25 greatest jazz saxophonists of all time

Who is the best jazz saxophonist of all time? Here, in alphabetical order, are 25 of the greatest jazz saxophone players of all time - but do you agree with our choices? Words by Geoffrey Smith

Best Jazz saxophone players of all time

A  musician playing the saxophone is one of the most iconic images of jazz music, and one of the genre’s most iconic sounds. Here are, what we think, the best jazz saxophonists ever…

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Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (1928-1975)

Julian Cannonball Adderley
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Some critics disapproved of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. During a difficult time for jazz, in the 1960s and ’70s, the alto saxophonist flourished with effortless authority and genial appeal; his funky brand of ‘soul jazz’, rooted in blues and gospel, struck a happy chord with listeners more familiar with rock, only confirming purist suspicions.

His arrival on the New York scene in 1955 was the stuff of legend. Fresh from Florida, this roly-poly young man astonished the locals with his virtuosity. ‘Cannonball’ (a childhood corruption of ‘cannibal’, due to his large appetite) became overnight heir apparent to the recently deceased Charlie Parker. As one of his awestruck rivals put it: ‘He was the baddest thing we’d ever heard.’ The Adderley style combined Parker’s fluency and fire, the elegance of Benny Carter and the jump-band energy of Louis Jordan. As a southerner, Adderley was steeped in the blues, yet commanded musical sophistication with thorough academic training.

All these qualities commended him to Miles Davis, who recruited him for his immortal band of 1957. Cannonball’s ebullience provided a perfect complement to John Coltrane’s mystic striving and Davis’s piquant lyricism, enshrined in some of the great Davis recordings. The association led to one of the altoist’s best discs as well, when Davis agreed to participate as a sideman in a session led by Adderley. Somethin’ Else shows both men in top form, backed by an all-star rhythm section, achieving a remarkable unity of feeling. The Adderley joie de vivre is manifest throughout, tempered with a concern for space and structure
which reveals the Davis influence, making memorable solos on ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Love for Sale’.

After two years with Davis, Adderley left to form his own band, which had an instant hit with a live album in San Francisco. It encapsulates the group’s appeal – a hard-swinging, infectious ensemble, freewheeling solos and plenty of audience interaction. It continued until the altoist’s death from a stroke in 1975, confirming, in the words of Miles Davis, that ‘Cannonball had a certain kind of spirit’, which enlivened everything he touched.

Iain Ballamy

Iain Ballamy jazz saxophonist
Photo by Henrietta Butler/Redferns

What do people like about jazz? For some, its essence is the musical power of improvisation, spontaneous composition before your ears. Others rejoice in its freedom and energy, the release of expressing whatever you feel any way you like. In Paris in the jazz-mad 1920s, the proto-surrealist Erik Satie declared: ‘Jazz shouts its sorrows at us and we don’t give a damn. That’s why it’s fine, real.’

In that view, jazz is a matter of behaviour as much as art, an assault on decorum, inhibition and convention. As music, its great virtue is that it’s not classical, which is why, to some radical players and critics, the idea of a ‘jazz tradition’ amounts to a contradiction. The point is not to emulate the past, but to conjure subversive new sounds for the present and future. Jazz should be alive in the moment, totally free. The only trouble with this scorched-earth aesthetic is that, for close listeners, it may not deliver the artistic goods. A live gig may offer a temporary buzz, but not much of a musical aftertaste.

Which is why I admire Iain Ballamy. Now in his forties, the saxophonist has been a mainstay of the British contemporary scene since the 1980s, winning particular notice as a charter member of the big band Loose Tubes. Their house style was a kind of edgy whimsicality, and Ballamy one of its prime exponents. But as composer and soloist he also displayed a wide emotional range, intelligence and imagination, qualities that have remained typical of his work ever since.

