The term “jazz” is applicable to so many different styles and sub-genres that it can be hard to keep track of them all. This huge and diverse range of possibilities often scares away many potential listeners, as they may feel like they simply cannot understand where to begin.
Thankfully, it is possible to list 21 different jazz musicians who inspired the art form and provide notable recordings. The following artists are arranged chronologically to give readers a better understanding of the development of the form and make it easier to find artists they enjoy.
1. Duke Ellington: The Great Composer of Jazz
Duke Ellington was not the first jazz artist. However, Ellington perhaps did more to popularize and deepen the genre than any other single artist.
Ellington took the blues base of jazz and mixed it with complex melodic ideas, deep harmonic movement, rich arrangements, and classical ambition. And he wrote and recorded hundreds of high-quality songs, many of which remain standards.
As a piano player, Duke’s minimalist style expanded over the years, as he embraced modern jazz innovations and stayed continually relevant until he died in 1974. His influence is impossible to measure. Almost everyone who came after Duke owed him some debt.
And he did it all with a style, grace, and humility that helped to make jazz more acceptable to mainstream audiences. Listen to “Ellington at Newport” to hear him at the height of his powers.
2. Louis Armstrong: Arguably Jazz’s First Great Soloist
Jazz before Louie Armstrong was an exciting but sometimes crude style that centered on basic song forms and blues melodies. Armstrong changed everything by bringing complex rhythmic and melodic ideas.
His trumpet playing is still considered among the best of all time, and many of his songs are standards. And his improvisational style has influenced everyone who came after him by focusing on soloing.
Armstrong was also an amiable and marketable figure, with a great sense of humor and an appealing and distinctive voice. His persona helped make him a major star in the 1920s, which was unheard of for African Americans at the time.
This breakdown of racial barriers makes him culturally crucial for the form as well. Listen to “Hot 5s” and “Hot 7s” to get a taste of his artistry.
3. Count Basie: The King of Swing
Swing music was arguably perfected under Count Basie, a skilled and constantly innovative pianist who had an eye for talent. Though Basie wasn’t as sharp of a composer as Ellington or others, he knew good music and helped to give breaks to many future legends. Lester Young, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra all owe their career to Basie’s employ.
Furthermore, Basie also brought in some of the finest arrangers in jazz history, like Neal Hefti and Quincy Jones. His consistent quality also remains high: Basie rarely recorded anything boring or uncreative.
Check out his dual album “First Time!” with Duke Ellington to get a feel for his powers. This album combines their jazz orchestras to produce a constantly entertaining record.
4. Coleman Hawkins: The First Major Saxophone Player
It’s hard to imagine jazz without saxophone, but there was a time when it wasn’t a commonly used instrument in the genre. Coleman Hawkins changed all of that.
As the first significant saxophone innovator in the field, Hawkins influenced literally everybody who came after him. Players like John Coltrane used his influence to push themselves into new and innovative areas of playing.
Hawkins was renowned for his incredibly vibrato-rich lines, particularly with Fletcher Henderson. And Hawkins had no fear of change or innovation.
Though starting his career in big band jazz, he played on bebop albums, innovated modern jazz with Thelonious Monk, and even got into more outrageous and avant playing styles later in his career. By taking the influence of his proteges into his playing, he remained relevant until his death.
5. Lester Young: A Cool Jazz Legend
If Coleman Hawkins was a hard-edged sax player who showed the limits of the instrument’s intensity, Lester Young was the opposite. Instead, Young used a softer and gentler tone, one in which he explored many beautiful and complex melodic and harmonic ideas. Ironically, Young replaced Hawkins when he left Henderson’s orchestra and immediately changed the tone and tenure of the group.
Young helped to inspire just as many saxophone players as Hawkins, sometimes inspiring the same player to experiment with different modes. As a result, players as diverse as Dexter Gordon and Zoot Sims claim an allegiance to young. And his smooth and melodic style helped to inspire the cool jazz movement, one that remains an incredibly popular and influential style even now.
6. Art Tatum: A Blind Piano Genius
The piano has long been an essential instrument in jazz but was once primarily a rhythmic instrument used as chordal support for horns. Art Tatum helped to change all of that.
Tatum could arguably be called the best jazz piano player of all time – some even claim he’s the best instrumentalist in the genre, full stop. However, Tatum had to overcome blindness and a self-taught technique to reach this level.
His playing possesses beautifully fast and linear improvisation, with profound harmonic ideas taken from classical music. His ability to reharmonize well-worn jazz standards was basically unheard of in the genre before him.
Unfortunately, his early death at 47 due to alcoholism robbed the world of even more fantastic playing. Nevertheless, all players after him owe at least part of their style to his innovation.
7. Mary Lou Williams: A Female Pioneer
Modern jazz is filled with outstanding and innovative female players as diverse as the edgy and cerebral style of Mary Halvorson all the way to the joyous rock-infused work of Hedvig Mollestad. However, female jazz musicians did not get the same kind of attention. And few female players, composers, and arrangers were as crucial as Mary Lou Williams.
