35 of the Greatest Jazz Artists

Essays by critically- acclaimed jazz writers have been part of the Mosaic Records collections for over 30 years and ten of the collections have been nominated for Grammys including “Best Album Notes”. Our individual jazz musician pages feature excerpts from these liner notes, session analysis, music clips and other material.

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35 of the Greatest Jazz Artists

New Orleans. It’s the culture that spawned Louis Armstrong. And it’s the authentic sound he returned to throughout his life.

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of 1926-28 became the standard by which everything that came after was measured and established him as the first true jazz genius. And then, success had its way with him. Over the next two decades he appeared and recorded mostly with big bands (including his own). There were the hit records (mostly pop and novelty numbers). There were the triumphant tours abroad, eventually even Hollywood attention.

And then there was home. In 1947, Louis formed the All Stars to give himself a vehicle for pure, unadulterated New Orleans jazz. His recording career would continue to swing between various forms of pop music and the brilliant jazz records he made with this group, but the All Stars became his primary touring vehicle through the 1950s and 1960s, and the musical outlet for the sound that still meant the most.

Those who recall Armstrong only as the world-famous jazz artist, genial entertainer whose face, smile, and gravelly voice were instantly recognizable may find it hard to comprehend that this man was a revolutionary artist—one of the handful of radical visionaries who changed the face of art in the twentieth century.

He made jazz a vehicle for unprecedented freedom of creative expression, for musical imagination within a uniquely balanced. democratic framework. Armstrong’s genius transformed what had been an interesting, even fascinating folk and dance music into a genuine and vital art.

Count Basie

There was no music called jazz in 1904, when William Basie was born in Red Bank, NJ, but it had emerged—in its most rudimentary form—by the time he reached his late teens. It sprang up in places far from Red Bank, but only 30 miles away lay New York City, a hub into which anything new and exciting soon trickled.

Basie eventually succumbed to the allure of syncopated music, developing a particular fondness for the stride piano style as exemplified by James P. Johnson and his protégé, Fats Waller. Before long, he was accompanying vaudeville acts on a trek that in 1927 found him stranded in Kansas City. He liked it there, for it was full of the kind of exhilarating creativity that took a natural course for New York. He played with Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Bennie Moten’s orchestra and, by 1936, was leading his own band, the Barons of Rhythm.

The Count acquired his “title” while the big band worked at the Reno Club and broadcast regularly over a local station. One of the broadcasts was heard by John Hammond, a young man with a passion for jazz, money in the bank, and solid connections in the music industry. Not long after that, Count Basie and his Orchestra joined the big band hierarchy and helped mold the Swing Era.

The jazz legend from Red Bank led one of the era’s most exciting big bands, and its driving force, the so-called All-American Rhythm Section had no equal. When it comes to swing, it remains the ultimate model. – Chris Albertson

Bix Beiderbecke

At the very dawn of jazz recording, with echoes of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band still in the air, very few jazz musicians were able to capture a fresh new sound until the flood gates opened with the blossoming of Louis Armstrong. Naturally, there were exceptions like jazz artists Sidney Bechet or Earl Hines, but, for the most part, it was the powerful virtuosic display of Louis Armstrong that made the Roaring 20s the era of “hot jazz”. It wasn’t long, however, before two highly individual talents emerged and unknowingly began a stylistic movement of their own.

On February 18, 1924, less than a year after Armstrong cut his first records, a young cornetist from Davenport, Iowa named Bix Beiderbecke made his recording debut. By the late twenties he had ushered in a striking new approach to the jazz solo concept by making it cool.

Bix Beiderbecke’s improvisations were more relaxed, melodic, and graced with inspirations from impressionistic and modern tonal composers including Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and the lesser-known Eastwood Lane. His tone has been likened to that of a bell or a mallet on a chime; Eddie Condon said Bix’s tone was like a girl saying “yes”. His brief and troubled life became legendary and emblematic, inspiring a best-selling novel and a full-length motion picture. What’s important is that Bix Beiderbecke remains one the most musically brilliant figures of any period in jazz.

Bunny Berigan

Born November 2, 1908, in Hilbert, Wisconsin, and raised in nearby Fox Lake, Bunny Berigan was playing jazz trumpet by age twelve in his grandfather’s fifteen-piece juvenile concert band. Inevitably, as his talent ripened, the young man gravitated to New York, where he joined the popular dance orchestra of Hal Kemp and set off with them for a European tour.

By Bunny Berigan’s return that autumn, talk about him had spread throughout the upper ranks of New York studio jazz musicians. Most had established their careers in the 1920s, equally able to read music quickly and accurately at sight and dispense convincing “hot” solos on demand. They included, among others, the brothers Tommy (trombone) and Jimmy (reeds) Dorsey, violinist Joe Venuti and his guitar-playing pal Eddie Lang, versatile trumpeter Mannie Klein, and Adrian Rollini, equally adept on many instruments, including the formidable bass saxophone.

Generally speaking, news about a gifted arrival circulated by informal word of mouth. Hey, have you heard this guy? Reads like a flash. Plays lead and solos. Tone as big as a house. Range to spare. You gotta hear him. A great jazz musician.

Throughout the first half of the 1930s Bunny Berigan remained steadily employed, working for various leaders while freelancing in the radio and recording studios. When the Dorsey Brothers decided to try a few ballroom dates leading their own orchestra, he was one of those they selected. When Benny Goodman landed a regular slot on NBC’s Let’s Dance radio show, Berigan was his immediate pick for lead and solo trumpet. Such colleagues as Trumbauer, guitarist Dick McDonough, Rollini and Red Norvo began leading their own record dates – and invariably included Berigan among their sidemen.

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton’s adolescent tastes ranged from the early rock of his time to cool jazz. He cut his teeth as both player and composer-arranger in high school, college, and army bands. In the army, while in Korea, he discovered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Ayler’s Bells, Coltrane’s Ascension, then returned to Chicago.

