The best jazz musicians ever are among the most talented musicians ever. Period. Even though jazz has been around for well over a century, it’s still viewed by some people as the coolest, hippest music there is. That’s because in jazz, a musical language whose essence is spontaneous creation, anything can happen. What’s exciting is its unpredictability and because of that, jazz has never stood still and continues to evolve and grow, reflecting the lives and times of its myriad creators.
Above all else, though, jazz is about extreme musical virtuosity and being the best of the best. But with the genre having produced so many incredible talents over the years, it’s impossible to list them all. Instead, we’ve chosen a 40-strong selection of singers, horn players, pianists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers whom we consider to be among the best jazz musicians to have ever walked the earth.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Born in Newport News, Virginia, Ella Fitzgerald earned the title “The First Lady Of Song” due to her peerless vocal abilities. Combining a soft, caressing tone with clear diction and a deep emotional sensitivity, she was also a pioneer of scatting, a vocal technique defined by wordless, horn-like improvisation. Though she rose to prominence in the big band swing era, debuting with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1939, it was her themed songbook albums during the mid-to-late 1950s under the aegis of jazz impresario and producer Norman Granz that sealed her solo fame. At Granz’s Verve label – a company specifically set up to showcase the singer’s talents – Fitzgerald established herself as the premier jazz singer of her generation, and remains among the greatest jazz musicians ever.
Essential Album: Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Between 1927 and 1974, Washington DC-born Duke Ellington commanded one of the finest ensembles in jazz. A pianist by trade – he played in a unique staccato style – Ellington made his name performing at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club in the late 20s where his orchestra helped to usher in the big band swing movement. The most prolific jazz composer of all time, whose repertoire extended to symphonic and sacred pieces, Ellington brought respectability to jazz. He also stayed abreast of new trends, famously recording an album with rising saxophonist John Coltrane (1962’s Duke Ellington & John Coltrane) as well as collaborating with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach the same year on the LP Money Jungle.
Essential Album: Ellington At Newport (1956)
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
Nicknamed “Satchmo” or “Pops,” New Orleans-born Louis Armstrong was one of jazz’s most significant founding fathers and played a profoundly influential role in exporting the music to other parts of the world. He was not only a brilliant trumpeter who could dazzle with his hard-swinging molten improvisations but also an expressive jazz singer who possessed a unique, gravel-textured voice. He helped to popularize jazz in the 1920s and enjoyed a long and fruitful career that saw notable collaborations with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Bing Crosby. In 1968, in the twilight of his career, he scored a huge international pop hit with “What A Wonderful World.”
Essential Album: Porgy & Bess (with Ella Fitzgerald) (1959)
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
A trumpeter and bandleader from East St. Louis, Illinois, Miles Davis is arguably the most influential jazz musician of all time. Renowned for his ability to play ballads with a haunting, bittersweet lyricism, Miles’ career was characterized by a restless quest for innovation and musical change. He began his career in the mid-1940s playing bebop alongside Charlie Parker but ended it venturing into hip-hop with the album, Doo-Bop. In between he explored a variety of styles; everything from cool jazz and hard bop to modal jazz – which produced his iconic LP Kind Of Blue – free bop and electric jazz rock; the latter was epitomized by his influential 1970 album Bitches Brew, which ignited the fusion movement that dominated jazz in the early 70s.
Essential Album: Kind Of Blue (1959)
John Coltrane (1926-1967)
Born in North Carolina and raised in Philadelphia, John Coltrane was an influential and technically accomplished saxophonist that played the tenor and soprano varieties of the instrument and initially rose to fame in the Miles Davis Quintet in the mid-to-late 1950s. He eventually outgrew the trumpeter’s band and began forging a storied solo career that was distinguished by such classic and stylistically contrasting albums as Blue Train (1958), Giant Steps (1960) and My Favorite Things (1961). As the 60s progressed, Coltrane’s music became much more exploratory; the result of him seeking spiritual enlightenment through music.
Essential Album: A Love Supreme (1965)
Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
Alongside his idol Duke Ellington and pianist Thelonious Monk, Arizona-born Charles Mingus is one of jazz’s best ever composers and musicians. A formidable bass player who attacked his instrument in a pugnacious yet virtuosic manner, Mingus championed collective improvisation in the various groups he led, using his compositions as a loose framework that enabled individual self-expression. Among his greatest tunes are the beautifully melancholy “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and uproarious “Better Git It In Your Soul,” which both reflect Mingus’ deep blues and gospel influences.
