28 best ever jazz pianists

Who are the best jazz pianists of all time? Here, in alphabetical order, are 28 of the greatest of all time

Herbie Hancock (b.1940)

Herbie Hancock jazz pianist
Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns

No one better illustrates the polymorphous character of contemporary jazz than Herbie Hancock. Over the last 40 years, as pianist, composer and general creative force, he has deepened the music’s harmonic and rhythmic subtlety, expanded its electronic scope and crossed over to top the pop charts. But his talent has always been restless and omnivorous, from a boyhood appearance with the Chicago Symphony playing a Mozart Concerto to his university days studying both music and engineering.

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Although critics debate the relative merits of his achievements, none would dispute the impact of his debut in the early ’60s. His first recording session as a leader produced the soul-jazz classic ‘Watermelon Man’; soon after joining Miles Davis, he began to redefine the function of a rhythm section. Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and the teenage drummer Tony Williams did not hammer the beat into a mechanical groove of tempo plus chord changes, but generated an allusive, intuitive current which opened up all manner of possibilities, with the pianist’s ambiguous, cunningly placed harmonies taking the lead.

In 1965 this dauntingly accomplished trio formed the centre of Hancock’s seminal project, Maiden Voyage. It was a concept album, with five numbers related to the sea, but its most striking feature was the sheer musical richness and variety of each piece. The title tune became a standard almost at once: its quiet pulse mutates between rock, latin and swing, while a long-lined melody evokes some distant horizon and a quasi-modal chord structure, which as Hancock put it, ‘just keeps moving around in a circle’. Hancock later called the work ‘the best composition I ever wrote’, and it inspired his quintet, as did all the material on the session, including another standard-to-be, ‘Dolphin Dance’. The horns comprised the eloquent tenor sax
of Hancock’s Miles Davis colleague George Coleman, and the best 1960s trumpeters, Freddie Hubbard.

Throughout this voyage, Hancock is at the helm. He once described jazz as ‘immediate and very adaptable’, and, given this level of authority and invention, capable of momentous artistic results as well.

Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952)

Fletcher Henderson top jazz pianist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Benny Goodman may have been the ‘King of Swing’, but pianist and bandleader Fletcher Henderson was the power behind the throne.
In the decade before the Goodman band ignited the Swing era in 1935, Henderson defined the way in which the pulsating spontaneity of jazz could be translated into orchestral terms. Many of the key arrangements that propelled Goodman to fame were Henderson originals, which became more celebrated in their secondhand versions than by Henderson’s band.

This may seem another instance of white popularity co-opting black art, but the full story is more complicated. Though a superb musician and peerless judge of talent, Fletcher Henderon was reckoned a hopeless leader. His sidemen described him as relaxed, vague and plain lazy, a reluctant disciplinarian capable of arriving at a gig a month late or early. Curiously passive altogether, he had drifted into music after studying as a chemist, and continued to pursue a haphazard course until his death at 55 in 1952, never reaping the rewards his stature warranted.

That sense of frustrated opportunity becomes all the more intense in the presence of his musical accomplishments. The compilation devoted to him in the Ken Burns Jazz series takes his band from its beginnings to the ’30s, demonstrating both its evolution in style and the astonishing quality of the personnel Henderson recruited. In 1924 he enlisted a young trumpeter he had first heard in New Orleans in 1921: Louis Armstrong’s effect on the band was galvanic, transforming its rather prim East Coast attack with his rampaging Crescent City genius.

Central to the ensemble’s impact were the potent arrangements, provided by Henderson, his brother Horace and Don Redman. Fletcher’s own ‘King Porter Stomp’ is an object lesson in big-band writing, in which the swinging interplay of brass and saxes launches the solos and generates a single inspired wave of rhythm from beginning to end. Though this piece became one of Benny Goodman’s greatest hits, his band couldn’t match the irresistible surge of invention created by the Henderson men.

Earl Hines 1903-1983

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.

