Ten Greatest Jazz Saxophonists: ALL YOUR JAZZ Top Picks
When you talk about jazz, one of the first thing people think of is the saxophone. While there are other instruments involved in jazz, it is the saxophone that gets the glamor and really attracts attention.
Whether you are talking about jazz saxophonists from today or from 80+ years ago, it is impossible to argue that the saxophone has played a humongous role in shaping the jazz we know today. This article gives a short description of the top 10 Greatest Jazz Saxophonists to have picked up the instrument.
(1) Charlie Parker
This Kansas City native began on the baritone horn, but in a move that changed the entire history of jazz, switched to alto sax. He dropped out of school at 14 to become a professional musician, but after some initial efforts that didn’t go well, he spent a summer getting a solid grasp of his technique. He learned to play with equal ease in all possible keys, something that most saxophonists had thought was too difficult to attempt. His first break was with the Jay McShann big band.
His early recordings with the McShann band showed great potential on his solos. After he came to New York for the first time in 1939, he worked with big bands led by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, and developed a friendship and partnership with Dizzy Gillespie that helped to bring on the musical revolution known as bebop. This new music was a radical departure from the swing that had been the main form of jazz for a decade, and it has left its stamp on most jazz that has come along since 1945.
Sadly, despite his artistic success, he had problems with drugs that put him into a mental hospital in California for a while, and that would contribute to his death at only 34. Despite this, he created some of the most influential music in the history of jazz, leaving behind classic recordings on several labels. Most saxophonists in jazz who have come along since his time have learned something from his style.
He also recorded a famous album with strings, something rather unusual for a jazz artist at that time, that paved the way for string-backed albums by several later generations of jazz musicians. After his early death, graffiti appeared all over New York City proclaiming, “Bird Lives,” and Charlie Parker’s music will certainly live as long as there are people to listen to jazz.
(2) John Coltrane
This North Carolina native learned to play clarinet and saxophone in community and high school bands. After graduating from high school, he moved to Philadephia to join his family that was already there, and studied music and played in local clubs until he went into the U.S. Navy. While stationed in Hawaii, he kept playing and made his first recording with a group of other sailors. After his return to Philadelphia, he worked for several bands, and switched to the tenor sax.
He remained with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949 to 1951, but a drug problem made him hard to deal with, and he was fired several times by Miles Davis and other leaders before he finally gave up drugs and became more reliable. He made his first record as a leader in 1957, and soon rejoined Miles Davis, becoming part of the sextet that recorded “Milestones” and “Kind of Blue.”
His own projects became the subject of controversy for what became known as “sheets of sound”. However, he also enjoyed popular success with such recordings as “My Favorite Things,” “Ballads,” and recordings with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. His later playing included a great deal of free jazz, long solos and influences from world music from Africa and India. He died of liver cancer when he was only 40, but his willingness to take musical chances and his emotionally powerful playing will inspire both musicians and listeners as long as there is jazz.
(3) Sonny Rollins
He came from the Sugar Hill section of Harlem that was also the home of such musicians as Duke Ellington, and started playing alto sax at 11. He switched to tenor when he was 16. His high school chums included Jackie McLean, Arthur Taylor, and Kenny Drew, and they formed a band in 1946. He was soon performing and recording with Thelonious Monk, Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, and with Bud Powell. He was also a sideman for Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and many other stars of jazz. However, he also developed a drug problem, which he overcame after moving to Chicago in 1955, where he became part of a group with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.
In 1956, he made his first recordings as a leader. Before long, he was voted “New Star of the Tenor Sax” in the Down Beat Magazine Critics’ Poll. Surprisingly, Rollins suddenly stopped performing, and decided to improve his skills, often spending hours practicing his playing on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. After two years, Rollins returned to jazz with renewed vigor, and in 1965 attained commercial success with his soundtrack for the popular film “Alfie.”
He then took off more time to study Eastern philosophy, and later lived in India for a while. The times he spent away from music helped refresh his creativity, and he tried such new things as the soprano saxophone and the lyricon. In recent years, he has returned to the tenor sax, and his most recent CD, “This Is What I Do,” won him a Grammy Award. The name of one of his albums, “Saxophone Colossus,” certainly fits Sonny Rollins well.
(4) Gerry Mulligan
This New Yorker started as a pianist, and then learned clarinet and all of the saxophones before settling on the baritone sax, of which he became the greatest player of all. He started to gain fame as an arranger for such bands as Gene Krupa and Claude Thornhill, and both played and arranged for the legendary Miles Davis album “Birth of the Cool,” which caused a revolution in jazz with its sound that became the basis for the “cool school” of the 1950s. He also recorded with his own nonet, wrote such jazz standards as “Walking Shoes” and “Swing House” while working for Stan Kenton, and formed a groundbreaking pianoless quartet that featured both him and trumpeter Chet Baker. He was imprisoned after getting involved with drugs, but gave them up and returned to his music after his release, forming a new group with valve trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer.
He was one of the participants in the famous CBS “Sound of Jazz” TV special, and played alongside Billie Holiday, Benny Carter and others at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. He even appeared in two movies, “I Want to Live” and “The Subterraneans.” He led a concert jazz band for four years, and later toured with Dave Brubeck, led a big band called “The Age of Steam,” and ran various smaller groups. Still active in the 1990s, he led a “Rebirth of the Cool” band that recorded the Miles Davis Nonet arrangements from decades before, with Miles’ parts being played after his death by trumpeter Wallace Roney. He stayed active until shortly before his death from cancer in 1996.