Essential Album: The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963)
Ron Carter (Born 1937)
One of the great jazz session musicians of all time, no jazz bass player in history has made more appearances than Michigan-born Ron Carter, whose recording credits exceed 2,000. Admired for his rich, full-bodied tone, acute musical intelligence, and nimble-fingered virtuosity, Carter (who also plays the cello) recorded with Eric Dolphy and Milt Jackson in the early 60s before Miles Davis recruited him and helped make him a star in his “Second Great Quintet” between 1962 and 1968. After leaving Miles’ band, Carter became an omnipresent figure of the US session scene, appearing on records by artists as varied as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Paul Simon, and Roberta Flack.
Essential Album: Where? (1962)
Stan Getz (1927-1991)
Though born in Philadelphia, the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, whose nickname was “The Sound,” became synonymous with west coast cool jazz that emerged in California during the 1950s. Famed for producing a gorgeously feathery tone that caressed the ear, Getz also played a major role in exposing the bossa nova sound to the wider US public, first with the LP Jazz Samba in 1962 and then, two years later when he collaborated with Brazilian maestro Joao Gilberto on the landmark album Getz/Gilberto, which featured the hit single “Girl From Ipanema” sung by Gilberto’s then wife, Astrud.
Essential Album: Jazz Samba (with Charlie Byrd, 1962)
Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Los Angeles-born Eric Dolphy was a bonafide musical triple-threat; a phenomenally talented master of the alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute who combined technical dexterity with forward-thinking musical concepts. Starting out in drummer Chico Hamilton’s band in the late 50s, Dolphy became a leading light of the avant-garde movement in the early 1960s, recording as a sideman with Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane while making envelope-pushing jazz records for Prestige label’s New Jazz imprint. Sadly, he died on tour in Berlin just a few months after recording his magnum opus, Out To Lunch!, a groundbreaking album that remains an enduring monument to Dolphy’s genius.
Essential Album: Out To Lunch! (1964)
Charles Lloyd (Born 1938)
An accomplished tenor saxophonist and jazz mystic who also blows a mean flute, Memphis-born Charles Lloyd started out as a sideman for blues legends Howlin’ Wolf and B. B. King before gravitating to jazz. He made his name in Los Angeles playing with drummer Chico Hamilton’s band and between 1966 and 1969, led a groundbreaking quartet that included a young pianist called Keith Jarrett and succeeded in wowing the west coast’s counterculture generation. After disappearing from view in the 70s, Lloyd revived his career from the late 80s onwards, producing a series of outstanding albums that established him as a leading tenor player whose deeply lyrical sound is infused with a spiritually-inclined otherworldliness.
Essential Album: The Water Is Wide (2000)
Chet Baker (1929-1988)
Hailed as the poster boy of west coast cool jazz in the 1950s for his chiseled movie star looks, Oklahoma-born Chet Baker first made his mark playing trumpet in saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s quartet before expanding his fanbase by singing on his records in a dreamy, androgynous croon. Though Baker’s languid vocals transformed him into a pop idol in the eyes of teenage girls, they were rarely to the critics’ liking, who preferred his horn playing with its gorgeously lyrical tone. Sadly, drug addiction and jail time regularly derailed Baker’s career but he managed to get it back on track in the 1980s.
Essential Album: Chet Baker & Crew (1956)
Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941)
Born Ferdinand LaMothe in New Orleans, Jelly Roll Morton was a nimble-fingered pianist and composer with a knack for creating infectious melodies. A larger-than-life character, he claimed to have invented jazz single-handedly in 1902; though his assertion was often disputed, there’s no doubt that he certainly played an important role in popularising the genre with his band the Red Hot Peppers. Starting out playing ragtime, Morton was one of jazz’s first notable composers/arrangers, serving up immortal compositions like “Black Bottom Stomp,” “Wolverine Blues,” and “King Porter Stomp,” which he recorded at his peak in the late 1920s.
