The saxophone started as a supporting instrument, but its dynamic tones and smooth voice quickly made it a frontrunner in many bands. Jazz has particularly made excellent use of the saxophone, bringing to light history’s greatest performers.
Now, there’s no doubt that this instrument is a versatile tool that can support a band or take the spotlight. In the hands of a true musician, there’s almost nothing it can’t do. Here’s a list of the 41 best saxophonists of all time. We searched for the cream of the crop and found the top saxophone players you don’t want to miss.
1. Charlie Parker
Though this list isn’t going in any specific order of greatness, Charlie Parker still belongs at the top. He lived only for 34 years, but in that short time, he became known as the Father of Bebop and one of the greatest alto sax players of all time.
This man from Kansas City shaped the world of jazz with his innovative style in ways that no other musician has yet matched. Known to his fans as “Bird,” he can play up to 15-hour sessions, demonstrating to the world that jazz could be an amazing form of artistic expression. He’s been referred to as the Mozart of jazz and nothing short of genius.
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2. John Coltrane
This jazz giant from the 1950s and 1960s made a name for himself on the tenor sax when he played with Miles Davis and developed his own style. He’s another genius musician who has used the saxophone to evolve music in ways most people never imagined. The technique he showed in his work was unrivaled, and many sax players to come have learned from the things he taught through his spiritual language of jazz.
This is the man who released one of the greatest albums ever produced, A Love Supreme. He also worked with a soprano sax, though his alto performances were known as “sheets of sound” that revolutionized music as we know it.
3. Wayne Shorter
This powerhouse performer is one of the most influential saxophonists to have lived. He has shown up to nearly every innovative jazz event in history, always ready to put his musical spin on new things that have come into the genre. With a long career, he’s been able to inspire generations of saxophone players and has worked with some of history’s other greats, including Miles Davis, Steely Dan, and Art Blakey.
Do not miss his funky Weather Report or his Second Great Quintet recordings. They are some of the most graceful music performed on a sax. He is known as one of the best soprano sax players in history for good reason.
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4. Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon will be remembered for at least two things: being a revolutionary tenor sax player and being incredibly tall. He stood a full six feet, six inches, towering over other musicians in the room. If his music didn’t make him stand out, his stature certainly did. But it was his work with bebop sounds and his recordings in the 1940s that really carved him a place in saxophone fans’ hearts forever.
“Long, Tall Dexter” preferred to play relaxed ballads and poignant, lyrical melodies. This talented musician was also the son of the first African-American doctor in L.A. As if those facts aren’t amazing enough, he was also an accomplished actor. He appeared in the film Round Midnight, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination, and then he appeared in Awakenings with Robert DeNiro. That’s one heck of a resume.
5. Hank Mobley
Hank Mobley hit the scene in the 1950s with his tenor sax, and he went on to record 25 albums. One critic described him as “one of the most underrated musicians of the bop era.” His broad tones and unique style made him more of a cult favorite than a critical box-office smash, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a profound effect on jazz and saxophonists. Though he passed away in 1986, his albums are re-released to great popularity, and jazz music theorists still write about his influence today.
6. Harold Land
Harold Land was a tenor sax player who brought intense sounds to all of his performances. People have noted that his music often had a sense of introspection in it that could take the listener on a personal, emotional journey. Usually dark, Land still allowed his musical storytelling to achieve brighter moments that added a beautiful contrast to his compositions.
John Coltrane was one of his biggest influences, as fans will recognize. He went on to lecture at the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA, bringing an understanding of jazz and the saxophone to future musicians.
7. Maceo Parker
Funk. Soul. Jazz. Alto. Tenor. Baritone. Is there anything Maceo Parker can’t do with a sax? He’s known for working with James Brown, who occasionally shouts his name, in the 1960s when they worked to spread the good word of funk to the world. After that, he made his way to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, and then on to work with Prince.
