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    The 13 Most Famous Jazz Musicians of All Time


    Jazz is easily America’s most refined musical movement and remains a vital and innovative force even today. However, getting into the genre can be challenging: where do you even begin?

    Try out one of these 13 artists. They remain some of the most popular, successful, and essential performers in the genre.

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    Miles Davis

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    While other composers may have been better and other trumpet players more advanced, Miles Davis (1926–1991) is undoubtedly the prominent face of jazz music. With the top-selling jazz album of all time (“Kind of Blue”) and a nearly 70-year career, Davis is essentially the face of jazz music.

    Starting out as a sideman for Charlie Parker and later eclipsing him, Davis was essential for the innovation and development of cool jazz, bebop, modal jazz concepts, jazz fusion, jazz rock, and even smooth jazz concepts later in his career. He also worked with composer and arranger Gil Evans to introduce Spanish concepts into jazz music.

    And his mid-range and emotive trumpet style have inspired countless players to focus more on emotional content than technical finesse. Without a doubt, Miles Davis is the most popular and legendary musician in the field, even if other musicians helped him along the way.

    Duke Ellington

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    Jazz existed before Duke Ellington: but it was never the same after him. Ellington (1899-1974) started his career in the 1920s and recorded for a further 50 years, remaining relevant and vital for every year of his career. In addition, his touring bands remained popular concert draws throughout his life.

    Beyond his popularity, though, lies a body of composition and arrangement that is unarguably the finest in jazz history: perhaps in American music history. Ellington took the high-energy sounds of blues-oriented jazz and impressed complex harmonies, melodies, and structures on them without sacrificing raw emotional content.

    Alongside co-composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn (in many ways every bit the equal to Ellington), The Duke transformed jazz and still inspires composers to this day. And he made jazz more respectable to highbrow audiences by adding classical structures and more advanced improvisational techniques.

    John Coltrane

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    John Coltrane is another example of a gone-too-soon legend. Born in 1926, he passed in 1967, leaving behind a body of work that is among the most impressive and innovative. While his early career was plagued by heroin addiction and an indifferent approach to composition, Coltrane’s work ethic transformed him into a significant force.

    Coltrane was known to practice for up to 8-12 hours a day, sometimes as much as 16 in a single stretch. This practice helped expand his understanding of music. And his work with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie introduced new concepts into his playing and his methods.

    Known for his “sheets of sound” playing style, Coltrane also had a light touch with ballads that showcased his melodic genius. And groundbreaking albums like “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme” brought in suite-like attention to detail and an intensity of emotion few have topped or even approached.

    Louis Armstrong

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    Even people who’ve never heard Satchmo play have likely heard impersonations of his immediately recognizable voice. Or they may have heard one of his many beautiful songs, like “What a Wonderful World,” “Star Dust,” or “Hello Dolly.”

    However, the jazz world knows Louis Armstrong as one of the most important innovators in the genre. Armstrong’s approach to improvisation went beyond the bare jams of past jazz and introduced complex melodic and harmonic ideas that are still being explored by players today.

    And Armstrong also reinforced the importance of vocals in jazz by grounding many of his greatest songs in meaningful lyrics and adding his unique vocal style to each track. And if his full life (1901–1971) and music career weren’t busy enough, Armstrong also invented scat vocalization in a fit of desperation when he suddenly forgot the words to a verse.

    Ella Fitzgerald

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    Few jazz vocalists have the presence and sheer reputation of Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). While Billie Holiday and others may have more power and range, Ella is celebrated for her series of popular recordings and her beautiful and impressive interpretative abilities on many songs.

    While her early career was relatively undistinguished, her series of songbooks throughout the 50s and 60s made her a sensation. On these albums, she sang the finest songs from America’s songbooks, transforming them with her intuitive and dynamic approach, making each a standard.

    And while her career was cut short in 1993 due to diabetes complications, she remained a consistent and energizing performer who continually brought a fascinating approach to each song she attempted. As a result, she remains one of the best-selling vocal jazz artists in recorded history.

    Nina Simone

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    Nina Simone (nee Eunice Waymon) is one of those artists that defies categorization. Her richly emotive style focused on her sterling piano style and her deep and heart-wrenching vocals. Her arrangements and song selection (including many of her original compositions) were complex and unforgettable.

    However, Simone brought a quirky and broad taste to the genre, bringing in songs as diverse as “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles and “To Love Somebody” by The Bee Gees and transforming them into miniature jazz masterpieces. Moreover, she was as comfortable leading a jazz piano trio as she was belting out backwater blues with a full orchestra.

    During the 60s and 70s, she was also an advocate for civil rights and wrote and played many songs that spoke to this fight. Her immortal “Mississippi Goddam” remains one of the most searing condemnations of racism ever recorded. And her infamous onstage and offstage behavior virtually defined the modern diva.

    Charlie Parker

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    Whenever a saxophone player throws in a sheet of dense notes and adds a quirky melodic quote from an unexpected song, they are mimicking Charlie Parker. His tragically shortened career found “Bird” helping invent bebop with Dizzy Gillespie, a jazz style focused on complex chords and melodies.

