44 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Musicians Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

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. Let’s get started.

1. Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, who had the famous nickname Satchmo, was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz music, in 1901. He 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 passed away 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, he 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. However, in 1944, he left Juilliard to play in Charlie Parker’s group.

After four years, he left Parker’s band to write his music and record solo records, like the album Birth of the Cool, which is credited for spearheading cool jazz. Another reason Davis is iconic in jazz history is 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.

The most famous composition by Coltrane would have to be “Giant Steps,” a remarkable song of complex harmony. Aside from “Giant Steps,” Coltrane is also well known for his album A Love Supreme.

Sadly, Coltrane’s career was not very long-lived. He passed away in New York in 1967 at the age of 40 due to liver cancer. His work was posthumously acknowledged with a 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, he was famous for leading big bands and jazz orchestras.

In his over five-decade career, Duke Ellington wrote and co-wrote over a thousand pieces. One of his most well-known was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).”

6. Wynton Marsalis

In the trumpet world, Wynton Marsalis is a famous name. Born in New Orleans in 1961, Marsalis is most well-known for his jazz music, although he has also put out high-level classical albums.

Three of Marsalis’s 1980s albums—Think of One, Hot House Flowers, and Black Codes (From the Underground)—won him each Best Jazz Instrumental Solo Grammys. He also received more Grammys for his performance with groups and in orchestras.

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

The First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald was a legendary female jazz singer whom people also 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 passed away in 1996, Fitzgerald had earned 13 Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other recognitions.

8. Dave Brubeck

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was another one of those musicians who became known for pushing the boundaries of jazz by using uncommon rhythms and harmony.

Born in California in 1920, Brubeck 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 a million copies.

The hit from that album, “Take Five”—which has 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

Born in North Carolina in 1917, composer and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk became known for his inventive piano playing that involved dissonant harmonies and unexpected turns in his improvisational melodies.

Before all these, however, Monk worked as a church organist in his teens. He only started getting more work in jazz in 1940s while playing at jazz clubs in Manhattan.

In his career, Monk 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.

Some of his most famous compositions—now standards in the jazz repertoire—include “Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” and “Ruby My Dear.”

11. Billie Holiday

Often called Lady Day, Billie Holiday 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, Holiday had moved to Harlem and had begun singing in nightclubs.

In the mid-1930s, she began collaborating with other artists. The first was with the pianist Teddy Wilson, then with Count Basie as well as with Artie Shaw.

Holiday eventually became well known for her ability to improvise profoundly and emotionally. Her recordings of note include “I Must Have That Man” and “Summertime.”

12. Herbie Hancock

Chicago native 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 1940, Hancock began piano lessons as child, and after college, he 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, and his works would gain him 14 Grammy awards from 34 nominations.

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.

Unfortunately, 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. He 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. In the 1920s, he moved to Harlem to be closer to some of the top jazz performers of the time. 

Basie would lead his orchestra for over 50 years and helped to spark many younger careers in the process. Four of his recordings—One O’Clock Jump, April in Paris, Everyday (I Have the Blues), and Lester Leaps In—have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

15. Mary Lou Williams

Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams was 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.

One can consider Williams musically gifted, considering she began learning piano at the age of 3, and by her teens, she was playing in theaters and with musicians such as Ellington. By the 1940s, Williams would eventually move to New York City and join his orchestra.

Surprisingly, Williams 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 the 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 20 and began hanging out with and playing with big names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker.

Later, Brown became a member of famous jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio before leading his own trio around the 1980s. “Gravy Waltz,” a piece composed by Brown, won Best Original Jazz Composition at the 6th Annual Grammy Awards.

17. J.J. Johnson

Jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson was one of the first American jazz trombone players to embrace the bebop tradition fully. Born in Indianapolis in 1924, he studied the piano first before devoting his time to the trombone at age 14.

Johnson’s 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.

Also a composer, Johnson focused more on composition in the 1960s. His works during this time was a huge contribution to jazz’s Third Stream movement.

