An Introduction To The Greatest & Most Influential Jazz Artists: The 2nd of a 4-part Series on the Essentials of Jazz
Over the past 100+ years, Jazz has played a very important role in our society, not simply as entertainment, but also as a marker for the development of a nation. It has been, and continues to be, a very influential style of music on people of all ages and backgrounds. And while many people enjoy listening to jazz music, there may be a few who wish to take a closer look at jazz, not only from a listener’s perspective, but also from a investigative point of view. This may include an inspection of the history of jazz, various styles of jazz, key influential jazz artists, or even the influence of jazz on society.
This article, a summary of The Greatest & Most Influential Jazz Artists, is the second of a 4-part series covering the nuts and bolts of jazz. Whether you are an avid listener and musician, a newbie interested in what jazz has to offer, or simply want to brush up on your jazz knowledge to impress those around you, this 4-part series about the fundamentals of jazz is a great start and a MUST READ!
This article aims to give you a little bit of information on the most famous and influential artists of jazz. While it would be be impossible to include every artist, this list does represent a very large number of the greats.
Whether playing flute, keyboards, tenor or soprano saxes, or arranging and producing his own fine compositions, Evans is undoubtedly a musician with an extraordinary depth of vision. Bill Evans has brought with him a much – needed breath of fresh air. Since his emergence in the early ’80s, Evans has also effectively contributed to the band Elements with bassist Mark Egan and drummer Danny Gottlieb, John McLaughlin’s revamped Mahavishnu Orchestra, and has recorded and toured with with Herbie Hancock, Andy Summers, Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour and Michael Franks.
In 1984, Evans left the Davis band and recorded his breath – taking solo album Living In The Crest Of A Wave – an album so brimming vitality, exceptional arrangements and atmosphere, it stands as a remarkable first effort. In 1985, Bill Evans’ growing stature in jazz was confirmed when he became one of the first new musicians to be recorded by the reawakened Blue Note Label. His ’85 “The Alternative Man” is an advance on even his excellent first album and features six guitarists – John McLaughlin, Hiram Bullock, Jeff Golub, Sid McGinnis, Dave Hart and Chuck Loeb. He has been regarded as “one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever come upon,” quotes Miles Davis. This is praise indeed from a master musician and a suitable endorsement for one of the music’s most original, inventive and exciting new entrants.
Charlie “Bird” Parker is one of the most important figures in jazz history and also one of its greatest tragic heroes. He got his nickname (also known as “Yardbird”) from his love of chicken. He came from Kansas City and was a self-taught Alto Saxophonist who didn’t realize that many jazz songs of the day were only played in a few keys, so he learned them all. He quit school at the age of 15 to become a musician. His education was brutal: once he tried playing Body and Soul in double-time and was laughed off of the stage. Another time, he was playing with Count Basie’s orchestra in a jam session. They were playing I got rhythm and Bird lost the key and couldn’t find it. Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones completed his humiliation by throwing his cymbal at Bird’s feet. Bird continued practicing and got the point where he could play Lester Young’s solos in double time. Miles Davis said the only time you were surprised with Bird was when he didn’t do something amazing on the bandstand. He could literally walk in off the street and start playing, and never make a mistake. His playing was fast, perky, and very bluesy, all wrapped up into one. He can make you bounce around one moment and feel his pain the next. His music is rooted in the Kansas City blues and every song he played had a blues twist to it.
Charles Mingus is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in the world of jazz, and many musicians consider even that expansive description too limited, believing that the great bassist should be ranked among the most important men in all of twentieth-century music. Mingus’s accomplishments are certainly remarkable and wide-ranging. As an instrumentalist, he lifted the bass from its traditional role as a timekeeper and harmonic regulator to that of a full participant. His playing was technically brilliant, individualistic, and always deeply expressive. As a composer, he produced outstanding works of all types, from earthy, blues-oriented tunes to sophisticated orchestral numbers to free-form pieces. In performance and in composition, he demonstrated a deep understanding of virtually every style of jazz that existed during his lifetime. His talent for assembling groups and bringing out the best in both green and experienced players was legendary, and his influence continues to be profoundly felt years after his death. Mingus’s energy led him to engage in many activities during the late 1950s, in addition to composing and upholding his reputation as one of the greatest soloists of all time. Angered by the unfair treatment meted out to musicians by major recording labels, Mingus established Debut Records in 1952. From 1953 to 1955, Mingus gave written contributions to the Jazz Composers Workshop, but in 1955 he founded his own workshop, based on his belief that written notation was not equal to his composing style. In his Jazz Workshop, Mingus carefully dictated each line of a composition to the appropriate player, thereby ensuring that all of his intended nuances were fully understood. His unique talent for putting together combos and bringing out the best in each player came to the fore during that era. J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Thad Jones were but a few of the musicians who flourished under his direction. Mingus fans will likely continue the debate over which of his many accomplishments was the greatest. Martin Williams, author of The Jazz Tradition, stated unequivocally that “Mingus the bassist … made the most important and durable contribution to jazz because he made people think of the instrument in a new way and because he was a virtuoso … outstanding enough to be numbered among the great soloists regardless of instrument.” Yet few would argue with Understanding Jazz author Ostransky, who concluded that when Mingus’s playing, his compositions, his leadership, and his continuing influence are all taken into account, “the classification for Charlie Mingus is catalyst.”
