Jazz is one of the most fascinating and complex music genres of the modern era. Rising from gospel music, blues, and ragtime, it would go on to shape rock and roll, funk, and even hip hop. These jazz pianists were some of its most influential pioneers, from the earliest years up to the modern day.
1. Art Tatum
Art Tatum was known for his extraordinary technical playing ability, made even more remarkable by the fact that he was almost totally blind. He was instrumental in the development of modern jazz and rhythm and blues, as well as the stride style. He is widely considered to be one of the best and most influential jazz pianists of all time, laying the groundwork for other pianists throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
2. Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams was a pianist and composer who was entirely self-taught. She was already famous as a teenager and considered a child prodigy. She is one of the biggest influencers of early jazz. Unlike many other musicians, she was able to roll with changing genres, turning to bebop as it became popular. Later in her life, she mentored other pianists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
3. Chick Corea
Armando “Chick” Corea was a child prodigy, learning to play the piano when he was only four years old. His career began when he took Herbie Hancock’s place, performing alongside Miles Davis. He was known for incorporating elements of Latin music into whatever genre he was playing; he transitioned seamlessly from jazz to jazz-rock, which rose to popularity in the 1970s. Some of his personal compositions—many of which won Grammy Awards—are now considered jazz standards.
4. Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington was undoubtedly one of the most famous and influential pianists, composers, and bandleaders of the jazz, swing, and big band era. He is best known for his work as a conductor and composer, but he was also a pianist of extraordinary talent. He composed more than one thousand pieces during his lifetime, many of which are now considered jazz standards. Unfortunately, there are only a few surviving recordings that truly display his talent as a solo pianist.
5. Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was known not just for his extraordinary talent, but also for his larger-than-life playing style. After studying under Mary Lou Williams, he rose to prominence as a master of improvisation along with the bebop genre of the 1940s. His work as a composer resulted in several modern jazz standards. Meanwhile, his playing style, which included a unique swing rhythm and heavy use of dissonant chords influenced the development of mid-century jazz as it transitioned to bebop, then soul, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues.
6. Kenny Kirkland
Kenny Kirkland became widely popular after accompanying Wynton and Branford Marsalis on several of their albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to his solo albums, he is a talented accompanist who played alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Sting. He was known for his ability to improvise and adapt as he played. Sadly, he passed away in 1998 at the age of just 43.
7. Barry Harris
Barry Harris was inspired by his pianist mother to start learning to play the same instrument at the age of four. He was inspired by jazz pianists such as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, who influenced his rise into the music industry. He got his career started by gigging with musicians such as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. He made a seamless transition from jazz to bebop, showing himself to be a master of syncopated rhythm and complex harmonies.
8. Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson became known among jazz musicians for his work as an accompanist to some of the biggest singers of the genre. Among them were Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman. Most notably, he accompanied Billie Holiday for many years and is still most strongly associated with her. However, he also recorded several solo tracks and is respected as a talented solo jazz pianist and not just a sideman.
9. Kris Davis
Kris Davis is a modern jazz pianist considered one of the best of the 21st century. In 2020, she was named composer of the year and pianist of the year by the Jazz Journalist Association. She is known for her ability to draw inspiration from musicians across genres, not just jazz but other types of music as well. Her compositions are also remarkable for their explorative qualities, which draw on both classical elements of jazz and more modern pop qualities.
10. Willie “The Lion” Smith
Willie “The Lion Smith” became well-known during the 1920s for his piano work on the emerging jazz and blues scenes. He often accompanied blues singers, gaining recognition for his use of the stride style. He had a unique, energetic playing technique and dazzling technical skill. His work would go on to influence giants of jazz such as George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.
11. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole is best remembered for his luxurious singing voice, but his career began as a pianist. At first, he studied classical piano but became more interested in jazz. He also studied the work of Earl Hines, who heavily influenced his own playing technique, with its elaborate, over-the-top flourishes. He continued to work as a pianist throughout the 1930s and 1940s, during which time he founded a trio. As his voice became more and more popular, however, he began to sing more than play; nevertheless, he remains one of the best jazz pianists of all time.
12. Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly began his career as an accompanist, becoming known for his work on countless jazz and rhythm and blues albums. His energetic, happy playing style drew people’s attention even when he was a sideman, eventually leading to him becoming a bandleader as well. Throughout his career, he worked with musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Dinah Washington.
13. Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lillian Hardin Armstrong was an early jazz pianist who rose to fame during the 1920s. After her marriage to Louis Armstrong, she collaborated with him on many of his albums. Trained as a classical pianist, she was drawn to blues and jazz music and became highly proficient at sight reading. In addition to her own extensive career, she was partially responsible for helping shape her husband’s career.
14. Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett is one of the most famous and talented pianists of the modern era. A child prodigy, he began to play the piano when he was just two years old. He studied classical piano throughout his childhood before becoming interested in jazz as a teen. In his twenties, he was already playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Charles Lloyd, and Miles Davis. He became more widely known when he launched his solo career in the 1970s, during which time his unique playing style and skill for improvisation set a new direction for modern jazz.
15. Dave Grusin
Dave Grusin is a pianist and film composer who was one of the pioneers of the modern smooth jazz genre. In the 1960s, he began releasing his own albums before making his way into television scoring. From there, he became a well-known film composer, winning ten Grammy Awards and an Academy Award. He has composed the soundtrack for films such as On Golden Pond, Tootsie, The Goonies, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Hope Floats.
16. Harold Mabern
Harold Mabern began his career as a drummer before developing an interest in the piano. During the 1950s and 1960s, he accompanied a wide variety of famous jazz musicians before embarking on a solo career. He continued to be relevant up until his death for his unique ability to adapt to new genres of music, having incorporated bebop, post-bop, soul, and other styles of jazz in his playing.
17. Bobby Timmons
Bobby Timmons’ interest in the piano began in his grandfather’s church. The effect of gospel music was evident throughout his career, including in his self-composed pieces. His piano skill and ability to incorporate elements of blues and gospel into his music made him a highly influential musician in the development of soul jazz. Tragically, his career was a short one; he passed away at the age of 38, likely from cirrhosis. But in his short life, he laid the foundation for future musicians.
18. Sonny Clark
Sonny Clark had a short but meteoric career in the 1950s and early 1960s. He was a skilled jazz pianist who helped popularize hard bop, incorporating horn-inspired melodies in his playing. He accompanied Dinah Washington, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins before recording nine albums during his solo career. During his early career, he was highly requested as a sideman thanks to his steady comping ability. Unfortunately, his career was cut short when he died at age 31, probably from a heroin overdose.
19. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson was an early jazz pianist who helped develop the stride piano technique; this became widely used in the emerging genre of jazz as it shifted away from ragtime. In doing this, he drew on influences from blues, laying the foundation for the future, more mature jazz genre. Though his work isn’t widely known by modern audiences, he is remembered for his work in the development of jazz and his influence on other great musicians such as Art Tatum and Count Basie.
20. Red Garland
Red Garland began not as a jazz musician but as a welterweight boxer. Nevertheless, his career was marked by a surprisingly delicate and intricate ability for complex fingerwork. He accompanied many well-known jazz groups throughout the 1950s, including Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. He also worked with Miles Davis, with whom he recorded several of his most famous albums.
21. Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal is one of the biggest names on the stage of contemporary jazz piano. He began playing when he was only three years old before beginning formal lessons at seven. When he was only 14, the great Art Tatum singled him out as a rising star. His professional career began in the late 1940s; throughout the next decades, he played with a variety of jazz groups. His long career has meant that he has had the chance to experiment with and influence many genres as they arose throughout the 20th century.
22. Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton gained his stage name during his early career when he played ragtime tunes in a brothel at night. He was a huge influence in the development of both ragtime and, later, jazz throughout the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. It was through his work that jazz adopted Latin rhythms, one of the genre’s most remarkable characteristics. He was not known for his modesty; he reportedly once said he alone was responsible for inventing jazz.
23. Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau has been one of the biggest names in the world of modern jazz. His career has drawn influences from rock and electronica to classical music. He continues to tour with his trio to this day, turning heads thanks to his one-of-a-kind compositions and the group’s breathtaking ability to improvise as a team.
24. Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck achieved something rare during his career by becoming a jazz pianist to record a hit song that became popular across genres—his hit Take Five from the 1960s. His professional career and playing style was affected by an accident that damaged his hands; however, his career became versatile and was still remarkable.
25. Duke Pearson
Duke Pearson was a highly talented jazz pianist and arranger who helped pioneer the genre of soul jazz during the 1960s. His later influence as a record producer helped direct the development of modern jazz and hard bop until the 1970s.
26. Kenny Drew
Kenny Drew began his career as a sideman for a variety of well-known jazz musicians. He was highly respected in the jazz industry of the 1960s and 1970s and considered one of the best bebop pianists of his era. His playing style was known for its elegance, precision, and understatement.