He’s guested with Dave Matthews Band in concert. You can even hear him play with Jane’s Addiction on My Cat’s Name Is Maceo. This is a man who knows the ins and outs of his instrument and can make it sing the funkiest, most syncopated, super sweet tunes. Bottom line: if you want some funk, you need Maceo Parker.
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8. Cannonball Adderley
Much of the world first met Cannonball Adderley in the late 1950s when he played with Miles Davis on the album Kind Of Blue. He went on to do so much more than what we hear in that recording, though. When he took the spotlight as a soloist in the coming decades, audiences found that his melodies were more versatile than many musicians of the day could produce.
He went from jazz to gospel in a heartbeat, and he was comfortable in classical and world fusions, too. This alto player seemed to have no limit to his innovative playing. As a result, he paved the way for many musicians to think outside the boxes of their genres and play whatever they feel fits the situation best. In many ways, Adderley helped to continue the movement of setting jazz “free.”
9. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Here’s another superstar from the 1960s, clearly a fabulous time for saxophone fans. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a visual spectacle, often standing with several instruments hanging from different parts of his body. He could play up to three saxes at once, and then he added more instruments to that. The way he accomplished this feat was with a modification that he called “stritch.”
But he wasn’t all smoke and mirrors. This one-man band was a thoroughly talented jazz sax player, startling audiences with his free jazz on the tenor sax, as well as his bebop and R&B melodies.
10. Vi Redd
Vi Redd is one of the formative sounds of alto sax, playing some of the best blues of her time. Amazingly, she enjoyed a career outside of music before bursting on the scene with her amazing talent in the 1960s. She has toured all around the world, including Japan and Europe, thrilling audiences with her distinctive voice.
The Kennedy Center awarded her the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award in 2001. Before that, in 1989, the Los Angeles Jazz Society honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. One of her most famous recordings is the album Lady Soul, on which many jazz stars of the time appeared to play with her.
Next: Ultimate playlist of the top blues songs ever recorded
11. Kamasi Washington
Let’s take a look at one of the newer sax players of our recent generations. If Kamasi Washington isn’t on your playlist, get ready to add him. He’s a tenor musician from a true jazz family. Formally trained in music, Washington may have been born in 1981, but he has already released several albums and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for the documentary, Becoming.
He’s played with a variety of musical greats, such as Wayne Shorter, Nas, Lauryn Hill, and Snoop Dogg. This is the present of jazz, and it’s the future of jazz, and we are so here for all of it.
12. Lester Young
If you see pictures of Lester Young, you’ll likely notice his sense of fashion right off the bat. This was a guy steeped in “cool” culture, and he is sometimes credited with the creation of jazz slang terms like “dig” and “homeboy.” You’ll often hear his name along with several other saxophone giants, but he managed to distinguish himself in the 1930s by going for a light, mellow tone that some have referred to as “buoyant” or even “airy.”
This tenor saxophonist showed others that the lower tones of the instrument do not always have to feel heavy. His example created a style from which future saxophonists have drawn great inspiration. None other than the great Stan Getz and Charlie Parker—and so many more—followed in this man’s footsteps. Now, whether it’s because of his poetic turns of slang or his poetic use of his instrument, he’s been referred to as the Poet Laureate of the Tenor Saxophone.
13. Johnny Griffin
“Little Giant” Johnny Griffin may have not had the greatest stature, but the Chicago-born tenor saxophonist’s skill had immense presence. Griffin began his career in the 1950s, and would later take a leap over to Europe, in which he resided until his final days in 2008.
14. Arthur Blythe
Using his alto sax, Arthur Blythe saw no reason to call himself a traditionalist or an avant-garde jazz musician. He was both. Also a brilliant composer, this performer played with the likes of Gil Evans and Chico Hamilton and seemed to soak up new musical ideas everywhere he went. His sound contained powerful emotions and was distinctly unique, thanks to his refusal to be defined by one set of expectations.
