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.
A drummer doesn’t just provide the backbone for a band or ensemble; they give music a heartbeat and inspire listeners to move along with the sound.
You might already know some of the famous jazz drummers on this list, and even if you don’t, you won’t regret getting into the swing of things with these fantastic musicians.
1. Buddy Rich (1917-1987)
Buddy Rich is at the top of the list because he’s unarguably one of the biggest drummers of all time.
He started playing drums when he was two years old and never stopped. He loved jazz music as a child so his drumming style was strongly influenced by what he listened to.
By the time Rich was four, he was playing drums as Baby Taps on Broadway and started touring the United States as a teenager.
In his later life, he played with orchestras and backed artists like the Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.
2. Art Blakey (1919-1990)
Art Blakey grew up without his parents, and a family friend gave him piano lessons when Blakey lived in her house.
By the time he was a teenager, Blakey played music full-time and afforded his lifestyle by playing the piano for money.
According to his family, Blakey only started playing the drums because a nightclub owner forced him at gunpoint.
Despite the scary start, Blakey was a natural at the drums. He learned from the famous Chick Webb before forming a jazz band, The Jazz Messengers.
This band became the first American jazz band to play in Japan, and they were a hit. The band continued playing until Blakey’s death in 1990.
3. Gene Krupa (1909-1973)
Gene Krupa was born in Chicago and went to school to become a priest. But, thankfully for the music world, he shifted his priorities and started playing drums professionally.
Krupa recorded with bands in Chicago before playing with Benny Goodman’s band. During this time, Krupa became a well-known drummer because he always recorded with a full drum set and inserted drum solos into songs.
Before this time, drums were mostly the backbone of the band, but Krupa ensured they stood out.
In the 1950s, Krupa started a music school that many well-known rock musicians attended, like the drummers of the New York Dolls and KISS.
Along with fellow drummer virtuoso Buddy Rich, Krupa recorded a famous live album called The Drum Battle.
4. Brian Blade (1970-)
Brian Blade was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, which has an active jazz scene. But Blade’s first musical experiences happened in church, where his father was a pastor.
Blade started singing gospel songs and played the violin in school. His older brother was the church drummer, which inspired Blade to learn the instrument himself.
Blade enrolled in Loyola University and learned drums from countless New Orleans jazz masters.
After college, he founded the Brian Blade Fellowship band which recorded five albums.
Since then, Blade has also recorded solo albums and music with artists like Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan.
5. Max Roach (1924-2007)
Max Roach was born in North Carolina but grew up in Brooklyn.
His mother loved to sing gospel music, and 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.
After graduating high school, Roach played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He frequented jazz clubs, which changed his overall drum style.
Roach became known for his fast tempo bebop style of playing. With friends, Roach founded Debut Records and recorded with many famous musicians.
Later in life, he performed solo concerts, playing all sorts of percussion instruments alone onstage. By the early 2000s, Roach was too ill to perform and died soon after.
6. Tony Williams (1945-1997)
Tony Williams studied drums with Alan Dawson in childhood and was playing professionally by his early teenage years.
When he was 17, he played in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. He also recorded two albums in this period before going on to form a jazz trio of his own.
Williams went on to record more than 20 albums on his own, and almost 100 more with artists like Yoko Ono, Carlos Santana, and Herbie Hancock.
Modern Drummer inducted Williams into their Hall of Fame in 1986.
He died of complications from gallbladder surgery at the age of 51.
7. Jack DeJohnette (1942-)
Jack DeJohnette was a piano player from the age of four and played the instrument professionally as a teenager. He later switched to drums when he heard the jazz technique of a neighbor.
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, DeJohnette started playing more jazz music and eventually joined Miles Davis’s band.
By the 1970s, DeJohnette went solo and recorded albums either on his own or with bands he started.
In the early 2000s, DeJohnette earned a Grammy nomination for his work on Keith Jarrett’s album.
He later left that group and went back to solo work, though he also currently plays with the Jack DeJohnette Group, a quintet.
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’s only natural that he followed in their footsteps.
He started by joining his high school’s marching band. After his discharge from the Army, Jones bought his first drum set and became a professional playing in Detroit clubs.
He played with Miles David and then moved to New York City to make a name for himself.
In the city, Jones became a member of John Coltrane’s quartet before forming the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, which he led until his death.
9. Louie Bellson (1924-2009)
Louie Bellson was an American jazz drummer who started playing drums when he was just three years old.
His father owned a music store in Illinois, so Bellson had access to drum kits. He created his own using two bass drums, which was an innovative sound at the time.
