It’s only when you start to consider listing the best jazz pianists of all time that you realize how enormous the task really is. I’m sure there will be pianists that I don’t list who you think should have been included. Furthermore, I actually hope there is, and you disagree somewhat with my list and have your own opinions. That’s only natural.
Jazz is a living organism…
It is constantly changing and lurching in new directions. That is why it becomes difficult to pick the best. Styles and techniques change. And, do you limit yourself to a particular time?
Some of the greats of the past we know only too well. But are there no great jazz pianists today? Of course, there are. Picking the best is a matter of subjectivity and is bound to be influenced by someone’s likes and dislikes.
Are They Ranked In An Order?
No, not until we get to the end, when three of the greats, at least my personal favorites, are in descending order.
What Is The Role Of The Jazz Pianist?
As with most jazz on the piano, there is very little in the way of a defined role. It could be joining the drummer and the bass player to provide a firm foundation for other soloists. Or, they could be taking the lead themselves.
What you will find, though, is that they are crucial to jazz. They can define the range of styles by how and what they play. Ragtime, Swing, Bebop, Avant-Garde, and beyond, they have placed themselves at the forefront of development in jazz.
One Thing In Common
No matter what subgenre of jazz they are involved with, all of the people on my list of the greatest Jazz pianists of all time have something in common. They are all brilliant musicians. They span generations of brilliant musicians. And, of course, depending on your viewpoint, they are not all included.
There will be some that might surprise you. Musicians that might be better known in other ways. But, the jazz piano is at the heart of it, and that is something they could do to the highest level.
So let’s make a start and run through the best jazz pianists of all time, starting with…
Top 19 Best Jazz Pianists of All Time
James Price Johnson
James Johnson was one of the most important pianists in jazz in the early days of recordings. And, as we shall see with Jelly Roll Morton, he was one of the piano players who moved Ragtime into what we know as Jazz.
He was a pioneer of a style of playing known as “stride piano.” This is a seemingly obvious style of playing with the left hand. Obvious, it might be to some, but it takes some mastering as a technique.
So, what is Stride Piano?
It involves a four-beat rhythm with the first and third beats played with a bass note and a treble note on beats two and four. This technique began to influence other players, and it had some well-known adherents.
It was a huge influence on the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie as piano players, and also Art Tatum. Johnson had a well–known student of his stride piano style in Fats Waller.
As A Composer
He had a major influence on many different styles of jazz, and his contributions to music in theatrical productions are sometimes overlooked. As an example, he wrote the song “The Charleston,” which came from the Broadway musical, “Running Wild.”
Johnson was accepted as one of the great pianists of the New York jazz scene of the 1930s.
As we have just seen, Fats Waller was a student of James Price Johnson, and as such, his style owes much to him. Born in 1904 in New York, Waller is known for helping to create the boundaries of the styles of modern jazz piano.
His fame was helped by the new media opportunities offered by film and radio. He was not only a great musician and songwriter but also a showman and a real entertainer. His stride piano style and his antics endeared him to an army of fans.
An Interesting Story
He died very young, at the age of 40 but crammed in plenty of music in such a brief time. One of the most remarkable stories about him is how he was kidnapped at gunpoint by Al Capone’s “heavies.” He was then taken away to play at the mob boss’s birthday party.
Born in 1921 in Pittsburgh, Errol Garner was known for his unique style of jazz piano playing. In his early career, he had been a student of the stride technique, as so many were. But, his style evolved and developed into something that retained the basic elements but also into something new.
He developed the trademark “Garner-style” of jazz piano that included octaves on the right hand and the use of block chords. He also developed his “behind-the-beat” playing style.
As A Composer
He was a prolific songwriter and was responsible for one of the great jazz songs, “Misty.” The song was first recorded in 1956 with the Mitch Miller Orchestra. It was rearranged several times over the years as he sought to improve it. It was included on an album, Errol Garner Plays Misty.
Better known as the leader of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, he was also an accomplished jazz pianist. He has a style that was; some might say, minimalist. But, it was thinking man’s jazz and had a huge impact on the likes of Thelonious Monk.
But, there was another side to Ellington as well…
He made some great recordings with a small setup. These albums only went to enhance his jazz piano abilities. One album that was highly thought of was Money Jungle.
This is an album in which he had two superb jazz musicians with him. Charlie Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. Evidently, there was some friction involved during the recording. They came from different generations, of course.
Ellington was much older than Mingus and especially Roach. They had all been bandleaders as well, so they each had ideas on how things should be played. And, of course, they were all three very powerful personalities.