Fellow jazz artist Roscoe Mitchell got him into the AACM, Chicago’s South Side collective, founded by jazz pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, dedicated to the supplementary alternative cultivation of the local musical arts: composition, improvisation, education, performance, business. In 1969, Braxton and fellow AACM’ers (the late) violinist Leroy Jenkins and jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith moved to Paris and worked and recorded as a trio there. Soon after returning to the States, Braxton joined the Circle group. Between the end of that (1971) and the first Arista LP (1974), Braxton performed and recorded extensively, mostly as a leader, throughout Europe, Japan, and North America.

Track description: 77A employs a strategy of “reverse development” of line construction: abortive self-interruptions as the moment’s impulse suggests them, quantum leaps from one fragment (say, a soft-fluid high-pitched phrase) to a radically different one (slashing loud barks at the bottom of the horn). Parker/Coltrane/Ayler and Webern/Stockhausen “language continua” are named as the sound-and-logic palette here (and it is dedicated to composer Ulysses Kay). The piece stands as the statement resulting from the mish-mash of such fragments spontaneously sequenced. – Mike Heffly

During his Lighthouse tenure, Gene Norman, a local concert producer and owner of GNP Crescendo Records, approached Max Roach about forming a working band.  Roach knew immediately whom he wanted as a partner, a young jazz musician he had first heard while touring in Philadelphia a few years earlier.   Clifford Brown (1930-56) had been out of the spotlight for a while after that first encounter, sidelined for nearly a year by an earlier car crash, then submerged after his recovery in the rhythm and blues band the Blue Flames, led by vocalist Chris Powell.

Once Brown left the Flames in the spring of 1953, however, his rise among fellow musicians and listeners became meteoric, thanks to his own recording debut as a leader and appearances alongside Lou Donaldson, Tadd Dameron and J.J. Johnson.  A European tour in the trumpet section of Lionel Hampton’s orchestra yielded additional brilliant recordings with fellow Hampton sidemen Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce, followed by more incendiary playing on a live date at Birdland led by Art Blakey.  Roach had heard the Johnson sides, which left no doubt in his mind that Brown would make a perfect co-leader.

When the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet entered a recording studio for the first time, it had coalesced into a magnificent creative ensemble.  It had also secured a recording contract with EmArcy, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, and the affiliation proved invaluable to the group’s fortunes.  Unlike most independent jazz labels, which tended to squeeze an album’s worth of music out of a single three-hour recording session, EmArcy gave the quintet a more humane schedule for documenting its work, holding four separate sessions during the first week in August that focused on three or four selections each.

These are the performances that comprise Brown and Roach, Inc. and the bulk of Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Taken together, these dozen titles capture all of the strengths that made Brown-Roach so immediately appealing and influential.  Brown’s solos, which marry the technical mastery of jazz musician  Dizzy Gillespie, the melodic flow and big sound of Fats Navarro, and a determined optimism all Brown’s own, became touchstones for a generation of young jazz players; but Roach’s contributions are equally important and made a similar impact.

Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd’s  first album to appear under his name was recorded at an August 1955 Detroit concert by a sextet that also included jazz musicians Lateef, Harris, Bernard McKinney, Milt Jackson’s brother Alvin and Frank Gant.  Later that month Byrd was in New York and working at the Cafe Bohemia with pianist George Wallington, in a quintet that was also instrumental in helping Paul Chambers, Jackie McLean and Phil Woods to make their marks.

By December, Byrd had replaced Kenny Dorham in the Jazz Messengers and his career took off.  He made two more albums for Transition, one of which included the full cast of Messengers, followed by numerous blowing sessions for Prestige in the company of other young players like McLean, Woods and Art Farmer, as well as the more veteran Gene Ammons and Idrees Sulieman.

When Art Blakey took over the Jazz Messengers name in the summer of 1956 and the other members withdrew, everyone who wasn’t a trumpet player seemed to want Byrd’s services.  He played in the Max Roach quintet briefly after the death of Clifford Brown, participated in some early Horace Silver Quintet recordings and made the first of many Blue Note sideman appearances on Paul Chambers’ Whims of Chambers.

Another participant in that session, John Coltrane, would become a frequent partner of Byrd’s in the next two years, often in the company of jazz pianist Red Garland.  Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Lou Donaldson and Jimmy Smith were among the Blue Note artists who included Byrd in their studio projects.  And, lest we forget, there was the Jazz Lab Quintet that Byrd co-led with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, which was documented extensively during 1956-7 on Riverside, Columbia, Verve, RCA and Jubilee. – Bob Blumenthal

John Coltrane

By 1957 John Coltrane’s sound and style on tenor were completely original for a jazz artist, not sounding at all like his historic predecessors Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, or his early influence Dexter Gordon. Coltrane was instantly recognizable within two notes while at the same time developing his own fresh and adventurous way of improvising. Dubbed “sheets of sound” by journalist Ira Gitler, Coltrane thought in terms of clusters of notes rather than individual ones and his solos could excite or annoy listeners who were accustomed to hearing more relaxed and accessible players.

In 1957, with the recording of Blue Train (his only album as a leader for Blue Note) and a high-profile stint as a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet, he became a household name as a jazz artist. His membership in the Miles Davis Sextet and Quintet from 1958 until mid-1960 and his recordings for the Atlantic label (most notably Giant Steps), along with Sonny Rollins’ temporary retirement, meant that he was at the top of his field. And yet, he was still a sideman who was part of the world of Miles Davis.

After his European tour with the trumpeter ended, Coltrane finally had the opportunity to put together the jazz musicians that he desired. While Steve Kuhn briefly filled in on piano, McCoy Tyner (who had been with the Jazztet) took over the spot by June. Pete LaRoca was the original drummer with the John Coltrane Quartet and Billy Higgins was a short-term replacement before Elvin Jones came aboard in October. The bass position was filled by Steve Davis and Reggie Workman (with Art Davis sometimes being utilized as a second bassist) until Jimmy Garrison became a permanent member in December 1961.

