30 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Drummers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Drummers get overlooked for more visible musicians — literally. But without a drummer, other instruments would struggle to stay together. A great drummer keeps everyone on the beat and can elevate an ensemble into a work of art.

Over the past decades, many great drummers have provided the backbone of their bands; they give music a heartbeat and inspire listeners to move along with the sound.

So who are they? In this list, we’ll check out 30 of the greatest and most famous jazz drummers of all time. Let’s get started.

1. Buddy Rich (1917–1987)

First up is Buddy Rich, one of the best drummers of the 20th century. He started playing drums at the very young age of two and made his professional debut at 18 with Joe Marsala’s band.

Rich played with famous jazz musicians like Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Count Basie during his career. He also led his own bands known for their talent and great shows.

His drumming style included techniques like rimshots, press rolls, and flams. Rich was also great at improvising and playing along with other musicians.

He passed away in 1987, but he is still highly respected among drummers and is seen as one of the most important and innovative drummers in jazz history.

2. Art Blakey (1919–1990)

Next, we have American jazz drummer and bandleader Art Blakey. He began playing music at a young age and started his professional career in the late 1930s as a drummer for various bands.

In the early 1950s, Blakey co-led a group with pianist Horace Silver that became known as the Jazz Messengers, Blakey’s most famous band. They were noted for their hard bop sound, which blended elements of bebop with R&B and blues.

As a drummer, Blakey was known for his explosive energy and powerful sound. He was also a skilled improviser and would frequently take extended solos during his performances.

3. Gene Krupa (1909–1973)

Our next drummer, Gene Krupa, initially went to school to become a priest. Thankfully for the music world, he shifted his priorities and started playing drums professionally.

Krupta began his rise to fame as the drummer for Benny Goodman’s band in the 1930s. He was known for his showmanship and use of tom-toms and bass drums to create a driving, rhythmic sound.

Krupa’s signature song was “Sing, Sing, Sing,” recorded with Goodman in 1936. It features a famous drum solo that has been emulated by countless drummers since.

Interesting to note is Krupta’s and Buddy Rich’s drum battles during the 1950s. These televised performances showed off their amazing drumming skills.

4. Brian Blade (1970–)

Born in 1970, Louisiana drummer Brian Blade grew up in a musical family and started playing drums young. In the early 1990s, he moved to New York City and quickly became a popular session player.

Blade has worked with many artists, including Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, and Emmylou Harris. He’s also released several well-received albums with his own group, The Fellowship Band, which he formed in the late 1990s.

His music blends jazz, gospel, folk, and country, and his drumming is known for being sensitive and inventive. Today, Blade continues to wow the music world with his talent.

5. Max Roach (1924–2007)

Born in North Carolina in 1924, Max Roach started playing the bugle and drums at a young age. By the time he was 10, he was already active in gospel bands.

In the 1940s, Roach moved to New York City and became a major figure in the bebop movement. He played with top musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

Roach was known for his fast bebop drumming and his skill at blending his drumming with other instruments in the band.

He received many awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship and inductions into the DownBeat and Modern Drummer Halls of Fame.

6. Tony Williams (1945–1997)

Chicago, Illinois, jazz drummer Tony Williams was known for his powerful and aggressive style. He used both traditional and matched grip techniques, making him one of the most influential jazz drummers ever.

Williams first became famous as a member of Miles Davis’s band in the 1960s, playing on classic albums like Seven Steps to Heaven and Miles Smiles. He later formed his own band, the Tony Williams Lifetime, which mixed jazz with rock and funk.

In 1986, Tony was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. He was also nominated for a Grammy four times and won Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for the album A Tribute to Miles in 1995.

7. Jack DeJohnette (1942–)

Musician Jack DeJohnette started playing the piano at age four and even performed professionally as a teenager. Later, he switched to drums and became famous for his complex rhythms and improvisations.

Though he loved the sound of jazz, DeJohnette initially played drums for R&B groups in Chicago. After playing with John Coltrane in the 1960s, he started playing more jazz music and eventually joined Miles Davis’s band.

