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

Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

Left – right: Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Photo by William Gottlieb/Redferns

It’s been said that modern jazz began with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Though that statement clearly over-simplifies things, the alto saxophonist did make the greatest impact of all the players who, from the early 1940s, transformed jazz with the style known as bebop. Arriving in New York from Kansas City, the young Bird amazed his contemporaries with his blazing technique and protean imagination, supplanting the simple rhythmic and harmonic patterns of earlier jazz with extended sequences, daring and complex.
As Parker sideman John Lewis put it, ‘Everything I heard Charlie Parker play was perfect… [it] was like being near fire.’

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The exhilaration of discovery, of breathtaking inspiration and brilliant execution, suffuse the records Parker made before his premature death in 1955 (he had an appetite for excess of all kinds, especially drugs). While some of his followers were accused of being coldly technical, turning out sewing-machine lines of notes, a Parker solo always exudes the essential jazz energy, rooted in funky blues and insinuating swing, plus an uncanny, storytelling sense of structure. And, perhaps surprisingly, in view of the complaints of detractors that bebop was discordant and violent, Bird’s music is shot through with an engaging lyricism, no matter what the mood or tempo.

As with any major artist, exposure to Parker’s work en bloc only heightens respect for his achievement. Hence an eight-CD set of all his recordings from 1944 to 1948 is a treasure trove. But for a single-CD survey, the Ken Burns Jazz disc would be hard to beat. Here is one of the early big band solos which startled the jazz world, examples of the classic quintet sides with fellow-innovator Dizzy Gillespie which made ‘Bird and Diz’ the definitive bop combination, and discs with the altoist’s later group featuring the young Miles Davis. Also included are the harrowingly poignant ‘Lover Man’ Parker made only hours before a drug-related breakdown and a scintillating ‘Just Friends’ with strings. But every track reveals the perpetual genius of a unique jazz voice. In the words of the graffito that appeared on New York walls after his death, ‘Bird Lives’.

Art Pepper (1925-1982)

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Jazz is sometimes portrayed as a survivor’s music, and its on-the-edge intensity can exact a high cost in a susceptible personality – as it surely did with Art Pepper. The altoist chronicled his harrowing tale in Straight Life, a tell-it-like-it-feels autobiography that spares no one, particularly himself. In unflinching detail, we see his violent family, his escape into music and total absorption in jazz. By the early 1940s the white teenager was an accepted part of the thriving club scene on Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare of black Los Angeles. He joined the band of eminent saxophonist Benny Carter, until the group toured the segregated South. Membership in Stan Kenton’s starry crew followed, and resumed after World War II.

By 1950, Pepper had established himself as one of the serious young saxophone contenders. But that same year saw him fall prey to heroin, or rather embrace it. From then on, he sought peace in drugs and freely defined himself as ‘a junkie’. His playing was still extraordinary, blending melodic agility with bluesy toughness and spur-of-the-moment passion, but his  life as a musician was in thrall to his habit. Through  the 1950s and ’60s, he spent long periods in prison, performing and recording only sporadically.

Such circumstances make his 1957 album Art Pepper meets the Rhythm Section even more remarkable. Pepper didn’t learn of the session until that morning. He was out of shape, his horn broken, and his collaborators were the legendary rhythm trio
of the Miles Davis quintet – Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Pepper knew them only by reputation and went to the recording petrified. But things gelled from the first note, and the album is a classic of invention, communication and swing.

By the ’70s, he had been through rehabilitation and was making albums and winning fans. Influenced by John Coltrane, he continued to deepen his style, and his late albums have a searing power, particularly Winter Moon from 1980. Pepper died two years later, and a friend pronounced his epitaph: ‘He gave his all, all the time. I never heard him lay back at any time.
And that is an honest musician.’ And a survivor.

Sonny Rollins (b.1930)

Photo by David McLane/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

One way or another, Sonny Rollins has been out on his own for half a century. Since the death of John Coltrane in 1967, he has reigned pretty much unchallenged as king of the tenor players. But even while Coltrane was alive, and there was an abundance of formidable talent in jazz’s golden age of the 1950s and ’60s, Rollins stood apart, master of a style of unique, even wilful power. He was never interested in the approved bebop practice of ‘running the changes’, which threatened to turn jazz into a quasi-mechanical exercise. His angular, energetic attack came from an early love of rhythm and blues and calypso. Fluent or sardonic, his tone could express winey lyricism or hoarse guffaws. He was just as unorthodox in his choice of material, which encompassed vaudeville tunes and Edward MacDowell’s ‘To a Wild Rose’.

Rollins’s creative stamina is legendary. Hour-long medleys and mammoth cadenzas evolved their own logic. Every solo he plays takes on the quality of a personal adventure, embracing both player and audience. At their best, they yield a kind of massive, multi-faceted coherence impossible to predict yet somehow inevitable and utterly fulfilling.

