If you were to ask most people what is the most influential instrument these days, virtually all would say the Guitar. If you were to ask many informed people what is the most important instrument in a band, they might say the Drums or the Bass.
But the Saxophone has contributed to so much. It has also added something very special to a range of genres. Therefore, I decided to share my thoughts on eight Famous Saxophone Musicians You Should Know…
Unfortunately, there was only room for eight. You could have trebled that in reality. Still, eight it is, but what an eight. And towards the end, I have included a few notables that should have been there, but there wasn’t enough room to give them the coverage they deserved.
The impact of the Sax has been profound. Before Leo Fender gave us the Telecaster and the Precision bass, there were great saxophonists. No silly hats and endless effects pedals. Just an instrument and a shed load of ability. These are just a few who shaped the instrument and music itself.
They are in no particular order. Well, not quite true. I did save a “special one” until the end.
1 – Stan Getz
Most of those included in this list are there because of their prowess as Sax players. Getz was an outstanding player, but he is included for other reasons.
Born in Philadelphia, he made his name in the burgeoning ‘cool’ scene in California in the 50s. He played with many of the great players of the time. He has two claims to fame. Firstly he was very versatile. He could play just about any style. He could play jazz, fusion, and bop and played on a lot of well-known albums and singles of the era as a guest musician.
But his biggest credit is his championing of the Bossa Nova and its rhythms which are still popular to this day.
2 – Grover Washington, Jr.
A name that resonates through the ‘smooth’ jazz era of the 70s and 80s. Washington was a multi-talented sax player and could play Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Soprano sax with equal style. Add on to that, he also played Flute and was a great singer.
His style drifted between soulful jazz, jazz-funk, and ‘R&B.’ Born in New York, he grew up listening to some great musicians of that period and credited them with being his inspiration. He died at age 56 in 1999.
3 – Michael Brecker
Brecker was someone who has that rare talent to take you somewhere else with his playing. Not too many can do that. But he was so much more than just a great player. His versatility, technique, and range of ability placed him in a special group of musicians. Many consider him the link between the jazz greats of the past with the styles of the 80s and 90s.
As a musician, his career began in the 60s with its musical freedoms. He soon became respected and widely known as one of the greatest saxophone session players. He added great lines to countless songs, but he showed more than that.
A sax for all styles…
Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up listening to Pop, Rock, and Jazz. That showed in his later style, which showed no boundaries to his playing. He could move easily from Pop to Rock to Progressive Rock, to Funk, and Jazz. His style suited all of them.
He could take a great song and apply his jazz leanings to turn that song into something more than great. I don’t know the word that describes it. Sadly Micheal died of cancer too young. But thankfully, he left hundreds of examples of his genius. The solo on Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon goes beyond great, whatever that word is.
4 – Ornette Coleman
Here was a man who had some firm opinions about the jazz scene at the time and wasn’t afraid to share them. He upset his peer group on several occasions with his criticism of their repetitive arrangements. He hated the mundane and uninspired chord patterns and the rigidity of what ‘bop’ had become.
However, he wasn’t always appreciated. There was an occasion when he was paid not to play. And that was in a club close to his home in Texas. On another occasion, he went on stage after being asked to sit in. A number of the musicians got up and walked off.
Why is he here?
Because he was an innovator, he made musicians think about what they were playing. And he made them think differently. He wanted Jazz to express emotion. Something he saw as lacking at the time.
To him, the music and its expression were not separate things. That alone is enough reason to list him as one of the most Famous Saxophone Musicians You Should Know.
He made one of the great statements when he said, “Once I had found out I could make mistakes, I knew I was on to something.” He was the founder of the Free Jazz movement and died in 2015 at age 85.
5 – Benny Carter
Musicians, unfortunately, can become stereotyped. Of course, some delight in creating these hard-living, hard-drinking, and hard-everything-else lifestyles. It quite often ends up in tragedy, however. That applies in equal measure to some Jazz musicians.
But Benny Carter was the opposite. One reason why many said he didn’t ever receive the acclaim to which he was entitled. He was still giving virtuoso performances until he was nearly 96.
A total professional in every aspect of his musical life, to his peer group, he was known as “The King.” Quite an accolade when you consider who was in that peer group.
A Key Player
His career started in the 20s, and he worked for the BBC in Paris and Scandinavia. However, his sophisticated Alto style made him one of the key players in the New York Jazz scene. His work in TV and Film was well-known. He became the first black musician to break into the self-opinionated world that is Hollywood.
Despite his work in TV and film, he never forgot his roots and played concerts when he could. A great saxophonist and one that stayed with us, thankfully, for a long time.
6 – John Coltrane
Not too much can be said about “The Trane” that hasn’t already been said. He got his break as a replacement for Sonny Rollins when he had to spend time recovering his health. He made the most of it and became undoubtedly one of the greats.
Was he good? Miles Davis included him on his album “Kind of Blue.” If Davis used you, that meant only one thing. You were good.
Obsessed with practicing and improving, he crossed the boundaries between Jazz and Blues and back again. His 60s quartet was considered to be one of the best Jazz quartets of all time. So, was he good? Just a bit.
7 – Sonny Rollins
Ninety years young and still with us. Here is a man whose saxophone has lit up the Jazz world for decades. Creative and an astonishing soloist, he was a member of the 50s Miles Davis quintet. Has there ever been anything better?
He was renowned for his improvisational skills, and his exploration of themes seemed eternal. Once he got started, you had to show him to the door to stop him.
The Jazz World lost him from 1959-61. During that time, he sat under a bridge in New York and practiced for hours every day. He thought he wasn’t good enough. His comeback album was simply called “The Bridge.” One of the greats.
8 – Charlie Parker
I said there was a “special one” at the end. Recognized as being the greatest saxophone player ever by some. He introduced harmonic ideas, included classical influences, and brought beauty where before, there were just notes.
His life in many strange ways mirrored that of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. A genius who was a troubled individual. A musician who took the pain of his existence and transformed into some of the greatest sax playing you will ever hear. Dead at 34, he could have given us so much more. But we should be appreciative of what he left us.
No reason to wax lyrical. He changed the course of Jazz. The ‘Bird’ was one of the greats. Thankfully we have his recordings, and he still is. Koko by Charlie Parker will give you an idea of how good he was.
Are you interested in a great saxophone?
If so, we’ve got lots of recommendations. So, have a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Soprano Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Beginner Saxophones, and the Best Saxophone Neck Straps you can buy in 2023.
Or, do you want to Know More about Music History?
Then our seasoned experts have plenty of fun facts to share with you. Check out our detailed articles on The Romantic Period of Music, Amazing Facts About JS Bach, Amazing Facts About Mozart, What is a Metronome, Tips for Memorizing Music, What is Considered a String Instrument for more useful information.
Famous Saxophone Musicians You Should Know – Final Thoughts
I have expended less than a quarter of what could be said about these great musicians. And as promised, here are some honorable mentions.
A British jazz saxophonist who was responsible for the solo on “Baker Street.”
A Dutch Jazz and everything else saxophonist gaining a respected reputation.
Who, with his wife Cleo Laine, kept British Jazz alive almost single-handedly. That while the Beatles were invading and conquering the world. No easy task.
There you have it, folks. I hope this meager list will give you some inspiration and turn you on to musicians you may not know.
Until next time, let the music play.