his piercing blue eyes, wanted to become a singer after seeing Bing Crosby perform. While he was a singer, he earned himself the nickname of “The Voice.” Frank became well-known during the big band years. His true claim to fame, though, happened when he earned a deal with Capitol Records in 1950.
32. Count Basie
Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, as William Basie. His minimalist style on the piano drove him to fame. The industry recognizes him as one of the best jazz musicians, particularly one of the greatest jazz bandleaders ever. He helped make big band music popular and led his group Count Basie Orchestra for nearly five decades.
33. Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith popularized the Hammond B-3 organ. This Pennsylvania native may not have been the first electric organist, but he most certainly became a well-known one. His music incorporated gospel and blues elements, making him a highly recognizable jazz artist. Throughout his career, he made countless appearances on the Billboard charts.
34. Keith Jarrett
Ever hear the expression “Maybe she’s born with it?” Well, in this case, it was definitely he was born with it—a perfect pitch that is. As a child piano prodigy raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Keith Jarrett made an impression on the industry that can never be erased. In the 70s, he had an album that sold a million. And we should note that he is more than a pianist. He is also a multi-instrumentalist who can play percussion, flute, and guitar.
35. Sarah Vaughan
We haven’t had many females on the list, but that’s not to say women haven’t helped shape, mold, and define jazz. Also known by the nicknames “The Divine One” and “Sassy,” Sarah Vaughan was a virtuosa with her warm tone and fluttery vibrato. In the 50s, she began a solo career that took off and just kept going. And during her time, she earned four Grammys.
36. Cannonball Adderley
As a saxophonist, Julian Adderley, more commonly known as “Cannonball,” made quite a splash in the music industry. He’s one of the greatest alto saxophonists to this day. He started out as a school teacher, and we’re sure glad he changed careers and became a professional musician, or the world would have missed out. Although he was once part of Miles Davis’ band, he also had his own soul-jazz band.
37. Ornette Coleman
Born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, he was another multi-talented musician to make this list. He played the trumpet, saxophone, and violin. He was also a composer. People revere him as the one who discovered free jazz. He even had an educational background in this genre from when he attended the School of Jazz.
38. Nina Simone
Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon, dreamed of being a concert pianist. She couldn’t fulfill her dreams due to racism in the classical music industry in the 50s, so she decided to become a jazz pianist and singer. Throughout her career, she proved her worth in the industry as she tackled a range of genres, including jazz, gospel, and pop, flawlessly.
39. Lester Young
Though Lester Young played in several bands, his most recognizable spot was as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra. Besides playing the saxophone, he also played the clarinet occasionally. He had a cool, relaxed vibe to his music. When he left the band, there was much controversy surrounding his separation. Lester earned the privilege to play with other greats in the industry, including Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday.
40. Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck established himself as a pianist and composer. He was instrumental in forming the cool jazz movement. In 1954, he even appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, and the Library of Congress even declared him a “living legend.”
41. Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams, born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, was a jazz pianist. She received formal training from her mother, who helped mold her into the artist she became. By the age of two, she was already playing simple tunes. And by four, it was evident she had quite a music memory. Once she hit it big, she played with artists like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.
42. Willie Smith
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholf Smith, simply known as Willie Smith, was a stride and jazz pianist. He was another star on this list that got the music bug early. He was only about six years old when he found an organ in his basement. His mother saw his interest and guided him along the way, showing him the melodies she played. In 1971, he earned the privilege to tour throughout North America and Europe.
43. Fats Waller
Many musicians seem to be multi-talented, and Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was just that. He was a composer, singer, violinist, organist, and pianist. He was even a comedic entertainer. He laid the foundation for modern jazz piano when he played the Harlem stride style. Unfortunately, Walker’s life was cut short when he contracted pneumonia in 1943. Despite his short time in the industry, he established a legacy for himself.
44. Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith earned herself the nickname, “Empress of the Blues.” Her music became well-known and respected during the jazz age. She was not only a talented musician, but she wrote African-American protest music that touched base on sensitive social issues, such as capital punishment and chain gangs.
45. Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt was a jazz guitarist and composer with a Romani-French background. He made strides for jazz guitarists and guitarists in general. During his career, which lasted from 1928 until 1953, Reinhardt recorded more than 900 songs. People consider him one of the most influential jazz musicians to come out of Europe.
46. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is one of the newer jazz musicians to make the list. He entered the jazz world in the 50s and created over 60 albums. Some of his more famous pieces include “Georgia On My Mind,” “I’ve Got A Woman,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving.” His style infused jazz, soul, and gospel. He’s another artist that didn’t let blindness interfere with his life, although he began losing his sight at five.
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47. Peggy Lee
Some artists tackle every opportunity that they come across well, and that’s just what Peggy Lee did. She sang both pop and jazz. She was also a composer and songwriter, and she even started acting. Her career lasted for seven decades, leaving her mark in jazz that can never erode. Throughout her career, Peggy received nominations for 13 Grammy Awards.
48. Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton will forever remain a jazz giant. He was a vibraphonist, bandleader, percussionist, and pianist, and he did it all remarkably. Because he was so versatile and musically open-minded, his career was able to last decades. And during that time, he somehow managed to stay true to his swing style.
49. Josephine Baker
We definitely need more female representation before we close this list of the best jazz musicians of all time. She was both a singer and dancer. Her popularity grew in the 20s in France. Her life didn’t start out easily, seeing as how she grew up in poverty. Once she learned to dance and entered Broadway, all of that changed. Throughout her time as a musician, she dedicated herself to fighting against racism and segregation.
50. Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin, commonly known as the “King of Ragtime” started playing the piano at a young age. In his teens, he began traveling as a musician. His career took off, and eventually, he became a name commonly known in ragtime. And while ragtime isn’t necessarily jazz, it is a predecessor and quite similar in nature. We should note that Scott not only played piano but also played cornet and sang.
51. Jackie Paris
Jackie Paris had music in his blood. His uncle was a guitarist with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. During his youth, he tap-danced and continued to do so after he joined the U.S. Army. He served in World War II, and after, began his music career, encouraged by his friend Nat King Cole.
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