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

Jan Garbarek (b.1947)

Jan Garbarek jazz saxophone player
Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

Like saxophonists the world over, Jan Garbarek was first attracted to the instrument by hearing John Coltrane. Beginning in 1961, the self-taught Norwegian teenager made rapid progress, winning national awards and international attention. In 1970 he recorded his first album, for the fledgling German label ECM, establishing a union that has proved prophetic for them both: Garbarek’s work is synonymous with the atmospheric ECM sound. 

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Garbarek’s own sound, while strongly personal, still recalls Coltrane’s famous ‘cry’, the soul-stirring wail which soared over surging, mesmerising modes, inspiring visions and ecstasies. For players, it offered a kind of liberation, since the modal approach to jazz didn’t require mastering the chord structures on which improvisation had customarily been based. The intricacies of blues and swing were equally unnecessary: at a stroke the music’s expressive freedom seemed to transcend its American roots.

Jan Garbarek has become a standard-bearer for European jazz, declaring that ‘any personal input from any part of the world… will work in the jazz idiom’. On his two-CD retrospective in ECM’s :rarum series, his tone is by turns mysterious, raw and declamatory, conjuring the northern lights, sea birds, ancient myth. Garbarek’s work often projects a quasi-mystical, incantatory quality, rituals to assuage contemporary angst, reflected in such titles as ‘I Took up the Runes’ and ‘Legend of the Seven Dreams’. Some of the best tracks contrast his arching sonorities with the attacking sound of acoustic guitar, superbly executed by Ralph Towner or Egberto Gismonti. These pieces generate real excitement in shape and texture, as does ‘Sunshine Song’ with a Keith Jarrett quartet, one of the few numbers that achieves the sort of rhythmic groove usually associated with jazz.

In addition, he has had a considerable role in opening up the vast frontier of crossover, epitomised in Officium, his collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble. Whether or not it can qualify as jazz, it certainly exemplifies the broadening and levelling of the music in a global age.

Stan Getz (1927-1991)

Stan Getz jazz saxophone player
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Popular success is often a mixed blessing for jazz musicians, and Stan Getz is an interesting example. Already a veteran of leading swing bands, the 20-year-old saxist made his mark in 1947 with a famous solo on Woody Herman’s ‘Early Autumn’. Though only eight bars long, its floating lyricism established the distinctive Getz sound. During the 1950s he was one of jazz’s biggest names, and in the early ’60s he achieved commercial status when he became synonymous with the infectious, tuneful rhythms of the bossa nova.

But the more bankable he became, the more purists tended to sneer. Getz’s style was dismissed as a mere imitation of the great Lester Young and ‘emotionally anaemic’, criticism which intensified with the rise of the genres of hard bop, fusion and free. Yet Getz continued to follow his own course and talent, equally indifferent to jazz fashion and top-40 formulae. The result was the gradual acknowledgement of his stature. When he died from cancer in 1991 – having played virtually to the end – he was not just a star, but an immortal.

One of the virtues of the Getz compilation in Verve’s Jazz Masters series is its revelation of complexity and development. ‘Body and Soul’, from 1952, epitomises the dreamy crooning of his early ballad phase, but ‘It Never Entered My Mind’, from a 1957 concert, is in another league, a luminous meditation from the first notes of the melody. Four years later he featured in
one of the most successful unions of jazz and strings, the suite Focus, with arrangements by Eddie Sauter. Getz named this his favourite among his albums, and a high point is the glowing ‘Her’, in which he creates as much a self-portrait as a portrait of a woman.

Perhaps predictably, the Jazz Masters disc begins and ends with the tenorist in bossa nova mode. ‘Desafinado’ and ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, may have made him the darling of the pop charts, but he still displays unflagging creative power as well as appealing buoyancy. Indeed, every track here shows the saxophonist remaining true to his jazz calling.


Pop stars want to be popular. Stan Getz wanted to be himself, and his lifelong quest has left us riches.

Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

Jazz Sax player Dexter Gordon
Gordon (right) performing with Wardell Gray. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Because he stood over six feet, Dexter Gordon was known as ‘Long Tall Dexter’. But the nickname might also have referred to the influence he cast over young tenor players in the 1940s and ’50s: Gordon’s mix of Lester Young’s lithe invention and Coleman Hawkins’s harmonic depth, leavened with Charlie Parker’s brilliance, inspired a generation of saxophonists, including John Coltrane.

