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The Big 3 Tenors Of Saxophone In Jazz History

Before there were the 3 Tenors of opera fame, there were the giants of tenor saxophone: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

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Photo of Coleman Hawkins
Photo: Herb Snitzer / Contributor

Before there were the 3 Tenors of opera fame, there were arguably 3 even bigger tenors! They were giants of the tenor saxophone, Ben Webster, Hawk – Coleman Hawkins and the man they called Pres, Lester Young. These giants of the tenor sax did so much to influence just about everyone who followed them.

Ben “The Brute” Webster, (27 March 1909 – 20 September 1973) , played with striking rhythmic momentum with a rasping tone that added so much to both his own records and the numerous jazz greats he accompanied, from Billie and Ella Fitzgerald to Duke Ellington and so many more during a career that spanned five decades.

Listen to the best of Ben Webster on Apple Music and Spotify.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

Lester Young’s unique, cool style, intentionally playing high in the register on the tenor, set him apart from the majority of other saxophonists who had modelled themselves on Coleman Hawkins. Critic Benny Green described the difference, “Where Hawkins is profuse, Lester is pithy; where Hawkins is passionate, Lester is reflective.” Green also eloquently described how Young, in his view, above all other saxophonists, hear in his head exactly what he wanted to lay before he played it. His was head-jazz, but jazz played with a great deal of heart and passion.

Eleven days before he passed away in 1959, Pres recorded what became the album In Paris; not his best playing by a long way, but fascinating that a man in his physical condition could ever perform. Norman Granz took out a full-page ad in DownBeat: a photo of Young under which was the simple dedication, “We’ll all miss you, Lester”.

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And then there’s the Dean of Saxophonists – Hawk to his many fans. Coleman Hawkins did more than any other musician to establish the tenor sax. A suave and sophisticated player was the antithesis of what most people consider a jazz musician to be; although his love of drinking ensured he fulfilled that particular cliché. ‘Bean’ was a powerful, passionate and original tenor player who lived in London and toured Europe for five years during the 1930s, doing a great deal to spread the jazz word. Even Lester Young said, “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.”

Follow The Big 3 Tenor Saxophonists playlists to listen to these titans of jazz.

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  1. Cathy

    September 20, 2014 at 5:22 pm


  2. Michael Rose

    September 20, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    Coleman Hawkins, tops the list with his memorable recording on “Body And Soul.” The combination of his creative genius and authoritative sound surpasses that of Lester Young, who in his own right was able to out swing most of his contemporaries with a pretty sound influencing a new generation of tenor saxophonists. Ben Webster, while trying to always be competitive by purposely playing tunes in alternated keys, by comparison to Hawkins and Prez, lacked the improvisational ability and relied upon the air full sound that was his signature but, for this listener, a distraction.

  3. Alberto del Castillo

    September 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Impossible to chose. How do you compare an unicorn to a mermaid or an elf ? They are all magical figures from the land of dreams.

  4. Cameron Pfiffner

    September 23, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Alberto’s got it- ! We’re not judging who’s the fattest pig at the county fair, but hearing the thoughts and feelings of three unique and dedicated artists who devoted their lives to musical expression. To ask “Who’s the best?”, and even worse, to answer, is to demonstrate the kind of cluelessness that is the mark of an immature sensibility. Students do this to limit the scope of their studies and avoid the confusion of too many influences or options. An adult need not be threatened by greatness in more than one practitioner, but can be appreciative of the increased freedom of choice this gives, both in listening and in creating.

  5. bobby G........

    March 27, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    I liked the Hawk for his innovations and expressions with any melody and the more modern of the three gentlemen .. i also enjoyed Ben Websters deep mellow sound on ballads eventually being copied by Dexter who also had a beautiful ballad sound .
    Yet the Prez who played a much more dated saxophone, being he was one of the first to excite the world of jazz back then with his timely improvisations and technique most likely superior to the other two playing more up tempos and backing Billy ,and Ella of early women in jazz reminding us of the early speaks and after hours joints they worked in during the late 20’s and early 30’s .. totally reminiscent and qualitative distinction ..i studied all three of them for decades and appreciate all their contributions to the world of Jazz..
    Bobby G…..
    PS: mind you,, we are only discussing tenor sax players not altos or baritone saxes ………..

  6. bobby G........

    March 27, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    your dead wrong .. ive never posted on this site prior to today ,,, so print it or if not ? who cares but your dead wrong …
    bobby g………………..

  7. Bert

    March 28, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    You’re talking pre-50s, right? If so, these are the 3 great tenors & I’d choose Hawkins as the best. But if this is an “of all time” list, I’d definitely replace Ben Webster with John Coltrane & be sad to leave out Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, & several more.

  8. Mark

    March 28, 2018 at 2:43 am

    All 3 are fantastic but the 2 standout trap for me are Webster’s 6 & 16…no braggin’ just fact!

    • Mark

      March 28, 2018 at 2:44 am

      Track’s *

  9. Steve Justino

    September 12, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    I have always considered Ben Webster best of the Tenor Men.

    Hawkins, who was 5 years older than Webster and Young, was brilliant Swing musician, but he never grew beyond that, even after the end of the Swing era.

    Similarly, although he experimented more in the small group format, Young also kept one toe safely in the Swing music pool.

    Ben Webster, on the other hand, in addition to his unique, gravelly, breathy, sound embraced the new modern sounds of the post-swing era, and, in my mind, he could be considered the first hard-bop tenor man.

    Younger guys, like Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt, and Sonny Rollins all pay homage to Hawk and Prez . . . but it is Ben Webster I hear in their music.

  10. John

    August 28, 2023 at 3:19 am

    These three were great tenor players, but to leave John Coltrane off the list makes no sense to me at all.

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