Where on earth do you start with that one? Whoever you choose, there are going to be dozens that haven’t been included. It is difficult to define when it all started. Some say as early as the 19th Century. But it has its heyday from the 1930s to the 50s.
In some ways, it started to decline in mass popularity as other genres took hold. And it could be argued that one of the reasons was the high technical standards required for players to perform it.
Later musical styles were far easier to create and master. And all you needed were three chords, a truckload of effects pedals, and a silly hat. You could then call yourself a star. The jazz boys would practice for hour upon hour every day. Somewhere the musical discipline, with a few modern exceptions, disappeared.
That in itself is a testament to jazz and its offshoots. You had to be good. In fact, you had to be better than that to get attention.
Jazz has shaped most of today’s music. Even if it isn’t your thing, you can still admire the musicianship. But who are the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time? Let’s take a look at some of the Jazz greats. And we promise-there won’t be a silly hat in sight…
Buddy Rich (1917-1987)
Let’s start with the man with a certain amount of rhythm. Some would call him ‘the’ drum master of his time. Indeed of any time.
As a young man, he was recognized as a great talent, and he began to shape what became modern drumming at an early age. Born and raised in New York, he started playing at age two and developed fierce speed to go with his clinical technique. A virtuoso, he inspired many to pick up the sticks.
Live in his 60’s…
I was fortunate enough to see him in the UK with his Orchestra in the early 80s. Breathtaking, captivating. Even in his 60s, he was a force of nature and a sight to behold.
He wrote many books on the subject of drum technique. One is known affectionate as the drummer’s bible; it’s called Buddy Rich’s Rudiments Around the Kit and is an excellent buy for anyone who wants to get into or improve their jazz drumming. You may also be interested in one of the Best Jazz Drum Sets you can buy in 2023?
Gene Krupa (1909-1973)
Born in Chicago, he was a drummer noted for his showmanship and very energetic style. Krupa and Buddy Rich elevated drumming to another level. It could be argued that his drum solo on the 1937 song, “Sing. Sing, Sing” made people realize that drums could sometimes take the lead.
Playing with Benny Goodman at the time, observers had to take notice as he made the drums far more than just the timekeeper.
He was perhaps noted as much for his ‘swing’ band as for his jazz drumming. An interesting character on stage and off, he also helped to shape modern drumming.
Ray Brown (1926–2002)
Unknown in many circles, Ray Brown was a bass player that influenced generations of young players. He was a man who, when he played, enthused you to want to play the bass. And had a career that lasted for six decades and was still releasing music at a later age.
He went through the 40s bop rage to working extensively with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson but also worked occasionally with his wife, Ella Fitzgerald. He was also a great influence on the bass guitar and its future. Producing a book on style and technique.
Even today, if you know someone who is thinking of playing the bass, get them to listen to Ray Brown. Surely one of the most legendary bass players in music history.
Charlie Mingus (1922-1979)
Another highly influential bass and jazz double bass player, he is recognized as being one of the most creative jazz musicians ever. But he was also a great pianist and composer. He broke new ground in so many ways with the style and content of what he wrote.
Mingus took the bass and shook the daylights out of it. In many ways, the landscape of jazz bass playing was changed forever by his pioneering style.
He was born in Arizona but grew up in Los Angeles. He has an interesting heritage. His father being the illegitimate child of a black farmhand and a Swedish girl. His mother had an English and Chinese family.
Played with the greats…
Over the years, he worked with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and with Duke Ellington. He was fired from the latter for fighting! He had his own band, the Mingus Big Band that still does shows today. And there is a Charles Mingus Festival held every year in New York.
Not many bassists have been as influential. His Gospel and Blues roots brought a new style to his Jazz which made him very influential in many ways.
He was respected as well for his refusal to compromise on his style and, therefore, what he saw as his musical integrity.
Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)
It is a wonder that Reinhardt was able to play anything, let alone a six-string guitar. He had lost the use of the third and the fourth finger of his left hand after a fire when still in his teens. Nevertheless, he overcame this to become one of the influential jazz musicians of all time.
Before the amplifier had been invented, the role of the guitar in jazz was as an accompaniment. The reason for this was simple. They couldn’t be heard over the rest of the band to play solos. But in Reinhardt’s case, he had a jazz group that only had stringed instruments.