He started early. When he joined Lionel Hampton’s band in 1940 he was just 17, and already a roguish charmer. Once, late for a gig, he walked on stage blowing when his solo spot came, bringing the house down. He became a bebop star, playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, from 1947-52, established a tenor duo with Wardell Gray, performing celebrated saxophone battles.

But that partnership, and Gordon’s prospects, came to an end with his imprisonment on drugs charges from 1952-54. A second conviction kept him inside from 1956-60. That this huge upheaval in his career didn’t diminish his talent was revealed in a series of prime recordings, such as Go! from 1962. But no sooner had it appeared than Gordon upped sticks for Europe, where he remained until 1976. His return to the US was a triumph, a rediscovery of a jazzman at a time when jazz was at a low ebb. Gordon became a hero again, though his time in the limelight was curtailed by ill health.

Yet he made one final comeback as a movie star, playing the lead in the 1986 film Round Midnight. His fictional character could have been himself, an ageing tenor battling the demons of the jazz life, and the showman-saxist won an oscar nomination as best actor, in a last bow before his death in 1990. Though Gordon’s career may be the stuff of legend, its substance shines through albums like Go!. It was his own favourite, brimming with confidence and the prodigality of his gifts. Here are the huge sounds, shifting from R‘n’B honk to sinewy grace, the lines remoulding the beat and the chords – above all the creative momentum, shaping a solo in ways you could never have predicted. As Dexter himself put it, Go! is what jazz people mean when they talk about somebody ‘saying something’.

Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)

Coleman Hawkins jazz saxophone player
Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

There seems to be a curious resistance, in some quarters, to the idea that jazz is a conscious art – that jazz musicians practise and work at their styles over a lifetime, expanding and refining. This is not to deny the importance of spontaneity, but jazz’s famous ‘sound of surprise’ always involves committed preparation, as players cultivate the personal voice they bring to any musical encounter.

A supreme example of that conviction was the tenor king, Coleman Hawkins, once dubbed ‘the man for whom Sax invented the saxophone’. When ‘Hawk’ began his early career in the early 1920s, the sax was a novelty instrument, skittery and staccato. Within a few years, he had not only demonstrated its full expressive potential, but established his own definitive way of playing. His massive tone, supple technique and commanding improvisations reduced would-be rivals to imitators. No serious stylistic alternative would emerge for more than a decade and, even then, Hawkins would maintain his eminence. His status reflected both his gifts and his determination to develop them: the Ken Burns CD devoted to him surveys a career virtually unparalleled in its ambition and breadth. In the ‘The Stampede’ (1926), with Fletcher Henderson’s band, he is already a master, slashing his way through an uptempo solo as if sculpting in sound. His ballad chorus on ‘If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight’, in 1929, is astonishingly modern, subsuming chords and barlines into a free, rhapsodic flow. And a decade later, after a five-year sojourn in Europe, Hawkins set the standard for jazz ballads with ‘Body and Soul’, a masterpiece of harmonic subtlety and storytelling. Younger musicians esteemed him for his musical and personal sophistication, and the interest was mutual. Hawk hired them, making some of the first bop recordings, including ‘Woody’n’You’ with Dizzy Gillespie. 

Unprecedented in 1948, the track Picasso is a solo homage to a man the saxophonist admired as a kindred spirit. There is a similarity between Picasso’s ever-shifting perspective and the harmonic quest of Hawkins; and the musician, like the painter, produced a body of work that retains all its dynamic force.

Johnny Hodges (1907-1070)

Johnny Hodges jazz saxophone player
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For decades, audiences knew they were about to witness a piece of jazz history when Duke Ellington announced, ‘And now it’s time for Johnny Hodges’. Ellington once said that his alto saxophonist created ‘a feeling of expectancy’ just by sitting in the midst of the saxophone section. Of the imposing gallery of ducal stars, Hodges radiated the greatest lustre, his sound the most gorgeous colour in Ellington’s kaleidoscopic orchestral palette.