In the 1970s, DeJohnette delved into a solo career and began recording albums, like Pictures in 1976, The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album in 1985, and Skyline in 2018. This last one won him a Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy.

8. Elvin Jones (1927–2004)

The circus parades he saw as a child drew Elvin Jones to drums. His older brothers were jazz musicians, playing piano and trumpet, so it was only natural that he followed in their footsteps.

After a short gig in Detroit in 1949, Jones moved to New York City in the 1950s and quickly became a sought-after sideman, playing with jazz legends such as Charles Mingus and Miles Davis.

Jones is best known for his work as the drummer for the John Coltrane Quartet, which he joined in 1960. He played with Coltrane for several years before forming the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, which he led until his passing in 2004.

9. Louie Bellson (1924–2009)

We have next Louie Bellson. Born in 1924, Bellson began playing drums at an early age and started his professional career with bands led by Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Harry James.

In the early 1950s, he played with Duke Ellington and became known for his drumming style, which mixed swing, bebop, and Latin jazz. Notably, he used two bass drums at the same time.

Bellson received numerous awards throughout his career, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 1994. His works also earned him an induction into both Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and the Percussive Arts Society.

10. Billy Cobham (1944–)

Jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham became well-known in the 1970s for his powerful and dynamic playing and his experiments with different drum equipment.

Cobham has had a long and successful career, working with artists like Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He has also released many solo albums, including his hit debut Spectrum and 1974 album Crosswinds.

Throughout his career, Cobham has received many awards and honors, including a Grammy nomination and an induction into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987.

11. Peter Erskine (1954–)

Up next is Peter Erskine, born in 1954 in New Jersey. Coming from a musical family, he started playing the drums at age four and studied music as he grew older.

In the 1970s, Erskine moved to Los Angeles and quickly became a sought-after session musician. He played on many recordings and toured with artists like Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Diana Krall.

Besides performing, Erskine has also written several instructional books on drumming, like The Drum Perspective and Time Awareness for All Musicians.

Throughout his career, Erskine has received nine Grammy nominations and won two: Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for Some Skunk Funk and Best Jazz Fusion Performance for 8:30.

12. Terri Lyne Carrington (1965–)

Massachusetts native Terri Lyne Carrington was born in 1965. Inspired by her grandfather, she started playing drums at seven.

Early in her career, she played with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. In the mid-1980s, she joined Herbie Hancock’s band and later worked with artists like Wayne Shorter and Cassandra Wilson.

As a bandleader, Carrington has released several notable albums, including Real Life Story (1989), Jazz Is a Spirit (2002), and The Mosaic Project (2011). The latter won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album, making her the first female artist to win in that category.

13. Mark Guiliana (1980–)

Our next jazz drummer is Mark Guiliana, born in New Jersey in 1980. He studied jazz at William Paterson University but often experiments with electronic music.

Guiliana has worked with big names like Matt Cameron and Jason Lind and was the drummer on David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar.

As a bandleader, he has released several acclaimed albums, including the Grammy-nominated Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! (2019). He has also toured around the world and worked on many recordings as a sideman.

Today, Guiliana is known for being one of the most innovative and influential drummers of his generation, pushing the limits of jazz.

14. Roy Haynes (1925–)

One of the most recorded drummers in jazz history is Roy Haynes. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he started playing drums professionally in 1942 and became known for his deep groove and swing.

Over his eight-decade-long career, he has played with jazz legends like John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea.

Haynes has received numerous awards, including being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995, and has been inducted into the Modern Drummer and DownBeat Halls of Fame.

15. Philly Joe Jones (1923–1985)

American jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones was born in 1923 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He started playing drums when he was young and helped shape bebop and hard bop styles.

He’s best known as the drummer for Miles Davis’s first great quintet and played on key jazz albums like Kind of Blue. As a bandleader, his well-known works include Blues for Dracula and Philly Joe’s Beat.

Although he didn’t win many awards, Jones was highly respected by fellow musicians. His powerful drumming and brush techniques made him one of jazz’s greatest drummers.