He has built up a big following in Europe, recording a series of food-themed CDs with a Norwegian band, encompassing abstraction, rock and electronics. But my favourite Ballamy CD is The Little Radio, a delightful collaboration with accordionist Stian Carstensen,
which shows just how capacious and accomplished cutting-edge jazz can be. Beginning with a version
of the classic tenor showcase ‘Body and Soul’, which manages to be both tender and tongue-in-cheek, the duo tackle an eclectic bill, from ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ to Satie’s ‘Je te veux’, and Ballamy’s swirling homage to Sonny Rollins, ‘My Waltz for Newk’. Musical, ingenious and endearing, this is jazz to listen to again and again.

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959)

Sidney Bechet jazz saxophonist
Photo by JP Jazz Archive/Redferns

All his life, Sidney Bechet was a confirmed, even cantankerous individualist. Though one of the supreme jazz soloists, he always insisted that he played ‘ragtime’, as the music was called in the New Orleans of Bechet’s boyhood. He was inveterately restless, too, pursuing opportunities and adventure through America, Europe and as far as Russia by the mid-1920s. Wherever he went, he astonished audiences with a passionate, sweeping invention that proclaimed the revolutionary musical potential of jazz. After hearing Bechet in London in 1919, the conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote a remarkable review, praising this ‘extraordinary clarinet virtuoso’, whose unique way of playing ‘is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow’.

It was in London that Bechet found the instrument with which he would blaze his most spectacular trail. As contrary, challenging and powerful as Bechet himself, the soprano sax was little more than a novelty until he took it up; thereafter, his mastery was so complete that he defied anyone to follow him. The horn’s penetrating sonority, especially impelled by Bechet’s huge tone and imperious vibrato, made his musical presence all the more imposing. He dominated every group he played
in, brushing aside hapless trumpet players.

The Bechet style is one of the most readily identifiable in jazz, and it stamps his authority on every track in the Ken Burns Jazz CD. Here he is, locking horns with his New Orleans contemporary and fellow genius Louis Armstrong, delivering the ‘Characteristic Blues’ which, in London, inspired Ansermet’s vision of the future, turning George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ into a growling, gut-bucket lament. ‘Blue Horizon’ is a clarinet masterpiece – six eloquent choruses creating a single majestic arc – while ‘Love for Sale’ shows Bechet tackling a contemporary standard. ‘Shake It and Break It’ demonstrates his up-tempo authority.

That same energy animates the tune ‘Shag’. Decades after it was recorded, a critic played it to the 1960s’ saxophone giant, John Coltrane. He was amazed, exclaiming, ‘Did all those old guys swing like that?’ Bechet did, and he’s still setting the pace.

Benny Carter (1907-2003)

Benny Carter jazz saxophonist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

All too often, the popular image of jazz obscures its musical quality. Jazz players are supposed to be hard-living eccentrics, to the detriment of those who simply concentrate on perfecting their art and taking care of business. One victim of such woolly stereotyping was Benny Carter, a great jazz man and consummate professional whose majestic career lasted almost until his death in July 2003, just short of his 96th birthday. Yet any lack of public acclaim was compensated for by the esteem of his peers, expressed in honours and his nickname, ‘The King’.

Beginning in the 1920s, Carter forged a reputation as one of the most original alto saxists in jazz, developing a supple, sophisticated style at a time when the sax was still considered a novelty. The same approach distinguished his burgeoning talent as arranger-composer. While much ensemble-writing of the time was crude and block-like, Carter achieved a fluent grace, full of surprises and finely-honed musicality.

As player and writer, he was a key figure on the New York scene, and, in 1935, went to Europe, where he worked as a staff arranger for the BBC and organised bands and sessions with local musicians, as well as such star compatriots as Coleman Hawkins. He pursued the same busy round of activities on his return to the US in 1938. Although always ranked at the highest level as a saxophonist – and remarkably, he was almost as skilled as a trumpeter – Carter found his time taken up with commercial writing assignments. The 1943 film Stormy Weather marked his Hollywood breakthrough, and he became the first black musician to attain eminence in the prejudiced world of the studios. 