The softer sound of the band allowed his artistic freedom to expand his virtuoso style. His solos could be heard clearly. Interestingly, in his ensemble was violinist Stephane Grapelli. He was known to do a decent job himself.
He was born in Belgium and had a Romani heritage. At the outbreak of the second world war, his band was on tour in the UK. He rushed back to his club in Paris. Grapelli stayed in the UK. Romani people were being sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, and he had a number of narrow escapes.
After the war, he toured the US but gained a reputation as being unreliable. Benny Goodman asked him to join his band. After initially saying yes, he declined. His last years were spent still playing but not fulfilling the potential he had shown earlier. He immersed himself in the Romani lifestyle, which alienated him from many people.
His place, though, is worthy of inclusion here because of what he gave when his music was in full flow. Now recognized as a jazz great, he is fondly remembered by many.
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Wes Montgomery (1923-1968)
Born in Indianapolis, Wes Montgomery could be considered as one of the most influential improvisers on guitar in the modern era. He set standards that fast became recognized as being prominent in the emerging guitar-based music of the 60s.
He is perhaps best known for his unique thumb-picking style. His tone was round, warm, and full-bodied, helped by using heavy gauge strings. Perfectly created for his smooth, cultured melodies.
A major influence on Knopfler…
However, it is a hard technique to master. This is particularly apparent when it comes to playing quick series of notes and using octaves. Mark Knopfler has taken much of his thumb-picking inspiration from Montgomery.
In later years Montgomery made a big impact with his jazz fusion style and playing. A master craftsman who died in his prime but is still considered a major influence on many who have come after him.
Herbie Hancock (1940-)
Born in Chicago, it didn’t take long for Herbie Hancock to make a name for himself. He began his career playing with Donald Byrd. But in 1962 came his song ‘Watermelon Man,’ which catapulted him into recognition. Not a bad start for a young musician.
He followed that up three years later with his album Maiden Voyage. And he was still only 24 years old, as we said, not a bad start for a young aspiring jazz pianist.
He made a series of great jazz albums as well as playing some piano with Miles Davis. It was during this period that he began to take a new approach to traditional harmony and to the structure of his music.
As his career developed, he took a brave step and started to embrace the growing disco and funk styles. His 2007 album ‘The Joni Letters’ won him an album of the year at the Grammy awards. And he became one of the first jazz musicians to include synth in his music.
He is versatile, and there is freedom in his style of playing that allows him to travel across musical genres effortlessly. In his career, he has gone from a traditional jazz style through bebop to funk and funk jazz fusion. An innovator and a great creative force ensure his place in the list of the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time.
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Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
Mention the words jazz and piano, and you will eventually get round to Thelonious Monk. He was in at the start of the bebop craze in the 1930s. His playing style, though, was different from what everyone else was doing. And his approach to how he improvised was way ahead of its time. That caused some to not take him so seriously at first, and his talent was missed by many.
Of all the jazz musicians who have recorded, Monk is second on the list in terms of the amount of recorded work. As a pianist and composer, he created some of the most important works in Jazz.
An early starter…
He was born in North Carolina but moved to New York while still young. He started piano at age 6, and though he didn’t complete his education, by then, he was getting work as a jazz pianist. His style of playing mirrored the ‘Stride’ players of the 20s and 30s, and he had an improvisational skill that was quite unique.
He eventually started to write his own material and became recognized as one of the greats of American Jazz. He made contributions to standard Jazz that stood him on the shoulders of others.
Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
If you were to ask a lot of jazz musicians their opinion on ‘Yardbird, or just Bird’, the answer would probably be unequivocal. There have been very few who changed the course of Jazz for the better. A select few who have been really influential. Charlie’ Yardbird’ Parker was one of them.
Born in Kansas, he dropped out of high school and started to play. He had started playing sax when he was 11. By 14, he joined the school band. This gave him access to instruments. It also gave him the chance to practice. It was at this time he began to hone his skills. Skills that have made many call him one of the greatest soloists ever.
Let’s get bluesy…
Swing music had dominated American music since the 30s, but Parker’s style ushered in a new era in New York bebop. He changed rhythms and linked chord changes together with chromatic passing notes. It was complex and almost intellectual in its approach. But deep within it, there was a bluesy feel.