McCoy Tyner’s open chord voicings and percussive style were a perfect fit for Coltrane’s long and adventurous solo flights on tenor and soprano, as were Garrison’s large tone and ability to keep the momentum flowing during endless one and two-chord vamps. Jones, a master of polyrhythms, never let up in pushing Coltrane, not that the saxophonist ever thought of taking it easy.

Coltrane, who in Sept. 1960 recorded his first version of the song that would become his trademark, “My Favorite Things” (a performance that more than anything led to the comeback of the soprano-sax in jazz), recorded many classic albums after signing with the Impulse label in the spring of 1961. Among those records were Africa/Brass, Live At The Village Vanguard, Impressions, Coltrane, Selflessness, Live At Birdland (highlighted by “Afro Blue” and “I Want To Talk About You”), and Crescent. In addition, a trio of slightly more conservative albums recorded during 1962-63 (Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman) were made to show that Coltrane could temper his long flights on more melodic projects. The most famous of John Coltrane’s many Impulse recordings is also the set that meant the most to him; one of the best jazz albums of all time: A Love Supreme.

Miles Davis

Artists develop. Great artists develop greatly, and often unpredictably. For Miles Davis it all began in St. Louis, where his sense of taste and quality were nurtured. Raised in an upper-middle-class environment, he became a local working musician at 15. The combination of knowing the street and knowing society would prove important throughout his career.

He moved to New York to study at Juilliard but found Charlie Parker, and working with Bird further enhanced his skills as a trumpet player and music persona. His effect on the public at large was not immediate, but on jazz musicians it was obvious. By 1947, he had enough confidence to take the business and musical risks of going out on his own.

Miles Davis’s first classic quintet with John Coltrane recorded two seminal albums (Milestones in 1958 and Kind of Blue in 1959; a best selling jazz record). The effect of this group and the Miles Davis Quintet discography was and still is enormous.

Miles Davis’s 1965 quintet with jazz musicians Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams had strong individual and group identities that forged a standard in small group jazz performance, remaining to this day as the pinnacle of the art form. Throughout his musical career, Miles Davis demonstrated an uncanny knack for being able to lead jazz players and at the same time allow the sidemen ample freedom so that he could also learn and grow from their combined creative output. Herbie Hancock recalled, “Miles was the teacher, but as a master teacher, Miles was also a learner. That’s something that Miles taught me. He was always listening to what we were playing and responding to what we were playing and reacting to what we were playing.”

In 1951 Paul Desmond joined the Dave Brubeck Quartet, becoming an integral part of the group for the next 16 years. His light tone and sometimes-whimsical style were a perfect contrast for Brubeck’s percussive piano, and he was a major factor in the group’s artistic and commercial success.

To hear this jazz musician at his best with Brubeck, listen to his long solo on the themeless blues “Balcony Rock” from Brubeck’s Jazz Goes To College. Desmond’s solo is absolutely perfect, with phrases being repeated until they become other ideas during an improvisation with a remarkable flow; every note fits even though they were improvised on the spot. Desmond, who composed “Take Five” in 1959, was with Brubeck every step of the way until the quartet broke up in 1967.

Paul Desmond loved playing with jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Hall’s harmonically sophisticated solos were often inspiring, he knew how to accompany a melodic soloist, and he was a quiet and subtle player. Desmond always preferred support that was low in volume. Desmond and Hall recorded five quartet albums during 1959-65 in which they were joined by jazz musicians Connie Kay on drums, and either Percy Heath, George Duvivier, Gene Cherico or Eugene Wright on bass.

Lou Donaldson

“I heard everyone – Pete Brown, Tab Smith, of course Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and Louis Jordan and Cleanhead Vinson – all before I heard Charlie Parker. Then I heard Charlie Parker and forgot about all of them.”

Donaldson was an early adherent of the modern sounds Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were spreading when he completed his military service and returned to college in Greensboro. By the end of the ‘40s, he moved to New York and pursued further studies at the Darrow Institute of Music. He appeared in jazz settings when he could, but like John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin and other young jazz artists of the period, found most of his early work on the rhythm and blues circuit.

Lou Donaldson’s talents became evident in 1952, the year Donaldson was first heard on Blue Note, with Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk and then in two sessions of his own. Horace Silver, the pianist featured on both of the jazz musician’s 1952 dates, was the first of several prominent players that Donaldson would introduce on the label. “Art Blakey and I had a group with Kenny Dorham, then Horace Silver came along. I brought Horace to Blue Note Records, and I taught him to play funk. What did he know about funk then? He was a Portuguese guy from Norwalk, Connecticut. He thanks me for it all of the time.” – Bob Blumenthal

Duke Ellington

In its originality, scope, and abundance, Duke Ellington’s music has no rivals in jazz, and few outside of jazz. Ellington is often called America’s greatest jazz composer and just as often ignored entirely in discussions of American music, an indication of a separatism that continues to vex the nation’s cultural habits.

The question of how he measures up to his contemporaries in the European tradition is one I’ll leave to academics, but Ellington’s own ambivalence about the word “jazz” is worth noting. He tried to rid himself of the jazz artist label as early as the late ’20s, blaming it in part for the tendency of commentators to interpret his use of improvisation, dance rhythms, and blues tonalities as evidence of nonseriousness. Like Mozart, he wrote music specifically designed for dance and concert and again like Mozart, fudged the distinction between the two by the originality and consistency of his vision.

Still, if Ellington’s music stands apart, it is entirely rooted in what we recognize as jazz principles and usually (but by no means always) exhibits some or all of the standard characteristics: an equation of composition and improvisation, robust rhythms, dance band instrumentation, blues and song frameworks, blues tonality. Jazz is primarily a music of improvisation, and improvisers of genius—Armstrong, Parker—were able to recast it in their own idioms.

Dizzy Gillespie

During the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie experienced one of the most fruitful decades of any American jazz artist of the 20th Century.  The early 1950s were another story; the economic climate for jazz music turned decidedly anemic, and he struggled.  He surged forward again during the 1954-1964 as his artistry continued to mature, and he performed brilliantly in a variety of settings with outstanding jazz  musicians.

