Special Report

The Greatest Jazz Musicians of the 20th Century

Miles Davis. Charlie Parker. Dizzy Gillespie. Many of the greatest jazz musicians are household names, larger than life – men who left an indelible mark on American music and the culture at large.  

Jazz can trace its roots to the very early 20th century, when people from around the world began to mingle and play music in the diverse city of New Orleans. The earliest jazz was dance music, a toe-tapping fusion of ragtime, blues, marches, and other styles that was considered dangerous in its day. The earliest jazz recording was made in 1917, and this helped fuel its popularity nationwide. (Here’s a roster of the most famous musician born every year since 1930.)

Over the years, jazz began to branch off into the multitude of styles we know today: roots-oriented Dixieland, ‘40s-style swing and big band, cool West Coast jazz, free-flowing bebop, avant-garde “free jazz,” commercially-oriented smooth jazz…. 

But when we think of jazz nowadays, we usually think of the style that developed in the 1950s, when a group of four or five musicians would start off by playing a melody, branch off to give each musician an improvisational solo, and come back around to the melody at the end. This is the style that put many of history’s most iconic jazz musicians on the map. (Though many jazz performers have died young – only three on this list are still alive – some do continue playing for many decades, and are included in our list of 35 musicians with legendariy long careers.)

It’s worth noting that only eight of the 50 musicians on this list are white, an indication that despite the huge number of excellent non-Black jazz musicians, the true greats of the previous century in terms of lasting influence do tend to be overwhelmingly African-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 including DownBeat, Jazzfuel, Dig!, The Guardian, DigitalDreamDoor, and uDiscoverMusic. (They are not ranked here, but appear in random order.) Jazz vocalists were not included, though a few of the musicians on our list are also known for their singing – Louis Armstrong most famously. Some musicians here have recorded on instruments other than their principal one(s) – for instance 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 the names of other artists 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 are known to exist, but he was a major influence on other musicians, sometimes called “the father of jazz,” so is included here.

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