Without doubt, Stan Getz is recognized as one of the greatest tenor saxophone players of all time, his influence wide, and far-reaching. He was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1927. While still a teenager, he launched his career playing saxophone at age 16 in Stan Kenton’s orchestra. He recorded with Woody Herman on the song titled “Early Autumn” during 1948. He was 21 years old at the time. Getz became the man with the golden sound, and his saxophone playing was in constant demand. Stan Getz had the ability to take a song and make it uniquely his, emphasizing the melody line with attention to subtle shadings of sound in the high register range. He had an influence on John Coltrane, among many other young saxophone players. Getz was one of the most admired and imitated tenor saxophone players. He completed a series of landmark quartet recordings during the 1950s. He also toured with his friend, French organist Eddie Louis. But it was not until 1963 that he became an internationally-known jazz performer with his recordings with Brazilian composers and Brazilian musicians. His hit version of Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” still receives much airplay today. Among his classic Brazilian work is found “Jazz Sambo” and “Getz/Gilberto”.
Dave Brubeck has long served as proof that creative jazz and popular success can go together. Although critics who had championed him when he was unknown seemed to scorn him when the Dave Brubeck Quartet became a surprise success, in reality Brubeck never watered down or altered his music in order to gain a wide audience. Creative booking (being one of the first groups to play regularly on college campuses) and a bit of luck resulted in great popularity, and Dave Brubeck remains one of the few household names in jazz. From nearly the start, Brubeck enjoyed utilizing poly-rhythms and poly-tonality (playing in two keys at once). He had classical training from his mother, but fooled her for a long period by memorizing his lessons and not learning to read music.
In 1946, he started studying at Mills College with the classical composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his students to play jazz. During 1946-1949, Brubeck led a group mostly consisting of fellow classmates, and they recorded as the Dave Brubeck Octet; their music (released on Fantasy in 1951) still sounds advanced today, with complex time signatures and some poly-tonality. The octet was too radical to get much work, so Brubeck formed a trio with drummer Cal Tjader (who doubled on vibes) and bassist Ron Crotty. The trio’s Fantasy recordings of 1949-1951 were quite popular in the Bay Area, but the group came to an end when Brubeck hurt his back during a serious swimming accident and was put out of action for months. By 1958 (after countless revisions in his band lineup), he was quite successful. In 1960, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (one of the most popular Brubeck quartet tracks, done in 5/4 time signature) took to the charts, paving the way for a series of songs played in “odd” time signatures like 7/4 and 9/8. There is no shortage of Dave Brubeck records currently available, practically everything he cut for Fantasy, Columbia, Concord, and Telarc are easy to locate. Brubeck, whose compositions “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “The Duke,” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” have become standards, remained very busy (despite some bouts of bad health) into the 2000s’.
John Birks Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children. He emerged as a trumpet player whose role as a founding father of modern jazz made him a major figure in 20th-century American music. His signature moon cheeks and bent trumpet made him one of the world’s most instantly recognizable figures. In a nearly 60-year career as a composer, bandleader and innovative player, Gillespie cut a huge swath through the jazz world. In the early 1940′s, along with the alto saxophonist Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, he initiated be-bop, the sleek, intense, high speed revolution that has become jazz’s most induring style. In subsequent years, he incorporated Afro-Cuban music into jazz, creating a new genre from the combination.