Dizzy Gillespie has secured his place in the jazz pantheon as one of the most expressive and virtuosic improvisers in the history of the music.  But he was much more than that; he was one of the supreme rebels of jazz, and he made his greatest artistic contributions as a revolutionary.

As a creator of the bebop and the Afro-Cuban revolutions during the 1940s, he twice fundamentally changed the way jazz improvisation was done.  It was as if Monet had been in the vanguard of both Impressionism and Cubism.

With bebop during the early forties, Dizzy and four colleagues – Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Christian – radically expanded the rhythmic and harmonic foundations of jazz.  Their innovations were akin to moving classical music from Brahms to Bartok in five years.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman recorded prolifically throughout the great part of his more than six-decade career. The list of jazz musicians with whom Goodman collaborated, and the quality of the music they made, are among the marvels of 20th century music; they include Louis Armstrong, Bela Bartok, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Fred Astaire, Bix Beiderbecke, Ethel Waters, Pee Wee Russell, Leonard Bernstein, Lester Young, Igor Stravinsky, Billie Holiday, and Arturo Toscanini.

Born in Chicago in 1909 Goodman grew up in an era marked by an ever-changing definition of what it meant to be an American. He received invaluable early musical experience at the Hull House, a settlement house that was a haven for poor youth of all races and religions. Its founder, Jane Addams, thought that Zangwill had performed “a great service to America by reminding us of the high hopes of the founders of the Republic.”

While the play’s utopian dream was never to be, the closing of the distance separating Americans was aided by Goodman’s hiring of (and standing up for) Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and Cootie Williams in the years preceding World War II.

After perfecting Fletcher Henderson’s re-casting of Don Redman’s seminal big-band concept in the mid-30’s, Goodman went on to break new ground of his own. The quartet and sextets with  Wilson, Hampton, Williams, Christian and Mel Powell inspired a generation of jazz musicians with their remarkable combination of technical perfection and musical depth. The arrangements of Eddie Sauter and Powell also opened new vistas of expression to the jazz orchestra.

Grant Green

Grant Green was born in St. Louis Missouri on July 6, I931. By the age of 13, he was working professional jobs in his hometown and across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois. He would remain a vital part of this scene until he relocated to New York in I960.

During these years he developed his distinctive style which for the most part avoided chordal playing and intervals in favor of single-note lines (so as not to crowd the pianist or organist, he explained to critic Robert Levin). To a large extent, this evolution can be traced to Green’s musical preferences.

“I don’t listen to guitar players much. I dig horn players. I was very much influenced by Charlie Parker, very much. And among guitarists, there was Jimmy Raney. I like his style of improvising, and he gets a good sound…I also like Kenny Burrell very much…and, of course, there was Charlie Christian. I love his records. You can’t get around him.” (Grant Green) – Bob Blumenthal

1920s Jazz

New Orleans – New York – Europe

At the very dawn of jazz recording, with echoes of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band still in the air, very few musicians were able to capture a fresh new sound until the flood gates opened with the blossoming of Louis Armstrong. It was the powerful virtuosic display of Louis Armstrong that made the Roaring 20s the era of “hot jazz”.

Lionel Hampton

Lionel Hampton became a member of Les Hite’s orchestra in 1930, a group that was used as Louis Armstrong’s backup band when he visited L.A. that year. Spotting a vibraphone in the studio, Armstrong asked Hampton if he could play it and, remembering his xylophone lessons, the drummer said yes.

Benny Goodman heard Lionel Hampton play vibes and was so impressed that he expanded his trio with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa into the Benny Goodman Quartet. Hampton made a few guest appearances with the King of Swing and then officially joined his outfit in Nov. 1936.

During his nearly four years with Goodman, Hampton became a household name in the swing world, not only adding fire, color and inventive ideas to Goodman’s quartet and occasionally filling in on drums with the big band, but staying long enough to be one of the stars at Goodman’s famed Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, and to be part of the clarinetist’s sextet with the pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian. At the same time, Hampton led a series of mostly superb all-star jazz musician sessions for the Victor label.

In mid-1941, the 33-year old Lionel Hampton was more than ready to go out on his own. He always loved the sound of Goodman’s big band and decided to form an orchestra of his own. The big band field was way overcrowded at the time and the odds were against his success, but Hampton had a big name and was always a crowd pleaser.

On May 26, 1942 he recorded “Flying Home” which became not only a major hit but was a major influence on the up-and-coming rhythm & blues movement. Illinois Jacquet’s tenor solo, the leader’s vibes, the famous arrangement (with Ernie Royal’s high notes), and the ensembles made the song into an immediate standard and a must at every Hampton performance. From then on, Lionel Hampton’s big band was extremely popular. Its live performances were so explosive meant no other band could follow it. – Scott Yanow

Coleman Hawkins

The jazz saxophone was patented more than a half century before jazz music developed but their affinity for each other might be nearly perfect. Potent, like the brass instruments whose ringing bell it shares, yet, sensitive as a clarinet thanks to the way its cane reed responds to changing embouchure, tonguing, breath, and attack, the saxophone can do everything a jazz instrument needs to do.

From the dawning of jazz’s earliest days, through the developments that coalesced into swing with its rhythmic intensity and vibrant soloists, and on into the more modern era as small groups began experimenting with time and harmonics, Coleman Hawkins was a driving force for innovation and personal discovery. Not only did the music evolve; this jazz artist evolved.

Coleman Hawkins was almost an exact contemporary of Louis Armstrong’s; he was born three years later and died two years sooner. And while Armstrong unquestionably gets the credit for making jazz a genre for soloists, Hawkins shares some of the recognition as a jazz musician for forging a personal direction on his instrument.

The slap-tongue style in vogue when he first came up is present in Hawkins’ sound at the outset, but within months of being signed by Fletcher Henderson, his tone is full and the lines more fluid. Over the years, he takes a more elastic approach to time, hanging his solo against the rhythm instead of slavishly conforming to it and building exquisitely constructed melodies. Unlike many other tenor masters, he never appears to trot out reliable, stock licks. He is spontaneously composing. When you realize this is the late 1920s, the maturity of his choices is even more astonishing.

