“Jazz shouts at us with its sorrow.”
What is it about Jazz? For some people, it is the ability to compose instantly in the midst of the frenetic action of a performance. Improvisation and all its musical power. For others, it is the energy it releases and the freedom it encourages. The ability to be able to release your emotions however you like. The Best Jazz Saxophone Players embodied that spirit.
Paris in the 1920s and 30s was a jazz-mad center. It was also the place where musicians and artists flocked. The archetypal Bohemian city. A Jazz city. Erik Satie, whose compositions crossed a variety of genres, said, “Jazz shouts at us with its sorrow, and we don’t care. That is how it should be”
Art plus behavior equals Jazz?
That means, therefore, that Jazz, at the highest level, is as much about behavior as it is about art and music. A lifestyle that was described vividly by musicians taking their inner pain and laying it out for all to hear. Is that why some seemed to die so early with various personal addictions?
The music removed their pain, but when there was no music, there had to be a substitute. “Jazz shouts at us, but we don’t care?” Maybe, just a thought.
Jazz is Freedom
The great virtue of Jazz is that it is not formal, or as some might say, Classical. Radical Jazz observations refute the idea of the ‘Jazz traditions,’ saying it is a contradiction to the music. The music is freedom. Tradition implies formality. We are not sure we fully agree, but they have a point.
A large part of modern music seems to be trying to emulate or, in some cases, recreate the past. Jazz isn’t like that. Jazz must, we repeat must, create new ideas, even new sounds, not for the past, but for now and for the future. Some modern progressive rock bands touched on the soul of that aim. Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, and a few others.
The Saxophone, in all its guises, has always been at the heart of Jazz. Always been the instrument that shouts at us for help. Always the one that lets the players bear his or her soul. There have been some great players. There are some today.
So, let’s take a look at a few who changed and are changing the world of not only Jazz but music in general.
These are in no particular order, except possibly for the last entry. We’ll come to that…
Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
When you talk about ‘the Bird’ or ‘Yardbird’ as he was known, people often talk in hushed tones. Charlie Parker was one of those rare individuals whose ability transcended appreciation. It became respect.
Parker’s ability with his alto sax defined an era. Some would argue he changed the way Jazz was played and, therefore, how musicians and fans saw it. He could even be called the creator of what we know as Modern Jazz.
His skills developed early…
He had picked up the instrument at about 11 and then joined the band at his school in Kansas when he was 14. Now he had the chance to use the instruments for practice.
A New Era
Since the 1930s, Swing music had dominated the US Jazz scene. But in New York, Parker began to change all that single-handedly with a new ‘bebop’ style. The rhythms changed, the tempos changed mid-song. He thrilled his audiences with chromatic passing notes that linked chord changes together.
It was an intellectual approach to creating music. He wasn’t just playing; he was thinking, creating, all of the time. It was complex and, for some, hard to come to terms with. But underpinning everything he did was a very blues orientated style. His roots never did let him escape.
Improvisation in the extreme…
He has been referred to as a great improviser, but he was more than that. He could take music that people knew inside out and would play his own parts over the chord structure. The original song was lost in his genius to the point you didn’t recognize the song anymore. Pushing the musical boundaries further and further and daring everyone to keep up with him.
He died far too young aged 35. His body fell apart from years of drug abuse. His admirer Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter took him in for his final days in her New York hotel suite.
She said as he passed, a huge clap of thunder shook the city. The ‘Bird’ had flown, but we have the legacy of a man who had altered the landscape of Jazz and music in general forever, making him so deserving of the first place on our Best Jazz Saxophone Players roundup.
If you want a little taster, check out the excellent The Savoy 10-inch LP Collection [4 Disc Deluxe Box Set]
Benny Carter (1907 – 2003)
It is not uncommon for Jazz musicians to be thought of as a certain type of individual. Prone to hard-living and an often too short lifestyle. But they were not all like that. Once such a musician who wasn’t was Benny Carter. He was still thrilling people with his playing nearly up to his 96th birthday.
He was a consummate professional but never seems to receive the public acclaim of some of his contemporaries. To him, though, that didn’t matter so much. That lack of public acknowledgment was more than compensated for by how he knew his peer group viewed him. They just called him ’The King’
A growing reputation…
His career started in the 1920s alongside so many other Jazz greats. He forged a reputation as being an original thinker and player. Creating a very sophisticated Alto style. This at a time when, believe it or not, the Saxophone was viewed by some as a bit of a novelty.
He was also developing a reputation as a composer and arranger. Using those same fluid and sophisticated ideas that were evident in his playing. He quickly became a key name on the New York Jazz scene.