Carter’s career in movies and TV sometimes meant suspending his first love, playing jazz. But he never abandoned it, and over the years recording projects, gigs and concerts served notice that the King’s creativity and virtuosity continued unabated. A classic Carter disc is Further Definitions, from 1961, made with his fellow giant Coleman Hawkins and two younger contemporary saxophonists. Throughout, he is clearly in charge, showing the musical richness jazz can offer in the hands of a master – a once and future King.

Ornette Coleman (b. 1930)

Ornette Coleman jazz saxophone player
Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

When Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz burst on the scene in 1961, an appalled critic declared ‘the banshees are upon us’. The alto saxophonist was used to hostile reactions. Years before, working with a rhythm and blues band in his native Texas, he had suffered the indignity of being paid not to play. Later, in Los Angeles, musicians had left the stand when he tried to sit in. All the while, though, he remained true to his conviction that ‘jazz should express more kinds of feeling than it has up to now’, which he pursued by ‘working with pitch and reaching for the sound of the human voice’.

By the late 1950s, he had begun to attract the attention of such influential admirers as John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis discerned in the altoist’s radical, homespun style not mere subversion but a creative instinct. As Coleman put it, ‘Once I found I could make mistakes, I knew I was on to something.’

What he was on to was an alternative to the conventions of bop – the repetitious chord patterns, the rigid division of labour between rhythm section and horns, the unvarying format of theme then solos. In its place, Coleman offered an organic concept which returned to the vocal roots of jazz – a blues-drenched cry in which vehicle and expression were one, generating a melodic line that went wherever the emotion of the moment took it.

Though his approach was called ‘free’, it depended on the finely honed responses of the altoist and his quartet to their material and each other. A good place to begin appreciating that unique interaction is The Shape of Jazz to Come from 1959. Here can be found all the Coleman virtues, including such superb compositions as ‘Lonely Woman’, a yearning portrait of a lady with a rhapsodic melody arching over an agitated cymbal beat and meditative plucked bass. ‘Eventually’ is a bubbly, boppish tune with a jack-in-the-box quality and enormous swing, while ‘Congeniality’ combines bop, blues and lyricism, jagged dissonance and childlike consonance. As always, Coleman’s music conforms not to prescription or expectation, but to his searching, celebrating, wholly original voice.

John Coltrane (1926-1967)

John Coltrane jazz saxophone player
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It’s hard to convey the impact John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things made on its release in 1961. The title track caused a sensation. Coltrane’s quartet transformed an innocuous waltz from The Sound of Music into a kind of cosmic vision, with the leader’s soprano saxophone wailing like an eerie call to prayer over pianist McCoy Tyner’s hypnotic modal chords, Steve Davis’s ostinato bass and Elvin Jones’s relentlessly seething drums.

This was a bold alternative to conventional improvisation which was still largely based on standard chord structures over a beat. Just when the intellectual intricacies of bebop seemed exhausted, along came Coltrane, spearheading the way back to pure emotion.

My Favorite Things proved prophetic for more than just the future of jazz. Its Eastern-sounding timbre and trance-inducing length perfectly suited the rock culture of the ’60s and helped encourage the rise in popularity of world music. In jazz, Coltrane’s harmonic daring gave impetus to the trend toward free improvisation.

But aside from its significance as a cultural moment, My Favorite Things retains its importance as a work of art, and a testament to Coltrane’s gifts and commitment. The album shows him at a key stage of a lifelong spiritual quest, expressed in his musical development. His legion of imitators often overlooked the technical command that informed his improvisations. He practised endlessly: among saxophonists he was known as ‘an eight-or-ten-hour-a-day man’. And no one in jazz knew more about chord structure, or could negotiate them with greater fluency.

