14 of the Most Famous Baritone Saxophone Players You Should Know

While the saxophone is a relatively young instrument only having been invented in 1841, there are plenty of famous performers, even of the ‘bari’ sax. Listening to some of the great’s recordings and live performances can help young saxophonists work on their sound.

So, to celebrate the instrument we’ve put together a list of 14 of the greatest and most famous baritone saxophone players that you need to check out. Let’s get started with our favorite – Gerry Mulligan.

1. Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996)

First up, we have one of the greatest sax players of all time, Gerry Mulligan.

Part of jazz saxophone royalty, he played with Miles Davis and was part of famous Birth of Cool recordings. Other collaborations include working with Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker and Astor Piazolla.

In 1951, Mulligan formed a pianoless quartet, and he helped pave the way for the “West Coast Jazz” sound.

Along with performing, Mulligan was a composer and wrote for orchestras and wrote film music. Later on, he eventually added piano back into his jazz quartets.

2. Pepper Adams (1930-1986)

Next, we have Pepper Adams who performed frequently as a baritone saxophonist and has a long discography. A lot of his recordings were for his own quartet, and he made his recording debut in his 20s.

Adams was a founding member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. He later forged a solo career in California, and he went on tour in Europe.

His first baritone saxophone lasted him 30 years before he chose to replace it!

Later in his life, he had a leg injury that kept him from playing for a few months. However, he eventually started performing again before he died of lung cancer in 1986.

3. Ronnie Cuber (1941)

Ronnie Cuber is an amazing bari sax player, and he had a great start to his performing career. He started as a bandleader, arranger, and composer in his teens, and he’s had a lot of success since.

Some of his most successful gigs include playing for Aretha Franklin and playing sax solos with Lee Konitz’s group.

Along with jazz, Cuber has played blues, rock, pop, and Latin music. Latin jazz and hard bop are his two signature styles as a bandleader.

Outside of his bands, he’s played with B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and other artists. If you want to listen to his recordings, you can learn a lot about music and jazz.

4. Harry Carney (1910-1974)

Part of Duke Ellington’s band, Harry Carney had an amazing career as a bari saxophonist. He started on the clarinet before switching to the alto and later the bari sax.

Carney played with Ellington for 47 years, and that era is when Carney started to focus on the lower end of the saxophone section.

Carney and Ellington were also great friends, and they would travel with each other to gigs. Also in his career, Carney played with Benny Goodman.

The saxophonist also was an early adopter of circular breathing, which allows wind players to play without stopping to breathe. Saxophonists and other musicians use this technique more and more.

5. Hamiet Bluiett (1940-2018)

Hamiet Bluiett was another excellent bari sax player and one of the best bari specialists of his generation.

He had great command over his horn and had a huge sound from the low to the high register. That helped him develop a unique solo sound that you can hear.

Bluiett later founded the World Saxophone Quartet, and he performed with some other great saxophonists. He was also a recording artist and has a long list of recordings.

Even if you’re not a saxophonist, you may be able to learn to recognize Bluiett’s sound.

6. Cecil Payne (1922-2007)

One of the great bebop musicians, saxophonist Cecil Payne played with Dizzy Gillespie. His biggest influence was Lester Young, and Young’s recording inspired Payne to play the sax.

Later, he played with Pepper Adams and John Coltrane along with Count Basie and Tadd Dameron.

Payne eventually toured Europe while participating in The Musical Life of Charlie Parker.

Later in his life, Payne stopped performing and touring as much while his vision declined. But he was able to get back to performing before the end of his life.

7. Ronnie Ross (1933-1991)

Born in India, Ronnie Ross moved to England in his teens. The following decade, he started playing tenor sax with the likes of Tony Kinsey and Ted Heath.

While working with Don Rendell, Ross switched to playing the bari sax before later forming his own music group.

Part of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ross toured Europe and the United States. He also played on an album for The Beatles, though that recording was on tenor sax.

Ross also taught David Bowie to play the saxophone and was a soloist on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. The bari sax player also recorded parts for a number of other artists’ albums.

8. Lauren Sevian (1979-)

Lauren Sevian is one of the most famous women saxophone players and has won many awards over her career, such as baritone saxophonist of the year.

Sevian attended Manhattan School of Music and began touring with the Artie Shaw Orchestra and Diva after she graduated.

She’s performed as a bandleader and even co-founded Lioness, which is a collective for women musicians.

Over her career, she has released multiple albums, and she performs in different situations as a versatile player. Her performances have taken her around the country and world, including to Australia.

9. Bob Gordon (1928-1955)

In his short 27 years, Bob Gordon managed to become one of the most famous bari saxophone players of all time.

He was a West Coast player, and he did a lot of session work with various artists including Shorty Sherock and Billy May.

As a performer, his primary objective was to express himself, not to be revolutionary. A natural musician, he was able to become excellent at his craft.

He didn’t convert from playing the alto or tenor, which made him a great fit for the baritone saxophone.

10. Gary Smulyan (1956-)

Gary Smulyan started on alto saxophone like many young players. While in high school, he got to perform with some jazz greats like Lee Konitz.

Eventually, Smulyan switched his focus to the bari sax, and he has gone on to have a successful performing career.

He’s worked as both a bandleader and sideman and has performed with B. B. King and in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.

Smulyan’s tone is big and expressive, and that has helped him win a slew of awards. He remains one of the most influential bari sax players, and students can learn a lot from him.

11. Howard Johnson (1941-2021)

Howard Johnson was a versatile musician, playing everything from baritone sax to tuba and trumpet.

In his 20s, Johnson moved to New York to start playing with Archie Shepp, Hank Crawford, and Charles Mingus. He also played with Gil Evans for about 20 years from the 60s to 80s.

While he was an amazing saxophonist, he was better known as a tuba player. Still, bari sax players can listen to Johnson to learn about how to get a good sound on a low instrument.

The musician’s legacy will continue, and students will be able to learn from him for years.

12. Leo Pellegrino (1991-)

A young yet influential bari saxophonist, Leo Pellegrino has had an amazing career so far.

He used to play in the brass band Lucky Chops and now plays for the Brass House.

Pellegrino has managed to incorporate dance into his performances as a saxophonist. That’s not an easy feat with the massive instrument.

He’s also set himself apart with his clothing and hair, so you can recognize him when he’s on stage.

However, his playing is a huge part of his career and is what got him to where he is now. It will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

13. Claire Daly (1958-)

Claire Daly started playing the saxophone in her early teens and says that changed her life forever.

She first heard a big band shortly after starting the instrument, and she loved every minute of the performance, especially when the saxophones had a soli.

Over the years, she’s played with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and other notable musicians. Daly has also won awards from Downbeat Critic and the Jazz Journalist Association.

For the past 16 years, she has worked on finding hidden gems within the jazz world. She’s also toured the United States.

She’s an excellent player to listen to if you want to learn from someone with experience in the industry.

14. Lisa Simpson

And finally, we have probably the most famous cartoon musician of all time, Lisa Simpson who actually played the baritone saxophone.

She was featured playing the saxophone in the opening intro scene and there were a number of episodes that had her playing it.

One particular episode to check out would be Lisa’s Sax (the 3rd episode of season 9) which has lots of parts of her playing her sax.

Summing up our List of the Greatest Baritone Saxophonists

Whether you want to play the bari sax or love its sound, you should know about some famous baritone saxophonists.

Then, you can find plenty of recordings of pieces throughout the past century.

Be sure to listen to a few of the greats to help inform your musical choices.

Soon enough, you may be the next famous bari player.

Photo of author
Written by Laura Macmillan
Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.