He excelled at tenderness and sensuality. Such Ellington classics as ‘Warm Valley’, or ‘Come Sunday’ (from the suite Black, Brown and Beige) are masterpieces shared between composer and saxist. But Hodges was equally a master of funky blues and subtle swing. Listeners were smitten by what Ellington called his ‘tonal charisma’, from his first appearance with the band in 1928 until his death in 1970.

Throughout that time, leader and soloist had a close, if understated, relationship. In contrast to the Duke, Hodges was a taciturn figure pouring out his beauty, initially inspired by his mentor, Sidney Bechet.

While Bechet inspired the commanding power of Hodges’s tone, Hodges’s style was all his own, with a cool, supple attack that could suddenly swell into one of the scooped glissandos that were his best-known trademark, plus nimble fingers and articulation. His pre-eminence was recognised by his peers in every generation. Charlie Parker paid wry homage to his lyricism by dubbing him ‘Lily Pons’, after the Metropolitan Opera soprano. To John Coltrane he
was simply ‘the world’s greatest saxophone player’.

The young Coltrane revelled in the chance to experience Hodges’s mastery first hand, playing with the group that Hodges led from 1951-55, during a sabbatical from the Ellington fold. That band contributes several tracks to a 4-CD set on Properbox by units under Hodges’s name from 1937-52, mostly featuring the altoist’s Ellington colleagues and the Duke himself, in a laid-back feast of ballads, riffs and blues.

For a later taste of Hodges and his boss in symbiotic form, listen to Back to Back from 1959, with an all-star band stretching out superbly on all shades of blues.

Louis Jordan (1908-1975)

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. For the jump bands, the beat was the thing, driven home by a non-stop rhythm section,
a couple of horns, bluesy vocals and sassy wit.

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.

Though he crossed over to the mainstream pop charts, Jordan’s main appeal was to black audiences, who relished his knowing blend of country humour and urban flair. His songs are full of hip, funny comments on the passing scene, from rationing to the post-war boom to inflation, plus the eternal delights of food, drink and pretty ladies. Some of his manic narratives anticipate rap, just as, in the 1950s, R&B mutated into rock‘n’roll.

But it was the arrival of rock, with its amplification and beat, which curtailed Jordan’s pre‑eminence. He stayed on the road, off and on, until his death in 1975, and the later success of the West End revue Five Guys Named Moe – made up of Jordan hits such as the title tune – confirmed his abiding stature. You can beat your feet to the works of the Tympany Five in JSP’s collection.

Charles Lloyd (b.1938)

Charles LLOYD kazz saxophone player
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Not many jazz musicians command the full glare of rock-style celebrity, but Charles Lloyd experienced it in the heyday of rock. In fact, the saxophonist could claim to have spearheaded the controversial late 1960s boom in jazz-rock fusion. Lloyd himself had impeccable jazz credentials. Born in Memphis in 1938, he grew up playing the blues with BB King. In 1956, he enrolled at the University of Southern California to study composition, and met such contemporary stars-to-be as Ornette Coleman
and in 1961 joined the trendsetting Chico Hamilton Quintet. By 1964 he was playing with Cannonball Adderley’s sextet, before forming his own groups, featuring the likes of Herbie Hancock.

But it was the Lloyd quartet of 1966 that seized the cultural moment, making him a star. As jazz was in decline – old-hat music superseded by rock – Lloyd burst on the scene with a band combining energy and variety. He said they played ‘love vibrations’, mixing free jazz, gospel, blues, latin and a rocking groove.

Equally irresistible were the players themselves. Supporting the leader’s soaring, hypnotic tenor were two young virtuosos at the beginnings of great careers. Pianist Keith Jarrett poured out the rhapsodic solos which have made him famous, backed by drummer Jack DeJohnette’s poly-rhythmic thunder.

Completed first by bassist Cecil McBee, then Ron McClure, the quartet looked the part as well, with the flowing caftans, tinted glasses and Afro hairstyles of the flower power era. Hailed as ‘the first psychedelic jazz group’, they brought the house down at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966, and repeated the feat at the Mecca of rock, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. The discs recorded at those concerts, Forest Flower and Dream Weaver, became huge hits.