When the all-star jazz band, The Leaders, formed in the 1980s, Blythe became their alto sax player. His final album, Exhale, came out in 2003 and is now known for its slower, almost melancholy sound, which was a deviation from his more energetic pieces from before.
Next: Our playlist of the best jazz songs of all time
15. Joe Henderson
This tenor sax player showed up in the 1960s and worked with Horace Silver on some recordings, including Song For My Father, where his sax solo can be heard. He became one of the most frequently recorded saxophonists of his time, and soon, his voice was easily recognizable.
Strong, gritty, and full of life, his often-improvised melodies included Latin influences and continued to evolve throughout his career. Henderson is now considered required listening for all jazz fans, and the music he created set the model for future players to come.
16. Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman was a visionary alto saxophonist who paved the way for new concepts of jazz. He used his instrument’s higher pitches to bring out the sense of wailing or crying in the blues, which is a technique that became a staple of the genre. His melodic “free-jazz movement” came to represent freedom from all kinds of oppression, which elevated the art of music to a higher, social movement.
Free jazz focused on breaking down the tropes of the jazz genres and subgenres in terms of tempo, chord, and harmonic expectations. The idea was that musicians should be free to explore where the music takes them. It has also been called “avant-garde jazz” or simply “free improvisation.” Whatever you call it, it was a powerful movement that allowed sax players around the world to open their repertoires and propel jazz into the future. We can thank Coleman for his contribution to this movement.
17. Sonny Rollins
Known for his ability to improvise exciting and beautiful melodies, Sonny Rollins is a force to be reckoned with on the sax. He’s considered one of the greatest saxophone players of the jazz “golden age” in the 1950s.
He uses a technique known as motivic development to carve himself a place in the history of jazz. Motivic development happens when the artist overlaps and repeats rhythms and melodies in often complex and interesting ways within one piece. It’s not the kind of thing anyone can do, but Rollins makes it sound easy.
18. Coleman Hawkins
It’s Coleman Hawkins we can thank for bringing the tenor sax to the forefront of serious music. His smooth tones brought this instrument to a new level of beauty, rather than the sillier sounds of musical comedy performers pulled from it before. Once he collaborated with Louis Armstrong, though, things really took off. This was his chance to play with extensive improvisation and let his artistic talents grow among the best of the best.
When he recorded Body And Soul in 1939, the world found out what Hawkins could do. His sound was big and beautiful, smooth and unexpected. Audiences weren’t prepared for the music he could make, but they loved it as soon as they heard it. He showed all musicians to follow him that his instrument was a great choice for a musical career, and he was dubbed the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone.”
19. Stan Getz
If you’ve heard Girl From Ipanema, you’ve heard Stan Getz play. This lyrical saxophonist was comfortable in just about any musical genre, which allowed him to reach some mainstream recognition, even among those who don’t follow jazz or sax players.
One of his most beloved collaborations happened with the Brazilian musicians João and Astrud Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1963. This went on to become a world-famous boss’s nova album and one of the best-selling jazz records ever. Getz knew how to work his instrument to give it a distinct voice, but he also knew how to adapt to other genres and musicians, making him one of the most fluid players to have picked up the sax.
20. Jan Garbarek
Born in 1947, Jan Garbarek is still considered a modern musician. His compositions and saxophone performances on both the tenor and the soprano sax are nothing short of lyrical masterpieces. In the 1970s, he played with Keith Jarrett, and since then, this Norwegian star focuses on classical and world music.
One of the amazing things he’s incorporated into his style is the use of long notes and then moments of silence. The effect is haunting, as it leaves audiences with phantom sounds ringing in their ears between riffs. He earned a 2005 Grammy Award nomination for his album In Praise Of Dreams.
21. Clarence Clemons
Where did you first encounter Clarence Clemons? Was it in the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Was it on The Simpsons? Or, most likely, was it when he performed as the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band from 1972 until 2011 when he passed away?