And what is there to say about his solo on 1939’s “Body and Soul” that hasn’t already been said? This is the music that has proven so inspirational to generations of tenor saxophonists since; the endless possibility when taste and intelligence take on exceptional material.

Woody Herman

Ralph Burns was a 22-year-old jazz artist, pianist and arranger, when he joined the First Herd in 1944.  He observed Herman closely all his life. “He had the gift of believing in people,” Burns says, “and bringing out the best in everybody just by giving them a chance and letting them take chances. He was a leader. He was a born leader.”

Herman had been a  big band leader since the mid-1930s. His openness to new ideas complemented his exceptional abilities as an organizer, editor of arrangements and inspirational force. In 1943 he began remaking his “Band That Plays the Blues.” By the end of 1944, Herman had attracted a core of jazz players that included Burns, trombonist Bill Harris, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, drummer Dave Tough, trumpeter and arranger Neal Hefti, and Chubby Jackson, a jazz artist with the energy of two or three volcanoes.

There was a musicians’ union recording ban, but Herman got around it by making V-discs that the government provided only to people in the military. By the time the ban and World War II ended, soldiers, sailors and marines had embraced Caldonia, Northwest Passage, Apple Honey and other Herman V-discs.  As civilians in 1945, they wanted more. Herman’s audience was in place. Woody was ready for them. – Doug Ramsey

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill has contributed an extraordinary amount of music in his lifetime. Andrew Hill’s Blue Note recordings capture this jazz musician’s most prolific and important periods when there was a pool of talent in New York with the creative and technical ability to realize his unique music.

In the early ‘60s Andrew Hill began woodshedding with Joe Henderson, who’d been brought to Blue Note by Kenny Dorham. When it came time for Joe Henderson’s second album Our Thing in September 1963, he brought Andrew onto the project. Producer Alfred Lion was so impressed that he asked Andrew back a month later to play on Hank Mobley’s No Room For Squares.

Alfred asked Andrew to play some of his own compositions. When he heard the prodigious amount of completely unique material that Hill had created, he signed him immediately. Alfred told me in 1986 that it was like the first time he heard Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. The material was so original that he wanted to record everything they’d composed. And, like Monk and Nichols, he recorded a financially burdensome amount of Andrew’s material before a single note was released. Four jazz records were in the can before the first, Black Fire, was issued for this extraordinary jazz artist. – Michael Cuscuna

Earl Hines

Earl Hines taught jazz players how to break free from rhythm and play what we now call jazz. In the bass notes, the hand could walk and jump, chord, and hold notes longer than expected to play against expected time. With the right hand, he could belt out solos like a wind player (hence, the moniker “trumpet-style” to describe Hines’ sense of melody), often playing in octaves, or weave intricate lines across the keyboard.

On the surface, all that freedom might sound like it has to exist apart from other jazz musicians, but the fact is Hines’ stylistic innovations allowed ensemble work to flourish. Pianists could accompany or lead; embellish a statement or kick off a new thought. With freedom from strictly composed rhythmic and melodic patterns came the opportunity for dialogue and response in the moment – the essence of spontaneous composition.

Earl Hines launched his own big band in 1928 in Chicago, and stayed in the same club (The Grand Terrace) for 10 years. But he became nationally known, as did many of the stand-out solo jazz musicians he helped introduce. Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Hines’ featured vocalist Billy Eckstine all made names for themselves first with Hines. – Alan Goodman

Johnny Hodges

Many jazz musicians have paid tribute to his skills, not the least being his boss, Duke Ellington. In Music Is My Mistress, he says of Hodges, “Even now, I have never met and don’t know of a saxophonist who didn’t say he was knocked out by Johnny Hodges” or “He’s the only man I know who can pick up a horn and play in tune without tuning up”.

Other musicians speak highly of him. Benny Carter told writer Don Heckman, “The only thing I can say about Johnny Hodges is that I loved his playing then and I still love everything I hear today. No one treated a melody as he did. And I shy away from doing things he’s done. For example, I often get requests to play Ellington’s “Warm Valley”. But I hear Johnny playing it in my mind and I say, “No thanks, just go put on a Johnny Hodges album and hear it as it should be played”.

The audiences loved him too. Ellington says, “An audience’s reaction to his first note was as big and deep as most applause for musicians at the end of their complete performance “. – John Clement

Ahmad Jamal

Pianist Eric Reed has said, “Ahmad Jamal is to the piano trio what Thomas Edison was to electricity”. Whether it’s with his 1951 Three Strings ensemble or his reformed 1956 group with drums, no jazz artist has done more to illuminate the advancement of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities in the trio format. Mr. Jamal has been dazzling musicians and audiences alike with his musical mastery for over 60 years. He is a true original and a musical risk taker. He always manages to take us to the land of the unheard, reshaping and stretching the boundaries of pop, jazz and the American Popular Songbook, both harmonically and compositionally.

The best way to describe an Ahmad Jamal performance is to expect the unexpected. Listening to him can deceive you into thinking that what he does is easy. He is so musically deep, it’s frightening. He has influenced scores of pianists – Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, Monty Alexander, Chick Corea, Harold Mabern and McCoy Tyner just to name a few. The jazz musicians in general (non-pianists) that he has touched harmonically and conceptually is equally vast.

If the Ahmad Jamal trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier had just made the classic Pershing record and nothing else, they still would’ve been etched in the annals of jazz history. But the growth of this group is simply astounding. Just when one thinks they couldn’t get any better, they would outdo themselves, taking musical giant steps on every session. I feel that The Blackhawk was their musical peak.

The next trio that really crystallized for him was with drummer Frank Gant and the late bassist Jamil Nasser. He would record more fantastic records for Chess/Argo including another date with strings, a big band session plus two records with a choir before moving to Impulse records. It’s been said that the more things change the more they remain the same. Mr. Jamal is a great example of that. He has gone so far since these classic sessions, but you can still hear his unmistakable swing, touch and feeling. These records were the germination of a creative seed that continues to bloom gracing our ears with beautiful musical flowers time and time again.

