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, a number of great drummers have provided the backbone of their bands; they give music a heartbeat and inspire listeners to move along with the sound.
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
Up first, we have Buddy Rich, one of the greatest drummers of the 20th century. Rich started playing drums when he was two years old and never stopped, making his professional debut at the age of 18 with Joe Marsala’s band.
Throughout his career, Rich played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Count Basie. He also led his own bands, which were known for their musicianship and great performances.
Rich’s drumming style was marked by his use of a variety of techniques, such as rimshots, press rolls, and flams. He was also known for his ability to improvise and play off of other musicians in the band.
He passed away in 1987, but to this day, Rich remains a revered figure among drummers and is considered one of the most important and innovative drummers in the history of jazz music.
2. Art Blakey
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
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 his use of tom-toms and bass drums to create a driving, rhythmic sound.
Krupa’s signature song was “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which he recorded with Benny 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. It was a televised performance of the two showing off their drumming prowess.
4. Brian Blade
Born in 1970, Louisiana drummer, composer, and bandleader Brian Blade grew up in a musical family and began playing the drums at a young age. In the early 1990s, he moved to New York City where he quickly established himself as a sought-after sideman and session player.
He has worked with a wide range of artists across various genres, including Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, and Emmylou Harris. In addition to his work as a sideman, Blade has released several critically acclaimed albums with his own groups, including The Fellowship Band, which he formed in the late 1990s.
Blade’s music is characterized by its rich blend of jazz, gospel, folk, and country influences; and his sensitive and inventive drumming style has earned him widespread recognition as one of the most talented drummers of his generation.
5. Max Roach
The next drum legend we would like to talk about is Max Roach. Born in North Carolina in 1924, Roach learned to play the bugle at a young age. He also started playing the drums and was active in gospel bands by the age of 10.
In the 1940s, he moved to New York City and became a key figure in the bebop movement, playing with some of the genre’s most prominent musicians, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.
Roach became known for his fast tempo bebop style of playing and his ability to seamlessly integrate his drumming with the other instruments in the ensemble.
His musical contribution earned him numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, and an induction into the DownBeat and the Modern Drummer Halls of Fame, among others.
6. Tony Williams
From Chicago, Illinois, Jazz drummer Tony Williams was born in 1945. His powerful and aggressive approach, often using a combination of traditional and matched grip, made him one of the most influential and innovative drummers in the history of jazz.
Williams first gained prominence as a member of Miles Davis’s band in the 1960s, where he played on classic albums such as Seven Steps to Heaven and and Miles Smiles. He later formed his own band, the Tony Williams Lifetime, which fused jazz with rock and funk elements.
In 1986, Tony was added into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. He was also nominated for a Grammy four times, winning Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual Or Group for the album A Tribute to Miles in 1995.
7. Jack DeJohnette
Musician Jack DeJohnette was a piano player from the age of four and played the instrument professionally as a teenager. He later switched to drums and eventually became known for his complex rhythmns 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
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
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.
During the early 1950s, he later played with Duke Ellington and became known for his innovative drumming style, which incorporated elements of swing, bebop, and Latin jazz. Of particular note was his use of 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
Jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham rose to prominence in the 1970s. He is known for his powerful and dynamic playing style and experiments with various drum equipment.
Cobham has had a long and successful career, working with a wide variety of artists and bands, including Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
He has also released numerous solo albums, such as his #1 hit debut album Spectrum and Crosswinds, which showcase his virtuosic drumming skills and his ability to blend different musical styles.
Throughout his career, Cobham has received numerous accolades and awards, including a Grammy nomination in 1987. That same year, he was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
11. Peter Erskine
Next up, we have Peter Erskine, who was born in 1954, in New Jersey. Growing up in a musical family, it was not surprising he started playing the drums at the young age of four and studied music as he got older.
In the 1970s, Erskine moved to Los Angeles and quickly established himself as a versatile and in-demand session musician. He played on numerous recordings and toured with a wide variety of artists, like Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Diana Krall.
In addition to his work as a performer, Erskine is an author. He has written several instructional books on drumming, including The Drum Perspective and Time Awareness for All Musicians.
Throughout his career, Erskine has received nine Grammy nominations, winning two: Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for Some Skunk Funk and Best Jazz Fusion Performance, Vocal Or Instrumental for 8:30.
12. Terri Lyne Carrington
Massachusetts native Terri Lyne Carrington is the first woman on this list, and she’s a total standout. Born in 1965, she started playing drums at seven, inspired by her grandfather.
Carrington’s early career was marked by collaborations with some of jazz’s biggest names. She played with legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz before joining Herbie Hancock’s band in the mid-1980s. She has also worked with Wayne Shorter, Cassandra Wilson, and many others.
As a bandleader, Carrington has released several acclaimed albums, including Real Life Story in 1989, Jazz Is a Spirit in 2002, and The Mosaic Project in 2011. The latter won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album, making Carrington the first female artist to win in that category.