One of the best modern performers to date, Clemons was all over the place with his talent. He was known for sharing his work with the best of the best and matching any situation with the perfect rock sax solo. If you can name a music superstar from the past several decades who’s brought in a fantastic sax player, that player was probably Clemons.
22. Johnny Hodges
This alto sax phenomenon made major waves with Duke Ellington. Johnny Hodges joined his band in 1928 and literally made Ellington cry with his beautiful sound. That’s a pretty great testament to his music. For a while, he also played soprano saxophone, but he gave that up in favor of his preferred instruments, the alto sax and the clarinet, around 1946.
He’s known now as one of the most influential big band-era saxophonists. And, if Ellington’s feelings about Hodges aren’t enough to sway your opinion, remember that Charlie Parker and John Coltrane both found inspiration from this amazing player. If you need any other proof, it’s in the pudding. Listen to his work, and you’ll be as big a fan as all the sax greats who came after him.
23. Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders played with John Coltrane and spent the rest of his career furthering the latter’s vision. He did this so effectively that it became his own vision and set the stage for future musicians to continue evolving the art from there.
From spiritual jazz to avant-garde, from ethno-jazz to fusions of world sounds that he picked up along the way, Sanders shaped jazz with his tenor sax like a potter molds clay. Ornette Coleman once said that Sanders was “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Enough said.
24. Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano does it all. Tenor sax, flute, drums, and alto clarinet. This jazz hero has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards and won in 2000 for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for the record, 52nd Street Themes. He uses influences from around the world and blends them seamlessly into his bop tunes. Lovano has said that he focuses on conducting with his improvisations, leading his bands through his improvised playing.
25. Albert Ayler
The free-jazz movement never faded away. In fact, it continued to grow as saxophone players like Albert Ayler made music history with their unique perspectives. The great John Coltrane loved Ayler’s music so much that he asked Ayler to play at his funeral. That’s a true compliment. Sadly, Ayler didn’t live to reach old age himself. He passed away at 34 years old, having made a massive mark on music forever.
His tunes pulled inspiration from folk songs and then devolved into unexpected ravages of sound. In some ways, it could be said that no other musician had his energy or will to break down all the walls. He was a true visionary of the free-jazz movement.
26. Big Jay McNeely
R&B was brought to you in an unforgettable, over-the-top style by none other than Big Jay McNeely. He figuratively described what he was doing to the audience as blowing their brains out. That should give you a clear image of the awesome power of his music. Known as the “King of the Honkers,” one of his greatest hits was Deacon’s Hop in 1949.
27. Matana Roberts
Experimental sound is the name of the game with Matana Roberts. Their work on the Coin Coin project, a series of “chapters” released in studio albums of their amazing style of music, has been praised by Rolling Stone and NPR. Roberts considers themselves a self-taught mixed-media composer, and their music is a glimpse into the future of the saxophone as art.
28. Jimmy Heath
Also known as “Little Bird,” Jimmy Heath actually tried to distance himself from other great contemporaries like the Bird, Charlie Parker. To do this, he changed his instrument from alto to tenor and became a sensation in his own right. Heath’s long life let him wear several hats, from composer to educator, and he left a brilliant jazz legacy in his wake.
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29. Ben Webster
Also known as “The Brute,” this gentle giant of the saxophone really became known for his work in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s. His tenor sax belted out blues in ways jazz fans can recognize in an instant. There was something about his music that thrilled audiences. With soft tunes that somehow grew into fierce sounds, Ben Webster coined a style that musicians have been studying ever since.
30. Kaori Kobayashi
Not all saxophone geniuses hail from the United States. Kaori Kobayashi is a Japanese alto sax player who has released over a dozen albums already. Trained at the Senzoku College of Music, she has focused on jazz since she was a teenager. Now, her pop, blues, and jazz sounds fuse to make a style that is truly one of a kind.
31. Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt started off sounding an awful lot like Charlie Parker, but that’s hardly an insult. However, he worked hard to distinguish himself, and he succeeded without a doubt. Though he started his musical career at the end of the 1940s, he carried on evolving his sound and style through the start of the 1980s. He improvised without hesitation and was proficient on multiple saxophones, from tenor to baritone, and he earned the nickname “Lone Wolf.”
32. Mindi Abair
This two-time Grammy Award nominee has performed with some of the top American pop icons and has released her own blues album to rave reviews. Mindi Abair is also a singer, an author, and a trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. American Idol featured her in 2011 and 2012.
33. Gerry Mulligan
Let’s remember to give some love to the baritone greats of the saxophone world. Gerry Mulligan could swing, play out some sweet jazz, and modernize the big-band performances better than many who came before and after. His Walk On The Water won a Grammy Award in 1980.
34. Michael Brecker
This is your gold standard when it comes to modern sax. He played it all, from rock to pop to folk to jazz to funk. There’s nothing Michael Brecker couldn’t do with his instrument. But don’t write him off as strictly modern. This musician learned from the greats, and his influence showed in every session. With 15 Grammy Awards and an honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music, Brecker was a force to be reckoned with.
35. Pepper Adams
Park “Pepper” Adams played in the 1950s and 1960s when he worked his baritone sax to create some of the most beloved sounds of that era of jazz. He was a bandleader for eighteen albums, and he composed 42 different tracks. That’s impressive, but it seems like it was just another day’s work for Adams, whose resume is almost too good to believe. Just one listen to his tracks will make anyone a believer, though.
36. Benny Carter
Benny Carter showed up in 1928 with his alto sax and made it to the next decade as a fixture in jazz. Soon, he was a bandleader and composer for some of the other top performers of the time. Because of his enduring sound, he is now known as a King of Swing. He was praised for his ability to lead bands through complex musical riffs that entertained audiences.
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37. Art Pepper
Art Pepper was a master of bebop in the 1950s. He was known for his amazing work with his alto sax, which he first used in bands around west-coast America before he became a star in his own right. A critic once referred to Pepper as “the world’s greatest altoist.” The emotion he poured into his performances was palpable, and audiences loved the energy he brought to the stage.
38. YolanDa Brown
YolanDa Brown brings a fresh mix of reggae and other fusion sounds into her alto and tenor sax performances, which she has toured around the world. The unique world music blend has transformed saxophone pieces as we knew them before, and she’s just getting started. Brown is also an academic, and her thoughtful playing seems to gain energy from her life experiences. She is the winner of several prestigious awards, including Best Jazz Act in both 2008 and 2009 at the MOBO Awards.
39. Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet is another icon who came out of the 1920s. When he found a soprano saxophone in a thrift store, he picked it up and made history. People were thrilled with the sound he could make with the high, emotional tones of the soprano. He worked the vibrato to fascinating effect and won himself a place in the history of jazz.
40. Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy didn’t have a long enough life, especially considering the gigantic impact he had on music. Too many musicians die young, and he is another example. He played with John Coltrane and learned a lot from him, but like so many others, he took that inspiration and ran with it to create amazing pieces of avant-garde jazz. Who knows what he would have accomplished if he had lived another few decades?
41. Gato Barbieri
During the 1960s in Argentina, Leandro “Gato” Barbieri arrived on the scene and brought a lyrical passion to his music that took avant-garde jazz to a whole new level. He also went on to show his ability to play smooth pieces for more relaxed sessions, proving to the world that he could do anything he wanted with his instrument.
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42. Candy Dulfer
Straight from the Netherlands, this pop and jazz music player is known for her alto sax contributions to funk and soul. Her album Saxuality earned her a Grammy Award nomination in 1990.
Playing with musical superstars such as Madonna, Maceo Parker, and Pink Floyd, she has made a name for herself and paved the way for female sax players, in a musical genre that has historically been a male-dominated industry. In 2013, Dulfer became a judge on the Dutch version of the show X-Factor. She credits her father, the musician Hans Dulfer, with much of her early inspiration.
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As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.