Naxos’s compilation, The Earl, presents a vintage selection of performances from 1928 to 1941, showcasing his trademarks – the ‘trumpet-style’ right hand, which projected melodies with the bright, attacking power of a lead instrument, cascading, asymmetrical forays which could start and stop anywhere, overturning metre and harmony, and a left hand which seemed to operate independently, launching off-beat chords and chromatic runs.

It was exhilarating, as though the oom-pah rhythms of stride and ragtime had gone cubist. Hines loved the sense of drama palpable on ‘Weather Bird’, his duet with Armstrong. As the pianist once put it, ‘I go out in deep water and I always try to get back’. He always did, with every wrong-footing flourish finding its way home.

The Naxos disc includes tracks by his big band but I prefer his solo piano magic, which abounds in the set he made in the ’70s devoted to Duke Ellington. A blend of audacity and majesty, exuberance and meditation, it’s a monument to the legacy of Hines.

Abdullah Ibrahim (1928-1975)

Abdullah Ibrahim jazz pianist
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To the early historians of jazz, the music’s African essence was indisputable. More recent critics, however, have seen the African influence as only one of its aspects, giving equal weight to the heritage of European harmony and form, and stating the true essence of jazz is America’s protean creativity.

Yet Africa has produced its own distinctive jazz culture, epitomised by the pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim. Originally known as Dollar Brand, he, too, is an amalgam of influences, absorbing the music of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Cape Town from his pianist-grandmother and American standards from local dance bands, as well as, on record, the omnipresent strains of Duke Ellington.

That community was steeped both in its own native musical traditions and the oppression of apartheid, where playing jazz amounted to a political act. In 1960, with his groundbreaking sextet the Jazz Epistles, Dollar Brand made South Africa’s first modern jazz album by non-whites, before emigrating to Switzerland. There, his life was changed by an encounter with Duke Ellington, who promoted him. The pianist began to make an international reputation, while staying close to his roots. In 1968 he converted to Islam, becoming Abdullah Ibrahim, and returned to South Africa as often as the tyrannical conditions would allow. In the 1970s he made some robust recordings with his South African colleagues; even when resident in America in the 1980s, he called his band Ekaya: ‘home’. Finally, the collapse of apartheid brought him home indeed, where he played at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration.

In 2004, Ibrahim marked his 70th birthday with A Celebration, a CD surveying his career. Consisting almost entirely of originals, it features him on vocals, bamboo flute and soprano sax as well as piano, with South African sidemen and Americans. Tunes like ‘African Market Place’ and ‘Ancient Cape’ display the throbbing rhythmic ostinatos and infectious melodies that are Ibrahim trademarks.

In the disc Voice of Africa the music feels African, charged with a communal joy and faith which still lie at the heart of jazz and reach out instantly to anyone.

Ahmad Jamal (b.1930)

Ahmad Jamal jazz pianist
Credit: CBS Photo Archive

Now in his eighties, Ahmad Jamal can look back on a chequered career. When he formed his first trio in 1951, modern jazz piano was defined by the bebop heroics of Bud Powell – furious lines poured out over a surging beat like a musical roller coaster, following the dips and swoops of a tune’s chord structure to a breathless climax. But Jamal took a different tack, creating space and variety, teasing, shifting grooves that rejected bop’s headlong compulsion. And his keyboard touch was distinctive, airy, playfully melodic, with flashes of virtuosity.

Critics were bemused and suspicious, all the more because the Jamal trio attracted a growing public, capped in 1958 by the disc But Not for Me, recorded live at Chicago’s Pershing Lounge. It remained a bestseller for two years, confirming, to large segments of the jazz establishment, that Jamal was just a glorified cocktail pianist. As one writer snidely put it, he might play piano, but his real instrument was the audience.

But such jaundiced observers were hard put to explain why the Jamal fanbase included so many musicians, most prominently Miles Davis. He was an unashamed Jamal groupie, declaring, ‘I live until he makes another record.’ What impressed him were the characteristics the critics scorned – the pianist’s feeling for breadth, texture and melody, his escape from bebop orthodoxy, his ability to fashion new structures out
of routine forms.