    And while hounded by addiction his whole life, Parker continually innovated by inventing new improvisational styles, increasing his already prodigious technique, mentoring influential jazz luminaries, and writing many standards that still get played to this day.

    His untimely death in 1955 at just 35 was particularly tragic because Parker was learning to compose more complex harmonies and was likely to push his musicality to even higher levels. Without his inspiration, it’s certain that players like Miles Davis or John Coltrane would have reached their levels of success.

    Bessie Smith

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    One of the first and best jazz and blues singers, Bessie Smith (1894–1937), pulled the pain from her difficult life into some of the finest and most heartbreaking recordings in jazz history. Even now, her vocals remain a benchmark for all other singers attempting to make a mark in jazz.

    Born into poverty and beginning her performing career at a young age, Smith eventually made 160 recordings with musicians as diverse as Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. Her ability to pull rich and desperate emotion out of even the lightest song quickly built a legend.

    Unfortunately, changing public tastes and her struggle with alcoholism sabotaged her career and cut back heavily on her sales. However, modern jazz enthusiasts often turn to these early recordings now, and re-releases of her work make her one of the most famous and vital jazz musicians of all time.

    Dizzy Gillespie

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    While Dizzy Gillespie initially rode the wave of Charlie Parker Mania to fame, he outlived his mentor and arguably achieved even more fame. Nevertheless, his compositions (like “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia”) were critical to the early development of the bebop sound.

    However, Gillespie did not stay focused on this style for long. He also integrated Latin rhythms into his sound early and was one of the first jazz musicians to do so. And he wasn’t afraid to add a little swing to his style or to expand his group with a big band sound.

    Gillespie was also blessed with a great sense of humor, one that he often used during his energetic live shows. His trumpet playing (immortalized by the image of his puffed cheeks as he played) is also acclaimed as some of (if not the) best in jazz history and an influence on just about every player after.

    Ray Charles

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    Although it is arguable that Ray Charles is likely more popular and well-known than Miles Davis in general, he isn’t always regarded as a jazz performer. However, “The Genius” was skilled in whatever style he played and had a unique and innovative career in jazz worth remembering.

    In many ways, Charles (1930-2004) is very similar to Nina Simone. Both were highly trained piano players with impressive chops.

    They also both had beautifully rich voices that transformed each song they sang. And they were blessed with diverse and broad tastes that helped make them innovative.

    Charles’ main musical innovation was mixing gospel, jazz, and R&B to create soul music. However, Charles also recorded several instrumental jazz albums, created a quirky and fun solo style on the saxophone, and even played country music with aplomb and skill.

    Thelonious Monk

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    Often known simply as Monk (1917-1982), Thelonious Monk serves as a bridge between bebop and modern jazz. His sparse and occasionally obtuse piano style is still copied by players today. And his dense harmonies, complex melodies, and technically challenging arrangements remain incredibly difficult to play even now.

    In this way, Monk paved the way for more difficult modern jazz composers and arrangers while remaining arguably the finest pure writer among them. Moreover, monk’s dense and complex music retains an innate accessibility and melodic richness that those who came after him often struggled to create.

    In other words, Monk was the best of both worlds. You could listen to his albums countless times and still catch something new but whistle the melodies when they were done.

    Even his dissonant harmonies and irregular chord intervals seem melodic and appropriate. This skill helped him rocket to a high level of popularity and influence in his genre.

    Josephine Baker

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    Few jazz singers had the kind of importance of the long-lasting legacy of Josephine Baker (1906–1975). Though other jazz singers may have had more range of power, Baker’s charisma, daring, and skilled dancing made her a star in France during the 1920s when jazz erupted in the nation.

    Baker’s natural good looks and charm helped her in many ways, too, but her singing and dancing were the main attraction. She was unafraid of singing a complex and melodically dense song while performing in-depth and fascinating dance moves in front of a live audience.

    And unlike many other performers, Baker’s impact goes beyond her music career. She helped fight Nazi occupation with the French Resistance in World War II and even received military honors. And her lengthy fight against racism in the USA inspired countless others to join the battle.

    Jelly Roll Morton

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    While the self-described “inventor of jazz” may have been exaggerating slightly with his claim, Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941) should not be ignored. Morton was a pioneer of many important movements in jazz and was likely its first prominent composer and arranger of note. Morton’s most significant advance was to take the Dixieland style of his hometown New Orleans and create written arrangements.

    Before Morton, arrangements were decided on the fly or followed basic concepts. This simple move seems basic but was a massive change because it made tunes easier to replicate later in live performances or recordings. Morton still left room for improvisation, though, helping to keep this element of jazz to the forefront of his compositions.

    Just as importantly, Morton brought a sense of musical daring to Dixieland jazz that pushed it beyond its good-time atmosphere and made it denser and more emotionally fulfilling. These early innovations helped inspire artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

    So while these artists might sometimes overshadow him, he remains a vital and popular musician to study. Sometimes, starting at the beginning gives potential jazz fans the best chance to understand this genre more deeply.

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