55 Best Jazz Musicians of All Time (Famous Artists)

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Written By Will Fenton

Founder of MidderMusic. From numerous bands to stints working in music shops, read more about me on the 'Here's My Story' page!

Today’s article is dedicated to legends and famous artists who made an impact on the jazz music genre.

We’re gonna remind you of all the jazz figures who helped shape the sound of jazz, as well as introduce the most famous jazz musicians in the world right now.

Jazz music has been around since the 1920s, and it’s always interesting to look at the evolution of jazz from today’s perspective.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best jazz musicians of all time! 

1. Louis Armstrong 

Louis Armstrong is widely regarded as the best jazz artist of all time.

He was a singer and a trumpeter, and his music made a huge impact on the jazz music scene of the 1920s.

However, Armstrong’s career spanned five decades, so he actually influenced several eras in the history of jazz.

He helped popularize the genre and some of his songs like “What a Wonderful World” and “Dream a Little Dream Of Me” became jazz standards.

2. Ella Fitzgerald 

Known as the ‘First Lady of Song’, Ella Fitzgerald is by far one of the most legendary jazz musicians in music history.

Her purity of tone, phrasing, and improvisational abilities were impeccable.

She also pioneered scat singing, vocal improvisation with rhythms, nonsense words, and wordless vocables. 

Fitzgerald’s career spanned several decades too – she achieved peak success during the swing era, and eventually became one of the most influential jazz singers.

Her best songs include “Cheek To Cheek” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, and she is also known for her collaborations with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

3. Miles Davis 

Needless to say, Miles Davis was one of the jazz greats.

He was a brilliant trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, and he is widely regarded as one of the leading jazz figures of the 20th century.

Davis had a talent for music, and he honed his skills at Julliard, before entering the New York jazz scene.

His five-decade career entailed many genres and styles, so he is responsible for the development of many new styles and directions in jazz music.

It’s hard to pick only a couple of Miles Davis’ songs, but some of his most influential pieces of work include “So What”, “Blue In Green”, and “’Round Midnight.” 

4. Duke Ellington 

When thinking about the most famous jazz musicians in history, Duke Ellington immediately comes to mind.

His name became synonymous with jazz music, and his impact on the whole genre is immense.

Ellington began his career in the 20s, by playing at Harlem’s Cotton Club.

He was a leading figure in the big-band swing movement, and big bands ended up dominating jazz in the early 1940s.

Ellington was also known for his unique staccato style, and his expression was always full of variety and sophistication.

His best-known songs (and jazz classics) include “Take The A Train”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, and “In a Sentimental Mood.”

5. John Coltrane 

John Coltrane is also regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians in history.

He was a saxophonist, bandleader, and composer, and generally an incredibly talented and innovative musician.

Coltrane rose to stardom in the 50s, as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet.

Eventually, he started making and recording his own compositions and established himself as a leading figure in free jazz.

He helped pioneer modal jazz, and he also turned to bebop and hard bop early in his career. 

Coltrane’s most notable compositions include “My One And Only Love” and “My Favorite Things.”

6. Charlie Parker 

Nicknamed the “Bird”, Charlie Parker was an integral part of influential jazz bands of the 1930s.

But he was also one of the best jazz saxophonists on the jazz scene, as well as a successful solo jazz artist.

When it comes to his style, he was a leading figure in the development of bebop, and he introduced revolutionary rhythmic and harmonic ideas into the genre.

Charlie Parker released many songs that became jazz standards throughout his career, but some of his most memorable songs include “Yardbird Suite” and  “Donna Lee.” 

7. Stan Getz 

Stan Getz rose to prominence in the late 1940s when he became a famous tenor saxophonist.

He was influenced by the west coast cool jazz that emerged at the time, and he incorporated a warm, lyrical tone into his music.

While he was living in the US, he also popularized bossa nova, especially with his song “A Girl From Ipanema.”

Inspired by Latin artists like João Gilberto, Getz was really a breeze of fresh air on the jazz music scene, and his contribution to music, in general, will never be forgotten. 

8. Billie Holiday

Let’s go back to classical jazz artists and a jazz icon that helped define the genre. 

Nicknamed “Lady Day”, Billie Holiday was an innovative jazz and swing music singer known for her hauntingly beautiful voice and impressive improvisational skills.

She also introduced new ways of manipulating phrasing and tempo, and she influenced many jazz musicians that came after her. 

Billie Holiday had a short career and life, but she managed to create a substantial musical legacy. 

Her most notable songs include “Solitude”, “Strange Fruit”, and “Blue Moon.”

