15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Musicians Of The 1930s

Written by Dan Farrant

Jazz lovers know that some of the most legendary musicians in the genre were at their peak in the 1930s. The decade set a precedent for jazz, with icons like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington leading the charge.

Jazz is timeless, and hits by the era’s most well-known artists still hold cultural impact today. Read on to learn about 15 of the greatest and most famous jazz musicians in the 1930s.

Related: For more like this, see our list of the greatest jazz musicians here.

1. Louis Armstrong

We begin our list with Louis Armstrong, one of the, if not the most famous jazz musicians of the 1930s. Although he is known primarily as a vocalist, he was a triple threat as he was also a trumpet virtuoso and a skilled composer. He grew up playing music in New Orleans, with rhythm and blues in his soul from the get-go.

Armstrong joined a quartet of boys at 11 years old. The boys sang in the street for money—a full-time gig for young Armstrong since he dropped out of school. He later jumped from band to band, honing in on his musical abilities and learning his way around the cornet.

Enter the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a pivotal moment for jazz, and Louis was right there in the thick of it. By the time the 1930s rolled around, his career was in full swing.

And let’s not forget his pièce de résistance, the timeless classic “What a Wonderful World.” If that doesn’t make you tap your foot and appreciate the little things in life, we don’t know what will!

Related: The most famous jazz trumpet players of all time.

2. Duke Ellington

Next up, we have American composer and pianist Duke Ellington who was a pioneer in jazz piano. Since 1923, he led his jazz orchestra and made a name for himself in the vibrant New York City music scene. By the end of the 1930s, Ellington had recorded an impressive discography of over 1,000 recordings.

In 1939, Ellington joined forces with the composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn. The creative partners produced some classic hits like “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” which have become standards in the jazz canon. These NYC-centric tunes reflected the jazzy New York heart and soul that would become integral to Ellington’s lasting legacy.

3. Benny Goodman

The Chicago-born jazz musician Benny Goodman received the nickname the “King of Swing” with good reason. He helped popularize big band swing music that was huge in the 30s and early 40s.

After turning to music to cope with a poor upbringing, the famous clarinetist made waves in the jazz community for several decades, including the 1930s. In 1938, he performed his most influential concert—and one of the most notable jazz concerts ever—at Carnegie Hall. 

Goodman also broke down racial barriers in music. During the decade, he became the first white bandleader to feature a black vocalist when he hired Billie Holiday to sing with his band.

4. Billie Holiday

Also known as Lady Day, Billie Holiday is one of the most prominent female jazz and swing artists ever. She was born in 1915 and began singing in clubs in New York City in the 1930s when jazz producer John Hammond discovered her.

Her mainstream success came from the American record label Columbia and the British label Decca, both of which produced her music in the 1930s. The 1940s were less kind to her, with an alcohol and drug addiction leading her to spiral down dangerous paths.

Holiday passed away in 1959 due to cirrhosis of the liver, but won four Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album after her death.

5. Count Basie

William James Basie earned the nickname Count Basie as the head of the Count Basie Orchestra.

The American pianist and composer started his career in Harlem in the 1920s, at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. He connected with countless jazz icons like James P. Johnson and Willie Smith.

He toured with notable names in the genre before the 1920s closed out, and his career flourished into the 1930s. Bassie toured the world and significantly impacted the Jersey Shore area, with historical theaters taking the name “Count Basie.”

Basie was a prolific recording artist, releasing over 100 albums. He won numerous awards and accolades, including 9 Grammy Awards.

The Count Basie Orchestra’s greatest hits include “One O’Clock Jump,” “Bill’s Mill,” and “Bye Bye, Baby.” These tunes left an indelible mark on jazz music.

6. Fletcher Henderson

Jazz and swing in the 1930s would not be the same without Fletcher Henderson’s contribution to the scene. The American pianist lives on through his famed compositions, which music theorists still study.

He’s also an iconic figure in the African American community. Henderson was one of the most prolific black composers in the genre’s history, with his biggest hits helping to kickstart jazz in the mainstream. 

Henderson spent some time as an arranger for the Benny Goodman orchestra in the 1930s, working alongside a living legend to become one himself. His most well-known works include “Sugar Foot Stomp,” “The Henderson Stomp,” “The Stampede,” and “Christopher Columbus,” which continue to enthrall listeners to this day.

7. Artie Shaw

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, known better as Artie Shaw, was one of the best clarinet players to grace the jazz genre. The musician was born in 1910 in New York City, where he returned in 1930 to pursue his jazz career.

His real hits started coming when he learned about symphonic music through his work with Irving Aaronson’s Commanders. He made waves with “Interlude in B-Flat” at New York’s Imperial Theater, which allowed him to dive head-first into the mainstream. 