The record which first established Rollins’s reputation – and which he still cites as a favourite – is Saxophone Colossus. Made in 1956, with his then employer Max Roach on drums, plus pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Doug Watkins, it remains a classic. The awesome construction of his solo on ‘Blue Seven’ was hailed by a critic as a definitive example of Rollins’s principle of ‘thematic improvisation’. This was not a technique worked out in advance but a kind of supercharged motif development elaborated on the spot. The same artistry illuminates the exuberant calypso ‘St Thomas’ showing the gargantuan sense of swing  that he brings to every musical encounter.

In a multitude of moments on other discs and on any given evening, Rollins can create an experience of jazz invention unmatched by anyone alive. For he is still, as the British tenor star Courtney Pine recently put it, ‘the baddest player on the planet’.

Wayne Shorter (b. 1933)

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In his whimsical way, Wayne Shorter has had a huge influence on jazz since 1959 when, aged 25, he joined Art Blakey’s collective, the Jazz Messengers. He became known for a saxophone style with Coltrane roots but its own elliptical daring. Headhunted by Miles Davis, he became what Davis called ‘the idea person’ in his quintet.

Between 1964 and 1970 Shorter redefined jazz composition with such pieces as ‘Nefertiti’, a languorously asymmetrical line which Davis found so seductive that he performed it without solos, with the horns simply repeating the melody while the swirling rhythm section generated colour and intensity. Such departures from jazz orthodoxy anticipated Davis’s movement into rock, a direction that Shorter followed as well in the classic fusion band Weather Report, which he co-founded with Joe Zawinul in 1970. Their exuberant formula of catchy originals, seamlessly interweaving improvisation and composition over a pulsating beat, became the sound-track of the 1970s and ’80s – stylish, spacey and hip.

Throughout that period, Shorter lent his magic touch to all kinds of contexts, incorporating electronics, Latin rhythms and forays into superior pop with the likes of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. The gamut of his activities is chronicled in Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter, a two-CD set including such masterworks as the title track, ‘Nefertiti’, ‘Infant Eyes’, and ‘Elegant People’.

But for many Shorter devotees, the set’s most significant track may be the final one, by the quartet with which he has been touring since 2001. Featuring brilliant young stars on piano, bass and drums, the group takes him back to pure acoustic jazz and the unique spirit of musical adventure which is Shorter’s real essence. He says the group has never rehearsed – ‘how can you rehearse the unknown?’ – and to hear them live is to experience inspired communication, as solos and ensembles evolve their own breathtaking shape and unity. The ecstatic atmosphere on the quartet’s live CD, Beyond the Sound Barrier, shows that Wayne Shorter’s career is still in full, majestic flow.

Sonny Stitt (1924-1982)

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Charlie Parker died in 1955, a journalist suggested to Sonny Stitt that he might be ‘the new Bird’. Stitt’s reply was unequivocal: ‘Ain’t no new Bird, man’, he snapped. ‘Bird’s dead’. In fact, he’d been a close friend of bebop’s founding father, and a key member of the inner circle that included Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. But as an alto saxophonist, though his style had its own brilliance, he was inevitably seen as a Parker clone.

To disarm comparison, in the late 1940s Stitt switched to tenor sax, forming famous partnerships with the likes of pianist Bud Powell, and from then on alternated effortlessly between the two horns. Effortlessly and tirelessly: a fellow muso once observed that if you gave Stitt too much space, no one else would get a look-in. ‘He’ll play 20 choruses on alto, take a drink of water, then play 20 on tenor!’

Fluency and fire were his trademarks, along with a footloose attachment to the life of the itinerant soloist. Sonny spent virtually his whole career on the road, fronting local rhythm sections all over the world, startling listeners and critics with his unflagging appetite for performance. He died, pushing 60, in 1982, a few days after returning from a gig in Japan.

Stitt’s restless lifestyle is reflected in his recorded legacy: it’s hard to choose a representative disc by somebody who turned out over 100 for some 30 labels. But one of the most admired is Only the Blues, in which Stitt leads trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the
Oscar Peterson Trio and drummer Stan Levey in a warm sympathetic celebration of the essence of jazz, reissued on Fresh Sound.

But The Eternal Triangles displays Stitt at his most thrilling. A double-CD of all-star encounters led by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, its highlight is a 14-minute showdown featuring Stitt and his namesake, tenor giant Sonny Rollins, which has been called the greatest tenor battle ever recorded. At a breakneck tempo, with Rollins at the height of his powers, Stitt stands up to him every step of the way, not giving an inch in authority and inspiration – a proper monument to a jazz gladiator who just loved to play.

John Surman (b.1944)

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

With every year, jazz extends its global reach, as new modes of improvisation and rhythm reconfigure American blues and swing. There’s no more imposing example of this tendency than the career of saxophonist-composer-leader-solo artist John Surman. The Devon native has created a jazz voice out of music of all sorts, multi-faceted and personal.

To Surman, this mix makes sense. In his words, since he ‘didn’t become aware of jazz’ until he was 15, ‘there was a lot of music inside me that didn’t actually come from Chicago or New Orleans’. As a solo chorister, he’d been involved in oratorios, and folk music was a natural part of his life. Intrigued by traditional jazz, he took up the clarinet, but his talent bloomed when he acquired a baritone sax. The horn inspired him, and he was soon in the midst of the seething ’60s London scene, amazing musicians with his ability to translate the flights of John Coltrane to the heaving baritone.
He revelled in a diversity of associations, from big bands, blues and bop, to township jazz, fusion and free.