13. Mark Guiliana
Our next jazz drummer is Mark Guiliana, who born in New Jersey in 1980 and later studied jazz at William Paterson University. In his own musical experiences, Guiliana often breaks away from jazz to experiment with electronic music.
This flexibility has led to collaborations with many big names, like Matt Cameron and Jason Lind. Guiliana was notably the drummer on David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar.
He has released several critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader, including Family First in 2015 and Jersey in 2017. He has also worked as a sideman on countless recordings and toured extensively around the world.
To this day, Guiliana continues to be one of the most innovative and influential drummers of his generation, pushing the boundaries of jazz and redefining what is possible on the instrument.
14. Roy Haynes
One of the most recorded drummer in the history of jazz, we have next Roy Haynes. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Haynes began playing the drums professionally in 1942, eventually becoming known for his ability to play with a deep sense of groove and swing.
He went on to play with a who’s who of jazz greats over the course of his over eight-decade-long career, like John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea.
Haynes has received numerous accolades and awards throughout his career, including being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995. He has also been inducted into the Modern Drummer and DownBeat Halls of Fame.
Currently at the age of 96, Haynes continues to perform and record, and his legacy as one of the most important and influential drummers in jazz history is secure.
15. Philly Joe Jones
American jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones was born in 1923, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like the others on this list, he began playing drums at a young age, and during his musical career, he played a significant role in the development of bebop and hard bop styles.
Jones is perhaps best known for his work as the drummer for the first great Miles Davis Quintet. He played on some of the most important jazz recordings of the 1950s, including Davis’s Kind of Blue. As a bandleader, some of Jones’s best-known works include Blues for Dracula and Philly Joe’s Beat.
Jones did not receive many awards during his lifetime, but he was widely respected by his peers. His explosive drumming style, volume, and aggressiveness, as well as his techniques with brushes, became well known, making him one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz.
16. Bill Stewart
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 a number of 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
Many people confused Jo Jones with Philly Joe Jones, so he was often called Papa Jo Jones when he was older. Born in Chicago in 1911, Jones grew up in Alabama before moving to New York to become a regular player at jazz clubs.
He is best known for his work as the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s. Jones was one of the most important drummers of the swing era. His signature style involved utilizing the hi-hat that 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
American jazz drummer Joe Morello was born in 1928, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and began playing drums at the age of six. He was best known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of Morello’s most famous recordings with the Dave Brubeck Quartet include “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” He also released a number of acclaimed solo albums and played with many other famous jazz musicians throughout his career, like Marian McPartland and Gary Burton.
Morello’s playing was particularly influential in the development of cool jazz, a style of jazz that emerged in the 1950s and emphasized a more relaxed and laid-back approach to improvisation.
Morello’s influence on jazz drumming has been widely recognized and earned him an induction into two halls of fame: Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1993.
19. Billy Higgins
Renowned American jazz drummer Billy Higgins made significant contributions in his career, emerging into the jazz scene during the late 1950s and 1960s as a prominent figure in the hard bop and post-bop movements of jazz.
He became associated with many influential musicians of the time, including Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and many others.
Throughout his career, Higgins appeared on numerous recordings, leaving a lasting impact on the jazz discography. Some notable albums featuring his drumming include Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Dexter Gordon’s Go.
In addition to his accomplishments as a performer, Higgins was also a dedicated educator and mentor, and taught aspiring drummers, passing on his knowledge and passion for jazz.
Billy Higgins’ contributions to jazz were widely recognized, and in 1997, he was honored with the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship.
20. Ed Thigpen
With a father who was also a notable jazz drummer, it is not surprising that Ed Thigpen started playing drums at a young age. He soon developed a reputation for a precise and tasteful playing style and a remarkable ability to maintain a steady and swinging rhythm while adding colorful and melodic accents.
In the early 1950s, Thigpen moved to New York City and quickly gained widespread recognition as the drummer for the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1959 to 1965. The trio’s recordings and live performances showcased Thigpen’s exceptional musicianship and contributed to his rising reputation.
After leaving the Oscar Peterson Trio, Thigpen moved to Denmark in 1972 and became a respected figure in the European jazz scene. He continued to perform, record, and collaborate with renowned musicians, both in Europe and internationally.
21. Steve Gadd
American drummer Steve Gadd honed his skills and developed a reputation as a highly skilled and creative drummer in the 1970s. One of Gadd’s most notable contributions was his work as a studio drummer. He became known for his exceptional timekeeping and the use of ghost notes and linear patterns.
Gadd’s discography as a session drummer is extensive and includes collaborations with numerous renowned artists such as Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and many others. One of his most iconic drum performances can be heard on Paul Simon’s hit song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
In addition to his studio work, Gadd has also been an active performer and band member. He has been a part of the jazz fusion band Steps Ahead, and his own own band, The Gadd Gang, released several albums including the Grammy-winning (Best Contemporary Instrumental Album) Steve Gadd Band.