As a child prodigy, Williams started her career early, playing with Duke Ellington at 13. She then played on over 100 different records with a diverse range of different players.
Her piano playing was lauded as some of the best of all time, and she remained a fascinating and innovative musician until she died in the 70s. Her ability to play in any jazz style became something of a trademark.
8. Django Reinhardt: The Inventor of Gypsy Jazz
Jazz guitar can be broken up into a few distinct phases. The first two of these could be classified as Pre-Django and Post-Django.
Reinhardt’s extraordinary virtuosity, alongside violinist Stephane Grapelli, helped to turn what was once an accompanying instrument into a powerful vehicle for solo expression. Django’s gypsy-influenced harmonies and melodies also opened a new world for improvisational possibilities.
No list mentioning Django would be complete without saying that he played his instrument with the use of just two fingers on his fretting hand. Hearing his head-spinning melodic lines and complex chording, it’s impressive to imagine playing with just two fingers. However, his long and strong fingers helped to make it easier for him to chord in ways other musicians could not.
9. Billie Holiday: The Greatest Jazz Singer of All Time
Any jazz singer who’s ever stood up on a podium to sing is standing in Billie Holiday’s long shadow. Debuting at just 18, Holiday’s impact on the field was immediate.
Her technical abilities, melodic daring, and soulful and nearly heart-breaking vocals made her a living legend almost immediately. As a result, she recorded with some of the best and most influential jazz artists of all time.
And while a life of addiction faded her health and shortened her life, she remains the most emulated jazz singer of all time. Her ability to pull emotion out of the tritest lyric and simplest melody is simply unmatched. When paired with a song worth her talents, she would rise to the occasion in ways that few other jazz singers have attempted, let alone matched or bettered.
10. Charlie Christian: An Electric Guitar Innovator
While Reinhard was the undisputed king of acoustic guitar, Charlie Christian helped make the electric guitar a more prominent instrument in jazz. Christian’s impact on the genre was immediate: his horn-like lines were influenced more by Lester Young than any other guitarist, which is an approach often emulated by other guitarists after him, such as Sonny Sharrock’s sheets of electric sound.
While Christian rarely recorded as a leader due to a tragically short 25-year life, all electric jazz guitarists after him owe him a considerable debt. For example, Wes Montgomery’s many innovations and playing genius (including his compositional ideas) are all heavily influenced by Christian. And without Wes Montgomery, modern jazz guitar would likely mostly be Christian soundalikes.
11. Gillespie: A Bebop Innovator
Bebop was one of the first significant departures for jazz music. It featured complex chord changes, enhanced harmonies, and much more arranged music.
And Dizzie Gillespie was right at the forefront of this movement in the 1940s. He was known for his high-end playing, with melodies that featured chromaticism and complex note combinations that were far ahead of what other players handled.
Gillespie was also an important composer and, alongside Charlie Parker, continually pushed jazz to new styles. And he got a second life as an Afro-Cuban innovator, being one of the first musicians to combine jazz and Cuban music. But, just as importantly, he brought a sense of humor and style to the genre, with his sometimes hilarious vocals and his distinctive full-blown cheeks as he played.
12. Charlie Parker: A Giant Among Men
Bird’s breakthrough soloing style taught players how to pull in different chords from varying keys to provide a varying level of endless soloing capabilities. If that were the only thing Parker did in his heroin-shortened life, he’d be well remembered. However, Parker was also a compositional and arranging genius, known for his many now-standard tracks and albums.
Parker also played with classical ideas, such as adding strings to jazz, to produce a new Third Stream style. And his playing, which contained an endless array of notes, melodic ideas, harmonic combinations, and callbacks to past songs, remains an inspiration to many players even today. Who knows what Bird could have accomplished if he had kicked the heroin habit?
13. Thelonious Monk: The Quirky Inventor of Modern Jazz
They say that true geniuses are rarely appreciated in their time. And Monk had many difficulties getting accepted by the jazz elite during his heyday.
His twisting, complex, and memorable compositions were often accused of lacking swing or the “jazz essence.” And his sparse and sometimes dissonant piano work was considered either an elaborate joke or evidence of a twisted mentality.
Monk remained consistent, continually pursuing his unique concept of music, and eventually won out against the haters. Now, he is considered a genius who constantly inspires modern jazz styles.
As the second-most recorded composer in jazz history, Monk’s long legacy is assured. And he will likely still inspire many up-and-coming musicians for years to come as well.
14. Charles Mingus: A Tortured and Fascinating Genius
In many jazz circles, the name “Mingus” is spoken in hushed and reverent whispers. Yet, this genius bassist and composer was one of the first to bring in European classical structures and harmonies, using his classical training and focusing on extended structures with programmatic meanings. Over his long career, he continually shaped an innovative and far-reaching style of jazz that remains inspirational.