Multiplicity has remained a basic Surman principle: ‘If it’s good stuff, I like to be in on it. I just like to play.’ And it has generated the wide range of projects and partnerships in his recordings. His compilation in ECM’s rarum series opens with ‘Druid’s Circle’, a pulsating, folkish dance from his suite A Biography of Rev. Absalom Dawe, with multi-tracked soprano and baritone sax. Surman’s use of improvised solo lines over multi-tracking and synthesizer has become a trademark, exemplified by the dreamy ‘Portrait of a Romantic’ from Private City, one of the many pieces he’s composed for dance companies, and the minimalist, Baroque-tinged ‘Edges of Illusion’.

A frequent Surman partner has been the virtuoso drummer Jack DeJohnette; they inspire each other on ‘The Buccaneers’. But Surman’s alliances are myriad, from his Nordic Quartet on the bluesy ‘Gone to the Dogs’, to chorale-like brass on ‘The Returning Exile’. Though he’s known for a pastoral charm, he’s still a master of edgy swing. And it’s swing that dominates Surman’s ECM disc, Brewster’s Rooster.

Ben Webster (1909-1973)

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Though Ben Webster’s career didn’t begin with Duke Ellington, it’s fair to say that his fame did. Alone among the name bands of the Swing era, Ellington had never had a star tenor saxophonist, and the advent of the big-toned Webster sound, ranging feely from tough to tender, gave the ducal palette an invaluable new colour. From 1939 to 1943, Webster was a key player in Ellington’s greatest ensemble, showcased in all kinds of settings, most famously, perhaps, his rasping rampaging solo on ‘Cottontail’.

But despite his identification as an Ellingtonian, the tenorist was always his own man, developing a unique style which, till his death in 1973, made him one of the most distinctive voices in jazz. And with Webster, ‘voice’ was the operative word. Though a proud disciple of Coleman Hawkins, he recast Hawk’s massive tone and harmonic subtlety in highly personal terms creating an intense, individual, even quirky expression. In a Webster solo, the music came unmistakably from the man and the moment, as he interspersed lush sonority and melodic sweetness with gasps, sighs, cries and growls. Each performance was a kind of existential event, a matter of complete involvement, with whatever sound feeling impelled as it came through his horn.

Despite his reputation for uptempo flights, following his ‘Cottontail’ heroics, ballads and easy grooves were Webster’s true forte, and vintage examples abound in the Verve Jazz Masters compilation devoted to his work. ‘That’s All’ is one of his greatest hits, the melody caressed and customised, the line held back and ornamented with little arpeggiated peaks and varied with different timbres of vibrato, so that every breath, every attack becomes part of the whole, enshrining a poignant lyricism. The same sense of a personal story explored and expressed comes through his famous duet with Gerry Mulligan on Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’: Webster’s reading of the theme suggests passion lurking just below the surface – reflection of the tenorist’s own sometimes turbulent character.

But in any company, in any mood or tempo, Webster stands out as a master of the jazz principle that, as a musician once put it, ‘Everyone must know your voice’.

Lester Young (1909-1959)

Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns

Billie Holiday liked to claim it was she who dubbed Lester Young ‘Pres’ – acknowledging his status as president of the tenor saxophone – just as he named her ‘Lady Day’. Since they were famous soulmates, it makes a nice story, but in fact Young’s nickname went back to his early years. Before he startled East Coast audiences with the Count Basie band in the late 1930s, he had already become a local legend with territory bands in the south-west – the tall, gently eccentric tenor man who held his horn at a 45-degree angle and poured out a seemingly endless stream of ideas.

His sound was as original and fluent as his invention. Instead of the chocolatey, orotund attack of the reigning tenor king, Coleman Hawkins, Pres was quick-witted and allusive, with a light, buoyant, subtly inflected tone. Whereas Hawkins could seem almost scholastic, grinding through the chord changes, Pres created melodies with all the spontaneity of brilliant conversation, taking a motif and tossing it in every direction, on his way to realising a deftly perfect whole.

When he made his first recordings – with Basie in 1936 – his talent was fully mature: his solos on ‘Lady Be Good’ and ‘Shoe-Shine Boy’ constitute the most dazzling debut in jazz history. The driving beat of the Basie band suited him and he responded with a series of masterpieces. His protean style signalled new possibilities for the coming generation: the teenage Charlie Parker spent the summer of 1937 absorbing his recorded solos.

In the 1940s, with the triumph of bop and the emergence of a legion of Young-worshipping tenor men – epitomised by Stan Getz – the dominance of Pres’s influence was confirmed. His own playing continued to develop, becoming more probing and laconic. But after 1950, heavy drinking began to take its toll of his life and art, leading to his reclusive death in 1959.

Lester Young demonstrates that jazz is important not as novelty or ideology, but as music of rare distinction, and the splendid four-CD survey of his 1work to 1949 on Proper, The Lester Young Story, chronicles a unique and indispensable artist.

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