The Greatest Jazz Musicians of the 20th Century – 24/7 Wall St.
Mile Davis. Charlie Parker. Dizzy Gillespie. Many of the greatest jazz musicians are household names, larger than life – men who have left an indelible mark on American music and culture in general.
Jazz traces its roots to the very beginning of the 20th century, when people from all over the world began to mingle and play music in the diverse city of New Orleans. The earliest jazz was dance music, a raucous fusion of ragtime, blues, marches, and other styles considered dangerous at the time. The first jazz recording was made in 1917, which helped fuel its popularity across the country. (Here is a list of the most famous musicians born each year since 1930.)
Over the years, jazz began to branch out into the myriad of styles we know today: roots-oriented Dixieland, 1940s swing and big band, cool West Coast jazz, fluid bebop, “free jazz” avant-garde. commercial smooth jazz….
But when we think of jazz today, we usually think of the style that developed in the 1950s, when a group of four or five musicians started by playing a melody, branched off to give each musician a solo of improvisation, and returned to the melody at the end. It’s the style that has put many of the most iconic jazz musicians in history on the map. (Although many jazz artists died young – only three on this list are still alive – some continue to perform for many decades and are included in our list of 35 musicians with legendary careers.)
It should be noted that only eight of the 50 musicians on this list are white, an indication that despite the large number of excellent non-black jazz musicians, the real big names of the previous century in terms of lasting influence tend to be overwhelmingly Africans. American. (They also tended to be mostly male.)
To compile a list of the 50 greatest jazz musicians of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed articles and rankings on sites such as low beat, Jazzfuel, To dig!, The Guardian, DigitalDreamDoorand uDiscoverMusic. (They’re not ranked here, but appear in random order.) Jazz singers weren’t included, although a few of the musicians on our list are also known for their singing – Louis Armstrong’s most famous. Some musicians here have recorded on instruments other than their principal(s) – for example bassist Charles Mingus on piano or saxophonist Ornette Coleman on violin, but only the instruments for which they are best known are mentioned.
Click here to see the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century
Some compilation albums or recordings originally released under other artists’ names are included among the representative albums here, but the majority are albums made by the musician as leader. No recordings of New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden exist, but he was a major influence on other musicians, sometimes called “the father of jazz”, so he is included here.