Essential Album: Complete Recorded Work, 1926-1930 (2000)
Art Tatum (1909-1956)
“Tonight, God is in the house” is how fellow pianist Fats Waller purportedly referred to Art Tatum‘s presence in a club he was playing at. Waller’s deification of Tatum, a visually impaired pianist from Toledo, Ohio, expressed the awe that many jazz musicians felt when faced with Tatum’s exceptional talent. A virtuoso whose ornate style was characterized by florid right-hand runs, richly embroidered harmonic tapestries and addictive, swing rhythms, Tatum redefined the piano lexicon in 1930s and 40s. His influence on other musicians was huge, which included fellow pianist Oscar Peterson, who absorbed Tatum’s techniques into his own style.
Essential Album: Piano Starts Here – Live At the Shrine (2008)
Bill Evans (1926-1980)
New Jersey-born Bill Evans brought a classical music-influenced sensibility to piano jazz, beginning in the late-1950s when he emerged as an exciting new talent whose jazz sound owed little to the musical vocabulary of his piano-playing predecessors. His penchant for lush, pastel-hued chords and impressionistic tone colors didn’t go unnoticed by Miles Davis, who recruited Evans for the recording session that yielded the classic 1959 album, Kind Of Blue. Evans’ preferred setting was the piano trio, which he developed over many years into a platform for three-way musical conversation, with every musician making an equal contribution.
Essential Album: You Must Believe In Spring (1981)
Bud Powell (1924-1966)
Although mental health troubles cut short the career of this dazzling New York-born jazz musician at the age of 41, Bud Powell etched the blueprint for modern jazz piano and his influence on others, particularly keyboard players, was a profound one. Beginning his recording career in the late 1940s, he was the first pianist to successfully adopt Charlie Parker’s bebop vocabulary and use it as the foundation for a virtuosic style that married darting, horn-like melodic lines with complex chords over charging swing rhythms. His genius for spontaneous musical creation prompted fellow pianist Erroll Garner to describe him as “the second greatest thing to Art Tatum.”
Essential Album: The Amazing Bud Powell (1956)
Sonny Rollins (Born 1930)
Though a modest man whose humility isn’t a comfortable fit with his grandiose nickname “Saxophone Colossus,” the Newark-born jazz musician Sonny Rollins has more than lived up to the title first bestowed upon him by producer Bob Weinstock as an album title in 1956. From his debut recording back in the late ‘40s right up to his final studio album, 2006’s Sonny Please, Rollins combined a rotund and soulful sound with melodic agility and a seemingly effortless gift for continuous thematic invention. One of jazz’s greatest ever improvisers, Rollins pioneered a piano-less trio in the late 50s with albums such as Way Out West, which allowed him greater melodic and harmonic freedom in his extemporizations.
Essential Album: Saxophone Colossus (1957)
Max Roach (1924-2007)
Originally from North Carolina, Max Roach revolutionized jazz drumming in the bebop era by moving away from a rigid backbeat and preferring to create a more flowing and subtly shifting rhythmic pulse driven by the ride cymbal. That freed him up to use other parts of the drum set to create color, atmosphere, and drama. As well as being a master drummer, Roach was also a notable bandleader, helping to create hard bop in the early 50s with a quintet he co-led with the trumpeter Clifford Brown. He was also a vociferous Civil Rights activist who used his music to make socio-political statements, especially in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Essential Album: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960)
Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008)
“You could whistle something and he would make a symphony out of it.” Those were the words of jazz producer Creed Taylor talking about Freddie Hubbard in 2008 and certainly, few jazz musicians could spontaneously compose and blow their horn with the technical brilliance of Indianapolis-born Hubbard, who could dazzle with his jaw-dropping virtuosity. Going to New York in 1958, he made some hard bop records for Blue Note while appearing on more outré recordings by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane. In the 70s, Hubbard ventured into fusion before a lip injury put him out of action for some years, though in the early 2000s he made a triumphant return to straight-ahead jazz.
Essential Album: Red Clay (1970)
Wayne Shorter (Born 1933)
From Newark, New Jersey, Wayne Shorter is a jazz musician with a distinctively robust sound who served his apprenticeship in the ranks of Art Blakey’s ever-changing Jazz Messengers between 1959 and 1964, where he established himself as one of modern jazz’s leading composers. Poached from Blakey’s band by Miles Davis, Shorter became the main writer for the trumpeter’s 60s quintet while enjoying a parallel career as a solo artist at Blue Note Records that saw him release seminal LPs like Speak No Evil. Appearing on Davis’ landmark jazz-rock album Bitches Brew in 1970, Shorter co-founded the electric fusion group Weather Report before eventually going back to acoustic jazz in his twilight years. A prolific writer with a penchant for quirky melodies, Shorter is widely regarded as one of jazz’s finest composers in the post-bebop era.
