When Adolphe Sax made the first saxophone in 1841, he could never have imagined how popular it would become. As the guitar is the main instrument of rock and roll, the saxophone is seen by many to be the main instrument of jazz. Its players have frequently been some of the most progressive and experimental musicians in history. While some would argue that the trumpet is the most important instrument in jazz, it is undeniable that whenever a new development occurred in jazz, a saxophonist was never too far away. By examining its most important players, we can actually trace the history of jazz.
This list is comprised of ten of the most influential jazz saxophonists who ever lived. Generally, if a player was involved in more than one genre, or if they inspired new generations of players, they will be have a better place on the list. The rankings could be endlessly debated, but they still represent a good approximation of their influence on jazz.(Photo: Carolinaperformingarts.org.)
10. Grover Washington Jr.
December 12, 1943 – December 16, 1999
To start off this list we have the man who is considered to be one of the founders of smooth jazz, Grover Washington Jr. Even though he inspired smooth jazz, he was actually more of a jazz-funk/soul-jazz saxophonist. A surprisingly versatile musician, he was a skilled player with the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. He reached the height of his popularity in the 70s and 80s with his signature album Winelight. His playing had a smooth and soft feel to it that blended R&B and jazz to create a refreshing sound. He is credited with having influenced Kenny G, Walter Beasley, Steve Cole, and Pamela Williams.
Mr. Magic, Black Frost, The Best is Yet to Come, Just the Two of Us
9. Julian “Cannonball” Adderley
September 15, 1928 – August 8, 1975
Nicknamed “cannonball” (actually a childhood corruption of “cannibal” because of his appetite) by his peers, Julian Adderley played with some of the most important jazz musicians of all time and became one of the most widely regarded hard bop players. Armed with his alto saxophone, he became a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1957 where he would go on to play with John Coltrane. He would be a featured musician on Davis’ seminal records Milestones and Kind of Blue. A phenomenally gifted player, he was actually called “the new Bird” after Charlie Parker’s death. At times his playing was more diverse than Parker, using complex chromatic and continuous lines; but, he was also known for having a simpler blues and gospel influenced style. He would also go on to record many important pieces with his brother Nat Adderley. While he may not be as well known as Parker and Coltrane, he was one of the most important figures in the 1950s and 1960s jazz scene.
This Here, The Jive Samba, Work Song, Walk Tall, Autumn Leaves, Waltz for Debby
8. Stan Getz
February 2, 1927 – June 6, 1991
Stan “The Sound” Getz was one of the key musicians who popularized cool jazz, bossa nova, and modern jazz. He started at a young age, joining Jack Teagarden’s band at the age of fifteen in the 1940s. In a few years he would play under such masters as Stan Kenton, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. By the 1950s, he would become one of the leading figures of cool jazz, playing with artists like Horace Silver and Johnny Smith. By the 1960s, he had moved on to introducing bossa nova to American audiences. He would continue on in future decades to work in jazz fusion before settling down to work in the San Francisco Bay area as a teacher at Stanford University. Like his hero Lester Young, he had a warm, lyrical tone to his playing that gave him a distinctive voice.
Desfinado, The Girl from Ipanema, Early Autumn
7. Sidney Bechet
May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959
One of the earliest players on this list, Sidney Bechet was the first jazz artist to become famous playing the soprano saxophone. In fact, it could be argued that he was the first jazz artist to popularize the saxophone. His skill as a soloist cannot be understated. Only Louis Armstrong rivaled Bechet for solo supremacy in the early days of jazz. Playing with such early luminaries as Joe “King” Oliver, Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra, and Duke Ellington, he was one of the first jazz artists to travel to Europe. He had a rich tone and sported a heavy vibrato that gave him a distinctive sound. His playing was like his temper: out of control, emotional, and reckless. A true original, Bechet was one of the most important jazz musicians to ever come from New Orleans.
Wild Cat Blues, Kansas City Man Blues
6. Sonny Rollins
September 7, 1930-
Sonny Rollins is quite simply one of the greatest tenor saxophone players who ever lived. He has played with some of jazz’s greatest talents, including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey. Known primarily for his work in the field of post-bop, Rollins has one of the most distinctive voices in the genre. While his soloing may not be as fast and note-heavy as some of his contemporaries, his rhythmic flare (as best displayed in his famous St. Thomas) takes his playing to heights that few others have ever been able to match. His soloing is more focused on thematic improvisation instead of expanding on a chord or a particular melodic line. When he plays, he dissects melodic lines, elaborating and expanding on them until every single direction has been explored, much the way that classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven did. With his unique approach to playing, he inspired an entire school of musicians. The only member of this list who is still alive at the time of its writing, Rollins is still going strong at 79 years old.
