The main characteristic of jazz is improvisation. This is an ever evolving and expanding art form. It is instantly recognized and distinguished as something separate from all other forms of musical expression.
This is why jazz artists are well-respected by their contemporaries and recognized as some of the best musicians of all time.
Here are seven jazz artists that have left a mark as the best of the best:
A son of a music teacher, Miles Davis is considered one of the top musicians of his era and instrumental in the development of jazz.
His innovations and reinventions spearheaded the emergence of bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, fusion, funk and techno music.
Davis dropped out of Juilliard and became a full-time jazz musician. He became a part of the Charlie Parker Quintet.
By the late 1960s, Davis ventured into jazz fusion with his best-selling album Bitches Brew. As a result, Davis was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine—becoming the first jazz artist to be so recognized.
Davis died at the age of 65 with eight Grammy Awards and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
“Lady Day” was perhaps the most exceptional popular music singer of the 20th century. She was widely known for her distinctive phrasing and expressive, sometimes melancholic voice.
Around 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself “Billie” after the film star Billie Dove. At the age of 18, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond while she was performing in a Harlem jazz club. She sang vocals for Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson.
She received multiple posthumous Grammy Hall of Fame awards and Grammy Best Historic Album awards for her work. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dizzy Gillespie started his jazz career in the mid-1930s. He worked with prominent swing bands, including those of Benny Carter and Charlie Barnet.
Along with Charlie Parker, he was very significant in the development of bebop — a reaction to swing, distinct for dissonant harmonies and polyrhythms. He was also considered as one of the first musicians to infuse Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms with jazz.
Gillespie was immediately recognizable from the unusual shape of his trumpet. The bell is tilted upward at a 45-degree angle due to someone accidentally sitting on it. But when he played it afterward, he discovered that its new shape improved the instrument’s sound quality. So he had it incorporated into all his trumpets thereafter.
In 1990, three years prior to his passing, he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award.
Born in Kansas City when it was a lively center for African-American music, including jazz, blues, and gospel, Charlie Parker discovered his own talent for music through taking lessons at public schools.
His fast, virtuosic playing, clean tone, and improvisational abilities greatly influenced other musicians at the time. His innovation in writing songs, using complex chord progressions and revolutionary harmonic form, changed the standards for composition and greatly influenced other jazz artists.
Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he managed to invent an entirely new style of jazz, commonly known as bop or bebop.
Charlie Parker was a legendary Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist and a renowned jazz composer. He earned his famous nickname “Bird” when he accidentally hit a yard bird while driving on tour with his band.
Known as the “King of Swing”, Benny Goodman led one of the most popular bands of the early 20th century.
When Goodman was 10 years old, his father sent him to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. There, he learned the clarinet under the tutelage of Chicago Symphony member Franz Schoepp.
At the pinnacle of the Swing Era, the Benny Goodman band, along with musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, made history as the first jazz band ever to play in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Not long before his death, he had received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award as well as honorary degrees from Brandeis University and Bard College.
Goodman was both an important influence in popular and jazz music, as well as a prominent Civil Rights activist.
Although his contributions to music did not just focus on jazz, we could not disregard him from this list. “The Genius” as he was known as one of the most legendary musicians of the 20th century, despite losing his sight at the age of seven.
This was when his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida—where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet, and trumpet.
During his time, he was able to produce 250 albums in various genres, from soul to jazz to country to gospel.
Charles has been awarded eight honorary doctoral degrees, 17 Grammys, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the President’s Merit Award, and his Playboy Awards.
Known as “Satchmo” or “Pops”, Louis Armstrong was an incredibly influential jazz trumpet player and singer from New Orleans. He is recognized as one of the greatest musicians of all time having a major role in the creation of modern jazz. His trumpet playing and singing have influenced so many great artists that followed him.
Armstrong’s virtuoso brilliance on numbers like “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues” helped transform jazz from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art. He also began singing on his recordings which popularized wordless “scat singing”.
He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Satchmo’s name and legacy continue on decades after his death in 1971.
Who else do you think deserves to be on this list? Sound off in the comment section.