Of course, there is no way to come up with a definitive list of the top jazz musicians of all time. Who am I kidding? There are, however, a selection of famous jazz artists who appear whenever we talk about those players who have helped shape the development of the music we so admire in a big way.
For this article, Podium School has put together a list of 10 jazz legends. The musicians on this list are not just some of the most important players in this genre; but they have transcended their music to become the icons they are today. So, whilst every jazz musician or fan reading this blog will have their own personal take on the subject. We hope you’ll agree that this list represents hours of inspirational music and some of the best jazz players in history.
Of course, everyone is open to their own opinion, but if you’re looking for a specific top 10 jazz musicians of all time, here’s ours:
- Miles Davis
- Louis Armstrong
- Duke Ellington
- John Coltrane
- Billie Holiday
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Thelonious Monk
- Charlie Parker
- Scott Joplin
- Bessie Smith
Miles Davis (1926–1991)
Instrumental in the development of jazz, Miles Davis is considered one of the top musicians of his era. He was born in Illinois in 1926 to a prosperous dental surgeon and a music teacher. Davis grew up in a supportive middle-class household, where he was introduced by his father to the trumpet at age 13. Davis then travelled at age 18 to New York City to pursue music. Throughout his life, he was at the helm of a changing concept of jazz. Winner of eight Grammy awards, Davis died in 1991 from respiratory distress in Santa Monica, California. Miles Davis was a major force in the jazz world, as both a trumpet player and a bandleader.
Louis Armstrong (1901–1971)
Louis Armstrong nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and, later, “Ambassador Satch,” was a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with both his daring trumpet style and unique vocals.
Armstrong’s charismatic stage presence impressed not only the jazz world but all popular music. He recorded several songs throughout his career. Louis Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader and singer known for songs like “What a Wonderful World,” “Hello, Dolly,”” Star Dust” and “La Vie En Rose.”
Duke Ellington (1899–1974)
Born on April 29, 1899, Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington, D.C. A major figure in the history of jazz music, Duke Ellington’s career spanned more than half a century, during which time he composed thousands of songs for the stage, screen, and contemporary songbook. He created one of the sounds of the most distinctive ensemble in Western music and continued to play what he called “American Music” until shortly before his death in 1974.
An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.
John Coltrane (1926–1967)
During the 1940s and ’50s, John Coltrane developed his craft as a saxophonist and composer, working with famed musicians/bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis. Coltrane turned the jazz world on its head with technically marvelous, innovative playing that was thrillingly dense and fluid in its understanding of the genre; his virtuosity and vision could be heard on the now revered albums Giant Steps, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, among others. He died from liver cancer at 40 years old on July 17, 1967, in Huntington, Long Island, New York.
John Coltrane was an acclaimed American saxophonist, bandleader, and composer, becoming an iconic figure of jazz in the 20th century with albums like ‘Giant Steps,’ ‘My Favorite Things’ and ‘A Love Supreme.’
Billie Holiday (1915–1959)
Billie Holiday is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday had a thriving career as a jazz singer for many years before she lost her battle with substance abuse. Also known as Lady Day, her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. In 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996)
Ella Fitzgerald, known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Lady Ella,” was an immensely popular American jazz and song vocalist who interpreted much of the Great American Songbook.
She turned to singing after a troubled childhood and debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Discovered in an amateur contest, she went on to become the top female jazz singer for decades. In 1958, Fitzgerald made history as the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Due in no small part to her vocal quality, with lucid intonation and a broad range, the singer would go on to win 13 Grammys in total and sell more than 40 million albums. Her multi-volume “songbooks” on Verve Records are among America’s recording treasures.
Thelonious Monk (1917–1982)
Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. He was also one of the first creators of modern jazz and bebop. For much of his career, Monk played with small groups at Milton’s Playhouse. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, including “Well, You Needn’t,” “Blue Monk” and “Round Midnight.” His spares and angular music had a levity and playfulness to it.
Charlie Parker (1920–1955)
From 1935 to 1939, Charlie Parker played the Missouri nightclub scene with local jazz and blues bands. In 1945 he led his own group while performing with Dizzy Gillespie on the side and together they invented bebop. In 1949, Parker made his European debut, giving his last performance several years later. He died a week later March 12, 1955, in New York City. Charlie Parker was a legendary Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist.
Scott Joplin (1868–1917)
Born in the late 1860s somewhere along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin took up the piano as a child and eventually became a traveling musician as a teen. He immersed himself in the emerging musical form known as ragtime. Which led him to become the genre’s foremost composer. Tunes like “The Entertainer,” “Solace” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is the biggest-selling ragtime song in history. Joplin also penned the operas Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. He died in New York City on April 1, 1917.
Bessie Smith (1894–1937)
Bessie Smith began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid Black performers of her time with hits like “Downhearted Blues”. By the end of the 1920s, however, her popularity had lessened. However, she continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she died on September 26, 1937, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
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