Some people would call it improvisation, but with ‘the Bird’, it went further. He was able to write and play new melody lines over existing chord sequences of well-known songs and did this in such a way that the original song was lost in his changes.
He pushed the boundaries to areas where they had not been before with his unique style. Taken from us far too early, and possibly while the best was still to come, he remains a giant of Jazz.
Candy Dulfer (1969-)
Let’s digress and move into a more modern era. It is not only in the US, and it wasn’t only in the 40s and 50s that there was great jazz. This Dutch saxophonist is the daughter of Hans Dulfer, a respected jazz saxophonist himself.
She began playing at age six and formed her first band at 14. Not a conventional run-of-the-mill saxophonist, she likes to use a variety of styles. Her live concerts are usually a mix of Jazz, Funk, and Soul, and she has guest soloists along with her.
She is one of a number of European jazz musicians who have ensured the music is alive and well.
She plays most of her performance using a Selmer Mk VI alto sax.
John Coltrane (1926-1967)
John Coltrane, or the ‘Trane’ was born in North Carolina, suffered great tragedy in his early years as he was deprived of his immediate family. He got his first sax at the age of 17 and began his professional career in 1945. And was known for his relentless practice, always striving to be better and always experimenting with new ideas.
He arrived quite late on the jazz scene when compared with most of his contemporaries. He made his first album as a bandleader when he was 30. During the 50s and early 60s, his own compositions began to explore complex harmonic sequences.
Breaking new boundaries…
This was another player who approached the instrument in an almost intellectual way. His ideas of moving key centers quickly in thirds explored new harmonic territory in Jazz playing. His quartet of the 60s is thought of as one of the great all-time jazz groups, while his later work towards the end of his short life took on a more spiritual feel.
He appeared on Miles Davis’ album’ Kind of Blue’. And speaking of Davis…
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Born into a wealthy family in Illinois, Davis began with the trumpet at age 13. His mother, who was an accomplished blues pianist, bought it for him. This despite her wanting him to play the piano. But you get the feeling that whatever he played, he would still have been a genius.
He grew up to be a jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. His pure ability and creative ideas placed him at the very forefront of many of the developments in Jazz.
Music needs space…
He played with Charlie Parker and featured on many of the classics bebop 40s sessions. Later he moved into a more jazz-rock style. He was noted for the way he used space. Whilst some musicians were racing up and down the register, Davis used breaks and the space they created to give feel. This applied especially in the trumpets mid-range.
There were others who could play faster. There were some who could play higher, but he had abilities that transcended those attributes. He was a great master of his instrument and of the jazz style.
And one of the things to remember is that there were a lot of great musicians playing in his bands. They went on to become jazz heroes themselves. He inspired and encouraged that sort of progression.
His music style matched in some ways his personality in that could be a bit wild at times. But he was also ‘Mister Cool’ and let’s remember he took Jazz to new levels. If you say the word Jazz, it is hard not to think of Miles Davis.
Perhaps one last accolade, his album ‘Kind of Blue’ shows him at his ‘cool’ best and is consistently called the best Jazz album ever.
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Partnerships in Jazz
There have been a couple I ought to mention who made some impact, to put it mildly.
Duke Ellington/Ella Fitzgerald
‘The Duke’, or Edward Kennedy Ellington to give him his actual name, was from a musical mad family. He started piano when he was seven and started writing at a young age. He was known as a smart dresser with mannerisms that were by some considered aloof. Hence the nickname ‘Duke’.
He was a great pianist and composer but is best known for his Duke Ellington Orchestra. As a writer, his work was covered more than any other jazz composer, writing hundreds of Jazz standards. But he was also an important pianist. He had a minimalist way of playing, and his style influenced Thelonious Monk and a number of others.
Life long inspiration…
During six decades of working in music, he accumulated the respect of the world. It is very hard to think of someone else who influenced jazz and the ‘big’ sound as much. But also for as long as he did.
He did have a bit of help, though, as Stevie Wonder later wrote…
“And the king of all, Sir Duke.