Off to the UK
In 1935 he went to work for the BBC in London as an arranger. He also organized sessions using locally-based musicians across the UK and Scandinavia. His influence was now spreading out of the ‘closed shop’ that was New York.
He returned to the US in 1938 and was spending his time writing for movies. He became the first black musician to break through the, shall we say, difficult to deal with, Hollywood elite. If you understand what we are saying. He was also noted for being a talented trumpet player.
TV and Film
His work in TV and films seemed to hide him away from the Jazz fraternity on the East Coast. However, he never forgot his real love, and he continued with concerts when he could. Even his later recordings still demonstrate his virtuosity. And they show what Jazz can give in the hands of a master, or should we say ‘a King’. A great sax player and well worth his place in this list.
If you are new to ‘The King’, you can take an enjoyable listen to Benny Carter: His Eight Finest Albums.
Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)
Ornette Coleman was another alto saxophonist who blessed us with a long life and plenty of music. This is a man for whom the word innovator isn’t probably meaningful enough. He upset the apple cart on more than one occasion. His observations on the rigidity of bop, the mundane, according to him, chord patterns, and the repetitive arrangements didn’t curry favor with some of his peers.
Used to Hostility
Receiving a hostile reaction, though, was not new to this native of Fort Worth in Texas. Once when playing near home in an R&B band, he was actually paid not to pay. And his album Free Jazz was also the receiver of some hostile comment.
Once when he took the stage after being asked to ‘sit in,’ some of the musicians got up and walked off. You may ask then why we have included him here if he created that sort of dislike as a musician.
Simply put because he made people think differently about how they played Jazz. He always proclaimed that Jazz should express feelings. And he was quoted as saying it should express more feelings than it did at the time. Another sentiment that didn’t adhere him much to some of his peer group.
He was an experimenter as well, trying things using pitch and even trying to imitate the human voice with his sax. By the 50s, he had begun to achieve a little of the respect he so deserved.
His playing had become, as some put it, organic. His style had returned to its roots. No longer to him were the music and its expression separate conversations. They were the same thing, and the music should be allowed to go where it wanted.
He made one of the great statements about music ever that all aspiring musicians can learn from. He said that ‘once he had found out he could make mistakes, he knew he was on to something.’
Coleman’s music conforms not to prescription or expectation but to his searching, celebrating, wholly original sound.
You can hear him at probably his best on his album ‘The Shape of Things to Come.’
John Coltrane (1926-1967)
There is very little that can be said about John Coltrane that hasn’t been said already. By the standards of the day, he was a late starter. He didn’t start to play sax until he got his first instrument at 17. Then, he joined the Navy and played Alto until 1946 in the Navy band; he switched to tenor in 1947.
A useful obsession
He was known for being obsessed with practice. Not a bad obsession to have for a musician. His style was at times often hard to define as he crossed Jazz boundaries with such ease.
At times he could be very Bluesy. Possibly a reaction to the tragedy of losing his family when very young. But in later years, his music had a more spiritual feel.
‘The Trane’ made his first album as a bandleader, again quite late for some, in his 30s. He approached playing his instrument in a similar way to some others. He saw it as more than just playing. It became an intellectual exercise in many ways with the complexity of what he did.
This became apparent in those pieces he composed himself, which explored harmonic sequences and their complexities. He was known for his style of moving key centers in thirds at speed. His own bands were recognized as being special. His quartet in the 60s was thought of as one of the great all-time jazz groups.
With Miles Davis
How good was he? Miles Davis asked him to play on the iconic album ‘Kind of Blue.’ Not much more needs to be said. You can also hear him on John Coltrane; Giant Steps (60th Anniversary Edition).
Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (1928-1975)
The arrival on the New York Jazz scene in 1955 of this fresh young face from Tampa in Florida was not received well by everyone. He was subject to more than his share of criticism, even though he was clearly one of the Best Jazz Saxophone Players the world had ever seen.
Jazz was going through a tough time in the 60s and 70s. In the main due to the same word that had caused Jazz problems in the UK and beyond. That word was Beatles.
The Cannonball had this brand of playing that was nicknamed ‘soul jazz.’ It appealed to the fans of the emerging pop and rock movement. That was a ‘no go’ for the jazz purists who viewed his every move with suspicion.
In some circles, then he was having a hard time. In most things in life, there are the ‘purists’ who claim ownership of something. They don’t help much.
The Heir apparent
But in other places, the places where it counts most in front of audiences, there was astonishment. His virtuoso style removed any doubts about his credibility as a Jazz musician. In a very short time, he became the heir apparent to Charlie Parker, who had recently died. Quite an honor.