In the last decade, his career seemed recharged, and he became ubiquitous on the concert circuit as a special guest. New York Times writer Peter Watrous in decribing Dizzy’s month long engagement at the Blue Note wrote, “In honor of his 75th birthday, Mr. Gillespie played for four weeks at the Blue Note in Manhattan in a stint that featured perhaps the greatest selection of jazz music ever brought together for a tribute.” Dizzy Gillespie died of cancer on January 6, 1993. In 1960, Gillespie was elected by the Readers into the Down Beat Hall of Fame.
Ellington would be among the first to focus on musical form and composition in jazz using ternary forms and “call-and-response” techniques in works like Concerto for Cootie (known in its familiar vocal version as Do Nothin’ till You Hear from Me) and Cotton Tail and classic symphonic devices in his orchestral suites. Duke Ellington was recognized in his lifetime as one of the greatest jazz composers and performers. A genius for instrumental combinations, improvisation, and jazz arranging brought the world the unique “Ellington” sound that found consummate expression in works like “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and the symphonic suites Black, Brown, and Beige (which he subtitled “a Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America”) and Harlem (“a Tone Parallel to Harlem”). Some of Ellington’s greatest works include, Rockin’ in Rhythm, Satin Doll, New Orleans, A Drum is a Women, Take the “A” Train, Happy-Go-Lucky Local, The Mooche, and Crescendo in Blue. Duke Ellington and his band went on to play everywhere from New York to New Delhi, Chicago to Cairo, and Los Angeles to London. Ellington and his band played with such greats as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong.
They entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to President Nixon. Before passing away in 1974, Duke Ellington wrote and recorded hundreds of musical compositions, all of which continue to have a lasting effect upon people worldwide for a long time to come.
Few artists stand as the very definition of the art they practice, but Ella Fitzgerald is one of them. No jazz singer can avoid being influenced by her, or at least taking into account the monument of her work. Fitzgerald didn’t have the darkness of Billie Holiday, the bravura of Sarah Vaughan or the acidity of Carmen McRae, but what she did have was a suniness, a childlike joy and a classic command of her craft that audiences picked up on right away. Originally influenced by Connie Boswell, she also swung like mad, and was one of the few singers revered by jazz instrumentalists. Her scat singing, which soared through a three-and-a-half octave range, was flexible, creative and a sure crowd-pleaser. Though she sang solidly in a swing-to-bop mode, Fitzgerald never seemed to go out of style, gathering fans from each succeeding generation. In the 1960s, she filled college auditoriums full of student rebels and appealed to lounge lizards in the ’90s. Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996. Her career spanned 60 years, and in 1979 Fitzgerald was elected by the Readers into the Down Beat Hall of Fame.
Herbie Hancock is a true icon of modern music. Throughout his explorations, he has transcended limitations and genres while still maintaining his unique, unmistakable voice. Herbie’s success at expanding the possibilities of musical thought has placed him in the annals of this century’s visionaries. With an illustrious career spanning five decades, he continues to amaze audiences and never ceases to expand the public’s vision of what music, particularly jazz, is all about today.
Herbie Hancock’s creative path has moved fluidly between almost every development in acoustic and electronic jazz and R&B since 1960. He has attained an enviable balance of commercial and artistic success, arriving at a point in his career where he ventures into every new project motivated purely by the desire to expand the boundaries of his creativity. There are few artists in the music industry who have gained more respect and cast more influence than Herbie Hancock. As the immortal Miles Davis said in his autobiography, “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.” Now in the fifth decade of his professional life, Herbie Hancock remains where he has always been: in the forefront of world culture, technology, business and music. Though one can’t track exactly where he will go next, he is sure to leave his own inimitable creative style and imprint wherever he lands. Recommended Albums: Maiden Voyage, My Point of View, Takin’ Off
Born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet North Carolina. Died July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital in Long Island NY. Coltrane grew up in High Point NC, moving to Philadelphia PA in June 1943. He was inducted into the Navy in 1945, returning to civilian life in 1946. Coltrane worked a variety of jobs through the late forties until (still an alto saxophonist) he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949. He stayed with Gillespie through the band’s breakup in May 1950 and (now on tenor saxophone) worked with Gillespie’s small group until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia to go to school. In early 1952 he joined Earl Bostic’s band, and in 1953 he joined Johnny Hodges’s small group (during that saxophonist’s short sabbatical from Duke Ellington’s orchestra), staying until mid 1954. Although there are recordings of Coltrane from as early as 1946, his real career spans the twelve years between 1955 and 1967, during which time he reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of other musicians. Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 when he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis, whose success during the late forties had been followed by several years of decline, was again active, and was about to form a quintet. Coltrane was with this first edition of the Davis group from October 1955 through April 1957 (with a few absences), a period which saw influential recordings from Davis and the first signs of Coltrane’s ability. This classic First Quintet, best represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, disbanded in mid-April. During the latter part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York’s Five Spot, a legendary gig. He rejoined Miles in January 1958, staying until April 1960, during which time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind Of Blue, and recorded his own influential sessions (notably Giant Steps).