Coltrane’s purpose was not to subvert form, but to extend its possibilities; the other tracks on My Favorite Things demonstrate his invention in more conventional material. On tenor, there’s a searing version of ‘Summertime’ and an angular reworking of ‘But Not For Me’; on soprano, a yearning ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, in which Coltrane’s lyricism recalls the man he dubbed ‘the world’s greatest saxophone player’, Duke Ellington’s nonpareil altoist Johnny Hodges.

My Favorite Things marks a pinnacle both in the jazz tradition and in the career of one of its great masters.

John Dankworth (1927-2010)

john Dankworth jazz saxophone player
Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, performing live onstage. Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

In 1951, one of the brightest young bandleaders on the British scene was looking for a singer. After a weary trawl through some 30 candidates, he heard a voice that gave him a little frisson of goosebumps. It belonged to Clementine Langridge, a frustrated young housewife yearning to be a star, and he offered her a job virtually there and then. In short order, John Dankworth’s new vocalist was renamed Cleo Laine, and a legendary jazz couple was born. In the more than half a century since, Dankworth and Laine created some of the most distinguished and varied music to come out of the UK, attaining a massive global following. They both approached their 80th birthdays with talents undiminished, playing a gala Prom in August 2007, before John Dankworth died in 2010 aged 82.

Despite their long alliance, Dankworth and Laine always pursued solo careers as well. John Dankworth first made his name with his cutting-edge septet as leader, composer-arranger and potent altoist in the Charlie Parker mould. His subsequent big
band compounded his success, with hit records and a US tour. In the 1960s he became a first-call composer for TV and cinema, producing soundtracks for such iconic films as The Servant and Modesty Blaise. He also wrote for, and conducted, symphony orchestras all over the world. Of course, his skills and versatility made him the perfect music director for Laine. But she’s also established her own formidable reputation as an actress – acclaimed in both straight plays and musicals – and a singer commanding almost cult status, particularly in the States. Her dramatic sense, coupled with her extraordinary vocal range, have enabled her to excel in recordings from Porgy and Bess to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and with such varied partners as Duke Ellington, James Galway and Ray Charles. The quality of her achievement is displayed on The Very Best of Cleo Laine
(RCA Victor). As for John Dankworth, a double-disc EMI set, The Best of John Dankworth, gives an overview of his lifetime achievement.

Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)

Eric Dolphy Jazz saxophone player
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Free jazz is a problematic concept. To some people, freedom is the essence of the music, its whole point. To others, jazz is a particular language, informing feeling and creativity, and true musical freedom depends on engaging structures that concentrate expression. Which may be what that radical mover-and-shaker Charles Mingus meant when he growled, ‘You can’t improvise on nothin’, man.’

One of the most compelling answers to the free jazz conundrum was posed by a player who spent part of his all-too-brief career as a Mingus sideman. Eric Dolphy blazed across the scene in the early ’60s, known first as an alto saxist, but also performing with distinction on flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, which he established as a potent jazz instrument. On all his horns he was a dazzling soloist, compounding a brilliant technique and a personal sound, often incorporating vocalised textures – whoops, cries and ecstatic, leaping intervals. Yet even at his most daring, a dynamic form was palpable.

His use of chord structures was striking, when his fellow exponents of what was called ‘the new thing’ were abandoning them. He liked harmonic patterns, adapting them to his own creative purpose. As he put it, ‘I don’t think I “leave the changes” as the expression goes; every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece.’

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That sense of underlying shape and direction, at one with a passionate spirit of musical adventure, gives his disc Out to Lunch a rare quality. Recorded in February 1964, four months before his sudden death at 36, it shows the range of his musical vision, including tributes to both Thelonious Monk and the avant-garde classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni. Dolphy’s colleagues – Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass and the teenage drummer Tony Williams – share his convictions, approaching each piece not as a preconceived formula but as an expressive occasion. The mood of spontaneous interaction never flags, generating the mix of immediacy and insight, individual voices and collective inspiration that makes Out to Lunch perennially fresh.