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Best jazz band leaders of all time

For over 100 years jazz music has captured the imagination of the public, with jazz bands becoming household names. Here, we name the best jazz band leaders responsible for defining, influencing and shaping the genre into what it is today.

Published: July 19, 2022 at 10:34 am
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Best jazz band leaders ever

Count Basie

count basie jazz pianist
Credit: Getty Images

The Basie band took much of its character from the subtle way the Count’s pithy, elliptical attack framed his shouting brass and saxes. More crucially, Basie’s touch set the tone for the band’s rhythm section; the light, insistent pulse that generated the irresistible current of swing that lifted soloists and ensemble to heights of inspired excitement.

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That excitement hit the big time beginning in 1936, when the Basie crew came east from Kansas City (KC). Their success was based on a simple formula of creating in an ensemble the spontaneity and fire of small-group jazz. The key was the band’s line-up of great soloists, including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. Original tunes, uncomplicated but driving, provided a jumping-off point for solos backed by riffs which seemed a corporate extension of the solos themselves. And underpinning the whole was Basie and his floating, insinuating rhythm.

We named Count Basie one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time

Count Basie best recordings

April in Paris, King of Swing, Atomic Mr Basie & Basie Plays Joe Williams

Avid AMSC946

Ken Burns Jazz

Verve 549 0902

Chairman of the Board

Roulette 581 6642

Cab Calloway

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cab Calloway was a true jazz master of the revels. His exuberant personality overshadowed his reputation as leader of one of the best swing-era bands. Through the 1930s and ’40s, Calloway’s orchestra accompanied his outrageous vocal displays and boasted an array of talent: tenorist Chu Berry, drummer Cozy Cole, bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeters Jonah Jones and bebop enfant terrible Dizzy Gillespie.

But to the public, Calloway was the whole show. Arriving in New York in 1929 as leader of one group, he was invited to jump ship to another, a timely move that brought him, and his new ensemble, stardom. In 1931, they opened at Harlem’s Cotton Club, succeeded Duke Ellington as house band and began touring, boosting their following with recordings and films.

He was the king of showmanship, captivating audiences with his hyperactive energy and gleaming appearance. He wore immaculate, white, silk outfits and, later, outlandish zoot suits, with jackets draped down to the knees and pipe-stem trousers, crowned by a wide-brimmed hat.

We also named Cab Calloway one of the best jazz singers ever

Cab Calloway best recordings

This is Hep

Properbox 141 (4 discs)

Chu and Dizzy Years

Hep HEPCD1079

George Gershwin and Cab Calloway Porgy and Bess

Metronome 232679

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington jazz pianist
Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Since jazz is usually celebrated as an improvisor’s art, it may seem paradoxical that one of its major figures was a composer. Though Duke Ellington was a notable pianist, he declared, ‘My band is my instrument,’ and for over half a century he made it the medium of a peerless body of work.

Ellington’s lifelong companions were the members of his band – among them the gutbucket growls of trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, the arching sensuousness of altoist Johnny Hodges and the rumbling majesty of Harry Carney’s baritone.

As individual and sometimes contrary a set of virtuosos as ever shared a bandstand, he composed with these sounds and personalities in his head, writing specifically for them. And they provided the raw material for his astonishing originality in harmony and orchestration. To many, Ellington may have been known for such lush popular hits as ‘Sophisticated Lady’, but his colleagues recognised an attainment of another order. As Miles Davis put it, ‘Some day all the jazz musicians should get together in one place and go down on their knees and thank Duke.’

Duke Ellington best recordings

Never No Lament – The Blanton-Webster Band

RCA 508572 (3 discs)

Duke Ellington Ken Burns Jazz
Sony 501 0342

Ellington at Newport: 1956

Sony C2K64932 (2 discs)

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman
Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

First he was nicknamed the ‘Rajah of Rhythm’, but by the summer of 1937 it would be as the ‘King of Swing’ that Benny Goodman would be forever known. Shortly after that, he was invited to perform with his band at Carnegie Hall in New York – a groundbreaking occasion, the invitation to this high altar of classical music effectively marked the acceptance of jazz right across US society.

Clarinet was Goodman’s instrument, and as a player he was as talented as he was versatile – classical composers who wrote works for him later in his career included the likes of Copland, Bartók and Poulenc. However, it was as a bandleader that he made his biggest mark on the music world. Every bit as important as the Carnegie Hall performance was an earlier one, at the Palomar Ballroom, Los Angeles, in August 1935, that helped to usher in the era of swing which would hold the US in sway for the next decade. Whether with his big band, his trio, quartet or sextet, a string of records for RCA Victor and Columbia followed.