9. Charles Mingus

When it comes to top jazz artists with an innovative approach to music, Charles Mingus is definitely high on the list.

The moment you hear his best-known song “Moanin’”, you know you’re about to listen to something interesting and unpredictable.

Besides being a composer, Mingus was also a jazz bassist, bandleader, pianist, and author. 

He was undoubtedly one of the most versatile jazz artists of his era, and his three-decade career also encompassed collaborations with other legends such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstong, and Charlie Parker. 

10. Thelonious Monk

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without Thelonious Monk.

He was one of the jazz greats whose improvisational style inspired generations of jazz musicians.

In his music, he often used dissonances and angular melodic twists, and he was an essential figure in the development of bebop.

During his time, Thelonious Monk was often considered eccentric, but now we know he was well ahead of his time.

His most memorable compositions include “Straight, No Chaser”, “Ruby, My Dear”, and “Blue Monk.”

11. Charles Lloyd 

Charles Lloyd is also considered to be one of the best jazz players in the world right now.

He started off by playing in jazz clubs and rose to fame in the 1960s. 

In fact, he became one of the most prominent jazz saxophonists in the music industry.

Over the course of his long career, Lloyd combined different styles, and he became known for his incredible improvisational skills.

At the age of 84, Charles Lloyd is still performing – he seems to be an unstoppable creative force.

12. Eric Dolphy 

Eric Dolphy became a popular jazz musician in the 50s after he was invited to join Chico Hamilton’s quintet.

Eventually, he started recording with jazz legends such as John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.

Most of all, Dolphy was a talented multi-instrumentalist – he could play saxophone, flute, and clarinet. 

Dolphy’s work is sometimes categorized as free jazz, mostly because of his melodic lines, even though his style was largely based on the standard bebop.

Either way, despite his short life and career, Eric Dolphy will always be remembered as one of the best jazz players in history.

13. Ron Carter 

In short, Ron Carter is a living jazz legend.

He rose to prominence in the 1960s, when he joined Miles Davis’ quartet, along with other jazz icons such as Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.

As a double-bass bassist, Carter really had a rich and exciting music career, and he is still active on the scene. 

He is a winner of three Grammy Awards, and at one point, he became the most-recorded jazz bassist in history.

14. Jelly Roll Morton 

Jelly Roll Morton was a famous ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer.

As one of the jazz pioneers, he is responsible for many jazz tunes that remain relevant and popular to this day.

Morton’s music was generally more formal than the previous Dixieland music, and he also pioneered the use of certain effects in jazz music 

Published in 1915, his composition “Jelly Roll Blues” was one of the first published jazz compositions ever.

So in a way, it’s kind of understandable he claimed he invented jazz.

15. Bill Evans

As a Jersey native, Bill Evans was classically trained in New York City.

Eventually, he became a prolific jazz pianist who brought something completely new to the genre.

He combined his classical roots with standard jazz music, and his interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire was truly unique.

His impressionistic tone also inspired Miles Davis, and in 1958, Evans joined his sextet.

And that’s how Bill Evans ended up being a part of recording Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album ever

16. Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock is another legendary jazz musician.

He began his career in the early 1960s, as a part of Donald Byrd’s group.

And in 1962, he released his incredible debut Takin’ Of, which includes his famous hit “Watermelon Man.” 

Other songs that became very popular among jazz lovers  and in general include “Cantaloupe Island” and “Chameleon.” 

All in all, Herbie Hancock is regarded as one of the best living jazz artists for a good reason, and his impact on the whole genre is undeniable. 

17. Dizzy Gillespie 

As a skilled trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie was one of the founding fathers of the bebop movement in the 1940s.

Inspired by Roy Eldrige, Gillespie incorporated elements of harmonic and rhythmic complexity in his music, which ultimately made his sound fresh and distinctive.

Besides popularizing bebop, Gillespie also fused bebop with Cuban music and created Afro-Cuban jazz.

All things considered, Dizzy had a crucial role in the evolution of jazz, and he will always be celebrated as one of the best trumpeters in history.

18. Chet Baker

Chet Baker is hands down one of the most famous jazz musicians from the 50s.

He was a trumpeter and a singer, and his approach to music was evidently influenced by Miles Davis’ early music.

Baker created many popular tunes, but he was also known for his unique interpretation of jazz standards.

His contributions also include innovations in cool jazz – and that earned him the funny nickname ‘Prince of Cool.’

19. Dave Brubeck

Cool jazz is also associated with Dave Brubeck’s work.