Unfortunately, rock star celebrity produced celebrity burn-out, and Lloyd withdrew in 1970. But in the late 1980s he returned, still a spellbinder, with a new series of quartets. His 2010 ECM disc, Mirror, was hailed as confirmation that the totemic figure of the 1960s had achieved a deeper maturity, bringing his spiritual visions to a new generation.

Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996)

gerry Mulligan jazz sax player
Photo by Getty Images

Just occasionally, a jazz style strikes a chord with a mass audience. In the summer of 1952, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet became the talk of Los Angeles, and the buzz quickly spread nationwide and beyond, thanks to Time magazine and recordings.
The group’s novelty was its line-up: Mulligan’s baritone sax and Chet Baker’s trumpet were backed by bass and drums – without piano.

To listeners bored by the blare of big bands, or the manic intricacies of bop, the quartet was a breath of fresh air, blending witty ensembles, inspired solos, and propulsive swing. They excelled at intuitive counterpoint and rhythmic sparring, and their interlocking lines encompassed rich unisons, quirky dissonance and subtle resolutions. The Mulligan sound was indisputably hip yet winsome, the epitome of West Coast cool. Mulligan and Baker looked the part as well: Mulligan a skinny, crew-cut 25 year-old, Baker even younger, with the deceptive, choirboy aspect which made him the James Dean of jazz. Equally appealing was their repertoire, from such classic Mulligan originals as ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ to standards such as ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Frenesi’.

Musically, Mulligan was the prime mover, with the quartet building upon his career as composer and player. After he and Baker parted company he forged ahead with various groups, preferring big bands, devoting much of his energy to them until his death in 1996. The most successful of the large Mulligan ensembles was his Concert Jazz Band. Formed in 1960, it displayed the same playful swing as his quartet. The group can be heard in a live gig at New York’s Village Vanguard, featuring his quick-witted exchanges with trumpeter Clark Terry on ‘Blueport’, spontaneously challenging each other with quotes from tunes with place names in the title, to their audible delight.

That kind of sheer pleasure in jazz is the recurrent motif in the Mulligan career, regardless of format. Included in the Jeru compilation, are the group with Baker and its successor with valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, driving a Parisian crowd euphoric. Mulligan’s music can still have that effect on anybody.

Oliver Nelson (1932-1975)

oliver nelson jazz saxophone player
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Around 1960, Oliver Nelson seemed to be one of the upcoming men of contemporary jazz. Well-schooled and experienced, he was known as a passionate saxophonist, but even more as a strikingly original arranger-composer, with a special gift for intriguing tunes and ear-catching voicings. His talents brought him to the attention of both major players and record companies. In 1961, Nelson’s album The Blues and the Abstract Truth became one of
the first hits on the new, trend-setting Impulse! label.

But, in an old story, success came at a price. Lured by TV, movies, and high-profile commercial assignments, Nelson moved to Los Angeles in 1967. Though he remained busy, he seemed to lose his edge: in the words of one of his old jazz associates, he ‘kind of evaporated’. When he died of a heart attack in 1975 he was just 43. Nevertheless, the clutch of albums
he made in the early ’60s still convey a sense of promise, above all, The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

It’s distinguished for several reasons, not least as a product of a golden time in jazz, when young players were steeped in the music’s traditions and ambitious to extend them, not as subversion but continuing creation. Nelson’s all-star septet is a company of virtuosos, each with his own style, from the fluency of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard to the attack of altoist-flautist Eric Dolphy, stretching tonality to its limits, to the pearly impressionism of pianist Bill Evans.

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This spectrum of voices imbues each of his six compositions with excitement, underpinned by the swing of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Roy Haynes. The invention of the pieces create a compelling unity: solos and ensembles are knit together in the jazz spirit of shared discovery. And Nelson’s originals are some of his best, particularly ‘Stolen Moments’, a variation on the blues that won rare popularity as a jazz single, and ‘Hoe-Down’, a cross between a square dance and a revival meeting. In his liner notes, Nelson took pride in the simplicity of the materials, just the blues and the standard pop-song form, which he turned to his singular purpose, inspiring his team to eloquence and energy. And the result is a bona fide classic.