Top 10 Best Jazz Saxophonists Of All Time

10. Johnny Griffin (1928 – 2008)

John Arnold Griffin III (April 24, 1928 – July 25, 2008) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Nicknamed “the Little Giant” for his short stature and forceful playing, Griffin’s career began in the early 1940s and continued until the month of his death. At eighty, he could not afford to stop. He did not complain. He had a hard life, but often said, “as long as God has given me the gift to blow, I owe it to God to keep on blowing.” A pioneering figure in hard bop, Griffin recorded prolifically as a bandleader in addition to stints with pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Art Blakey, in partnership with fellow tenor Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and as a member of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band after he moved to Europe in the 1960s. In 1995, Griffin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.

9. Hank Mobley (1930 – 1986)

Henry “Hank” Mobley (July 7, 1930 – May 30, 1986) was an American hard bop and soul jazz tenor saxophonist and composer. Mobley was described by Leonard Feather as the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone”, a metaphor used to describe his tone, that was neither as aggressive as John Coltrane nor as mellow as Stan Getz, and his style that was laid-back, subtle and melodic, especially in contrast with players like Sonny Rollins and Coltrane. The critic Stacia Proefrock claimed he is “one of the most underrated musicians of the bop era.”

8. Art Pepper (1925 – 1982)

Arthur Edward Pepper Jr. (September 1, 1925 – June 15, 1982) was an American alto saxophonist and very occasional tenor saxophonist and clarinetist. A longtime figure in West Coast jazz, Pepper came to prominence in Stan Kenton’s big band. He was known for his emotionally charged performances and several stylistic shifts throughout his career, and was described by critic Scott Yanow as “the world’s great altoist” at the time of his death.

7. Coleman Hawkins ( 1904 – 1969)

Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969), nicknamed “Hawk” and sometimes “Bean”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. One of the first prominent jazz musicians on his instrument, as Joachim E. Berendt explained: “there were some tenor players before him, but the instrument was not an acknowledged jazz horn”.[2] Hawkins biographer John Chilton described the prevalent styles of tenor saxophone solos prior to Hawkins as “mooing” and “rubbery belches.” Hawkins cited as influences Happy Caldwell, Stump Evans, and Prince Robinson, although he was the first to tailor his method of improvisation to the saxophone rather than imitate the techniques of the clarinet. Hawkins’ virtuosic, arpeggiated approach to improvisation, with his characteristic rich, emotional, loud, and vibrato-laden tonal style, was the main influence on a generation of tenor players that included Chu Berry, Charlie Barnet, Tex Beneke, Ben Webster, Vido Musso, Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, and Don Byas, and through them the later tenormen, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Ike Quebec, Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves, and Lucky Thompson. While Hawkins became well known with swing music during the big band era, he had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s.

Fellow saxophonist Lester Young, known as “Pres”, commented in a 1959 interview with The Jazz Review: “As far as I’m concerned, I think Coleman Hawkins was the President first, right? As far as myself, I think I’m the second one.” Miles Davis once said: “When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads.”

6. Lester Young (1909 -1959)

Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and occasional clarinetist.

Coming to prominence while a member of Count Basie’s orchestra, Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument. In contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, Young played with a relaxed, cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies, using what one critic called “a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike”.

Known for his hip, introverted style, he invented or popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with the music.

5. Dexter Gordon (1923 – 1990)

Dexter Gordon (February 27, 1923 – April 25, 1990) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. He was one of the first players of the instrument in the bebop idiom of musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Gordon’s height was 6 feet 6 inches (198 cm), so he was also known as “Long Tall Dexter” and “Sophisticated Giant”. His studio and performance career spanned over 40 years.

Gordon’s sound was commonly characterized as being “large” and spacious and he had a tendency to play behind the beat. He was known for humorously inserting musical quotes into his solos, with sources as diverse as popular tunes, “Happy Birthday”, and the operas of Wagner. This is not unusual in common-practice jazz improvisation, but Gordon did it frequently enough to make it a hallmark of his style. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins and Coltrane then influenced Gordon’s playing as he explored hard bop and modal playing during the 1960s.

Gordon was known for his genial and humorous stage presence. He was an advocate of playing to communicate with the audience. One of his idiosyncratic rituals was to recite lyrics from each ballad before playing it.

4. Stan Getz (1927 – 1991)

Stan Getz (born Stanley Gayetski; February 2, 1927 – June 6, 1991) was an American jazz saxophonist. Playing primarily the tenor saxophone, Getz was known as “The Sound” because of his warm, lyrical tone, his prime influence being the wispy, mellow timbre of his idol, Lester Young. Coming to prominence in the late 1940s with Woody Herman’s big band, Getz is described by critic Scott Yanow as “one of the all-time great tenor saxophonists”. Getz performed in bebop and cool jazz groups. Influenced by João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim, he popularized bossa nova in America with the hit single “The Girl from Ipanema” (1964).

3. Sonny Rollins (1930)

Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins (born September 7, 1930) is an American jazz tenor saxophonist who is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. In a seven-decade career, he has recorded over sixty albums as a leader. A number of his compositions, including “St. Thomas”, “Oleo”, “Doxy”, “Pent-Up House”, and “Airegin”, have become jazz standards. Rollins has been called “the greatest living improviser” and the “Saxophone Colossus”.

2. John Coltrane (1926 – 1967)

John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions and appeared on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk. Over the course of his career, Coltrane’s music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. He remains one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. He received many posthumous awards, including canonization by the African Orthodox Church and a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second wife was pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane. Their children Ravi Coltrane, Oran Coltrane and John Coltrane Jr are all musicians.

  1. Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955)

Charles Parker Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), also known as Yardbird and Bird, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Parker was a highly influential jazz soloist and a leading figure in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique and advanced harmonies. Parker was a blazingly fast virtuoso, and he introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords, and chord substitutions. His tone ranged from clean and penetrating to sweet and somber. Parker acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career on the road with Jay McShann. This, and the shortened form “Bird”, continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Ornithology”, “Bird Gets the Worm”, and “Bird of Paradise”. Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer.

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