Brubeck was a prominent jazz pianist and composer, and his music often entailed unusual time signatures and rhythms.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet achieved huge fame, especially after releasing the album Time Out in 1959.

The album featured Dave Brubeck’s best-known song, “Take Five”, and it became the first jazz album to sell over one million copies. 

20. Nat King Cole 

Another iconic musician who was once among the world’s top jazz artists is Nat King Cole. 

Over the course of his career, Cole recorded a large number of successful hits, and he was generally one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century.

Besides making popular hits and performing with his trio, Cole also acted in films and performed on Broadway.

So he wasn’t ‘only’ a talented jazz musician but also a true cultural icon.

21. Art Tatum 

Art Tatum also made his mark on the jazz music genre.

He also proved that disabilities don’t have to hold you back – he was a blind pianist and a very skillful one.

Tatum’s technical abilities were impeccable, and he inspired many pianists who even tried to copy him.

But you don’t come across this kind of talent so often, and that’s why he has a well-deserved spot on this list of the best jazz artists.

22. Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is an American jazz tenor saxophonist and one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. 

He had a rich career spanning 50 years, and a number of his compositions became jazz standards.

His most notable pieces of work include “St. Thomas”, “Oleo”, and “Doxy.”

At age 82, Sonny Rollins played his last concert, and now he’s retired and living in his native New York. 

23. Freddie Hubbard 

Freddie Hubbard was a phenomenal jazz player and a famous trumpeter.

He played hard bop, bebop, and post-bop styles, and he also contributed to the development of new jazz styles.

His approach to music was surely unique, and his creativity and virtuosic skills were incredible.

After all, Hubbard started off in his 20s by playing with some of the jazz greats, including Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins.

24. Bud Powell 

Although he had a short career, Bud Powell made a huge impact on the jazz music scene.

He was a leading figure in the development of modern jazz, along with the previously mentioned Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

Since he was a skilled pianist, he was proclaimed ‘the Charlie Parker of the piano.’

But he was a force of his own, and his influence on the genre and music, in general, will never be forgotten.

25. Max Roach 

Max Roach is one of the most influential jazz drummers in the history of jazz.

His style significantly changed jazz drumming, and he successfully pushed it into a bebop era.

Roach was, in fact, a pioneer of bebop, although he worked in many other styles of music.

He collaborated with many famous musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington.

Roach was also a Civil rights activist, and he often used his music to raise awareness.

26. Wayne Shorter 

While working as an apprentice of Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter showcased his talent and passion for music.

He rose to fame in the late 50s, and he has been regarded as one of the top jazz artists in history ever since.

During his career, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, an electric fusion group, but he later returned to acoustic jazz.

As a bandleader and saxophonist, he has recorded over 20 albums and won 11 Grammy Awards.

27. Benny Goodman 

Known as the ‘King of Swing’, Benny Goodman changed music history.

Goodman led one of the most popular swing big bands in the US, and his 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall became legendary.

Apart from being a bandleader, he was also a skilled clarinetist.

During his career, Goodman experimented with many styles and subgenres, and toward the end of his life, he also got interested in classical music.

However, he is mostly associated with timeless classics such as “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

28. Tony Williams

Tony Williams became famous as a member of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.

Thanks to his authentic expression and extraordinary drumming skills, Williams also formed his own group – the Tony Williams Lifetime.

His music was mostly revolving around jazz fusion, a music genre that developed in the 60s.

Williams, in fact, pioneered the jazz fusion genre, but he is mainly remembered as one of the best jazz drummers that ever lived.

29. Lee Morgan 

Lee Morgan released his debut album when he was only 17.

And the rest is history – a prodigy jazz musician became one of the most important hard bop artists on the 60s music scene.

But Morgan showcased his talent even before his debut – he recorded John Coltrane’s Blue Train in his late teens.

Unfortunately, his life was cut short when he was shot at the age of 33 – and it’s hard not to ask yourself what could have happened with him otherwise. 

30. Wes Montgomery 

John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery became famous thanks to his incredible guitar skills.

Besides intricate technical skills, Montgomery also had a unique approach to playing guitar – he used to pluck the strings with the side of his thumb, and he used octaves extensively.

But he was also a versatile musician, and he explored all the styles and subgenres, from post-bop to smooth jazz.

In the 60s, he started to record more pop-oriented albums, which brought him mainstream fame. 

31. Alice Coltrane 

As you probably already know or assume, Alice Coltrane was John Coltrane’s wife.

But let’s be clear – although she played in John’s band for a while, Alice had a successful solo career, and her sound and style were authentic.

She was a talented multi-instrumentalist – she played piano, and she was one of the few harpists in jazz music history.