Essential Album: Speak No Evil (1966)
Tony Williams (1945-1997)
A wunderkind drum prodigy who joined the Miles Davis Quintet at seventeen, Chicago-born jazz musician Tony Williams was an adaptable sticks man whose repertoire ranged from avant-garde jazz to fusion and rock and roll. Equally adept at maintaining a disco-funk groove as an intricate polyrhythmic percussion symphony, he began his solo career by recording two exploratory acoustic jazz albums for Blue Note Records before becoming a jazz-rock pioneer with the group Tony Williams Lifetime, which featured organist Larry Young and guitarist John McLaughlin. Away from jazz, Williams played drums for Santana, Public Image Ltd and Yoko Ono in the 80s.
Essential Album: The Joy Of Flying (1979)
Benny Goodman (1909-1986)
Crowned the “King of Swing,” Chicago’s Benny Goodman was a virtuoso clarinetist who led one of the most successful big bands in the swing era. He broke down barriers by not only being the first jazz performer to hold a concert at Carnegie Hall, then the hallowed haven of classical music, but also pioneered one of the first racially integrated groups. (His group featured the African American guitar pioneer, Charlie Christian). When the popularity of big band swing music faded fast after the end of World War II, Goodman wasn’t afraid to try his hand at bebop.
Essential Album: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (1950/1999 reissue)
Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)
Sometimes perceived as a comic foil to fellow bebopper Charlie Parker’s searing intensity, Dizzy Gillespie‘s penchant for sprinkling humor in his music belied both the seriousness of the South Carolina trumpeter’s music and the enormity of his talent. Famous for the way his cheeks puffed out when blowing his horn, Gillespie played his instrument with a commanding intensity and also gave modern jazz one of its most iconic and much-covered tunes in the shape of “A Night In Tunisia.” As well as co-creating bebop with Parker, “Diz” was instrumental in birthing Latin jazz via his Afro-Cuban cross-pollinations in the late 1940s.
Essential Album: Dizzy Gillespie At Newport (1957)
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
From Rocky Mount in North Carolina, jazz musician Thelonious Monk is second-only to the great Duke Ellington in terms of the number of his compositions that have been recorded. Though he emerged when bebop was coming to the fore, Monk forged a unique stylistic path, combining angular but infectious melodic motifs with dissonant harmonies and throbbing swing rhythms. The uniquely personal style he created took a long time to be truly appreciated by the public at large but by the 1960s, he had made the front cover of Time magazine and was signed to a major record company. Monk composed many memorable songs that are now considered jazz standards; among them “Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk” and “Straight No Chaser.”
Essential Album: Brilliant Corners (1956)
Nat King Cole (1919-1965)
Though admired for his sonorous velour croon with its clear tone and subtle phrasing, Nat King Cole, who was born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, began his career in the 1930s as a jazz pianist influenced by Earl Hines. After he started singing in 1940, he scored three No. 1 R&B singles in a row with his influential combo, the King Cole Trio, including “Straighten Up And Fly Right.” In 1947 he claimed his first US solo No. 1 with “Nature Boy,” and by 1950, after he had dissolved his trio, his career blossomed as a solo artist, resulting in his domination of the pop charts until his death from lung cancer at the age of 45. Cole’s influence can be heard in contemporary jazz singers such as Michael Bublé and Gregory Porter, proving that his legacy as one of the greatest jazz musicians ever is secure.
Essential Album: Unforgettable (1954)
Herbie Hancock (Born 1940)
A supremely versatile musician, Chicago keyboard wizard and polymath Herbie Hancock‘s long, odyssey-like career has seen him alight at many different musical stops along the way; from acoustic modal jazz (Maiden Voyage) through to spiritual meditations (Mwandishi), electric jazz-funk (Head Hunters) and sampladelic techno-funk (Future Shock). Hancock began his career as a sideman for trumpeter Donald Byrd in 1961 and then joined Miles Davis’ pathfinding quintet two years later while enjoying a remarkable parallel solo career at Blue Note Records. Never afraid to take risks and experiment, Hancock has always embraced state-of-the-art technology and strived to push jazz forward.