Returning to the hit album At the Pershing now reveals what the jazz scribes missed. Freed from the taste of the age, its virtues are remarkable. Jamal has rethought the whole trio format, so that each piece becomes a fresh experience, defying prefabrication. All three players are equal: he accompanies the bass and drums as much as they do him. Melodies are transformed by subtle vamps and interludes, making a tune swing all the more. And the group swings like mad: their classic ‘Poinciana’ is a distilled New Orleans street parade with a latin touch, as Jamal muses over Vernell Fournier’s insinuating beat. The disc’s abiding pleasure confirms the pianist’s motto that ‘there’s no such thing as old music’. He himself is still in his prime.

Keith Jarrett (b.1945)

Keith Jarrett jazz pianist
Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Depending on your view, Keith Jarrett’s status is either problematic or exalted. Is he a pianist whose gifts are compromised by grandiose flights of whimsy or, as a critic put it, one who ‘uniquely connects to a type of universal/musical consciousness’? For Jarrett, jazz is not a tradition or a vocabulary, but a spiritual process that involves opening yourself to true creativity; ‘an attempt,’ he said once, ‘over and over again, to reveal the heart of things.’

When I first encountered him at a Stan Kenton music camp in 1961, he was a bright 16 year-old who could play brilliantly in any style, jazz or classical, not to mention his own. No surprise that he became a star with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, from 1967-70, whose flower-power ethos suited him perfectly. Subsequently, he led his own groups, but it was with his solo concerts from 1972 that he reached cult celebrity.

Jarrett’s free-form improvisations would start with no prior theme or direction and cover all manner of idioms, from gospel vamps to Romantic rhapsodies, propelled for up to an hour by an intense lyricism. Just as intense was his manner – flailing, moaning and gasping. The heady atmosphere came through on record: his 1975 Köln Concert sold over a million.

Solo improvisation continued to be central to Jarrett’s work. Besides piano, he’s recorded on clavichord, pipe organ and soprano sax, plus – on the home-made multi-tracked project Spirits – ethnic flutes and percussion. Revealingly, such tracks comprise the bulk of the material he selected for his 2-CD retrospective in ECM’s :rarum series. But there are also examples of his ensemble partnerships with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the Standards trio, which Jarrett formed in 1983 with his fellow virtuosos, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

The Standards trio has become the pianist’s regular touring group, exploring tunes from the treasure trove of American popular songs and classic jazz themes as well as originals. On albums such as Up for It, the results are sublime: focused and intelligent, spontaneous and inspired, joyful and swinging. Whether you accept all Jarrett’s views on jazz, this music is the real thing.

Brad Mehldau (b.1970)

Brad Mehldau top jazz pianist
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Though the jazz wars rumble on, jazz itself seems to be thriving. Younger players learn from the masters of the past without worrying about being labelled ‘retro’, and recognise that experimentation need not mean ear-numbing violence or funny-hats whimsy. A perfect example of someone recasting the jazz tradition in a wholly contemporary personal style is Brad Mehldau, widely regarded, now in his forties, as the leading jazz pianist of his generation. Steeped in classical keyboard lessons as a child, he switched to jazz in his teens, studying and performing in New York. In l994, after making a reputation as a sideman, he formed the trio which has been his principal medium ever since.

It’s typical of Mehldau that he doesn’t view the conventional trio format as any inhibitor to creativity. He glories in its possibilities: he and his regular partners, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, have recorded a sequence of five albums titled The Art of the Trio, a kind of object lesson in how much invention the standard line-up can generate. Mehldau’s secret is his constant originality. Even familiar material sparkles with new life in the trio’s interpretations, with no sense of a jazz group merely running through its jazzy paces.

The pianist’s solos are marvels of sustained, deeply felt discovery: his mastery of classical technique provides him with a wide expressive palette and each note is part of an evolving narrative, with its own considered weight and colour, whether shaping oddly tilted, asymmetrical phrases or silvery runs. His taste for varied harmonies and dynamics is complemented by Grenadier and Rossy, and their absorbing interplay constantly suggests new directions, carried along
by a subtly pulsing rhythmic drive.

