When Adolphe Sax placed a patent on his invention he named the “saxophone” in 1846, little did he know it would become the defining instrument of one of the world’s most cherished genres of modern music – jazz.
It was used in military marching bands and then was catapulted into the spotlight primarily by innovative Black American musicians during the 1920s Jazz Age and Swing era. From then on, throughout the generations, there have been countless exceptionally gifted black musicians whose mastery of the saxophone would leave a mark on the history of music forever.
Here are 15 of some of the greatest and most famous black saxophone players of all time:
1. John Coltrane
Coming of age as a budding saxophonist in the 1940s, and adopting jazz saxophone giants Johnny Hodges and Dexter Gordon as his musical heroes, he was responsible for innovating jazz music with his prodigious musical contribution to the free-form genre of jazz known as bebop.
2. Charlie Parker
Charlie “The Bird” Parker was a black American saxophonist whose innovative style changed jazz music forever. One of the leading bebop musicians, he began playing the saxophone at age 13.
His move to New York City in 1939 and subsequent involvement in the jazz scene would lead him to meet jazz legends Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie (among others), with whom he would record the bebop genre-defining track “Salt Peanuts”.
Although he battled alcohol and narcotic addiction throughout his life, he managed to produce a timeless body of work and secure his place in jazz history as one of the greatest saxophonists of all time.
3. Cannonball Adderley
Cannonball Adderley was an alto saxophonist associated with the American hard bop movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a type of free-swinging improvisational jazz.
However, he is probably most famous for his 1966 crossover soul-jazz single, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” that made it to the pop charts.
His skills on the alto sax were so advanced and impressive that some claimed he rivaled Charlie Parker, calling him the “new bird.”
He was unique in that he was known just as much for his articulate commentary on jazz as he was for his brilliant saxophone playing.
4. Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon was a prolific Black American tenor saxophonist that helped to usher in the bebop era alongside the best jazz musicians of his time. He was also a bandleader, composer, and actor.
His music career took off in the 1940s after leaving his hometown of Los Angeles to play alongside some of the biggest names in jazz.
Some of his most famous recordings were produced while signed to Blue Note Records in the 60s.
After an already long and legendary career as a saxophonist, in 1986 he played the role of Dale Turner in the film “Round About Midnight” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Leading Actor.
5. Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins is an American tenor saxophonist widely regarded as one of the greatest living jazz musicians of all time.
Growing up in Harlem, he was immersed in the New York City jazz scene and found an idol in local jazz giant Coleman Hawkins whose musical style he attempted to emulate early on.
In the 1950s, he came under the mentorship of Thelonious Monk and built his reputation as a gifted musician through his association with Monk and Miles Davis.
By the time he was 20 years old, he had already recorded with Miles Davis. He was also known for his unique way of holding his saxophone in a sideways position when he played.
6. Lester Young
Lester Young, AKA the “President of Jazz” or “The Prez”, was an American tenor saxophonist who is said to have influenced some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.
He was primarily active between the 1930s and 1950s. He influenced musicians like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Billie Holiday.
Holiday claimed he was her favorite musician to accompany her music. His style of saxophone playing is widely associated with “West Coast cool.”
7. Ben Webster
Ben Webster was an innovative Black American jazz saxophonist. While still a largely self-taught musician, he began his career in 1927 in Kansas City where he gained employment playing music for silent films.
Soon after, jazz legend Budd Johnson would teach him the saxophone. He would then join Gene Coy’s band, The Happy Black Aces. It was then that he would finally pick up the tenor saxophone under the instruction of Mr. Coy.
He is best known for his original and versatile style, ranging from ballads to bop. He was a member of various notable acts such as the Young Family Band and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
8. Coleman Hawkins
Coleman “Bean” Hawkins was one of the leading figures in swing music and also in the early days of Bebop jazz.
His mother, a professional musician, gave him piano and cello lessons when he was a child. However, it was not long before he naturally gravitated towards the saxophone.
He moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance in 1929 where he played gigs in NYC’s most prominent jazz clubs and participated in late-night improv jam sessions that would pave the way for his innovative bebop style.
He is also known for elevating the status of the saxophone to the iconic jazz instrument that it is today.
9. Grover Washington Jr.
Grover Washington Jr. was an American jazz-funk/ jazz-soul saxophonist known for his leading role in developing the smooth jazz genre, along with George Benson.
Often dubbed the grandfather of smooth jazz, he was also responsible for pioneering the jazz-funk genre. His father taught him to play the saxophone when he was ten years old and was playing in popular jazz clubs within two years.
He toured with the Four Clefs between 1959 and 1963. He then spent two years in the Army before moving to Philadelphia and rising to fame in 1967 when offered a spot to record on an album with Prestige Records. A musical virtuoso, he played alto, tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones.
10. Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet was an American soprano saxophonist who got his start as a musician playing the clarinet.
One of the most notable soloists of early jazz and a master of the soprano saxophone, he rose to prominence in 1919 after joining the Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra in New York City.
A contemporary of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, they took jazz in a liberated direction. His style is known for its free-flowing rhythms, improvisation, and unpredictable time changes.
11. Johnny Hodges
Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges was an American alto saxophonist that was best known for his solo work in Duke Ellington’s band. He is also credited as being one of the most notable saxophonists of the Big band era.
He played tenor saxophone but abandoned it after 1946. Upon hearing news of his death, Duke Ellington said, “The band will never sound the same without Johnny.”
Although a versatile musician that explored various styles of playing, it was his gift for playing ballads that he is perhaps most remembered for.
12. Bennet Lester Carter
Bennet Lester Carter, better known as Benny Carter, was an innovative American alto jazz saxophonist from the Bronx, New York.
Beginning his professional career in the 1920s during the big-band swing era, his highly original approach to the saxophone helped make the sax an iconic instrument central to the jazz sound. He enjoyed an exceptionally long career that lasted well into the 1990s. He received a lifetime achievement award and was nominated for 8 Grammy Awards.
In addition to the saxophone, he was also a gifted pianist, trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. His most well-known compositions include Blues in my Heart (1931) and When Lights are Low (1936).
13. Johnny Griffin
American jazz alto saxophonist Johnny Griffin, nicknamed “Little Giant”, was known for his short height but big sound.
His career was distinguished by his powerful and forceful style of playing as well as his musical versatility and technical mastery of the saxophone.
Griffin played alongside many great jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers. He was a prominent member of the Chicago jazz scene of his time.
14. Hank Mobley
Hank Mobley was an American saxophonist and central figure in the “hard bop” jazz genre. His first big break came in 1951 after landing a gig with drummer Max Roach.
His career took off significantly in the mid-50s after recording with drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver under the famed Blue Note record label.
Mobley also served a stint playing with the famed Jazz Messengers. His style of playing is recognized for being particularly melodic for the liberated improv-based genres he worked in.
15. Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy was an American alto saxophonist known for his bold, avant-garde, and improvisational style that pushed the boundaries of jazz music.
He was a musical virtuoso, known as a talented bass and soprano clarinetist, flutist, bandleader, and composer.
He rose to prominence between 1958 and 1959 when he toured and recorded with the popular act, the Chico Hamilton quintet.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Black Saxophonists
As you probably realized, Black Americans have dominated the jazz landscape since its birth in late nineteenth-century America.
Black Americans are credited with being the originators and innovators of jazz, so it makes sense that this list is far from exhaustive when listing the greatest black saxophone players of all time.
The story of the saxophone and all the Black saxophonists that played a central role in pioneering jazz might be said to illustrate a larger story about how Black Americans used the saxophone to create and share as wild and beautiful language that was truly their own.