After he finished school, Bellson played with big names like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. He even married a jazz singer, Pearl Bailey, keeping the music in the family.
Modern Drummer inducted Bellson into their Hall of Fame in 1985. Another honor Bellson earned was slightly less concrete: he often performed at the White House; only Bob Hope performed there more.
10. Billy Cobham (1944-)
Billy Cobham was born in Panama but grew up in Brooklyn. At the age of four, Cobham started playing drums. He performed with his father, a pianist, soon after turning eight.
Cobham attended the High School of Music and Art until he joined the Army, but even there he played in the band.
After his discharge, he became the house drummer for Atlantic Records and recorded with many of their bands.
As a member of Miles Davis’s band and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham recorded several albums.
He eventually branched out on his own, and in 2011 he started the Billy Cobham School of Drums.
11. Peter Erskine (1954-)
Peter Erskine was born in New Jersey and started playing the drums by the time he turned four.
He went to an art high school before studying percussion at Indiana University. After graduation, he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Erskine later played in the bands Weather Report, Steps Ahead, and Chick Corea.
He currently works as a professor in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. He also still plays music, most notably working with Kate Bush on an album.
12. Terri Lyne Carrington (1965-)
Terri Lyne Carrington is the only woman on this list, but she’s a total standout. Born in Massachusetts, she started playing drums at seven, inspired by her grandfather.
She earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music at the age of 11.
After graduating, Carrington moved to New York for a stint, then on to Los Angeles to drum on the Arsenio Hall Show.
She recorded several albums and had many Grammy nominations, winning three. She is the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.
13. Mark Guiliana (1980-)
Mark Guiliana was born in New Jersey and 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. He was notably the drummer on David Bowie’s last album.
Guiliana has toured the world with many artists, including Gretchen Parlato, Matisyahu, Beat Music, and Heernt.
He is both a contemporary jazz drummer as well as the future of jazz drumming.
14. Roy Haynes (1925-)
Roy Haynes was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and began playing drums in 1942.
By 1945, he was a professional drummer backing Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Stan Getz.
His career has spanned 80 years, and he continues to play with modern acts like the Allman Brothers Band and Phish.
Haynes isn’t just a drummer; he is a voice actor you can hear in Grand Theft Auto IV as a DJ.
If you’re not a video game fan, you can listen to Haynes play on more than 100 albums, either as the leader or a side player.
15. Philly Joe Jones (1923-1985)
Philly Joe Jones was a child star known for tap dancing before joining the Army as a young adult. By 1947, he was playing drums in New York City.
Known for his bebop style, Jones quickly became Miles Davis’ favorite drummer and they played together for several years.
In his 40s, Jones moved to Europe and taught at a school in London. He played with international acts until his death.
16. Bill Stewart (1966-)
Bill Stewart’s father played trombone and named Stewart after the jazz trombonist Bill Harris.
Stewart grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and didn’t have access to live music, so he listened to his dad’s jazz records.
By the time he was seven, he was teaching himself to play drums. Through high school and college, Stewart played in marching bands and jazz bands.
When he graduated, he moved to New York and recorded albums with other musicians.
Despite his jazz roots, Stewart sometimes plays in a funk ensemble, and once played with James Brown.
17. Jo Jones (1911-1985)
Many people confused Jo Jones with Philly Joe Jones, so he was often called Papa Jo Jones since he was older.
Jones was born in Chicago and grew up in Alabama before moving to New York to become a regular player at jazz clubs.
Jones’s signature style involved utilizing the hi-hat in a way that didn’t overpower the drum set or the rest of the band.
The bright sound of the hi-hat in his music gives it a quick tempo.
18. Joe Morello (1928-2011)
And finally, the last drummer on our list is Joe Morello who was born with vision problems, but that didn’t stop his love of music.
He played the violin from the ages of 6 to 15 and had a solo with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He switched to drums as a teenager and moved to New York to play in jazz quartets.
Morello taught many modern drummers, like Max Weinberg, Tico Torres, and Jon Fishman.
He is best known for his unusual time signatures, which gave his drum work a sound of funk.
Summing up Our List of the Greatest Jazz Drummers
Drummers always have to pay attention to what they’re doing since the other musicians depend on them so much.
But famous jazz drummers have even more at stake because they’re not just keeping the beat. They’re amazing musicians in their own right.
If you have any doubts, check out some performances by the famous jazz drummers on this list.
In case we left off any of the greats, let us know in the comments.