There aren’t many musicians who have had songs written about them by people like Stevie Wonder did in “Sir Duke.” He pays tribute to ‘The Duke” in this song, but more so in praise of the orchestra, and mentioning the fact that how could it be anything but brilliant with Ella out front.
But, we should always remember that whilst the orchestra, with Ella, was a jazz sensation, the man could play a bit of piano as well.
While we are talking about famous Big Band leaders who played great jazz piano, let’s take a quick look at Count Basie. He is recognized as one of jazz music’s all-time greats.
Most of the sound of the big bands of the middle of the 20th century owed much to his style. In some ways, he bridged the gap between self-indulgent jazz that some created to what you could call popular music.
Nowhere was this more evident than with the album he recorded with Frank Sinatra, An Historic Musical First.
He played Vaudeville in his early days…
Basie, as we have said, is recognized as one of the top big band leaders. But his skills on the piano cannot be underestimated.
He was a leader in a new way of using the piano as a support to a soloist. This became known as “comping.” It was minimalist in its style, only playing and creating chords that complemented the solo.
It was sparse in its contribution but very effective, and Basie was one of many jazz pianists that developed this technique.
Let’s move up to the 60s now and to Herbie Hancock. He started his career playing in the early 60s with trumpeter Donald Byrd. He is known for his debut album, Takin’ Off. That included a track, “Watermelon Man,” that was to bring him international recognition.
It was quite an impressive start…
He had written the song with its commercial value uppermost in his mind. The original was released in 1962, featuring Dexter Gordon on sax, and reached the Top 100 in America. Thereafter, it became a jazz standard.
He later played piano in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet and released a further respected album in 1965, Maiden Voyage.
He moved in different directions later in his career…
And his music became a fusion of jazz, funk, and disco. His album of covers of Joni Mitchell songs called River The Joni Letters won album of the year. One of the most influential jazz pianists who laid the foundations for some of what came later.
One of those who carried on and overlapped in Herbie Hancock’s wake was Keith Jarrett. He played with Art Blakey, Charlie Lloyd, and Miles Davis. In the 70s, he formed two quartets.
There was his “European” quartet which played a more melodic style of jazz. He also had his “American” quartet, which played a more upbeat style inspired to a certain extent by Ornette Coleman.
He was known to be a great admirer of Classical music and recorded work by Bach, Handel, and Mozart. One of his admired works was a concert that was recorded in Cologne, Germany, The Koln Concert.
It was described as Free Jazz…
…in that the entire concert was improvised. It was a recording using certain rules about key centers that created an appealing sound to the listener.
Furthermore, it was so appealing it became the biggest-selling solo jazz record ever and the top-selling jazz piano album.
Over the pond now to see what was happening jazz-wise in Europe. Jazz, especially in the UK, was rather marginalized. It had its adherents and musicians, but when The Beatles came along, it made it all the more difficult.
Difficult, but not impossible…
Some great jazz pianists kept everything together, and John Taylor was one. He was one of the most respected jazz pianists not only in the UK but also in Europe.
Taylor was a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music and later taught at the Sienna Jazz Workshop in Italy. He was included in the jazz compilation albums of the time. For example, Turtle Records: Pioneering British Jazz 1970-1971.
He was especially known for his work with harmonies working within the chord structures. This made his piano playing unique, subtle, and well-thought-out, rather than just purely improvised.
Jamie Cullum was born in Essex, England, and started playing piano at the age of 8. He’s an interesting musician in that his music crosses over into other genres. This has been the reason his popularity has increased, as he can appeal to a wide audience.
He produced his first album, Heard It All Before, and paid for the 500 copies himself. After finishing university, he released his second album, Pointless Nostalgic.
Although his music can cross genre boundaries, the roots of all he does are firmly fixed in Jazz. He cites Miles Davis as his biggest influence. His third album, Twentysomething, released in 2003, became the biggest-selling album by a British jazz musician.
It is an album that shows his diversity in styles…
Alongside jazz standards like Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” there are some surprising inclusions like Jimi Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary.” A talented musician who has performed in jazz festivals worldwide and with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Dave Brubeck was born in 1920s California. And, like so many of the best jazz pianists of all time, he came from a classical music background. He is accepted as being one of the pioneers of what became known as “Cool Jazz.”
As a young student of the piano, he developed a very precise, keen ear and was reluctant to learn to read music. That set him on the road to a jazz career as he improvised around themes.