22. Mel Lewis
Born Melvin Sokoloff in 1929, Mel Lewis was a highly respected jazz drummer. He gained prominence as a member of the renowned Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and established himself as a versatile and accomplished drummer.
In 1965, Lewis co-founded the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, later known as the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Alongside trumpeter and arranger Thad Jones, Lewis helped create a groundbreaking ensemble that combined the power and precision of a big band with the creativity and spontaneity of a small group.
As a drummer, Lewis had a deep understanding of the tradition of big band drumming and was highly skilled at navigating complex arrangements while adding his own musical personality.
Lewis’s ability to support and uplift the ensemble with his rhythmic foundation earned him immense respect among his peers and the jazz community.
23. Roy Brooks
Michigan-born drummer Roy Brooks emerged during the 1950s as part of the vibrant jazz scene in Detroit, which was a hotbed for musical talent. He quickly gained recognition for his skills and became a highly sought-after drummer, known for his energy, versatility, and ability to drive a band.
In his over six-decade career, Brooks collaborated with numerous renowned jazz musicians, both as a sideman and as a leader. He performed and recorded with artists such as Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Max Roach, and many others.
In addition to his drumming prowess, Brooks was also a composer and bandleader. He led his own groups and released several albums as a leader, debuting with Beat in 1963. These recordings reflected his creative vision and showcased his abilities as both a drummer and a composer.
24. Shelly Manne
New York drummer Shelly Manne was born in 1920. He began his professional career as a drummer in the late 1930s, working with bands led by Joe Marsala and Bobby Byrne.
Later on, he co-founded the Lighthouse All-Stars, a collective of West Coast jazz musicians that included artists such as Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, and Bud Shank. Their recordings helped establish what is known as the West Coast jazz sound.
Manne was recognized as one of the finest drummers of his era. His playing style was characterized by its versatility, technical precision, and musical sensitivity. He also had the ability to adapt to different styles and genres, whether playing bebop, cool jazz, or more avant-garde forms of jazz.
25. Louis Hayes
Our next drummer, Louis Hayes, was born in 1937 into a family of musicians. By the age of 10, he was drumming away on his own set.
Hayes began his professional career in the late 1950s as a member of the Horace Silver Quintet. The group’s recordings, including the iconic album Song for My Father, are regarded as essential pieces of the hard bop and soul jazz movements.
After his tenure with the Horace Silver Quintet, Hayes went on to collaborate with other jazz legends like Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson, among others. He established himself as a highly sought-after sideman, contributing his masterful drumming skills to countless recordings and performances.
In the 1970s, Hayes formed his own group, the Louis Hayes-Junior Cook Quintet, which paid homage to the hard bop tradition. The group recorded several albums, including the 1979 Variety Is the Spice and the 1994 The Super Quartet.
26. Paul Motian
Jazz drummer Paul Motian was known for his significant contributions to the avant-garde and modern jazz scenes. He was at the forefront of the free jazz movement, collaborating with innovative musicians such as 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. The trio’s recordings, including 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
Acclaimed jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts has been contributing to the jazz scene since the 1980s, gaining 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 that showcased his skills as both a drummer and a composer, including Citizen Tain and Detained at the Blue Note. His compositions blend traditional jazz elements with modern influences, creating a unique and distinctive sound.
The Pennsylvania-born drummer has received widespread recognition for his contributions to the jazz world. He has had 9 Grammy nominations and won 6 of them, solidifying his place as one of the most respected and influential drummers of his generation.
28. Antonio Sánchez
We move away from American drummers now and introduce you to Antonio Sánchez—a highly acclaimed Mexican jazz drummer, composer, and bandleader known for his innovative drumming style that combines traditional jazz techniques with modern electronic elements.
Sánchez began his musical journey at a young age, studying classical piano before switching to drums at the age of 11. When he was older, he honed his skills playing in various local rock and jazz bands in Mexico City.
Sánchez’s breakthrough came when he started collaborating with the celebrated jazz pianist Pat Metheny. He became a core member of the Pat Metheny Group, contributing his exceptional drumming talents to several of their albums, like Speaking of Now and Kin.
Another notable success is his drumming on the soundtrack for the 2014 film Birdman, which earned him widespread recognition and critical acclaim, including a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.
29. Eric Harland
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 a wide range of artists 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
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 developed a love for drumming at the age of seven. Since then, she drew inspiration from a wide range of genres—including jazz, funk, and rock—and improved her playing style into one that is powerful and dynamic.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Blackman Santana gained recognition for her work as the drummer in the band of legendary guitarist Lenny Kravitz. Her energetic playing style complemented Kravitz’s rock sound and helped solidify her reputation as a formidable drummer.
As a bandleader, Blackman Santana has released several albums that highlight her skills as a composer and improviser. She released her debut album, Arcane, in 1988, and followed this up by 10 more throughout her career, demonstrating her ability to lead a band while showcasing her technical prowess as a drummer.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest 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, from Buddy Rich’s technical proficiency and speed to Joe Morello’s improvisation to Cindy Santana’s energetic playing..
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.