Benny Goodman best recordings

Benny Goodman live at Carnegie Hall, 1938

Avid AMBX151 (4 discs)

Benny Goodman Story

Capitol CDP8335692

Benny Goodman

The Essential Collection

Avid AVC864 (2 discs)

Lionel Hampton

Photo of Lionel Hampton, a famous jazz band leader
Photo by Bob Willoughby/Redferns.

For Lionel Hampton, swing was the thing. All his life, he brought an unquenchable rhythmic dynamism to every musical setting – big band or combo, as vibraphonist, drummer, two-finger pianist, singer and leader. Joining Benny Goodman in 1936, he turned the elegant Goodman trio into an exuberant quartet. Hamp’s vibes were a coruscating powerhouse, a kind of riffing machine hammering out licks which drove Goodman to inspired heights. The Hampton persona was irresistible, too – mallets flailing in sweaty abandon, spurring himself on with bleats of encouragement, the jazz musician possessed.

Hampton was snapped up by RCA Victor, which gave him carte blanche to organise a series of small-group recording sessions in 1937-40. The result was a set of casually perfect classics, as the greatest stars of the swing era responded to his vitality. That blend of energy, precision and engagement set the tone for the success of the big band Hampton began to lead when he left Goodman in 1940, continuing to tour and record until not long before his death in 2002. His first hit, ‘Flying Home’ from 1942, established its style – a potent extended tenor solo, screaming trumpets, Hamp’s throbbing vibes and a focused, churning swing.

Lionel Hampton best recordings

The Lionel Hampton Story

Properbox 12 (4 discs)

Air Mail Special

Metronome 223999

Lionel Hampton

Live at the Blue Note

Telarc CD83313

Woody Herman

Woody Herman with pianist Fred Otis. Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images

Some jazz lovers are sniffy about big bands. Aside from Ellington and Basie, they doubt that regimented sections playing prescribed parts can deliver jazz’s spur-of-the-moment spirit, its famous ‘sound of surprise’. Which may account for a certain condescension towards Woody Herman. Big bands were his life: for over 50 years he propounded the excitement of orchestral jazz, touring until his death in 1987. To the legions of musicians who revered his commitment and high standards, he was known as ‘Road Father’.

Clarinettist, saxophonist and singer, Herman led from the front. But his crucial role was as enabler, inspiring players and writers to energy and daring, with the results which leap out of the four-CD Properbox set The Woody Herman Story. Though Herman’s 1930s group, The Band That Plays The Blues, won admiration, it was his First Herd, roaring into life in 1944, that catapulted him to greatness. Bursting with talent and reflecting the youthful optimism of Amercica at the end of World War II, this extraordinary ensemble seemed to project total euphoria. Musically, it was on the cusp of bebop, but its credo was swing to the max. Its rampant trumpet section – whose average age was 22 – set the tone, tossing off blinding feats of range and facility which they had apparently thought up on the spot.

Woody Herman best recordings

The Woody Herman Story

Properbox 15 (4 discs)

The Essence of Essence

33323

Thats Where It Is

Sounds of Yesteryear
DSOY 845

Earl Hines

Earl Hines top jazz pianist
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

A few years ago a correspondent to Radio 3’s Jazz Record Requests described Earl Hines as ‘underplayed, largely unavailable and probably underestimated’. It’s a fair summary of a situation that, in the 1930s, would have been unthinkable.
Then, Hines was riding high, the king of the keyboard, a byword for invention, technique, daring and dazzlement – the man who turned piano playing into a kind of Olympic event, inspiring a whole generation.

A groundbreaking series of recordings, both solo and with his fellow trailblazer, Louis Armstrong, catapulted him to fame in the ’20s. Through the ’30s and ’40s, Hines led a big band, which, in its latter days, included such bebop pioneers as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1948, he joined forces with Armstrong again, as a member of Louis’s All-Stars, and then in the ’50s he went off on his own. Musical fashion restricted him to the well-trodden paths of Dixieland, and by 1960, he was thinking of retiring. But in 1964, a sensational set of solo concerts in New York put him back on top, where he stayed, playing with authority until his death in 1983, short of his 80th birthday.

Earl Hines best recordings

The Earl: Recordings 1928-41

Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120581

Earl Hines plays Duke Ellington

New World 803612 Vol. I (2 discs)

Earl Hines Classic Trio Sessions

Lone Hill Jazz LHJ 10329

Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan jazz sax player
Louis Jordan (centre) with his band, the Tympany Five. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Rhythm-and-blues (R&B) is jazz’s cheeky, party-time younger brother. It evolved as a distinct genre in the late 1930s and ’40s, created by small jump bands whose free-wheeling energy contrasted with the grandiosity of the big swing orchestras.