Elvin Jones

I would venture to say that most jazz musicians of a certain generation would place Elvin Jones among their favorite all-time artists. Obviously, this is for musical reasons, but I think it is equally about charisma, an undeniable presence that Elvin has brought to the music. Some of the words one might use to describe him are joy, strength, intensity, focus, commitment, and love. In fact, when musicians speak about Elvin, it seems the rhetoric elevates to another level of awe and respect. Not to mention that he is probably playing on more than a few of anyone’s “desert island” list of indispensable recordings.

How is it that Elvin can play just quarter notes on the whole drum set with both hands and feet in unison as he might do at times for several choruses and light up the stage and entire audience? Even the casual listener is drawn into his vortex and aura. One only has to only look at the expression on his face, the sheer joy and light he spreads with that famous grin of his to realize that this is one very special human being with a power that reaches far beyond the music itself. – Dave Liebman

Charles Mingus

What is relevant to Charles Mingus’ creation of his own original music is that his listening was wider and his appetite for listening voracious.  Clearly one of his formative influences was early Ellington, especially the sounds of Johnny Hodges and trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton and Lawrence Brown, none of whom were around when he played with the band, or when he wrote a damning critique of it (Metronome, May 1955).

According to Mingus’s own statements, he became interested in the music of jazz artist Jelly Roll Morton or at least the idea of Morton in the 1950s, and of course he made at some stage a big-band adaptation of Wolverine Blues which was incorporated in the 1962 score of Epitaph.  But his ideas about composition were also strongly colored by his love of European classical music: later, he paid homage to Bach and Beethoven but, in his early years, he was particularly moved by Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel and Richard Strauss.  And then — or rather first to make an impact on his musical consciousness — there was the inspiration of congregational gospel singing.

The combination of these playing and listening experiences makes for quite a melting-pot.  What is of paramount importance, however, is that by dint of Mingus’s own musical personality, his strengths and  limitations, it became a single language — the Mingus language.  Just as Duke Ellington is always immediately recognizable, you would not mistake the mature Mingus for anyone else.  Whether he played tunes by Charlie Parker or what soon came to be known as soul-jazz, you knew it was Mingus.  Even when being deliberately “Ellingtonian”, he sounded like Mingus.   – Brian Priestley

Hank Mobley

In the decades since 1986, when he died in obscurity at age 55, the quality of Hank Mobley’s music and his important part in building the legacy of Blue Note Records have gained Mobley new fans and a new hearing.  His designation as “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” sometimes seen as a dismissive comparison with contemporaries considered “heavyweight” such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, is now more commonly viewed as a fitting metaphor for his blend of force and fluency.

Mobley’s strengths – his lyrical sound, sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic ideas, melodically rich and structurally subtle original compositions – made him a ubiquitous presence on his own and others’ recordings; yet he never formed a working group of any permanence under his own name. Mobley was so extensively documented at points in his career that he was easy to take for granted, a situation compounded by his personal reticence. Perhaps it would be beneficial to identify Mobley’s stylistic evolution with the drummers who were his most frequent partners at the time, to replace notions of early, middle and late with Mobley’s Max Roach/Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones/Jimmy Cobb and Billy Higgins periods.

The hard bop style was noted for the increased interaction between soloist and percussive accompaniment, and Mobley was a jazz musician particularly adept at absorbing the clatter and chatter of drummers into the flow of his tenor solos.  Where Roach and Blakey epitomized the drummer as leader and focal point, and Jones and Cobb provided a more flowing approach, Higgins introduced a spry yet dense beat that could convey the divergent moods of Mobley’s music with few adjustments.  Mobley, ever sensitive to his surroundings, adjusted his attack to his new partner, as he had in the past. – Bob Blumenthal

Thelonious Monk

The thing about Monk is that everything sounds wrong, but it’s perfectly right. It always sounds like it’s going to fall over the cliff, but it never does. Everything fits in place. It always works and resulted in some of the greatest jazz recordings.

Alfred Lion told me that there were three people in his life that when he heard them, he just flipped and had to record everything they did. The first was Monk, the second was Herbie Nichols, and the third was Andrew Hill, where he didn’t care how much money he made or lost. He just had to record this music.

Unfortunately, I don’t think people were ready for it at all. Monk went to Prestige in ’52 for about two or three years, and he sold horribly on Prestige, too. Then he went to Riverside, a startup label. Riverside really hammered away at trying to get Monk recognition.

Little by little, it grew, and people got it. By the time he got to Columbia in the ’60s, he was on the cover of “Time” magazine, selling loads of records, touring the world, making great money. But it took a long time for the world to catch up to him.” – Michael Cuscuna

Lee Morgan

Few jazz musicians have entered the big leagues at such an early age, being considered a world class musician at 18. Lee Morgan came to prominence at the perfect time, filling in the gap left by Clifford Brown’s tragic death in a car accident. While Morgan’s life would also end tragically, he had a 15-year period (as opposed to Brown’s four) to make his mark and he certainly left a lasting impression.

Lee Morgan was born on July 10, 1938 in Philadelphia. An older sister gave him a trumpet for his fourteenth birthday and he developed so quickly that within a year he was playing professionally. Clifford Brown was a major influence on his sound and style along with to a lesser extent Dizzy Gillespie. In 1956 he became a member of Gillespie’s big band, traveling the world with the orchestra until Jan. 1958. Gillespie thought so highly of Morgan that he gave him the opening trumpet solo on “A Night In Tunisia.”

After being in obscurity for two years, the 27-year old jazz artist Lee Morgan made a major comeback in late-1963. He had developed further as a trumpeter and, while still being essentially a soulful hard bop improviser, he showed at times that he was familiar with the avant-garde jazz that was being played in New York. Morgan’s first two appearances back on record were on Hank Mobley’s No Room For Squares (which included pianist Andrew Hill) and an adventurous album (Grachan Moncur’s Evolution) that found him stretching himself in a quintet with the trombonist-leader, altoist Jackie McLean, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Bob Cranshaw and the young drummer Tony Williams.