A superb example of the trio’s artistry – and their wide-ranging repertoire – is their most recent CD, the highly praised Anything Goes, incorporating standards by Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk, tunes by pop stars Paul Simon and Radiohead, and winding up with a remarkable bitonal version of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’, epitomising the blend of irony and romance which is Brad Mehldau’s special territory.

Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

Thelonius Monk jazz pianist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Even people who don’t know much about jazz are aware that jazz musicians are meant to be ‘characters’ – free-spirited types whose absorption in music generates bizarre behaviour. Though this hipster mythology is exaggerated, it seemed made for Thelonious Monk. His mystique was compounded by his unforgettable name (albeit the same as his father’s), his taste for exotic headgear, a penchant for breaking into impromptu dances on the bandstand and a jabbing, idiosyncratic piano style punctuated by the silences which also marked his everyday demeanour.

But Monk’s media status as the ‘high priest of bebop’ obscured the real nature of his achievement. At a time when modern jazz was dominated by harmonic legerdemain and omnivorous technique, he showed that a deep-rooted personal vision was still possible. Monk’s compositions were unlike anyone else’s, full of curiously stretched and sharply angled chords, wrong-footing rhythms, melodies that could be gnomic, rich or grainily lyrical. He defied facility. When you played Monk, you played him on his terms, and his best interpreter was probably himself. His approach to the piano could seem splayed and halting – one fleet-fingered rival dismissed him as ‘hamstrung’ – but he could produce marvellous, probing colours, somehow getting in between the keys to make the piano seem the ultimate blues instrument. And he swung enormously, with spikey accents and clangorous, tumbling runs. As a soloist or accompanist, his timing was perfect, and he could galvanise a rhythm section by knowing exactly when and when not to play.

Listening to Monk can easily become a lifelong habit, since what he has to offer is unavailable anywhere else. Perhaps the best place to start is with the Blue Note compilation Thelonious Monk – Finest in Jazz, a collection of classics (‘Round Midnight’, ‘Misterioso’, ‘Straight No Chaser’) imbued with his quirky magic. By now the cult of his supposed eccentricity has waned. Like all the best jazz, Monk’s music is a permanent presence.

Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941)

Jelly Roll Morton jazz pianist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As a matter of right, Jelly Roll Morton would have assumed that any jazz starter collection would begin with him. After all, he once proudly proclaimed, ‘I myself invented jazz in the year of 1902’. Grandiosity was his lifelong style: pianist, composer, leader; pool-shark, pimp and hustler – there was something mythic about Jelly, right down – or up – to the glittering diamond in one of his front teeth.

People resented his arrogance, but as one of his musicians put it, ‘Sure he bragged, but he could back up everything he said.’ And while he may not have invented jazz, he was arguably the first great jazz composer, the man who proved it was possible to realise both a compelling structure and spontaneous excitement. The key to his achievement was a many-sided and acute musical imagination, steeped in the cultural melting pot of New Orleans. Morton absorbed all the riches the Crescent City had to offer – blues, ragtime, marches, grand opera, quadrilles and the ‘Spanish tinge’ he maintained was essential to jazz. His piano style displays all these influences, at once refined and raffish, encompassing elegant turns and trills, barrelhouse chords and a strain of melancholy lyricism.

The same qualities suffuse his orchestral works. Morton first formed the band he called Red Hot Peppers in Chicago in 1926, and their recordings will come as a revelation to anyone who thinks of early jazz as raucous and one-dimensional. Morton’s men were all masters of the vibrant New Orleans style, and gave his compositions just the right interpretative and improvisatory gusto. The pieces themselves are at once joyful and subtle, strutting and sonorous, demonstrating Morton’s instinct for structure, detail, colour and dynamics. ‘Black Bottom Stomp’ or ‘Grandpa’s Spells’ provide textbook examples of a superbly crafted sequence of instrumental effects and combinations, building to an exuberant climax.

The whole of Morton’s recorded output from 1926 to 1930 is available on a five-CD set from JSP. In it, Jelly stakes his claim not only to be ‘Dr Jazz’ (as he crows on one of his most famous discs), but the creator of a unique corner of 20th-century music.

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