Compared to the centuries-long history of Western classical music, jazz music—what some would call the greatest art form of America—is a much younger art form that dates back to the early 20th century.
Beginning in New Orleans as dancing music, inventive musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington helped propel jazz into a wide variety of popular music styles.
And today, many consider jazz to be the classical music of America. So we’ve compiled this list of the greatest and most famous jazz musicians of all time to understand this rich music genre better.
1. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, who had the famous nickname “Satchmo,” was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz music.
Born in 1901, Armstrong was raised by his grandmother and grew up in poverty in one of the poorest parts of New Orleans.
Equally skilled as both a vocalist and a trumpet player, Armstrong was one of the most crucial figures in popularizing jazz music in America.
Armstrong acquired his first trumpet—technically a cornet—at age seven and began learning from the then famous Joe Oliver.
After touring and connecting with some of the best jazz musicians, Armstrong eventually settled in Queens, where he died in 1971.
One of his most iconic recordings is “What a Wonderful World.”
2. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker, also known by the nicknames “Bird” and “Yardbird,” was an American jazz saxophonist known for creating the style of jazz known as bebop.
Parker was known for his clean tone and impeccable technique on the alto saxophone, something one needs to play the intricate harmonies and fast soloing characteristic of bebop music.
Parker was born in Kansas City in 1920 and started to play the saxophone around age 11.
After touring and playing around with various bands, Parker moved to New York in 1939 to pursue music.
In New York City, he became well known for playing at Harlem jazz clubs with other famous bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk.
3. Miles Davis
Miles Davis is an iconic figure in the history of jazz, and he is one of those names that people know even when unfamiliar with jazz music.
Born in Illinois in 1926, Davis would eventually end up in New York City to study at the Juilliard school.
But in 1944, he left Juilliard to play in Charlie Parker’s group, after which he went on to write his music and record solo records.
Davis is iconic in jazz history because he pushed the boundaries of harmony in jazz music by exploring modal jazz.
4. John Coltrane
John Coltrane, like Miles Davis, helped establish modal harmonies in jazz music. Born in 1926 in North Carolina, Coltrane led many recording sessions that are now classic records in the jazz recording literature.
He died in New York in 1967 but was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer prize in 2007.
5. Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington, whose legal name was Edward Ellington, was born in Washington D.C. in 1899.
He became a famous jazz composer and pianist in the American jazz tradition and was equally gifted as a bandleader.
In terms of jazz, Ellington’s home was New York City, where he connected with many of the top jazz musicians of the time.
By the 1930s, Ellington was famous for leading big bands and jazz orchestras, and one of his most well-known pieces of music was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
6. Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis is a famous name in the trumpet world, and he is gifted in both classical and jazz music.
Born in New Orleans in 1961, he is most well-known for his jazz music, although he has also put out high-level classical albums.
Besides trumpet playing, Marsalis is also a composer and a teacher, and in the education space, he is well known for promoting jazz and classical music to younger students.
He is currently the director of New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of the most iconic jazz groups around today.
7. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was a legendary female jazz singer who people deservedly call the “Queen of Jazz.”
Her singing was so unique and smooth that she often sounded like an instrument when doing scat improvisations.
Born in Virginia in 1917, Fitzgerald toured with an orchestra for many years before starting her solo career in 1942.
She was well known for the purity of her singing tone and the unique ability to float lyrically over the rhythms and harmony underneath her singing.
By the time she died, Fitzgerald had earned fourteen Grammy awards, amongst other recognitions.
8. Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck was another one of those jazz musicians who became known for pushing the boundaries of jazz by using uncommon rhythms and harmony.
Born in California in 1920, he was both a composer and a jazz piano player who became famous for hits such as “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Take Five,” and “Unsquare Dance.”
In terms of bands, Brubeck was most famous for leading his group, the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
The group toured throughout the world, and they eventually recorded the jazz album Time Out, which sold over one million copies.
The hit from that album, “Take Five”—which is in the unusual time signature of 5 beats per measure—is the top-selling jazz single of all time.
9. Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie, whose legal first name was John, was a famous American trumpet player who made influential contributions to the development of jazz music as a genre.
Born in 1917 in South Carolina, Gillespie is probably most well-known for his iconic look of big cheeks puffing out as he played his trumpet.
Besides trumpet playing, Gillespie was also a singer, composer, bandleader, and educator—he was a gigantic influence on Miles Davis.
Musically speaking, Gillespie helped popularize bebop while inventing new musical techniques such as the syncopated bass line in his famous song “A Night in Tunisia.”
As a result, syncopation is now commonplace in jazz music.
10. Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was a composer and pianist famous in the American jazz tradition.
Born in North Carolina in 1917, Monk became known for his inventive piano playing that involved dissonant harmonies and unexpected turns in his improvisational melodies.
Monk was recorded almost as much as Duke Ellington, and besides his music, he was also well known for his consistently iconic appearance of a suit, hat, and sunglasses.
Before jazz, Monk worked as a church organist in his teens before getting more work in jazz by the 1940s.
Some of his most famous compositions—now standards in the jazz repertoire—include “Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” and “Ruby My Dear.”
11. Billie Holliday
Billie Holliday, known for her nickname “Lady Day,” was an American jazz singer known for swing and improvisational styles.
Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Holliday would later grow up in Baltimore and had a rough childhood.
But by the time she was a teenager in 1929, Holliday moved to Harlem and began singing in nightclubs.
And by the mid-1930s, Holliday was collaborating with the pianist Teddy Wilson and became well known for her ability to improvise profoundly and emotionally.
Her well-known recordings include “I Must Have That Man” and “Summertime.”
12. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock is a jazz pianist that has some of the most famous songs in jazz literature, including “Chameleon,” “Maiden Voyage,” and “Watermelon Man.”
Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock would eventually join the Miles Davis Quintet, where he helped further the mission of moving jazz past its bebop roots and into new territory.
Hancock experimented with other music genres (fusion and funk) throughout his career.
Besides his career roles as pianist and composer, Hancock also takes education seriously and currently teaches at the UCLA music school.
13. Chet Baker
Next, we have famous male jazz singer Chet Baker who was famous for his smooth and lyrical vocal ability.
Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Baker was equally skilled at singing and trumpet playing and had the nickname “prince of cool” due to his influence on the cool jazz movement.
With a musical beginning singing in a church choir, he got more formal training in trumpet playing after he joined the Army Band in 1946.
When he left the army in 1951, he began to pursue a career in music and would play many concerts with Charlie Parker.
Baker had a drug problem that landed him in jail multiple times, and his heroin addiction eventually contributed to his death in 1988.
14. Count Basie
Count Basie, whose legal first name was William, was an American jazz piano player and composer.
Basie was also a famous bandleader and is perhaps most well known for the jazz orchestra he formed in 1935 called the Count Basie Orchestra.
Born in New Jersey in 1904, Basie played piano and drums as a child but would eventually pursue piano more seriously by age 15.
He moved to Harlem in the 1920s to be closer to some of the top jazz performers of the time.
He would lead his orchestra for over 50 years and helped to spark many younger careers in the process.
15. Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams was a jazz pianist born in Atlanta in 1910. Also known as a composer and arranger, Williams recorded over a hundred records and wrote/arranged music for jazz musicians like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
You can consider Williams musically gifted, considering she began learning piano at age 3, and by her teens, she was playing in theaters and with musicians such as Duke Ellington.
By the 1940s, she would eventually move to New York City and join Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
Surprisingly, she took a break from the piano in her later years to focus on converting to Catholicism and later made a comeback with more religiously themed music.
16. Ray Brown
Born in Pittsburgh in 1926, Ray Brown was a legendary jazz double bassist who performed regularly with jazz icons Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald.
Starting from the age of eight, Brown took piano lessons but would later switch to the double bass by the time he was in high school.
After becoming well known in the Pittsburgh jazz community, Brown moved to New York City at age twenty and began hanging out with and playing with big names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker.
Later, in 1951, Brown became a member of famous jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio.
17. J.J. Johnson
Jazz trombonist J.J. Johson was one of the first American jazz trombone players to embrace the bebop tradition fully.
Born in Indianapolis in 1924, Johnson studied the piano first before devoting his time to the trombone at age 14.
His professional career began in 1941, and by 1945 he was playing with Count Basie’s big band.
By the 1950s, after playing with many different groups, Johnson established himself more as a soloist by leading small jazz combos around the country.
18. Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman, whose nickname was the “King of Swing,” was a jazz clarinetist that remains one of the most well-known American jazz names.
Born in Chicago in 1909, Goodman is credited for helping jazz become a popular genre that’s respected as legitimate music in America.
One concert, in particular—his concert at Carnegie Hall in January of 1938—was described by critics as one of the most important moments for jazz in America.
Goodman also had one of the first racially integrated jazz groups in the country.
19. Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist from Belgium, is the first guitarist and non-American on this list of well known jazz musicians.
Reinhardt was born in 1910, and his legal first name was Jean, eventually becoming known in the jazz scene under the nickname “Django.”
While jazz is American music, Reinhardt was one of the first and the most famous jazz players in Europe at the time.