(5) Stan Getz
This native of the City of Brotherly Love was one of the most popular saxophonists in jazz history. He learned much from the lyrical style of Lester Young, but added much of his own as well. While still in his teens, he played for the bands of Jack Teagarden, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey at a time when older players had been drafted to serve in World War II. He became famous when he was one of the “Four Brothers” in Woody Herman’s Second Herd, with famous solos on the recordings of “Four Brothers” and “Early Autumn.”
In the early 1950s, Getz became a leader, and one of his first discoveries was a young pianist named Horace Silver. He developed a serious drug problem that would plague him for years, but nonetheless did a great deal of creative work. In the early 1960s, he was one of several musicians who helped to start the bossa nova craze; such albums as “Jazz Samba” with Charlie Byrd and “Getz/ Gilberto” with Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim were huge sellers. They included such hit singles as “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema,” which featured Joao Gilberto’s young wife, singer Astrud Gilberto, and made her a star.
Later, Getz tried such things as pianoless quartets, fusion music with Chick Corea, and a return to a more straightahead style in his later career. He also discovered another singer who became a star in jazz, Diane Schuur. The last several years of his life, he kept playing and recording despite having cancer, and his final European concert recordings from Germany and Denmark show that he retained his abilities despite his illness. He died at the age of 64 in 1991, and is still remembered for his smooth sound.
(6) Sonny Stitt
This Bostonian began his career as an alto saxophonist, and played in the Billy Eckstine big band with other young saxophonists such as Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. He also played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. During his early career, he absorbed a lot of his style from Charlie Parker, but branched out more when he took up the tenor and baritone saxes. He was in a two-tenor group for a while with Gene Ammons, and led a number of his own groups before working again for Dizzy Gillespie in the late 50s.
He and Ammons reunited in 1960, and he recorded a number of his own projects for several labels. In the 1970s, he was in the “Giants of Jazz” with Gillespie, Art Blakey, Kai Winding, Thelonious Monk and Al McKibbon. He died of a heart attack when he was only 54, but he is still remembered thanks to his many recordings, and influenced such later players as John Coltrane and David “Fathead” Newman.
(7) Paul Desmond
This alto saxophonist was from San Francisco. In the late 1940s, he met pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, and played in various groups with him for years before the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet of Brubeck, Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello came together and made jazz history in the late 50s and early 60s. He wrote the group’s most popular hit, a song that he called “Take Five” because it was written in 5/4, an unusual meter for jazz at that time. He was famous for his cool tone, which he said was meant to sound like a dry martini.
After the Brubeck Quartet disbanded, he recorded many projects of his own, and also recorded with such artists as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Jim Hall, among others. When he was ill with terminal lung cancer, he continued to play with a reunited Brubeck Quartet, and died at only 52. He is still legendary for his smooth, cool sound.
(8) Ornette Coleman
This native of Fort Worth, Texas was inspired as a teenager by Charlie Parker, and got his start in
R & B bands. His first experiments with his own style did not meet with much approval in Texas, so he moved to Los Angeles and supported himself as an elevator operator while trying to get a start in the jazz scene. He got together with musicians such as Don Cherry and Charlie Haden who understood what he was trying to do.
After he and Cherry attended the Lenox School of Jazz with the help of pianist John Lewis, this saxophonist and innovative composer attracted attention during a gig at the Five Spot in New York. People came to hear his controversial new music for themselves, and few were neutral once they heard him. He recorded some quartet albums that got people talking, and that also influenced such musicians as John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy in their later work in free jazz. He came up with the name “harmolodics” for his new type of music, to show that harmony, melody and rhythm were of equal importance.
In addition to his famed double quartet, Prime Time, he has worked with musicians ranging from Pat Metheny to Jerry Garcia, and has had reunions with some of his original musicians. Such younger musicians as Greg Osby and Steve Coleman acknowledge his influence on their work.
(9) Johnny Hodges
This native of Cambridge, Massachusetts played drums and piano before taking up the soprano sax at the age of 14, and was taught by one of the greatest ever to play the soprano, Sidney Bechet. However, his main instrument was the alto sax. In 1928, he began a 23-year stint with Duke Ellington, and quickly became one of the stars of the band. Despite a stern appearance that got him the nickname of “The Great Stone Face,” his playing on ballads was full of feeling, and he was also at home in more swinging material as well.
In 1951, he started his own band, but had to disband it in 1956 due to financial problems, and returned to the Ellington band for the rest of his career. Many of the Ellington band’s hits were written with him in mind, and in 1959 he and Duke recorded a duo album called “Side By Side.”
(10) Dexter Gordon
This Los Angeles native was hired by Lionel Hampton when only 17, but got his first real notice thanks to early recordings with Nat King Cole in 1943 and to a time in Billy Eckstine’s historic bebop-oriented big band. He was in friendly competition with such other young tenors as Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards, with whom he recorded “The Chase” and “The Duel.”
His career was held back due to drug problems that landed him in jail, but after his recovery, he made a number of legendary albums for Blue Note. He moved to Europe from 1962 until 1976, and recorded both there and in the U.S. When he returned to America, he was greeted like a long-lost hero.
His career got another boost thanks to the film “Round Midnight” in 1986, and he was such a good actor that he was nominated for an Oscar. By the time of his death in 1990, he was a legend both for his playing and for his incredible life. Dexter Gordon is one of the great saxophonists heard on Jazz 88 over the past 55 years.
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