15 Of The Most Famous Jazz Musicians Of The 1960s

Written by Dan Farrant
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The 1960s was a time of upheaval—socially and musically. Sure, there was Woodstock, but there was also jazz, which was still a huge presence in America’s cultural landscape.

Some of the greatest musicians the United States produced came to prominence during that tempestuous decade. Each one becoming iconic in their own way, influencing the path of the music world.

Below, we’ve listed 15 of the greatest and most famous jazz musicians in the 1960s. Read on to learn about them.

1. Dave Brubeck

First on our list, Dave Brubeck pioneered the use of unusual time signatures in jazz. While most songs on the charts have two, three, or four beats per measure, songs from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 album Time Out featured no songs in 4/4.

The album only featured songs with five, seven, or even nine beats per measure. The track “Take Five” was Brubeck’s first song in five to hit the charts.

As a composer, Brubeck also wrote combinations of jazz and classical music, creating new forms that inspired works like Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.

Brubeck expanded the possibilities of jazz music. He performed and recorded until his death in 2012.

2. Miles Davis

Legendary jazz trumpet player and composer Miles Davis played a huge role in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He also had a distinctive playing style, which often included the use of mutes and minimalist solos.

He played with nearly everybody, and his Kind of Blue, released near the end of 1959, stands as the best-selling jazz album of all time. Nearly all jazz players know and have played at least one song from that album.

Davis was also known for his fashion sense and cool persona, and his impact on jazz and popular music continues to be felt today.

3. John Coltrane

Saxophonist John Coltrane is widely considered one of the most important and influential figures in the history of jazz, not just in the 1960s. His music had a profound impact on the development of the genre. 

Coltrane began his career as a sideman with various bands, including the Miles Davis Quintet, before forming his own group in the early 1960s. He was known for his technical virtuosity on the saxophone, his explorations of complex harmonic structures, and his use of modal improvisation. 

Some of his most famous recordings include 1960’s Giant Steps, 1961’s My Favorite Things, and 1965’s A Love Supreme. Coltrane’s music continues to be celebrated by musicians and fans around the world.

4. Charles Mingus

Bass player Charles Mingus revolutionized the way the upright bass was utilized in jazz. He often bowed his bass and played it as a solo instrument, liberating it from its usual spot in the rhythm section, tied to the drummer. 

He blended different genres and styles of music in his compositions and was also an influential band leader of his own, though his temper often caused harm to him and those around him:

He destroyed his own bass in a fit of rage during a gig, and he once punched a trombone player, damaging his mouth so badly that the man never played the same again.

Mingus was also a civil rights activist, and his music often reflected his political and social views.

5. Wayne Shorter

If Wayne Shorter had played only with Miles Davis, he still would have been a saxophone great of the ages. But he also played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and eventually formed Weather Report with keyboardist Joe Zawinul.

Weather Report’s music was a blend of funk, Latin jazz, and bebop. They also brought Jaco Pastorius, arguably the greatest bass player who ever lived, to the world’s attention.

Shorter’s innovative and adventurous compositions blended jazz, rock, and classical music. Many of his works have earned him multiple Grammy Awards and Lifetime Achievements from Miles Davis Award and NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

6. Ornette Coleman

Multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman made his biggest marks in the jazz oeuvre on the saxophone and was a key figure in the development of free jazz. His compositions often skirted traditional chord changes and harmonies in favor of group improvisation.

Coleman’s music had a sense of freedom and unpredictability, and he often used unconventional instrumentation, such as the double quartet. Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come had a huge impact on jazz and influenced many players. 

He played with the likes of Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, and in addition to his musical iconoclasm, he was known for his activism and advocacy for musicians’ rights.

7. Antonio Carlos Jobim

Those who are fans of bossa nova have Antonio Carlos Jobim to thank for, as he invented it. Bossa nova took his native Brazil by storm in the 1950s and became a sensation in America by the early ’60s.

As a composer, Jobim fused samba, jazz, and classical music into his works and, collaborating with lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, created “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado,” and “Desafinado.”

Without Jobim, the world wouldn’t have learned about Brazillian music, but his more than 500 songs helped spread the form’s complex and sophisticated rhythms worldwide.

8. Sarah Vaughan

New Jersey native Sarah Vaughan had a distinctive and powerful voice. She was also known for her wide vocal range and a great sense of phrasing.

Also called the Divine One, Vaughan was renowned for her ability to improvise and scat sing, as well as her interpretation of ballads.