Even his biggest rivals and fiercest critics appreciated his playing. He had a way of combining the fire and fluency of the ‘Bird’ with the pure elegance of Benny Carter. He had received academic training, but his playing was also influenced by his Southern ways. That meant the Blues.
Miles Davis invited him to play with his band in 1958. A band that some claim produced the greatest recorded jazz ever heard and also included John Coltrane. Adderley’s exuberance and brashness provided the perfect complement to Coltrane’s more thoughtful and musical style. And with Davis on the piano? Was that the greatest Jazz Quintet ever?
He stayed with Davis for two years and then left to form his own band. They had great success. A hard, swinging all happening band. Plenty of wild elaborate soloing and even audience participation. The ‘Cannonball’ was on fire. It continued on until his sudden death from a stroke in 1975.
A great musician and one of the best in Jazz, whatever the purists of the day thought. Take a listen to him with his band on the superb album ‘Quintet In San Francisco’.
Sonny Rollins (1930-)
Another member of that famed Miles Davis quintet in the 50s. Rollins was before The ‘Trane’ and the ‘Cannonball.’ In fact, his leaving to cure his heroin addiction opened the door for John Coltrane to join.
Now in his 90th year, he is thankfully still with us. Miles Davis said of him that he was the greatest tenor sax player ever. Praise indeed. But at the time, he was a creative, inventive sax player and an absolutely astonishing soloist.
In the moment
The way he plays the tenor sax is highlighted by a great swagger and confidence in his own abilities both tunefully and rhythmically. But it is his skill as an ‘In the moment’ improvisational genius that left some in awe of him.
Very few people are capable of developing a simple theme and then applying endless variations. The ‘Bird’ was one. Sonny Rollins is another. And never did the ideas run out. If someone hadn’t called time, he’d still be up there now. And every variation would be different. Very few people played the Sax like Sonny Rollins.
He was already working at a young age at a high level in 1949 with Bud Powell. His brilliant run of some of the best jazz albums in the 50s, including ‘Saxophone Colossus,’ brought him international fame. And it was this fame that one day made him say, ‘Hang on, I am not that good.’ He withdrew from performance and recording.
A fierce self-critic
From 1959 to 1961, he was lost to Jazz and to music. For part of the time, he sat under the Williamsburg Bridge in New York and practiced. Sometimes for 16 hours a day. When he, nobody else, thought he was good enough, he came back. The result? One of his greatest albums named… ‘The Bridge.’
He stayed with us this time, and through the 60s, his free style of playing still wowed his audiences and legions of fans.
Today, of course, he has retired. At the age of 90, he deserves that, doesn’t he? Health Reasons mean he can no longer play. But to still have him here and to be able to hear him at his best is probably enough.
If you want to hear a bit of Sonny, here he is no longer under ‘The Bridge.’
Stan Getz (1927-1991)
Let’s move a little closer to home in time and talk about Stan Getz. He acquired the nickname of ‘The Sound’ because of the near lyrical tone of his tenor sax. He first came to people’s attention as a member of one of Woody Herman’s big bands in the 40s. His solo on the song ‘Early Autumn’ became a huge hit.
He left the band to forge a career as a soloist and was seen as a ‘cool’ jazz player. He might have had a leaning towards a more popular inspired sound. But he was still able to play with people like Dizzy Gillespie.
Blame it on the Bossa Nova
His populist style gained even more fame in the 60s through his association with João Gilberto, the Brazilian Guitarist. Hit records started to arrive like ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ as the Bossa Nova became popular in the US.
Perhaps never to achieve the heights in the Jazz world because of this later popularity, he nevertheless was a faultless technician. His last records before his death from cancer still show a remarkable grasp of his instrument.
To hear his unique style, take a listen to ‘Getz/Gilberto: 50th Anniversary’.
Johnny Dankworth (1927-2010)
Was known in the UK as one of the most promising young bandleaders. In the 60s, when he might have been at the beginning of his peak, the British Invasion had started. By that, we mean half a dozen ‘pop’ bands. They were later to be called ‘rock’ bands as it was more fashionable.
The Jazz boys were beginning to be ignored.
Dankworth, though, kept it alive, ably abetted by one of the greatest jazz singers the UK ever produced in Cleo Laine. Together they became a legendary jazz couple. And in more than half a century, produced some of the best Jazz records to come out of the UK.
They acquired a global following and, as they approached their 80th birthdays, did a live gig together with their talent still so evident.
On his own
Both had solo careers, Dankworth, a sax player in the Charlie Parker style. His big band had hit records and did a US Jazz tour. He wrote for TV and Film and also wrote music for and conducted symphony orchestras in various parts of the world.