Reinhardt recorded with many famous American jazz players when they visited France, including Benny Carter and Duke Ellington.
20. Coleman Hawkins
The American tenor saxophone player Coleman Hawkins, nicknamed “Hawk,” was born in Missouri in 1904 and was one of the first people to popularize the tenor saxophone in the jazz world.
He moved to New York City in 1923 and quickly began playing with the top players there.
In between the two eras, Hawkins was well known both in the world of swing jazz and in the bebop music of the 1940s.
One of his most famous recordings was that of “Body and Soul,” which he recorded in 1939.
21. Stan Getz
Stan Getz was another tenor saxophone player famous in the American jazz scene, and his beautiful tone earned him the nickname “The Sound.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1927, Getz went to high school in New York City and, by the age of 16, was playing with big jazz names such as Nat King Cole and Linoel Hampton.
Besides bebop, Getz also performed cool jazz and other jazz fusion genres, recording with Chick Corea.
His famous song “The Girl from Ipanema,” written in 1964, helped to make bossa nova rhythms popular in America.
22. Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus is perhaps one of the greatest jazz musicians ever, due in part to his long career of pushing the boundaries of improvisation in jazz music.
Born in Arizona in 1922, Mingus was a double bass player that collaborated with all of the other big names in jazz.
Before double bass, Mingus studied the cello but struggled with reading classical music.
He later switched to double bass and was writing pretty advanced music by his teens.
After that, his career slowly picked up, and by 1943 he was touring with Louis Armstrong.
23. Art Tatum
Art Tatum, born in Ohio in 1909, was a unique figure in the jazz piano world because of how technically gifted he was, even against the skills of classical pianists. What’s even more impressive is that he was blind!
Famous classical pianists Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz both described Tatum as one of the best piano players in any style of music.
Because of Tatum’s superior technique, people respected his playing whenever they heard it.
He was an inventive player who followed his style and did not follow the rules of what jazz pianists were supposed to do.
24. Ornette Coleman
Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Ornette Coleman was a jazz saxophone player whose main contribution to jazz was developing the genre of free jazz.
Besides saxophone, Coleman also played the violin and trumpet and was skilled at composition as well.
In 1959, Coleman released his album The Shape Of Jazz to Come, and the year after Free Jazz which would both have a crucial effect on the development of the free jazz genre.
“Broadway Blues” and “Lonely Woman” were songs of his that defined the genre.
25. Art Blakey
Jazz drummer Art Blakey was born in Pittsburgh in 1919 and established himself initially by playing in some popular big bands during the 1940s.
By the end of the 1940s, Blakey began working with some of the most skilled bebop musicians, such as Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker.
In the 1950s, Blakey and pianist Horace Silver formed the Jazz Messengers. He played with this group for over thirty years.
Blakey is in both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
26. Wes Montgomery
We Montgomery was an American jazz guitarist born in Indianapolis in 1923. He grew up in a large family without a lot of money, and in 1935, his older brother bought him a guitar from a pawn shop.
But it wasn’t until many years later that he bought himself a proper guitar and tried to learn the right way.
By the late 1940s, Montgomery played around Indianapolis and would eventually go on tour with Lionel Hampton.
However, Montgomery’s more successful albums were more in the pop genre despite his jazz background.
27. Paul Chambers
Double Bassist Paul Chambers was an American jazz musician who heavily contributed to developing the role of the double bass in the jazz genre.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1935, Chambers was equally skilled at timekeeping in the rhythm section and at improvising during solos—he was also skilled at using the bow like a classical player.
Chambers recorded as both a backup player and as a leader and played in the rhythm section for Miles Davis.
Before joining the Miles Davis Quintet, he also toured with Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson.
His technical ability on the double bass is mainly due to his initial classical training on the instrument.
28. Sonny Rollins
And finally, Sonny Rollins, whose legal first name is Walter, is a tenor saxophone player who is amongst some of the most inflectional American jazz musicians.
Born in New York City in 1930, he recorded over more than sixty albums, and many of his compositions are now jazz standards.
Beginning on piano, Rollins first switched to alto saxophone and then altered to tenor.
Some of his big hit songs include “St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” and “Doxy.”
Along with John Coltrane, many people think of Rollins as jazz’s most influential tenor saxophone player.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Jazz Musicians
Hopefully, you now have a much richer idea of the history of jazz music and the various musicians that contributed to its evolution over the last hundred years.
From its early roots, jazz has undergone many changes, and modern jazz music is almost entirely different today from the early bebop style.
But when you learn the music of some of these great jazz musicians, you can slowly trace how the music changed and appreciate this truly American art form.