And Mingus also had a reputation as a supporting friend with an extravagant temper. He was kicked off Duke Ellington’s orchestra for starting an on-stage fight with another player and was known to pull guns on band members.
However tortured he may have been, his sterling and emotive pieces make him one of the finest prominent band composers and leaders. “Mingus Ah Um” is the established classic.
15. Ella Fitzgerald: A Versatile Singer for the Ages
Ella’s incredibly versatile voice could be soothing, vibrant, tragic, and hilarious, sometimes all within the same song. She had a light tone with perfect time and intonation that let her have fun and experiment with melodies as she sang. And her series of Song Book albums in the late 60s and 70s highlighted some of the most popular songwriters of the times and helped establish her reputation.
Fitzgerald was also an accomplished scat singer, pulling on the lessons from Louie Armstrong and bringing a raw sense of sexuality and excitement into each of her performances. And while she suffered from bad health later in life, she remained a popular touring performer well into the 80s. Honestly, she transcended jazz singing and the form in so many ways.
16. Art Blakey: A Hard Bop Innovator
Art Blakey was on the scene as a drummer when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie brought in complex chords and melodies to produce bebop. However, Blakey eventually went solo with his Jazz Messenger’s band and helped to influence Hard Bop. This style featured harder-hitting rhythms and more strident melodies and was a further expansion of the form.
Blakey remained an influential composer and player for his nearly 40-year career. And he helped provide early exposure for many artists, such as Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Woody Shaw. Like many of the finest jazz musicians of his era, Blakey had an ear for talent and was skilled at identifying and nurturing some of the finest and most important Hard Bop innovators.
17. Nat King Cole: Vitally Important for Increasing Jazz Popularity
At a time when jazz was often considered an outsider or ethnic music to many mainstream listeners, Nat King Cole stood out. His beautifully smooth voice was a hit with the public, and throughout his career, he sold 50 million records.
Without a doubt, he is one of the best-selling African American entertainers of his age. However, Cole was also a skilled pianist, composer, and arranger.
His early trio sessions often featured him in an unusual piano, bass, and guitar format. These sessions were notably influential on giants of the former like Oscar Peterson, who expanded on this format throughout his career. True jazz fans treasure these early sessions, though they also turn time and time again to his almost seductively beautiful ballad singing.
18. Dave Brubeck: Both Popular and Innovative
In the world of music, “popular” doesn’t always indicate high quality. However, Dave Brubeck was different.
Looking something like a friendly math teacher, Brubeck brought a level of intelligence and creativity to the genre that pushed it beyond blues melodies. His specialty was odd time signatures, which his album “Time Out” explored in great detail.
While stranger time signatures had been attempted before Brubeck, many musicians bucked against his experimentation at the time. However, the album went on to become one of the most influential and best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Throughout his career, Brubeck carefully balanced creativity and popularity and was a prominent force on the scene until his death.
19. Miles Davis: The Face of Jazz
Ask the average person to name a jazz player. Chances are they will say Miles Davis. Davis’s 50-year career saw this humble and often shy trumpet player stand as the primary innovator or proponent of many movements.
First, he created cool jazz with genius arranger and composer Gil Evans. Later, he explored bebop and bop concepts with Charlie Parker. Then, he invented modal jazz with “Kind of Blue.”
And those were just his early years. Later on, Davis integrated funk and rock into his sound to help pioneer jazz fusion. Later, he incorporated repetition-based concepts and nearly ambient textures into his sound.
Surprisingly, he even sprang to success in the 80s by embracing some of the trends of the period. So during his life, if jazz was moving in one direction, Miles was probably moving there just a bit before anyone else.
20. John Coltrane: The Heart and Soul of Jazz
There were better composers and players than John Coltrane before his untimely death. However, few could say that they worked as hard as he did in his too-brief career.
Coltrane was known to practice 12-16 hours every day, especially after quitting heroin for good. And this practice pushed him to develop an innate musicality that made every song and every solo a new form to explore.
And as Trane moved from sideman to bandleader, his playing got more daring, vibrant, and passionate. Meanwhile, his compositions went from relatively straight 12-bar blues to experiments with extended meters, eastern modalities, and nearly completely free playing. Yet, through it all, he always wore his heart on his sleeve and instilled every note he played with passion, intensity, and meaning.
21. Nina Simone: A Diverse and Eclectic Diva
The term “diva” is a controversial one, though few other terms could describe the fantastic talent and career of Nina Simone. Simone was a classically trained pianist with a deep and earthy voice that transformed any song she sang. And she was fearless.
In her career, she was comfortable in a jazz trio format, in front of a massive orchestra, touring in front of thousands, and entertaining celebrities.
As a fearless fighter for civil rights, she continually attempted to support her African American brothers and sisters with songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” and her revival of classic songs. Her ability to recognize the innate emotional core of otherwise emotionally trite songs was unsurpassed. Like the best artists, Nina Simone transcended labels and created a genre of her own.