Shaw was a rival to Benny Goodman, which speaks volumes about his talent. Some of his biggest hits include “Begin the Beguine,” “Stardust,” and “Moonglow,” which have all become jazz standards.

8. Tommy Dorsey

From Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Tommy Dorsey was a composer and trombonist whose rise to fame started in the 1930s. His magnum opus is “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” a sweet tune many artists have covered.

The song has also entered pop culture through film and television. Film buffs may recognize the number from films like Carnal Knowledge and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Dorsey released numerous hit records, including “Marie,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “Opus One.” He won several Grammy Awards and, in 1982, was initiated into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Related: Check out our list of famous jazz trombone players here.

9. Roy Eldridge

Though his nickname was Little Jazz, Roy Eldridge was a big name in jazz during the 1930s. The Pittsburgh native is one of the most influential jazz trumpeters in history.

Eldridge was one of the pioneer jazz musicians to incorporate elements of bebop into his playing. His unique style made him a major influence on later bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro.

Eldridge’s most well-known works include “After You’ve Gone,” “Wabash Stomp,” and “Jump Through the Window.” The collaboration album The Nifty Cat he released received a nomination for Best Instrumental Jazz Album at the 14th annual Grammy Awards.

10. Teddy Wilson

Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson is a pivotal figure in swing history. The musician defined swing for pianists, injecting his effortless and elegant style into the genre.

He collaborated with legends like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne in the 1930s, contributing to their careers and his own.  Wilson’s greatest hits include “All of Me,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Love Me or Leave Me.”

The musician triumphed for African Americans in music as one of the first black men to collaborate with renowned white artists.

11. Ella Fitzgerald

The Queen of Jazz” and “First Lady of Song,Ella Fitzgerald holds these nicknames as they speak of her impact on the music industry. Her scat singing also goes down in history, setting a huge precedent for the style.

Fitzgerald was a successful crossover artist who could appeal to jazz and pop audiences. Her recordings of popular songs such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, and “Mack the Knife” became hits on the pop charts.

Her collaborations with Louis Armstrong are among her most revered works, including their famed recording of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

12. Lionel Hampton

Louisville native Lionel Hampton landed in the right classroom when he was a teen. He took xylophone lessons from the renowned musician Jimmy Bertrand, sparking the young artist’s love for music.

Hampton’s first professional music venture was playing the drums for various bands. He learned the vibraphone while living in California, where he impressed Louis Armstrong while playing a show with the Les Hite band.

Hampton continued to perform and record well into his 1990s, receiving numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of Arts and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

13. Benny Carter

The musical talent of New Yorker Benny Carter set a high bar for jazz artists to come after the 1930s. He played the trumpet, saxophone, and clarinet. He also arranged and composed music with countless jazz legends, like Fletcher Henderson, June Clark, and Charlie Johnson.

While he skillfully played every instrument, the 1930s revealed a special love for the trumpet. He recorded with his orchestra for several record labels, including Columbia.

Carter wrote scores for over a dozen films, including Stormy Weather and An American in Paris. His music was also featured in many TV shows and commercials.

Carter received official recognition in the 1980s and ’90s. The instrumentalist received eight Grammy nominations as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award.

14. Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins is the musician who brought the jazz horn to life. Tenor saxophonists came before him, but no one had quite the same impact on the genre.

The Missouri-born artist began playing the cello and piano as a child before switching to the saxophone in his teens. Then he studied music at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas.

By the 1930s, he became one of the greatest jazz players ever. Hawkins closed out the decade by recording “Body and Soul,” his most renowned work that changed the trajectory of jazz.

He later worked with Benny Carter, Tiny Grimes, and other jazz icons to keep the genre alive and leave their legacy.

15. Mildred Bailey

The Queen of Swing did not take the alias lightly. Jazz singer Mildred Bailey made the most of the 1930s with her smash hit recordings “For Sentimental Reasons,” “Darn That Dream,” and “Rockin’ Chair.”

The Native American woman grew up on a reservation in Idaho, but thankfully for jazz lovers, music found its way into her heart when her older brothers sat by the piano and taught her how to sing.

Bailey later discovered swing music and became one of the biggest names on the 1930s swing scene. She was one of the first female jazz singers to succeed in a male-dominated industry, opening the way for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1930s Jazz Musicians

Jazz and swing megastars like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald are reminders that the genre has strong roots in the 1930s. The decade gave jazz the momentum to become one of the most internationally beloved yet culturally significant genres today.

The next time smooth jazz plays, remember to pay tribute to the 1930s and the great names that came with it. Those we mentioned above are great places to start.

Photo of author

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.