It was written by saxophonist Paul Desmond. The song was an unlikely hit, written at the request of Brubeck’s drummer Joe Morello. It reached #6 in the UK and #25 in America. As a result, it became the biggest-selling jazz single ever.
The album became the first jazz album to exceed sales of a million, and the single became history. They both remain firm jazz favorites.
Nat King Cole
When the name Nat King Cole is mentioned, the majority of people will immediately think of “that” voice and songs like “When I Fall In Love.”
But we should never forget that he was also an immensely talented jazz pianist. He sold over 50 million records in his career and was the inspiration on the piano for people like Ahmad Jamal and the great Oscar Peterson.
His trio, which included his piano plus bass and a guitar, was enormously successful early in his career. And they became a template for some of the jazz that followed. He made some memorable albums, two of which are At The Piano and Penthouse Serenade.
He was taught classically in his early years…
And he studied the work of Rachmaninoff and Bach. The upheaval in 60s music saw his vocal talents losing their prominence. His final hit record after a glittering vocal career was “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer.”
However, his jazz piano was still in demand, and he continued to be an inspiration to a younger generation admiring his jazz piano skills.
I mentioned that Ahmad Jamal was a great admirer of Nat King Coles’ piano technique. So, he formed his own small trio at a young age and recorded many great albums. He is renowned for his work in those small jazz trios and was considered by Art Tatum as a future jazz piano star.
Not a bad recommendation at all…
He originally hailed from Pittsburgh, and his other great inspirations were Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Errol Garner. His career has lasted more than 60 years, and he has been the inspiration behind many small jazz trios and combos.
He arrived on the scene when Bebop was the dormant force. But, his style was developing along the lines of Cool Jazz. One of his most famous live recordings was captured in 1958, Live at the Pershing Lounge.
And over a decade later, despite a three-year break from music, he was still producing great stuff like the album, The Awakening. One of the greats of the more recent years, and at over 80, he is still doing the business and recording excellent albums like Marseille.
Mary Lou Williams
So what about the ladies? Did they not play some jazz on the piano? Well, there weren’t many of them, it must be said, but Mary Lou Williams made a huge impact.
You could call her an early starter…
She started performing at the age of 12. While still a teenager, she worked with The Washingtonians and Duke Ellington. Other credited performances are no less impressive.
She includes working with Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie on her impressive CV. She also made some momentous early recordings with Lady Who Swings Band and First Lady of the Piano.
Perhaps the most impressive recommendation came from Thelonious Monk, who she mentored in his early days. She was indeed the first lady of jazz piano.
Jelly Roll Morton
We spoke earlier about James Price Johnson and the key role he played in the development of jazz. In the same breath as Johnson, you should also mention Jelly Roll Morton. Between the pair of them, they moved what was known as Ragtime into what became Jazz as we know it.
Morton helped to create a new identity for Jazz. He was probably the first arranger we find in what could sometimes be “unarranged” music. He showed that improvisation could still keep its essential feel even though it was notated.
A Musical Melting Pot
Morton was born in New Orleans, where some would say jazz was invented. But, what you had in New Orleans at this time were great musicians from a range of cultures. And those cultures brought with them their styles and influences. A melting pot of music.
Morton had that too, and his work was often influenced by Latin rhythms. Something that moved easily into Swing later on. In 1915, he composed a song called “Jelly Roll Blues,” which became one of the first jazz compositions to be published.
It is probably best not to discuss his early professional years or where he got his nickname from. Suffice it to say that he evolved into one of the most important jazz figures of the 20s. His piano style heralded the start of a new age of playing that others took on and developed.
Back to the ladies again and to Alice, wife of saxophone genius John Coltrane. Born in Detroit, she was a talented jazz pianist and organist, and also one of the very few harpists in jazz history.
She played in John’s band in the mid-60s, replacing McCoy Tyner, and played with the band until John died in 1967. Then, she began to concentrate her efforts on her personal beliefs and was one of the founders of the “Spiritual Jazz” subgenre.
She was a deeply religious woman…
…and she helped to develop what became known as freestyle jazz piano. Her recordings reflected her spirituality as well as her enormous talent.
She is famous for the album, A Monastic Trio, her first after the death of John. As well as her jazz harp, “Gospel Trane.” And, for the more spiritual aspects of her beliefs, there is World Spirituality Classics 1.
Her contribution to free jazz piano was significant and is how most will remember her.
Bill Evans was an innovator in jazz piano circles in many ways. His playing had Bebop influences, but he added more in the way of classical harmonies. His trio changed the way the smaller jazz group worked.