16. Bill Stewart (1966–)

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1966, jazz drummer Bill Stewart began playing drums at the age of eight. Growing up without access to live music, he listened to his dad’s jazz records and was influenced by the music.

Stewart’s career began to take off in the 1990s when he became the drummer for guitarist John Scofield’s band. He also spent time as a bandleader, releasing several well-received albums such as Snide Remarks, Telepathy, and Space Squid.

Today, Stewart is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential drummers of his generation, and his legacy as a true innovator in the world of jazz drumming is secure.

17. Jo Jones (1911–1985)

Many people confused Jo Jones with Philly Joe Jones, so he was often called Papa Jo Jones when he was older. He is best known for his work as the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and ’40s.

Jones was one of the most important drummers of the swing era. His signature style involved utilizing the hi-hat, which gave his music its quick tempo.

Jones is remembered as one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz and a true innovator in the world of swing music. In 1985, he passed away, at the age of 73.

18. Joe Morello (1928–2011)

American jazz drummer Joe Morello was born in 1928 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and started playing drums at six. He’s best known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the 1950s and 1960s.

Some of his most famous recordings with the Quartet include “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” He also released solo albums and played with many other famous jazz musicians like Marian McPartland and Gary Burton.

Morello’s drumming influenced cool jazz, a more relaxed style that emerged in the 1950s. His impact on jazz drumming earned him induction into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1993.

19. Billy Higgins (1936–2001)

American jazz drummer Billy Higgins was a key figure in the late 1950s and ’60s, known for his work in hard bop and post-bop.

He played with many famous musicians, like Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, and Thelonious Monk. Higgins appeared on many important jazz albums, including Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Dexter Gordon’s Go.

Higgins was also a dedicated teacher, sharing his love for jazz with young drummers. In 1997, he was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship for his contributions to jazz.

20. Ed Thigpen (1930–2010)

Ed Thigpen, whose father was also a well-known jazz drummer, started playing drums at a young age. He became known for his precise and tasteful playing style, with a steady rhythm and colorful accents.

In the early 1950s, Thigpen moved to New York City and gained fame as the drummer for the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1959 to 1965. His work with the trio highlighted his exceptional skills.

After leaving the trio, Thigpen moved to Denmark in 1972, where he became a respected figure in the European jazz scene. He continued to perform, record, and collaborate with renowned musicians both in Europe and internationally until his passing in 2010.

21. Steve Gadd (1945–)

American drummer Steve Gadd became a highly skilled and creative drummer in the 1970s. He is especially known for his work as a studio drummer, where he excelled in timekeeping and used ghost notes and linear patterns.

Gadd has an extensive discography, playing with famous artists like Paul Simon and Eric Clapton. One of his most iconic performances is on Simon’s hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

Besides studio work, Gadd has been active as a performer. He played in the jazz fusion band Steps Ahead and led his own band, The Gadd Gang. His Steve Gadd Band even won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

22. Mel Lewis (1929–1990)

Born Melvin Sokoloff in 1929, Mel Lewis was a highly respected jazz drummer. He became well-known as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In 1965, Lewis co-founded this orchestra with trumpeter and arranger Thad Jones. Together, they created a unique big band that combined power and precision with creativity and spontaneity.

Lewis understood big band drumming deeply and skillfully handled complex arrangements while adding his own touch.

His ability to support and uplift the ensemble with his rhythmic foundation earned him great respect in the jazz community.

23. Roy Brooks (1938–2005)

Michigan-born drummer Roy Brooks emerged during the 1950s as part of Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene, which was a hotbed for musical talent. He quickly gained recognition for his energy, versatility, and ability to drive a band.

Over his six-decade career, Brooks collaborated with many renowned jazz musicians like Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, and Max Roach.

Besides being an excellent drummer, Brooks was also a composer and bandleader. He led his own groups and released several albums, starting with Beat in 1963.

24. Shelly Manne (1920–1984)

New York drummer Shelly Manne was born in 1920. He started his professional career in the late 1930s with bands led by Joe Marsala and Bobby Byrne.