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose”
As Stevie Wonder said with her at the front, there was ‘no way the band could lose’. Great singer, no, more than that. Superlative in everything. Tone, pitch, timing, Just perfection. Young singers today want to learn? Listen to her who was the best. It might be sacrilegious to say, but she transcended Jazz.
She initially made her name in the ‘swing era’ with Chick Webb and later became a bandleader herself. She sang with many great bandleaders other than Ellington, including Benny Goodman, and was internationally recognized.
But it is with the ‘Duke’ that she is fondly remembered. Her album ‘The Duke Ellington Songbook’ released in 1957, was an album of his music. He played on many of the tracks. The album is still available and is one of the great jazz albums.
She was married for a while to the great Jazz bassist Ray Brown. An ardent champion of racial equality, she was, as we said, more than just one of the jazz greats.
John Dankworth/Cleo Laine
Over in the UK, there was a husband and wife duo also making waves. It is not unfair to say, though, at a rather lower level.
John Dankworth (1927-2010)
He was recognized as being only a ‘decent’ saxophonist and clarinetist in Jazz circles at the time. But he was always just a bit more than a musician. His orchestra was hugely popular in the 50s and 60s. And in many ways kept Jazz alive in the UK when the rest of the country were ‘hit’ by the Beatles. He wrote film scores as well as Jazz music and also acted as musical director for his wife and lead vocalist Cleo Laine.
Later in life, the pair of them conducted their music and jazz schools. Introducing young people to their music and styles. That is one of the reasons the partnership has been included. But the big reason was the wife…
Cleo Laine (1927-)
She was a sensational singer. With a voice that could be so deep and husky, you wondered at times where it came from.
The important thing to note about Cleo is that she was naturally a contralto, the lowest range usual for a woman. But she was able to hit the ‘G’ above ‘high C’. Oh yes. That gives her a range of much more than three complete octaves.
All through the sudden explosion of popular music in the 60s and even into the 70s and later, she was still plying her trade with her husband. A singer that was often on TV and respected by everyone for ‘that’ voice. And for those that shared a stage with her, they will still remember the little tingles up the spine as she sang.
If you are looking for the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time, there would have to be space for these as well.
Starting out singing in clubs in Harlem. She was an actress., wrote music, and was perhaps better known as a jazz singer. Her vocal style was drawn from various jazz instrumentalists. And she learned how to use similar phrasing and tempo changes using her voice. An icon in many circles.
Whose club in London saw some of the jazz greats play there. It became one of the most successful Jazz clubs in the world and provided a much-needed boost to British jazz fans. He had a varied career, played with some great people, and even did the solo on the Beatles track ‘Lady Madonna.’
Charlie Mingus said of him, “of the white boys; he gets the closest to the negro blues than the others”. One of only a few British jazz musicians to find acceptance in the US.
Finally, ‘Ole Satchmo’ was he the first jazz star? Could have been, but many people only know him for ‘What a Wonderful World’. Some would call him the greatest of them all because of his pseudo operatic style of playing.
Among musicians, he is remembered not for his gravelly vocal version of his song but for his trumpet playing, which was brilliant, to say the least.
But who is the Best of the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time?
If you were to make a list of the greatest musicians in any genre, a large percentage of this list would be on it. The lifestyle and the reliance on some substances took their toll, though. Depriving us of a lot more that they could and would have produced.
There are other issues to consider. This was the US from the 20s to the 60s. This was a time when race was a defining argument. There were heroes of the day, like Jesse Owens. He won four, count ’em, four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
On his return home, he had to go up to the Olympic celebration party at a flash hotel in the goods lift. He wasn’t ‘allowed to travel up with the ‘white folks”. Four gold medals didn’t seem to carry much weight. To become a reckoned and accepted Jazz musician, most had to be very special indeed.
But there is no point dwelling on that. In the past now. Let’s look firstly at now and appreciate what these people did give us. And then look to the future and the inspiration they will be to a whole new group of jazz musicians and singers.
If you had to pick one? Impossible really for us because we could be swayed by our own influences. Because I’m a bassist, Ray Brown would be high on the list. As would Buddy Rich because bass players love a great drummer to play with.
But Miles Davis?
Sends shivers up the spine to hear him at his best. He would be our choice as the Best of the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time.
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