10 Famous Jazz Saxophonists
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Who’d have thought when Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone back in 1846 that it would become one of the most widely played and fervently loved instruments in the world of jazz. Over the past 160-some years, the saxophone has been both an ensemble instrument – as was the case with the big bands of the 1920s – and a solo instrument – as was true in the small combos that began springing up in the 1940s. There have been many saxophonists who’ve made their mark on the music. Here are 10 of the most famous.
Sidney Bechet actually started out as a clarinetist. He began playing at the age of six on an instrument borrowed from his brother. By the time he was 17, he had played with many of the best musicians in his New Orleans hometown and had ventured on a tour of Texas and other southern states with pianist Clarence Williams.
During his early 20s, he switched over to soprano saxophone and went from being regionally popular to being world famous. In the worlds of Leonard Feather in the Encyclopedia of Jazz, “Bechet maintained a colorful style with a heavy vibrato and created forceful melodic lines.
Born in Woodinville, Mississippi and trained on the trumpet, sax, violin, and drums by his father, Lester Young bounced around a number of bands before landing with Fletcher Henderson’s operation as a sub for Coleman Hawkins. The gig didn’t last long as Young’s quiet approach was not seen favorably as compared to Hawkins’ bigger bolder sound.
Decades later, Young is considered one of the most influential saxophone players in history, whose style of playing transitioned the genre from the loud hot sound of the big bands to the cooler, more intimate sound of the 1950s combos.
While Lester Young’s style helped bring the saxophone out of the ensemble and into the spotlight, it was Coleman Hawkins who kept it there. One of the dominant players of the 1930s, he began his career with Fletcher Henderson’s band. In 1939, he formed a nine-piece big band and recorded Body & Soul, a record that made him a household name.
After touring with a 16-piece band in the early 40s, he put together a recording session with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944, considered by most to be the first bebop session on record. Hawkins’ deeply warm sound was an instrumental step in bringing the saxophone to its full maturity as a jazz instrument.
Best known for his work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from the mid-30s into the late 40s, Ben Webster was praised by many critics for his warm, sensitive approach to the tenor sax, a style he adopted from Coleman Hawkins.
Webster was a frequently recorded player whose dates during the 30s and 40s included gigs with Woody Herman, Billy Holiday and Jack Teagarden. In the words of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, his tone was “big and warm, his style vivid and forceful.”
A person whose story is as personally sad as it is professionally stupendous, Charlie Parker started playing alto sax when he was eleven years old. At 15, he left school and fell in with a “bad crowd,” with whom he developed the taste for narcotics that would torment him for most of his life.
Reviled by most of the Kansas City jazz fraternity, he spent a summer out of town as a teenager, returning to the city having sown the seeds of his remarkable style. Over the course of the next 20 years, until his death in 1955, he would have an inestimable influence on jazz improvisation, not just on the saxophone but across all other instruments.
Originally nicknamed “Cannibal,” for his prodigious capacity for eating, the name that would later become known as “Cannonball” was born into a very musical family. Over the course of his career, he would work with his brother, Nat, as well as George Shearing, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. As a leader, his tone was a hybrid of two of his favorites, Charlie Parker, from whom he developed his up-tempo approach, and Benny Carter, from whom he learned to played ballads.
Still playing occasionally at the age of 85, Lee Konitz began his career during the late 1940s, when he toured with Claude Thornhill and, subsequently, played with Miles Davis at his Royal Roost dates in 1948.
Since then, Konitz has played with a who’s who of the genre, ranging from Stan Kenton to Bill Frisell. In A Handbook of Jazz, Barry Ulanov wrote that Konitz is “Well endowed with melodic resourcefulness, a distinctive tone and a subtle sense of time.”
Born Theodore Walter Rollins in New York City, Sonny Rollins had little interest in music until high school when he began playing tenor sax. Though he gigged around the city in his late teens, he wasn’t entirely sure he would pursue music until 1948 when he began a series of recording gigs that included dates with Babs Gonzales, Bud Powell, and J.J. Johnson.
The ensuing 60 years have seen Rollins play in just about every configuration imaginable, from dates with everyone from Miles Davis to the Rolling Stones. As influential as Parker and Coltrane, Rollins is known for his hard-edged playing and over-arching approach to soloing.
As recently as 1960, the jury was still out of the value and influence of John Coltrane, who was influenced by Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt and was paralleled by Sonny Rollins. Fifty years of consideration – as well as a handful of records that were recorded during the last 7 years of his life – have tempered those judgments: Coltrane is now considered among the most influential and inventive players of the 1950s and 1960s.
Along with Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter is among the most active of the players on this list, still playing live and releasing new recordings. Moved by Rollins and Hawkins, Shorter’s resume includes dates with everyone from Art Blakey to Miles Davis to the influential group he co-founded, Weather Report. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times calls Shorter “probably jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a contender for the greatest living improviser.”