Coltrane was also one of the pioneers of spiritual jazz.

32. Frank Sinatra

There’s no doubt about it – Frank Sinatra is one of the greatest singers of all time.

His impact on the music industry and culture, in general, is huge and long-lasting, and many of his songs became timeless classics.

Although he didn’t call himself a jazz singer (but a saloon singer), Sinatra was integral in bringing jazz into the sphere of popular music.

And that’s why Ol’ Blue Eyes deserves a spot on this list – as well as on the list of the best male vocalists of all time.

33. Count Basie 

In the jazz community, Count Basie is widely regarded as one of the best bandleaders in history.

Basie was also a jazz pianist, composer, and organist.

In 1935, he formed the Count Basie Orchestra, and that’s one of the ways he helped popularize big bands in the US.

He led the group for almost 50 years, and many well-known musicians came under his direction, including Lester Young.

34. Jimmy Smith 

And Jimmy Smith helped popularize the Hammond B-3 organ.

He wasn’t the first electric organist, but he is among the best-known ones.

And with his influence and style, he actually connected jazz and 1960s soul music.

In his compositions, Smith also incorporated gospel and blues elements.

All in all, he was arguably one of the most innovative as well as successful jazz musicians of his generation.

35. Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett is an American jazz and classical music pianist and composer.

He rose to prominence with Art Blakey, and later he also played with Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd.

But Jarrett showcased his talent way before that – he was a child prodigy, and he possessed absolute pitch. 

Moreover, Jarrett’s 1970 album The Köln Concert became the best-selling piano recording in history.

36. Art Blakey

It’s finally time to write a few sentences about Art Blakey.

Blakey rose to prominence in the 40s, playing in big bands and working with jazz stars like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

But his biggest achievement was probably the formation of his Jazz Messengers. 

He was a fantastic bandleader, but Blakey was also known for his drumming.

That being said, he was posthumously inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame as well as the Grammy Hall of Fame.

37. Sarah Vaughan

Known by the nicknames “The Divine One” and “Sassy”, Sarah Vaughan helped define jazz.

She was known for this wonderful voice characterized by a warm tone and distinctive vibrato.

Vaughan rose to prominence as a solo artist in the 50s, and that was only the beginning.

She ended up winning four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award.

38. Ray Brown 

Ray Brown was widely known for his work with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. 

He was a jazz double bassist, and in fact, he is regarded as one of the best jazz bassists in history.

After all, Brown’s career spanned six decades, and he managed to accomplish so much.

His discography includes some iconic records such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “You Look Good To Me.” 

Besides Oscar Peterson trio, Brown was also a part (a founding member, to be exact) of the Modern Jazz Quartet

39. Cannonball Adderley

As a skilled saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley found a place for himself on the jazz music scene.

He was an important figure in the hard bop era, and as a part of Miles Davis’ sextet, he appeared on some iconic records.

But his biggest success was probably his 1966 single “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” – the song was a big crossover hit, and it climbed both the pop and R&B charts.

All things considered, Adderley’s impact on the music industry is undeniable, and he definitely deserves all the attention he can get. 

40. Ornette Coleman 

We also need to celebrate Ornette Coleman, a multi-talented musician who is considered to be the founder of free jazz.

He was a jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and definitely one of the most influential musicians of his era.

He played in several bebop groups, but he eventually formed his own group and released multiple influential albums. 

Coleman’s songs “Broadway Blues” and “Lonely Woman” became jazz standards. 

41. Nina Simone 

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without Nina Simone.

Nina Simone started playing piano at a nightclub in Atlantic City, and although she dreamed of becoming a classical pianist, she was denied that career path due to racism.

As you already know, she became a jazz pianist and singer instead.

Throughout her career, Nina Simone influenced many genres, from pop, gospel, and R&B to jazz music.

Her jazz-singing contralto voice and skills helped her stand out from the crowd, but she also poured her soul into her music and live performances.

In other words, she was a true artist. 

42. Lester Young 

Lester Young achieved a lot during his career, but he was best known as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra.

Nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, Young was a skilled jazz tenor saxophonist and occasional clarinetist.

His music always had a relaxed vibe that was once described as a free-floating style.

He also became associated with the hipster term which referred to the 1940s jazz subculture.

43. Mary Lou Williams

Throughout her career, Mary Lou Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and recorded more than one hundred records.

Williams was a powerhouse and swing and bebop icon, and she famously played with artists like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. 

She also wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Williams is hands down one of the best composers and arrangers in music history.