Usually, the piano was placed front and center and dominated not only the visual aspect but also the sound. Evans changed all that, and Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro emphasized equality between the musicians.
The music was conversational in its approach and didn’t concentrate on just one instrument. They recorded Portrait In Jazz together. He made some other very notable recordings, like Conversations With Myself. And he was respected for his work with Tony Bennett.
Possibly his most important work was helping to develop what became known as Modal Jazz with Miles Davis.
Modal jazz was an interesting concept. Whereas most music has what is known as a tonal center or a fixed key, Modal Jazz did not. It tended to change mode as an accompaniment to the chords rather than relying upon and being based on one key.
He played on Kind of Blue with Davis, which is thought of by some as the greatest-ever jazz album. A thoughtful, creative jazz pianist of the highest order.
The Best Jazz Pianists of All Time – Honorable Mentions
Time and space have run out to include all of the greats. But, before we get to the end, some notable mentions must be included.
And so we come to the last three on the list in descending order.
When we talk about legendary jazz pianists, three names often come immediately to mind. Mentioned in hallowed respectful tones will be Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and this man, Oscar Peterson. Let’s take a look at him first.
Peterson was Canadian, born in Montreal in 1925. He had started learning the trumpet when he was young, but a dose of TB put an end to that. He concentrated all of his efforts on the piano instead.
Friends Or Not
It was said that Peterson felt intimidated and in awe of Art Tatum but, at the same time, inspired by him. In later life, they became great friends. Like Tatum, he was inspired by the Romantic period of classical music and especially the work of Rachmaninoff.
His style, though…
It was more bluesy occasionally with plenty of Swing. He led a trio for a while and also worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins. He produced an incredible amount of recorded work, but his most respected album was Night Train.
This album was released in 1962 and featured drummer Ed Thigpen and the great Ray Brown on bass. It was always considered an ideal introduction to jazz for young musicians. Tracks were quite short in length, and the skills of Peterson were on full show.
Undoubtedly one of the great jazz pianists not only of his time but any time.
Art Tatum was known as a jazz pianist that had astonishing technique. This is all the more worth noting because he had been blind in one eye from a very young age. He taught himself to play and became a jazz virtuoso.
His style of playing and the techniques he used were breathtaking at times, and he was especially known for the speed of his right hand. He was possibly best known for his stride piano technique that he had learned from listening to Fats Waller and James Johnson.
The Romantic Influence
He loved the Romantic period of Classical music and incorporated some of the harmonic creations of the masters into his work.
Gone Too Soon
He had what you might call an alcohol problem. He consumed enormous amounts while he was playing without it affecting his performance.
What it did affect, though, was his health, and he died aged 47 in 1956. Much of his work existed before the era of the album, but we are left with some examples of his staggering playing, as we hear on the album Piano Starts Here. Another jazz piano genius to admire.
And so, we come to the last name on this list of the best jazz pianists of all time. One that all jazz people will know. He was, at times, an eccentric figure in jazz and often drew criticism from people who didn’t understand the man or his approach to jazz piano.
However, his mercurial skills and his excellent songwriting soon won them over. And it wasn’t long before he was recognized for the genius he was.
He was known for his contribution to the early days of Bebop in the 30s with the likes of Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian.
After Duke Ellington…
His songs are the second most recorded, and he has been an inspiration for many musicians. And some of his recorded work is legendary, for example, Monk’s Dream.
He produced some great albums while in collaboration with other jazz greats like Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. And his work encompassed both jazz standards and original work, as you can hear on Thelonious Alone In San Francisco.
It was very connected to the 1920s and 30s stride pianists. He took much from their techniques and incorporated them into his way of playing.
He was mentored in his early days by the first lady of jazz piano, Mary Lou Williams. Monk was a jazz piano genius and makes a fitting finale to this list.
Are You A Big Fan of Jazz?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Jazz Albums of All Time, the Best Jazz Songs, the Best Jazz Musicians of All Time, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, and The Most Popular Jazz Instruments for lots more jazz information and music.
Also, if you’re an aspiring pianist, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Grand Piano, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best Portable Keyboard Pianos, and the Best Digital Pianos you can buy in 2023.
Best Jazz Pianists of All Time – Final Thoughts
Looking back over my list, it is like reading a “who’s who” of the great names in jazz. And so they were. The influence they had on jazz was obvious in so many ways.
But let’s not also forget that they influenced non-Jazz musicians and singers as well. We only have to look around to see those influences all around us. And the jazz pianists were right at the front of the list of those who influenced others.
Until next time, happy listening.