Essential Album: Maiden Voyage (1965)
Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
From Kansas City, alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker blew up the New York jazz scene with the impact of an atomic bomb in the mid-1940s thanks to a revolutionary new, small group jazz style called bebop that hastened the extinction of big bands. Parker, together with his co-conspirator, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, created a fresh and radical musical language, defined by rapidly played melodic lines played over complex chord patterns and a driving swing pulse. Parker’s innovations had a profound impact on jazz musicians everywhere, transforming the idiom from functional dance music into a serious art form.
Essential Album: Bird And Diz (1952)
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
With its bittersweet tone and somewhat forlorn timbre, the legendary and highly influential Billie Holiday undoubtedly possessed one of jazz’s most haunting female voices. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore, Holiday found that singing offered her an escape from the tough upbringing she had endured. Her career as a jazz singer began when she was 18 after she had moved to New York and with her unique sound, where she phrased like a horn player, she quickly became a star. Her most famous singles were 1939’s “Strange Fruit,” a controversial song about a lynching, and the self-written “God Bless The Child,” which sold a million copies in 1941. She also released many successful albums, including Lady Sings The Blues and Lady In Satin, both issued in the 1950s.
Essential Album: Billie Holiday Sings (1952)
Frank Sinatra (1915-1998)
Frank Sinatra had several nicknames – “The Chairman” and “Ol’ Blue Eyes” being two of them – but the one that spoke volumes about his talent as a jazz singer was the most telling one: “The Voice.” From Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra rose to fame in the big band era and first came on the radar of record buyers singing with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands. Phrasing melodies like a jazz horn player, Sinatra cemented his fame as a solo artist at Capitol Records in the 1950s where his themed concept albums In The Wee Small Hours and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely showed him to be a pop innovator.
Essential Album: Come Fly With Me (1968)
Jimmy Smith (1925-2005)
There had been electric organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith – like Fats Waller and Wild Bill Davis – but, emerging in 1956, the Pennsylvania-born Hammond B3 virtuoso gave the instrument genuine credibility as a viable solo instrument in the genre. A showman who was mesmerizing on stage with his pyrotechnical blend of blues and gospel elements, Smith redefined the organ in a jazz context. A prolific recording artist, he enjoyed his most fruitful commercial spells at Blue Note in the 50s and Verve in the 60s, serving up classic soul-jazz albums like The Sermon! and The Cat.
Essential Album: Home Cookin’ (1959)
Art Blakey (1919-1990)
As a drummer, Pittsburgh-born Art Blakey was a polyrhythmic powerhouse whose turbulent, hard-swinging grooves functioned as the engine room that drove the legendary group The Jazz Messengers for 36 years. Blakey was a key architect of hard bop, a forceful offshoot of bebop heavily influenced by blues and gospel which found its purest expression in the music of The Jazz Messengers, an ever-changing ensemble that was dubbed the “Hard Bop Academy.” Among their greatest recorded triumphs are the albums The Freedom Rider and Buhaina’s Delight.
Essential Album: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (aka Moanin’, 1958)
Lee Morgan (1938-1972)
A boy wonder jazz musician who made his debut album for Blue Note at 17, Philadelphia-born Lee Morgan first made his mark playing in fellow hornblower Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the mid-50s before launching a spectacular solo career. Morgan, who also served with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers between 1958 and 1965, played his instrument in a virtuosic hard bop style and achieved his biggest commercial success in 1965 with the hit single and album The Sidewinder. His early death, at 32, from a gunshot wound, robbed the jazz world of one its brightest young talents.
Essential Album: The Sidewinder (1965)
Wes Montgomery (1923-1968)
From Indianapolis, John “Wes” Montgomery revolutionized jazz guitar playing in the late 1950s with a style that built on the foundations that an earlier innovator, Charlie Christian, had established in the 1940s. Using just his calloused thumb instead of a pick, self-taught Montgomery (who couldn’t read music) played melodic lines like a bebop horn player and also pioneered the uses of parallel octaves to emphasize a melodic line; a technique that has been borrowed by everyone from George Benson to Pat Metheny. Stylistically, his albums ranged from swinging hard bop (1965’s Smokin’ At The Half Note) to pop-tinged proto-smooth jazz (1968’s Road Song).