Though the catchy R&B formula can claim varied ancestry, a major impetus came from the irrepressible Louis Jordan. Born in 1908, the saxist-singer learned his trade with his father’s Arkansas minstrel show, instilling a life-long instinct for entertainment. In New York, his personality made an impact with Chick Webb’s band. Too much, in fact: Webb sacked Jordan in 1938 for upstaging him and trying to poach his stars.

Ever the showman, Jordan decided that his group’s feature would be a set of kettledrums; and thus was born his Tympany Five. Though the timps soon departed, their name and eccentric spelling remained, signifying a potent, highly polished, infectious brand of musical entertainment that took large sections of the US by storm. In the years during and after World War II, he won popularity with a stream of recordings that revelled in a lithe, pulsating groove which demanded that you dance, with slick, pithy arrangements, and a repertoire of good-time tunes tailor‑made for his vocals.

We named Louis Jordan one of the best jazz saxophonists ever

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five

JSP JSPCD905 (5 discs)

Louis Jordan

Jack, You’re Dead

SPVBlue SPV49432

Glenn Miller

Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns

On 15 December 1944, Glenn Miller’s single-engined UC-64 Norseman aircraft disappeared over the English Channel on a flight from Bedford to Paris, bringing his life to an end at the age of 40 years old. The Iowa-born Miller, a trombonist, composer, arranger and, above all, leader of arguably the best known big band in the world, was at the peak of his career at the time.

Founded in 1938, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra achieved their distinctive sound by having the clarinet and a saxophone double up on the melody, supported by three further saxes playing in harmony. Over the next six years, they released 266 recordings, many reaching No. 1 in the US charts, including ‘In the mood’, ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and, perhaps most famously of all, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’. In 1942, Miller signed up for military service and was eventually transferred to Army Airforces, but continued to make music as the founder of the Army Air Force Band.

Though some critics thought some of his performances gimmicky and his Orchestra’s sound a little too polished, he enjoyed a popularity that was second to none.

Maria Schneider

Maria SCHNEIDER; Maria Schneider performing on stage, (
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

In 2005, a rare London concert by Maria Schneider attracted an audience so packed with top-flight jazz professionals that a cataclysm would have decimated the British scene. But it was no more than fitting for a musician hailed in America as ‘the most significant big-band jazz composer of our time’.

The ‘big band’ label hardly does justice to Schneider’s output. Arriving in New York in 1985 from university, the 25-year-old Minnesotan worked with two great mentors – Bob Brookmeyer, from whom she absorbed a sense of shape and structure, and Gil Evans, who enhanced her sensitivity to colour and texture. But her ears and inspiration are her own, enabling her, as she says, to develop a ‘way of making a big band sound like an orchestra’.

Chief among the Schneider hallmarks is a gift for sonorities that are rich and transparent, with a piquancy that comes from unexpected voicings, using brass and reeds in combinations that make them sound altogether new. They’re the perfect setting for her soaring melodies and harmonies, quickened by a rhythmic feeling which links momentum and metrical subtlety.

Maria Schneider best recordings

Sky Blue

ArtistShare AS0065

Evanescence

Enja ENJ 80482

Coming About

Enja ENJ 90692

Sun Ra

Sun Ra best jazz pianist
Photo by Andrew Putler/Redferns

Despite his cosmic claims, Sun Ra was born plain Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, to an African-American family of modest means. He quickly displayed remarkable musical and intellectual gifts, and by the age of 20 he was leading his own band. Not long after, he had a vision of his extraterrestrial origins, later compounded with a fascination for ancient Egypt as the source of Afro-European culture.

In 1952, he proclaimed his true roots by changing his name to Le Sony’r Ra and formed his own Space Trio, the core of his first Arkestra. Musicians were drawn to him by his charisma, at once down home and far out, stretching their minds and talents. An Arkestra gig was meant to be a brilliant extravaganza, bringing together music, poetry, theatre and dance. Garbed in gorgeous robes, spangled headdresses, masks and gaudy plumage, the band delivered Ra compositions that celebrated space and time, peace and hope, and joyous energy.

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Over the years, until his death in 1993, Sun Ra pioneered techniques from electronics to collective improvisation. At the same time, blues and swing are never far away, as you can hear on his most accessible album, Jazz in Silhouette. Recorded in 1958, it includes mystic visions, subtle lines and colours, non-stop grooves and exhilarating solos. And we share the whole experience, since, in Sun Ra’s words, ‘You’re all just instruments, in this vast Arkestra called life’.

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