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong always thought of himself as, and insisted that he was, a child of the American century; born July 4th, 1900. However, the truth holds that, he was born on August 4th, 1901, which is documented in the Baptismal Registry of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans. The actual date is not as important; but what is important is, what Louis gave to the world…he gave of himself! Louis was a quick learner. In 1918, King Oliver and his band went to the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. Louis was asked to take Oliver’s place with the hottest band in New Orleans, “Kid Ory and His Creole Jazz Orchestra.” Then in 1922, Louis joined up with the “Tuxedo Jazz Band.” It was this year that King Oliver called for Louie to come to Chicago and play second trumpet at the Lincoln Gardens. In the same interview with Murrow, he asked Louie…”Did that make you happy?” Louie’s smile got bigger ?”OH – Yeah…could nobody get me out of New Orleans.”
Were it not for Olivers’ pianist, Lillian Hardin, the trumpet duet might have continued. She took a special interest in Louie and became the second major influence in his life. In 1924, Louie and Lillian were married. Louis was called by the great bandleader and arranger, Fletcher Henderson, to come to NewYork and play in his orchestra. It was his wife who encouraged Louis to go that same year. So in September 1924, Louie set out to join the Henderson musical conglomerate. He brought with him, a quality of solo playing far exceeding anything that New York had heard thus far in jazz. Louie’s musical ideas and the harmony knowledge he learned with Oliver, were a stimulus to action for Henderson’s staff arranger, Don Redman. Louie remained with Henderson for about a year.
A great influence, not only to jazz, but to pop culture in general, Miles Davis stands out as one of the few that has been able to shape jazz and be shaped by it at the same time. His experience writing, recording, and performing has given listeners a large and diversified array of music. From his troubling experience with heroin in the 50′s to his best-sellers and most popular recordings in the 60′s and 70′s. Some of the minimalist experiments he performed at the close of the 70′s foreshadowed the ambient and electronic music that would become common in the 80′s and 90′s. Miles died on September 28, 1991, but his music, style, and collaborators all continue to influence not only jazz music, but popular culture as well.
Rollins established himself as the outstanding jazz saxophonist between Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and a leading figure in the hard-bop style. The prevailing interpretation of his method of improvisation derives from Schuller’s “Thematic Analysis” of Rollins’ celebrated solo on Blue7 (1956); other writers, accepting and expanding on Schuller?s insights, have even declared thematic improvisation to be Rollins’ greatest contribution to jazz. Having played with other greats like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, his exposure to the jazz scene led him to be regarded as the most talented and innovated tenor saxophonist in jazz, having great success with this first recordings in the 1950s. He has remained essentially true to the bop tradition, an aspect of his playing that was again apparent in an acclaimed solo performances at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1985. Except for a six month hiatus in 1983, after he collapsed from exhaustion, Rollins has remained active through the late 1980s, touring the USA, Europe, and Japan and recording a fusion bop and soul music with his quintet.
Thelonious Monk was an important member of the jazz revolution that took place in the early 1940s. Monk’s unique piano style and his talent as a composer made him a leader in the development of modern jazz. His late 1950s recordings on the Riverside label had done so well that in 1962 he was offered a contract from Columbia. As a performer he was equally successful, commanding, in 1960, two thousand dollars for week-long engagements with his band and one thousand dollars for single performances. His December 1963 concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, a big-band presentation of originals, was for him a personal landmark. In the early 1970s Monk made a few solo and trio recordings for Black Lion in London and played a few concerts. Beginning in the mid-1970s he isolated himself from his friends and colleagues, spending his final years at the home of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter in Weehawken, New Jersey. After playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in March 1976, Monk was too weak physically to make further appearances. He died on February 17, 1982, in Englewood Hospital, after suffering a massive stroke. Along with Miles Davis (1926–1991) and John Coltrane (1926–1967), Monk is remembered as one of the most influential figures in modern jazz. The music Monk left behind remains as some of the most innovative and unique material in all of music, jazz or otherwise.