18. Benny Goodman

The King of Swing, Benny Goodman, was a jazz clarinetist that remains one of the most well-known American jazz names. Born in Chicago in 1909, Goodman, along with his siblings, was enrolled in music lessons. By the time he was in his teens, he was performing in local dance halls.

Goodman’s first recordings were created in 1926 and was soon releasing songs that charted, like “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” and “Ain’t Cha Glad?” On top of this, he 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

You don’t have to be from America to be a jazz great, and Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist from Belgium, is the first non-American on this list of well-known jazz musicians.

Born in 1910, and with the legal first name Jean, Reinhardt loved music as a child. He started playing the violin, then the banjo, and then the guitar.

While touring France, he discovered his interest in jazz and started working together with jazz artists. Reinhardt eventually became known in the jazz scene under the nickname Django.

While jazz is undoubtedly American music, Reinhardt was one of the first and the most famous jazz players in Europe at the time. He recorded with many notable 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, like Fletcher Henderson and Henry “Red” Allen. Around the 1930s, he toured Europe and performed with Django Reinhardt, mentioned earlier.

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

Next up, we have another tenor saxophone player famous in the American jazz scene, Stan Getz. 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 studied the cello when he was younger but struggled with reading classical music. He later switched to double bass and was writing pretty advanced music by his teens.

After this, his career slowly picked up, and by 1943, Charles Mingus was touring with Louis Armstrong and collaborating with most all the other big names in jazz.

23. Art Tatum

Born in Ohio in 1909, Art Tatum 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, Ornette Coleman was a jazz saxophone player whose main contribution to jazz was developing the genre of free jazz. Besides saxophone, the Texan musician also played the violin and trumpet and was skilled at composition too.

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 that decade, Blakey began working with some of the most skilled bebop musicians of the time, 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. His works with them, and others, have made him an inductee of both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.

26. Wes Montgomery

Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery was born in Indianapolis in 1923. He grew up in a large family without a lot of money. Still, in 1935, his older brother bought him a four-string guitar from a pawn shop, which he spent a lot of time playing on.

It wasn’t until many years later that Montgomery bought himself a proper guitar and tried to learn playing with the six strings.

By the late 1940s, Montgomery was playing around Indianapolis and would eventually go on tour with Lionel Hampton. He became well known for his playing style of plucking the guitar strings using the side of his thumbs.

However, despite his jazz background, Montgomery’s more successful albums were more in the pop genre.

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. He toured with Bennie Green and J. J. Johnson before playing in the rhythm section for Miles Davis.

His technical ability on the double bass is mainly due to his initial classical training on the instrument.

28. Sonny Rollins

Walter Theodore Rollins, whom most know as Sonny, is a tenor saxophone player who is among some of the most inflectional American jazz musicians.

Born in New York City in 1930, Rollins began on piano first before switching to alto saxophone and then to tenor. After high school, he started playing professionally as a sideman.

Over his career, Rollins recorded more than 60 albums, and many of his compositions are now jazz standards. 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. Now 92, the musician is happily retired.

29. Stéphane Grappelli

Few jazz violinists have been more influential than the late, great Stéphane Grappelli. The French sensation began playing the violin as an adolescent and forged a remarkable career spanning over seven decades.

Grappelli, the Grandfather of Jazz Violinists, founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with guitarist Django Reinhardt. The all-string group helped popularize jazz music in Europe.

In Grappelli’s legendary career, he collaborated with artists from Paul Simon to Yo-Yo Ma. Young jazz violinists practicing the genre today are sure to study the great Frenchman.

30. Joshua Redman

Moving to modern jazz musicians, Joshua Redman is one of the best. The wunderkind from Berkely, California, grew up around famous jazz musicians—his father was the legendary Dewey Redman—and was planning a law career until he was immersed in the New York City jazz scene of the 1990s.

Redman started his career in jazz on the clarinet but soon switched to his signature instrument, the tender saxophone. His debut album, 1993’s Redman, earned him his first Grammy Award nomination.

Like many great jazz musicians, Redman uses an improvisational style that combines classic jazz with a modern spin. He continues to perform today with his original group, the Joshua Redman Quartet, and released the acclaimed album RoundAgain in 2020.