St. Thomas, Oleo, Doxy, The Freedom Suite
5. Lester Young
August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959
With his tenor saxophone tilted sideways in his mouth, Lester Young was the model for cool saxophonists. His skilled playing expanded the vocabulary of jazz. Most notably playing with Count Basie’s orchestra, he used linear phrases that gave birth to highly developed melodic thoughts. With a smooth, light and airy tone, Young was a master of musical understatement. His fellow artists, including Count Basie, were very impressed by his playing. In addition to Count Basie, he also accompanies Billie Holiday; but he is ultimately most remembered for his work with Count Basie where he helped define its signature sound. With a soft, lyrical style, Young was not only one of the most important swing era musicians, he helped define the sound of cool jazz several decades before its birth.
Lester Leaps In
4. Eric Dolphy
June 20, 1928 – June 29, 1964
Eric Dolphy was one of the most diverse jazz musicians who ever lived. Not only a groundbreaking alto saxophone player, he was also one of the first bass clarinet and flute soloists. But his work on the saxophone was what made him a legend. Along with musicians like Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman, he pushed the genre of jazz into new stratospheres in the 60s with the emergence of free and avant-garde jazz. His personal sound ran the gauntlet from twelve tone scales, tonal bebop, and lifelike human and animal sound effects. Also a competent bandleader and composer, his work would inspire the likes of Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, and Frank Zappa. Never touching drugs or alcohol, it was said that they only thing he was addicted to was practicing. Such is a fitting tribute to one of jazz’s bravest pioneers.
Tenderly, What Love, Far Cry, Out to Lunch (Album)
3. Coleman Hawkins
November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969
While some would call him “Hawk,” one term that everybody could agree on calling Coleman Hawkins was “genius.” If Sidney Bechet made the saxophone a prominent voice in jazz, Hawkins will forever be remembered for making it the dominant one. Other saxophonists had come first, but he was the first one to truly catch the public’s eye and give the trumpet a run for its money as jazz’s primary instrument. The definitive swing tenor saxophonist, Hawkins had one of the most recognizable voices in jazz with his full tone, flowing lines that never seemed to end, and heavy vibrato. He was an insanely talented soloist whose solo on Body and Soul, which focused on outlining the accompanying chord progression instead of expanding on the melodic line, rewrote the rules of how to play jazz. While he is known predominately for his work in the swing genre, he also had a hand in the development of bebop, forming a combo on Manhattan’s 52nd Street with Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. As a pioneer of both swing and bebop, Hawkins had an impact on jazz that precious few others could claim.
Body and Soul, Picasso
2. John Coltrane
September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967
One of the most prolific jazz artists in history, John Coltrane made some of the biggest contributions to the development of jazz. One of the elite players of bebop, hard bop, and free jazz, he was instrumental in the development of the use of different musical modes. A frequent collaborator with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker, he continuously pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in jazz. One of his trademarks were lightning fast runs with hundreds of notes a minute, later known as “sheets of sound.” The most famous example would be his legendary Giant Steps, a song which to this day remains a rite of passage for young saxophonists. He pioneered the use of multi-tonic changes in chord progressions (they would later be referred to as Coltrane changes) where substitute chords are used over common jazz chord progressions. A skilled composer, he wrote many songs which are still considered to this day to be jazz standards. In honor of his contributions, he received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007 for “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.” Without Coltrane, jazz, and music as we know it, would be completely different.
Giant Steps, Acknowledgment (From a Love Supreme), In a Sentimental Mood,
1. Charlie Parker
August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955
There was before Charlie Parker, and there was after Charlie Parker. That is how integral Charlie (Bird) Parker was to the development of jazz. It is no exaggeration to say that when he first hit the jazz scene he revolutionized everything. It is impossible to list all of his accomplishments and influences in such a small space, but I’ll try. He was one of the founders of bebop, introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas that introduced things like 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths of chords into jazz, utilized new chord substitutions and variants, and even helped pioneer the inclusion of classical and Latin influences into jazz. He had devastatingly diverse tone which could range from fast, furious and heavy to clean and soft.
To say that he was influential is an understatement. When he came out, everybody wanted to play like him. Untold masses of saxophonists to this day treat his solo transcriptions as a musical bible. But he influenced more than just jazz music. He pioneered the jazz lifestyle and image which saw jazz players as sophisticated intellectuals of uncompromising artistic integrity. One of the greatest musicians who ever lived, his influence is even more staggering when you consider that he died at 34 years old, meaning that he shook the world of jazz to its foundation in a ridiculously short amount of time. There has never been another jazz musician who changed the game of jazz as much as Charlie Parker, and we are forever in his debt for it.
Ko-Ko, Scrapple from the Apple, Embraceable You, Ornithology