27. Andrew Hill
Andrew Hill was a jazz pianist who redefined the genre throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His style of playing was sharp and distinct but remained unmistakably inspired by jazz. Hill prioritized “personality” in music over technical ability and thought it was extremely important to have a signature style.
28. Hank Jones
Hank Jones was a jazz pianist and bandleader whose extensive career produced more than 60 albums as a frontman. He also accompanied some of the most famous musicians of the 1950s and 1960s; notably, he played piano during Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday song to President John F. Kennedy.
29. Bob James
Bob James is considered one of the pioneers of smooth jazz. His early career was focused on avant-garde music popular in the early 1960s. Eventually, he turned to a softer sound, embracing the electronic sounds that were emerging in the jazz world.
30. Tommy Flanagan
Tommy Flanagan was an incredibly skilled jazz pianist known for his work accompanying John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. He played with her both as a sideman and as a musical director for 13 years. After leaving her, he embarked on a solo career that was considered remarkable for his delicate, elegant playing style.
31. Horace Silver
Horace Silver was one of the earliest pioneers of hard bop; his career began as a sideman before he embarked on a solo career. His personal compositions have become famous for their complex harmonies and blues elements; some of them have come to be considered jazz standards.
32. Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner rose to prominence in the early 1920s, helping to stylize some of the most famous and widely-used elements of modern jazz music. He was an energetic player and composer, producing many modern jazz standards. His most famous song is Misty, which has been covered extensively.
33. Bud Powell
Bud Powell is widely considered to have been a genius of jazz piano, helping to bridge the transition to bebop. His playing style treated the piano like a wind instrument, resulting in a one-of-a-kind sound that would become the standard for jazz musicians as the genre shifted in the mid-20th century.
34. Bill Evans
Bill Evans inspired many other jazz greats, including Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. His unusually romantic and lyrical playing style was remarkable in the jazz genre, marked by complex chords. He often drew on influences of bebop and classical music to shape his enigmatic playing.
35. Elmo Hope
Elmo Hope made his career as an accompanist for saxophone players such as Harold Land and Sonny Rollins. His playing style was marked by energy and dissonance, a style he maintained during his transition from jazz to bebop and hard bop. His career was a short one, as he died at the age of 43 while receiving treatment for his drug addiction.
36. Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard was a skilled pianist and saxophone player who was known for his adaptability, hopping between genres and combining them with almost no effort. His work covered everything from ragtime to free jazz. During his career, he played with many well-known jazz groups and was noticeable for his eclectic style and unmistakable sound.
37. Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was one of the earliest musicians who could be called a jazz pianist; more accurately, he was an influencer of pre-jazz through the turn of the 19th century. His musical stylings led to the rise of the ragtime genre, which would later influence blues and jazz. He was a prolific composer, one of the main ways that his legacy lives on, as there are no existing recordings.
38. George Shearing
George Shearing was one of the few jazz pianists to receive a knighthood for his services to the United Kingdom. Blind from birth, he was nevertheless a skilled pianist and accordion player; from the 1940s, he seamlessly fused elements of bebop, swing, and even classical music. He also introduced playing techniques that affected the direction of music throughout the 1950s.
39. Earl Hines
Earl Hines was an early jazz pianist who made a name for himself through his innovative and experimental playing style, which strayed from the standards that had been set by his contemporaries. He strongly influenced the big band era through the introduction of “trumpet notes” and tremolo. His ability to adapt served him well, making it possible to continue his successful career from the 1920s to the 1980s.
40. Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland was a famous jazz pianist who began playing at a young age. She had perfect pitch, which helped her become adept at the piano despite her mother’s refusal to let her take lessons. She faced plenty of adversity in her professional career because of her gender; nevertheless, she became well-known not just for her musical career but also for hosting Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, which ran on NPR for more than a quarter century.
41. Fats Waller
Fats Waller was one of the earliest jazz pianists, paving the way for the rise of the genre from its infancy. He was an early adopter of the stride style and was known for his enthusiastic, entertaining playing. After studying with James P. Johnson, he began his professional career, which included composing several hundred songs. Some of them, such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, are now considered jazz standards.
42. Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane may have been eclipsed in fame by her husband John Coltrane, but she was a wildly talented and successful jazz pianist in her own right. In addition to the piano, she was also a skilled harpist, pioneering the genre of jazz harp. She first studied classical music before studying jazz under the legendary Bud Powell. Her musical compositions in her later life were strongly influenced by her spiritual life, and she eventually left her career to become a Hindu aesthetic.
43. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock is a jazz pianist who is known around the world for his work in electronic music and even hip hop. He is one of the most versatile pianists in the modern music scene, having experimented with funk, post-bop, fusion, and disco as well. He rose to prominence in the 1960s as a performer with Miles Davis before going solo. In the 1980s, he released Rockit, a worldwide hit.
44. Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson was a classically-trained pianist who was widely considered a child prodigy, practicing four to six hours a day while still a child. He pioneered the hard swing playing style. Over the course of his 60-year career, he released more than 200 recordings. He was known for his intricate handwork and skilled improvisation ability. He won seven Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award.
45. Kenny Barron
Kenny Barron is widely known for his work as both a music teacher and a sideman to some of the biggest jazz musicians of the modern era. Since the late 1960s, he has worked with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Flanagan, and Barry Harris, among others. He also taught modern jazz pianists Earl MacDonald and Aaron Parks. He remains highly relevant in contemporary jazz, having pioneered the genre of post-bop.
46. Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano was undoubtedly one of the most talented jazz pianists of all time, but music historians are hotly divided on the true significance of his legacy. He was born with poor eyesight and became completely blind by the age of ten. He was innovative and experimental, exploring playing and recording methods in the early jazz era that were unfamiliar to most musicians. He was a significant influence on later musicians such as Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.
47. Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor was a pianist, composer, and poet. He became known in the late 1950s as a pioneer of the avant-garde and free jazz styles. His playing was energetic and aggressive, relying heavily on complex rhythms and dissonant chords. Though he was a classically-trained pianist, he was often compared to a percussionist in the way he attacked the keys of the piano.
48. Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis was a classically-trained pianist whose impressive career fused elements of many emerging genres. He started his career in the 1950s as part of a trio, releasing a number of jazz and pop hits. In the 1970s, he transitioned to funk and jazz-rock fusion. He was known for his stylistic soul-inspired jazz playing that drew on elements of blues and gospel music.
49. Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul was an Austrian pianist who moved to the United States in the late 1950s He joined Cannonball Adderley’s band. He was in hot demand throughout the following decade, even being invited to join Miles Davis. In the 1970s, he founded the group Weather Report, which played a huge role in the development of jazz-rock fusion. He is considered one of the most important figures in modern keyboard jazz.
50. Carla Bley
Carla Bley is a composer and pianist known for her role in the free jazz movement that arose in the 1960s. She helped found the Jazz Composers Guild before composing Escalator Over The Hill, a full jazz opera. This was praised for its effortless fusion of jazz with genres such as raga and rock. She is a much-awarded pianist and has said she considers herself to be mainly a composer; nevertheless, her influence on modern jazz music is undeniable.
51. Michel Petrucciani
Michel Petrucciani was a French pianist who was known not just for his extraordinary talent but also for his physical challenges; he was born with osteogenesis imperfecta. He was only three feet tall and had brittle bones as well as arm pain that presented challenges as a musician. Nevertheless, he became a national hero in his home country for his exquisite skills and high-energy, exuberant playing style. He toured extensively with his own trio before his death in 1999 at the age of 36.
52. McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner is considered one of the most instantly-recognizable jazz pianists of the contemporary era. His career began when he joined the John Coltrane Quartet in the 1960s. After leaving the group in 1965, he embarked on a wildly successful solo career. He was known for his fusion of jazz and blues and his energetic, often aggressive playing style. He also avoided electronic instruments as they became more popular, persevering in bringing classic jazz into the modern era.
53. Count Basie
Count Basie became famous during the era of big band swing music thanks to his work as a bandleader. He often led the group while playing the piano, managing to make the instrument’s presence felt without eclipsing the rest of the members. Though he is remembered for his work as a bandleader, he was a wildly talented jazz pianist, known for his ability to fuse jazz with blues and swing while emphasizing the percussive aspects of the genres in his playing.
54. John Lewis
John Lewis made waves both as a member of The Modern Jazz Quartet and as a solo artist. He became known for his bright, buoyant playing style that he took not just from other pianists but also from the saxophone player, Lester Young. He was trained as a classical pianist, and the classics continued to affect his playing throughout his career. The Modern Jazz Quartet was influential in the transition from jazz to bebop during the 1950s.
55. Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton was a later contributor to the jazz development of the 20th century, rising to prominence in the early 1960s. He was heavily influenced by earlier giants of jazz such as Nat King Cole, Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum. He recorded nine albums as part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers throughout the 1960s before becoming a bandleader. He was also a composer, writing jazz standards such as Mode For Joe. In his later career, he also contributed to the rising funk genre.
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