Essential Album: So Much Guitar (1961)
Count Basie (1904-1984)
Red Bank, New Jersey, was the birthplace of William “Count” Basie, a pianist noted for his percussive, minimalist style but who was also one of the greatest jazz bandleaders that ever lived. Like fellow jazz aristocrat Duke Ellington, his career took flight in the 1930s when he played a leading role in popularizing big band swing music with classic tunes like “One O’clock Jump.” Basie’s long-running band was incredibly tight and well-drilled; its blend of incendiary solos combined with gorgeously executed ensemble work over a propulsive rhythmic pulse came to epitomize swing music at its most arresting.
Essential Album: The Atomic Mr. Basie (1957)
Keith Jarrett (Born 1945)
A child piano prodigy blessed with absolute pitch, Keith Jarrett came from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and was raised on classical music before gravitating to jazz as a teenager. After serving in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the influential bands of Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis in the 1960s, Jarrett established himself as a jazz superstar in the 70s with the million-selling improvised solo piano album, The Köln Concert. Though his name is synonymous with the piano, Jarrett is a talented multi-instrumentalist who also plays guitar, flute, and percussion.
Essential Album: Sun Bear Concerts (1978)
Alice Coltrane (1937-2007)
Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, this highly influential pianist, organist, and harp player was the second wife of saxophonist John Coltrane and played in his band after his quartet was dissolved in 1965. After her husband’s death in 1967, she began her own recording career, pursuing the spiritual path her spouse had embarked on by serving up comic meditations where post-bop jazz explorations collided with Indian music. Coltrane’s musical settings on her albums were varied, ranging from intimate small group jazz (A Monastic Trio) to grandiose orchestral works (World Galaxy).
Essential Album: Journey In Satchidananda (1971)
Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990)
Nicknamed “Sassie,” this New Jersey jazz singer was noted for her supple contralto voice with its warm, honeyed tone and fluttery vibrato. After performing in the mid-40s band of singer Billy Eckstine (whose influential group was the crucible where bebop was first forged), she embarked on a solo career that blossomed in the 1950s. Her consummate vocal artistry can be heard on significant albums 50s like In The Land Of Hi-Fi and Swingin’ Easy, both of which demonstrated the singer’s peerless interpretive skills and her spectacular facility for improvising using a technique called scatting.
Essential Album: Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (1955)
Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)
Though sometimes perceived as an early architect of California’s cool school movement, Concord-born Dave Brubeck was a jazz musician and composer who preferred to forge a unique and unclassifiable path in jazz that wasn’t dictated by a trend or scene. An innovator who experimented with different and often complex meters, Brubeck was also influenced by different music from around the world. He scored his biggest commercial successes in the late 1950s leading a legendary quartet that included alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.
Essential Album: Time Out (1959)
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone aspired to be a concert pianist until her dream was shattered by the racism she encountered in the classical music world during the 1950s. Instead, she reinvented herself as a smoky-voiced jazz singer and pianist, whose eclectic repertoire drew on folk, blues, pop, and gospel music besides jazz. A sensitive interpreter of other people’s songs, Simone also wrote some classic tunes herself, including “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Four Women,” and “Mississippi Goddam.”
Essential Album: Little Girl Blue (1959)
Cannonball Adderley (1928-1975)
One of the best alto saxophonists in jazz after the great Charlie Parker, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was a Florida-born school teacher who became a professional musician after moving to New York in the mid-50s. Taking the Big Apple by storm with his mellifluous alto playing, he joined Miles Davis’ band – he played on the trumpeter’s classic 1959 Kind Of Blue album – but preferred to lead his own soul-jazz oriented bands and was extremely popular, especially with Black audiences, in the 1960s.
Essential Album: Somethin’ Else (1958)
Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)
Texas-born Ornette Coleman, a saxophonist who later added trumpet and violin to his skill set, shook up the New York jazz scene in 1959 with his third album, the prophetically titled The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Essentially a free jazz manifesto, the album dispensed with orthodox concepts of melody, harmony, and structure, igniting a jazz revolution that ushered in the avant-garde age. Though a controversial figure, Coleman was also highly influential and his daring innovations still permeate jazz today.
Essential Album: At The Golden Circle Volume 1 (1966)