His next session resulted in the biggest hit of his career. Morgan (heading a quintet with tenor-saxophonist Joe Henderson, Barry Harris, Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins) recorded a catchy jazz boogaloo called “The Sidewinder.” To everyone’s surprise, it not only immediately became a standard but was used in a nationally televised commercial and became a best seller, leading to Blue Note recording many other attempts at hit boogaloos during the next few years. The Sidewinder album also includes four other worthy Morgan originals (“Totem Pole,” “Gary’s Notebook,” “Boy, What A Night” and “Hocus-Pocus”). – Scott Yanow

Gerry Mulligan

The history of jazz is replete with memorable long-term partnerships among jazz artists. Some of these were official collaborative ventures where co-leaders shared equal billing.  But at other times, there was a leader/sideman relationship that became something much more.

Such was the long-term association between baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996) and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (b. 1929), which certainly ranks among jazz’s most fruitful and leaders in the development of cool jazz.  The combination of the two was musically a natural.  “They thought alike,” observed jazz critic and historian Doug Ramsey.  “They were both composers.  But in their cases, it was the improvisation of composers who had very carefully thought out the way musical lines interrelated, and I thought their counterpoint worked beautifully.”

Indeed, it did–apparently from their first encounters, which dated from 1953.  At that time, Brookmeyer was a member of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s quintet, which was playing an extended engagement in southern California.  Getz and Brookmeyer discovered a startling new group of jazz musicians:  Mulligan’s pianoless quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker.

“We played Zardi’s [with Getz] for thirteen weeks, I think,” recalled Brookmeyer, “and during that time we began to play after work with Chet and Gerry and Stanley and I, and they both said that it was the best band they’d ever played with and they would like to have this as a band.  But then, of course, who’s going to be the bandleader?  Stanley already had his wings as a bandleader, and Gerry was just beginning to flex his.”

Ironically, in January of 1954, Brookmeyer succeeded Baker with the Mulligan quartet.  As musically superb–and commercially successful–as the pairing of Mulligan and Baker had been, this new combination proved at least as spectacular, and much longer in duration. – Bill Kirchner

Joe Pass

The flowing lines and harmonic complexities of bebop are daunting on any instrument, but they particularly challenge guitar players. Not so Joe Pass, who went the beboppers one better; by finger picking where he figured out how to fill and add bass notes as well as solo.

But Joe Pass’ skill wasn’t just in his ability to move dexterously around the fingerboard.  The truly best aspect of his playing was how musical it all sounded.  Joe Pass’ improvised solos were often crafted well enough to have been melodies in and of themselves creating a unique jazz sound.

For Django is considered a must-have in any jazz library. Always clean, articulate, and effective, Pass had unstoppable swing and an ability to create memorable, beautifully-constructed jazz solos. His Pacific quartet sessions lays out the full range of what this gentle, self-effacing jazz musician could do. – Alan Goodman

Django Reinhardt

There are numerous ensembles throughout the history of jazz whose existence left an indelible mark on the genre. Some driven by great jazz artists, others by a collective sound. Some groups aren’t really groups at all; they’re actually individuals whose jazz artistry is of such magnitude that they’ve come to represent an entire school of jazz, and in some cases, to define jazz in its entirety.

Every decade had its unique brand of jazz, with a bounty of fabulous performers and groups. No age offered as plentiful a choice as the swing era. Ask a fan, musician, or critic, versed in swing, to single out a favorite, and that one simple choice could easily expand to a list. Add “special” or “unique”, the list diminishes greatly. Somewhere near the top one would surely find the famous ensemble led by guitarist Django Reinhardt, and violinist Stephane Grappelli in Paris during the 1930’s.   

In an era synonymous with American big bands, jazz combos, instrumental stars, and singers, this quintet of the Hot Club of France defined a style of music known as “Le Jazz Hot.” It played hot music during the swing era, a combination of pop and jazz standards from the 1920s and ’30s, plus a unique assortment of original songs. Its legacy is founded upon a series of 78 recordings produced in Paris during the middle and late 1930s. These sides were heard in all the major cities of Europe and America, even finding their way to Australia and Japan. They are still recognized today for their vitality, creativity, and originality. – Mike Peters

Max Roach

Because Max Roach was an incessant practicer, a jazz player who performed around the clock, Roach developed admirable technique and coordination. He concentrated on what drummers call independence, playing different rhythms with each appendage, which created new levels of interest for the attentive listener. He began to liberate the drum set in a major way. His talent, razor-sharp mind, and inventive approach to music resulted in new applications of drum rudiments and increased use and integration of the bass drum, cymbals, and hi-hat.

It was no longer just a matter of announcing time and establishing a groove. Roach took things way beyond that, bringing into play his sensitivity to sound and the so-called melodic possibilities of the instrument, while venturing into previously unexplored areas of drum set technique.

Roach’s solos mirror his ambition. Listen to his thirty-two bars on the original recording of Ko-Ko, Charlie Parker’s jazz masterpiece based on Cherokee. In a blast of creativity, Roach simultaneously documents his roots in military drumming and his departure from them. Ideas expressed on the snare are enhanced by variegated bass-drum accents. The string of accents is part of the solo’s progression but can also be viewed as a separate rhythmic line. Recorded in November 1945 for Savoy, Ko-Ko remains a landmark in jazz history. – Ben Young 

Artie Shaw

“This is to acquaint the brethren with the biggest hunk of jazz dynamite now languishing in the shade of the old one-night stand,” wrote Down Beat’s John Monro, a true believer eager to spread the early word and frankly jolt the Artie Shaw’s band from its low-grade stupor. It was June 1938.