44. Coleman Hawkins 

Another musician who made a huge contribution to jazz is Coleman Hawkins.

He had an important role in the development of bebop in 1940, even though he rose to prominence in swing music.

Either way, Hawkins was a talented tenor saxophonist, and even Lester Young admitted he was ‘the first one.’

His most famous recordings include “Body And Soul” and “Ruby, My Dear” (with Thelonious Monk.)

45. Willie Smith

William McLeish Smith, or simply Willie Smith, was one of the most prominent alto saxophone players of the swing era.

Smith’s first instrument was the clarinet, but it seems that the saxophone turned out to be his passion.

He was a real talent, and as Jazz critic John S. Wilson said he was ‘one of the triumvirates of great jazz alto saxophonists before Charlie Parker arrived.’

46. Fats Waller

Fats Waller is another multi-talent on our list.

Waller started playing the piano when he was 6 and became a professional organist at the age of 15.

And during his lifetime, he was a composer, singer, violinist, organist, pianist, and even a comedian.

Waller was also associated with the Harlem stride style, and he introduced many innovations.

His most popular compositions are “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, both of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

47. Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith earned the nickname the “Empress of the Blues”, and her music became very popular in her time.

Smith was in fact one of the most popular female blues singers in the 1930s, and she was a major influence on blues and jazz singers on the scene.

Apart from being a talented musician, she wrote African-American protest music.

So there’s no doubt about it – we’re talking about a very influential artist who made a real change.

48. Django Reinhardt

Over the course of his career, Django Reinhardt recorded more than 900 songs.

He was a big influence on his fellow composers and guitarists.

As a French-Romani musician, Reinhardt was one of the first major jazz talents to emerge in Europe.

And his best compositions include gypsy jazz styles. 

49. Ray Charles 

Ray Charles is one of the newer jazz musicians on this list.

Charles is regarded as one of the most iconic and influential singers in history, and he received many awards and accolades during his lifetime.

He was called ‘Brother Ray’ among friends, although many critics and jazz aficionados referred to him as ‘the Genius.’

His most memorable songs include “I’ve Got A Woman” and “What I’d Say.” 

50. Peggy Lee 

Norma Deloris Egstrom, known to the world as Peggy Lee, was an American jazz and popular music singer.

But she was also a talented actress, songwriter, and composer.

With a career spanning seven decades, she established herself as one of the greatest female jazz artists of all time.

Many of her songs became all-time hits, but nothing has made quite an impact as “Fever.” 

51. Lionel Hampton 

As a jazz vibraphonist, pianist, percussionist, and bandleader, Lionel Hampton was surely a versatile musician.

He worked with jazz stars like Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and many more.

Apart from that, he performed with small groups known as the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

All in all, his contribution to jazz is huge, and his style and multi-talent inspired many jazz and swing musicians that came after him. 

52. Josephine Baker 

Josephine Baker was one of the most prominent European jazz artists on the scene.

With her iconic live shows and image, she became the most celebrated performer and an icon of the Jazz Age.

Apart from music, Baker had a talent for acting, and she was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture (in the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics.)

She also played an important role in raising awareness against racism – for example, she refused to perform for a segregated audience in the US. 

53. Scott Joplin 

Born at the end of the 19th century, Scott Joplin isn’t really a jazz musician.

However, he did influence the genre in his own way.

Known as the “King of Ragtime”, Joplin wrote over 40 original ragtime pieces during his career.

Joplin considered ragtime to be a form of classical music, but the genre later evolved into jazz and swing.

That being said, he was a predecessor to such an important music genre, without even knowing it.

54. Jackie Paris 

Another jazz artist that deserves a place on this list is Jackie Paris.

He was encouraged to enter the music industry by his friend Nat King Cole, and it was a good call.

In the 1940s, Paris toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and maintained his relevance in the following decade.

During his career, Paris performed or recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gilespie, Max Roach, and many other jazz superstars.

His most famous recordings include “Skylark” and “‘Round Midnight.” 

55. Dexter Gordon 

Last but not least, we want to mention Dexter Gordon.

His contribution to the genre can’t be forgotten, and as a jazz tenor saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and actor, he achieved so much.

Gordon was an early bebop musician, so he worked with musicians such as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.

He was known for his versatility, music skills, and humorous stage presence.

Best Jazz Musicians of All Time – Final Thoughts 

Although the jazz genre has many more amazing musicians and we were just warming up, it’s time for our final thoughts. 

We mentioned all the jazz greats and influential artists who made a significant impact on the genre.

So if you’re new to jazz music, their songs will be a great starting point to explore more. 

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