He is included on this Best Jazz Saxophone Players list because he was one of a very few Jazz boys who kept Jazz alive. Along with Cleo, of course. As the Beatles and a few others began to rule the musical world, someone had to. And that was no mean feat. Take a listen to Showbiz Personalities of 1977 [LP] to find out why?
Iain Ballamy (1964-)
A name possibly not familiar to some, but an extra-ordinary Jazz sax player. We were fortunate enough to become aware of him through Bill Bruford. Bill had been the drummer with Yes and King Crimson, as well as having played with Genesis. He had quit all that and formed his own Jazz fusion band called Earthworks. Iain played the sax. And how he played it.
He has been a permanent and noticeable player in the British jazz fraternity since Earthworks and his later band exploits with Loose Tubes. His playing has been called whimsical. It doesn’t have the sheer speed and aggression of some, but in his case, that is no bad thing.
Covers a great musical range
But as a composer and especially as a soloist, he has demonstrated great range. His playing has intelligence and imagination coupled with a heavy emotional feel to it. Qualities that have stayed with him even to this day.
He has a big following not only in the UK but also in Europe and especially Norway. One of the highlights of his career has been his track ‘My Waltz for Newk.’ A homage to Sonny Rollins. His style is easy to listen to, which is why people do, time and time again.
You can hear him at his best on the album ‘Mirrormask’.
Candy Dulfer (1969-)
Another player we have had the good fortune to hear. She was about 14 then and starting out with her first band, but even then, she had the wow factor. She is from Holland and had a father, Hans, who was himself a respected jazz saxophonist.
Candy started to play at six and formed her first band in her early teens. Encouraged and supported by her father, she became one of the best jazz saxophonists in Europe.
A wide range
She isn’t what you would call a traditional jazz player if there is such a thing. She likes to involve and play with other genres of musicians. Often the fusion between a jazz player and a rock guitarist works better than you might imagine. Her live concerts are normally a mix of jazz, funk, and very soulful blues style offerings.
She is one of a growing band of European jazz musicians who have made sure that the music is alive and well. Take a listen to the excellent ‘Essential’ (Clear Vinyl).
Michael Brecker (1949-2007)
So we come to our last entry in our review of the Best Jazz Saxophone Players of all time. And there is a reason for leaving Michael to the end. Since the death of John Coltrane, there have not been too many that can move you as Brecker could. There have been great sax players, of course, but sometimes one will just get you and take you elsewhere.
He is known for his great technique, range, and his versatility. He will play great jazz and then take a ‘pop’ song and elevate it to a higher status. Some consider him the missing link between the jazz greats of the 50s and 60s and the 80s and 90s.
His career really began in the 60s, and he developed, and people sat up and took notice immediately. He has played with his own bands and with people like Chet Baker and the great Charlie Mingus.
But he is also widely known and respected as a session musician. Some of his solos have lit up the world in our view. And they demonstrate what a superlative jazz sax player can add to a world-class singer and a great song.
And this is why we have left Michael to the end. In around 1971 or so, Paul Simon was asked about the great musicians in the US at the time. It was a throwaway question from a young musician in awe of the ‘god’ before him. Michaels name came straight out. And genius was the word used to describe him by Mr. Simon.
Music changes lives
Fast forward a couple of years to 1975. That same musician heard “Still Crazy After All These Years.” And the sax solo was Michael. And that solo changed that young musician’s perspective on how to play his instrument. Beauty first.
Sadly Micheal died of cancer too young. But he left this piece of music that goes beyond great. Still Crazy After All These Years is magical and well worth a listen.
Are you thinking of upgrading your sax?
Also, take a look at our comprehensive YAMAHA YAS-280 Saxophone Review, our Yamaha YAS-23 Standard Eb Alto Saxophone Review, our Best Yamaha Saxophones Review, our Mendini by Cecilio MTT-L Trumpet Review, or Yamaha YTR-2330 Standard Bb Trumpet Review for more amazing instruments currently available.
However, if you’re happy with your alto but need a quality mouthpiece, you’ll enjoy our review of the Best Alto Sax Mouthpieces you can buy.
Or, if you’re just starting out on your sax journey, check out our informative Best Beginner Saxophone Reviews.
But, who is the very best of the Best Jazz Saxophone Players?
There would be little point in trying to choose one of these jazz greats as the best of all time. They all contributed so much, and some still are. You can liken it to a great artist, possibly the greatest of all time, Vincent Van Gogh. He took the pain that came from his tormented life and turned those emotions into great works of beauty.
Some of these Jazz boys did the same. They took their inner turmoil and converted it into great music. Some of the boys and the girls, of course, are still doing it. And what better instrument to do that with than the saxophone.
“Jazz shouts at us with its sorrow… that is how it should be.”
We thank them all for it.