“My reason for penning this piece is a sincere belief that given decent publicity break, Shaw has the musical genius and honesty to start a trend in popular taste toward a real renaissance in solid jazz….It sounds to me, and has all winter, like just about the finest jazz ever to assail these hardened ears.” He described Shaw as “a stubborn guy, and intelligent,” then enumerated a litany of bad breaks that had hit the band, including poor publicity, “rotten schedules, layoffs, pay, cuts and the rest of the one-night miseries.” But he made a prediction: “It is this opinion that if honest musicianship counts for anything any more, Artie Shaw deserves to be the smash musical hit of 1938-39.”

Rarely would a prediction pay off so promptly or profusely. Within a month Shaw would resume recording, now for Bluebird. The first tune of the first record date he made in late July was “Begin The Beguine, the spark was struck that would carry Artie Shaw to the top. 

Other things began breaking his way too. That same month, swing’s most influential arbiter of taste and the discoverer of Billie Holiday, John Hammond, joined Shaw’s swelling legion of advocates.  “Right now I would like to throw my hat high up in the air for Artie Shaw’s band in Boston,” he wrote. “He hasn’t the greatest soloists in the world, but the band plays as if it loved music, and there is no high praise than that. Aside from Artie’s brilliant playing, there is Billie Holiday’s singing… T]he combination of Artie and Billie makes me feel that Benny Goodman is going to have to watch out for himself.” – John McDonough

Henry Threadgill

Born in 1944 on the South Side of Chicago, Henry Threadgill grew up steeped in classic jazz (Ellington, Basie) and blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf). He started on saxophone as a teenager, and gigged in polka and Dixieland groups. The young jazz musician’s horizons broadened considerably in the early ’60s, when he encountered future Art Ensemble of Chicago mainstay Joseph Jarman in the cafeteria of Wilson Junior College.

The meeting led Threadgill to Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band and eventually to the AACM, an organization that helped cultivate his famously omnivorous aesthetic. After stints in a traveling evangelism troupe and in Vietnam, Threadgill landed back in Chicago, where he launched Air and X-75. 

By the mid-’70s, though, he had relocated to New York, his on-and-off home base ever since. The ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s found the composer focusing on the Sextett and Very Very Circus, respectively, as well as performing live with unrecorded groups such as the WindString Ensemble and the Society Situation Dance Band.

He founded his next working group, Make a Move—his primary outlet from the late ’90s through the early aughts—while living part-time in Goa, India. In 2001, Threadgill debuted Zooid, an ensemble that features tuba and guitar but bears little resemblance to Very Very Circus. – Hank Shteamer

Teddy Wilson

John Hammond called him “the ultimate chamber music player.” He could have called him the ultimate jazz piano soloist. Or ultimate band pianist. Or ultimate singer’s accompanist. And he would have been right each time. Because Teddy Wilson could do it all. Inevitably, his name will always be linked with some of the most important jazz artists: Billie Holiday, Benny Carter, and of course, Benny Goodman. But Teddy Wilson deserves recognition in his own right for a remarkable career that began when he was still in his teens and continued into his seventies.

At 19, Teddy Wilson had already replaced Art Tatum in a band, and even played a few radio programs with him on two pianos. By 21, he was touring with Louis Armstrong, another of his idols. It seemed from then on, if you had talent and a name, you made small group recordings with Teddy Wilson. He was that good.

Teddy Wilson was the most important pianist in swing. Ideas flowered under his nurturing touch. You listen for the miss – after all, this is improvised music – but it never comes. With each tune he could introduce so many separate thoughts, clever, clear and complete, and like a brilliant speaker make each one relate so naturally to what came before and what followed. – Alan Goodman

Lester Young

Lester Young came from a family of professional musicians and toured as a child with his father’s band, but he was already on his own by the age of 18. He moved from band to band, including stints with jazz musicians such as Art Bronson, Walter Page (the bassist who would eventually team with Basie), King Oliver, Eddie Barefield, and in Kansas City with the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee Band.

When Fletcher Henderson’s touring organization hit town, Young came out of the audience to replace Coleman Hawkins one fateful night when Hawkins was late – an event which set off an infamous competition between the two great tenor saxophonists. Hearing about Young’s ability, the next time Henderson’s crew rolled into town Hawkins cornered Lester for a throw down. By all accounts, when the session ended well past sun-up, Hawkins, sweating and stripped to his T-shirt, had met his match.

Young briefly worked with Basie in 1934 before moving to New York to replace Hawkins in the Henderson band. His fellow band members tormented Young through some tough months, which were eased a bit by his new friendship with Billie Holiday and the beginning of their musical relationship. Unable to take the abuse on the bandstand, Young left and began drifting again in bands between Kansas City and Minneapolis. Then, one night, he heard Basie on the radio. Young went to the telegraph office to send a message to his old boss, asking for his job back.

You hear it on the opening notes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” the tune that contains Lester Young’s first recorded solo. While schooled in the stride style, Basie largely eschews what would typically be played by the left hand in favor of something sparser, while running tip-toe through the keys with his right. He could concentrate on higher, lighter tones because of the support Walter Page provides, fleetly walking through the bass strings.

Count Basie, who always seems to be measuring out his notes with witty reserve, gives Young license and context for his own coy inventions. He could blow chorus after chorus (producer John Hammond recounted a jam session when Young played 83 straight), and his solos will disappoint a listener’s efforts to find cliches.

Just as a figure sounds familiar, he’ll hang from a note until the moment he decides to casually release his fingertips. He’ll add a little swivel to the middle of a run, like a dancer who suddenly finds her hips swinging – a delightful, private reverie. He’ll saw off a succession of notes and tie them with a string, just as an after-thought. Everything he plays is unimaginable, until he plays it. And he’ll do it endlessly, while still appearing to be holding something in reserve.

Young was fully capable of achieving a section sound on ensemble pieces, but as a soloist he chose to stand apart from his fellow musicians. It was a stance that helped make him hard to cut. His solos introduced concepts that were revolutionary for their melodic content, their rhythmic complexities, and the very way he articulated the notes, often creating sounds no one had heard before. – Alan Goodman