Vaughan began her professional career as a pianist and singer in the 1940s, performing with various bands and orchestras. In the 1950s, she worked with some of the biggest names of the era, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.

Through the ’60s, Vaughan experimented with different styles of music, including pop and R&B. Her works earned her many accolades, including an induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2012.

9. Max Roach

American jazz drummer Max Roach was from North Carolina, but his influence ended up being global.

Roach began playing drums as a kid and studied at the Manhattan School of Music. He rose to fame in the 1940s and 1950s as a member of the bebop movement, but he had great success as a bandleader in the 1960s with the Max Roach Quartet and the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet.

He was also a pioneer of the drum solo, incorporating extended breaks into his performances. This influence carried into rock music, enlarging the shadow he casts over so many drummers of all genres today.

10. Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone, was as famous as a civil rights activist as she was for being a pianist, singer, and songwriter. She combined blues, gospel, and classical music with her jazz, and her voice was soulful and powerful.

She played piano well enough to get into Juilliard, and through the 1960s, she was well known for her rendition of Scott Joplin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Feeling Good,” arguably her signature song.

Simone used her music and her platform to speak out against racism and injustice and was close friends with figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Her “Mississippi Goddam” became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

11. Ray Brown

As one of the most influential bassists in the history of jazz, Ray Brown started out with players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

He later joined forces with Oscar Peterson Trio, where he developed a reputation as a player with consummate technique. And everyone knew he had that innate ability to anchor a rhythm section that makes a bass player truly great. 

Brown led a few of his bands and worked as a record producer before founding his own record label, Brown Records.

Throughout his career, Brown received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to jazz, including induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 2003.

12. Art Blakey

Drummer Art Blakey had played with Gillespie, Parker, and Thelonious Monk by the time he formed the Jazz Messengers in 1954, a band that would become one of the most influential and longest-running groups in the history of jazz— the group remained intact until Blakey’s 1990 death.

Blakey spent the 1960s developing a hard-driving, blues-inflected style, and his band would serve as a training ground for huge names to come, including Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Wynton Marsalis.

He is perhaps better known as a bandleader than as a drummer simply due to the success of the Jazz Messengers, but jazz drummers worldwide know of Blakey’s legacy as a player.

13. Pharoah Sanders

Hailing from Arkansas, Pharoah Sanders developed a powerful sound on his saxophone and became a mainstay in free jazz and world music. He began his career in the 1960s, performing and recording with artists such as John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra.

He wouldn’t gain recognition as a band leader until the ’70s with albums such as Karma and Black Unity, which showcased his unique approach to the saxophone and his exploration of themes related to African-American identity.

Sanders worked with a wide range of musicians and was recognized for his contributions to jazz with awards such as the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2016.

14. Freddie Hubbard

Penultimate on our list we have Freddie Hubbard, who was highly influential as a jazz trumpeter and composer. He came to prominence in the 1960s and recorded with some of the greatest musicians of his time.

His career began in the late 1950s when he played with Sonny Rollins, but it was in the ’60s when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Hubbard played many jazz styles, working fluently in bebop, free jazz, and fusion. He also experimented with funk, soul, and R&B. Some of his most famous albums include Ready for Freddie and First Light, which won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Group in 1972.

15. Chet Baker

As a singer and a trumpet player, Oklahoman Chet Baker made equally substantive contributions to jazz. He started as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and later formed his own groups, recording several acclaimed albums as a bandleader.

In the 1960s, Baker helped pioneer West Coast jazz. He worked as a bandleader and recorded several critically acclaimed albums that are now considered to be some of his best work: 1959’s Chet, with saxophonist Johnny Griffin and pianist Al Haig, and 1965’s Smokin’ with the Chet Baker Quintet.

However, his personal struggles with drug addiction affected his career and personal life. Baker spent some time in jail during the ’60s, but he remained a highly respected and influential figure in the jazz world, and his music continued to inspire generations of musicians.

Summing Up Our List Of Great 1960s Jazz Musicians

During the 1960s, these musicians we’ve listed were big names, and they continue to be so to this day.

They not only represent the jazz greats from their time, but they also present a range of styles and musical sensibilities that have lasted decades and influenced many.

If you know these players, then you are familiar with a lot of great music. If you don’t know much about jazz, these players stand as a terrific introduction to the era. Go ahead and give their works a listen!

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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.