Later, he co-founded the Lighthouse All-Stars, a group of West Coast jazz musicians like Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, and Bud Shank. Their recordings helped define the West Coast jazz sound.

Manne was known as one of the finest drummers of his time. His style was versatile, technically precise, and musically sensitive. He could adapt to different styles, whether it was bebop, cool jazz, or avant-garde jazz.

25. Louis Hayes (1937–)

Born in 1937 into a musical family, Louis Hayes started drumming on his own set by the age of 10.

He kicked off his professional career in the late 1950s with the Horace Silver Quintet. Their recordings, including the classic Song for My Father, are key pieces of the hard bop and soul jazz movements.

After his time with the Quintet, he worked with jazz legends like Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson and became a highly sought-after sideman.

In the 1970s, Hayes formed the Louis Hayes-Junior Cook Quintet, celebrating the hard bop tradition. The group recorded several albums, including Variety Is the Spice (1979) and The Super Quartet (1994).

26. Paul Motian (1931–2011)

Jazz drummer Paul Motian was a key figure in avant-garde and modern jazz. He led the free jazz movement, working with innovative musicians like Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield.

Motian’s career spanned over six decades. He initially gained recognition in the 1950s as a member of the Bill Evans Trio. Their recordings, like the iconic album Sunday at the Village Vanguard, are regarded as pivotal moments in the history of jazz.

Though Motian passed away in 2011, he left behind a rich legacy of recordings, compositions, and a lasting impact on the evolution of jazz drumming and improvisation.

27. Jeff “Tain” Watts (1960–)

Acclaimed jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts has been a major figure in the jazz scene since the 1980s. He gained recognition as a member of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, where he showcased his remarkable drumming skills.

Watts is also the bandleader of the Jeff “Tain” Watts Quartet and has released several albums, including Citizen Tain and Detained at the Blue Note. His music blends traditional jazz with modern influences.

Born in Pennsylvania, Watts is highly respected in the jazz world, with 4 Grammy nominations and a win under his belt, among other accolades.

28. Antonio Sánchez (1971–)

Moving from American drummers, we have next Antonio Sánchez, a talented Mexican jazz drummer, composer, and bandleader. Starting young, he first studied classical piano before switching to drums at age 11.

Sánchez played in various rock and jazz bands in Mexico City. He got his big break working with jazz pianist Pat Metheny and became a key member of the Pat Metheny Group, playing on albums like Speaking of Now and Kin.

A major highlight of his career is his drumming for the 2014 film Birdman, which earned him a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.

29. Eric Harland (1976–)

Hailing from Houston, Texas, Eric Harland established himself as a highly sought-after musician, collaborating with some of the most prominent artists in the jazz and contemporary music scenes.

Harland’s career took off when he relocated to New York City, where he quickly became an in-demand drummer. There, he also collaborated with the likes of Charles Lloyd, Joshua Redman, and McCoy Tyner, to name just a few.

In 2010, he debuted as a bandleader with the album Voyager: Live by Night, showcasing his compositional talents and his ability to lead and shape a band’s sound. Today, Harland continues to push the boundaries of jazz and explore new musical territories.

30. Cindy Blackman Santana (1959–)

We end this list with Ohio native Cindy Blackman Santana, a highly accomplished drummer, composer, and bandleader. She is also the wife of the legendary guitarist Carlos Santana.

Blackman Santana fell in love with drumming at age seven. She drew inspiration from jazz, funk, and rock, developing a powerful and dynamic style.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, she gained fame as Lenny Kravitz’s drummer, where her energetic playing perfectly matched his rock sound.

As a bandleader, Blackman Santana has released several albums. Her debut album, Arcane, came out in 1988, followed by 11 more, highlighting her drumming talent and leadership.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Jazz Drummers

Jazz music has been greatly influenced by some of the best drummers of all time. These drummers have helped shape the genre with their unique styles and contributions.

Each one here has influenced jazz music in various ways, from changing the rhythm section to pushing the boundaries of the genre.

They continue to inspire new generations of jazz drummers and musicians, making their legacy an integral part of jazz history.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.