31. Sarah Vaughan

Earning a nickname as powerful as the Divine One means you’ve done something right. Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, also known as Sassy, had one of the most iconic voices in the history of jazz music.

The Newark, New Jersey, native is one of the pioneers of jazz singing, similar to her contemporaries Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The National Endowment for the Arts describes her voice as “rich, controlled tone and vibrato” with bop-oriented sounds.

Over Vaughan’s illustrious career, she recorded hits like “Send in the Clowns” and “Broken-Hearted Melody.” She won four Grammy Awards, including the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

32. Robert Glasper

Houston, Texas, native Robert Glasper is not your traditional jazz musician. The musician incorporates a modern jazz sound that fuses several genres, including rock, soul, and hip-hop.

The multitalented pianist writes music for other artists, produces records, and manages to release solo content. Glasper has formed multiple groups in his young career, including the Robert Glasper Trio and the Robert Glasper Experiment, and has 12 Grammy nominations to date, with an astounding five wins.

In recent years, Glasper has been recording and performing with the supergroup Dinner Party with fellow jazz musicians Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin and rapper 9th Wonder.

33. Cannonball Adderley

You won’t find a more colorful name on this list than Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, a Tampa, Florida, jazz alto saxophonist from the hard bop jazz era. The man played alongside contemporaries like Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

At its essence, Adderly’s music conveyed happiness. With music that could lift the mood in a room, the saxophonist toured the world as an early champion of jazz music.

Adderly is perhaps most famous for the 1966 hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. The song peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

34. Dexter Gordon

Saxophonist Dexter Gordon was a giant in the early jazz scene, both figuratively and literally. The six-foot-six, Los Angeles–born musician pioneered the early bebop sound

Nicknamed Long Tall Dexter and the Sophisticated Giant, he became one of the greatest saxophonists of all time and the mastermind behind classics like “Blue Bossa.”

After establishing himself in the New York City jazz scene with Billy Eckstine’s band, Gordon took up residence in Copenhagen, Denmark. He began leaving his footprint all over Europe while establishing an international jazz presence. 

Gordon eventually returned to the United States in 1976. His homecoming marked the revival of the interest in swing and acoustic-based jazz following the fusion jazz time.

35. Oscar Peterson

Canadian Oscar Peterson is on the short list of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Over an incredible career spanning six decades, he was exceptionally prolific, recording hundreds of songs, touring nonstop, and leaving an indelible print on the industry.

Peterson was an ever-present fixture of the jazz genre from the early days of the Oscar Peterson Trio of the 1950s until his DVD recordings in the mid-2000s. His style was up-tempo, thumping, and full of energy.

Over his remarkable career, Peterson took home seven Grammy Awards, including the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. Many modern jazz pianists cite him as an inspiration.

36. Anita O’Day

Anita Bell Cotton, best known as Anita O’Day, is one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. Her unique style encompassed everything from swing music to early bebop, and she was just as exceptional belting out a ballad as she was doing some playful scatting.

The Kansas City, Missouri, native started in the early 1940s with Gene Krupa’s big band in Chicago. She soon became an international sensation, filling venues from Europe to Japan and collaborating with jazz icons like Benny Goodman.

Some of O’Day’s most notable songs include “Let Me Off Uptown,” “Thanks for the Boogie Ride,” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” The latter was featured in the 2006 film Shortbus.

37. Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan, like many of the names on this list, was a true prodigy. By the time he was a teenager in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he had mastered the trumpet, appeared on a John Coltrane album, and was helping popularize the hard bop subset of jazz that exploded in the 1960s.

Biographers describe Morgan’s music as emotionally charged and exuberant yet effortless at the same. A virtuoso, he commanded the stage and incorporated all types of improvisation and unique sound effects.

Morgan’s life and career ended tragically when his wife shot and killed him after a dispute outside a bar in New York City. A documentary was made about Morgan in 2016 titled I Called Him Morgan.

38. Bud Powell

Bud Powell was the living embodiment of the bebop subgenre of jazz music. A master of improvisation, the Harlem, New York, pianist played with an up-tempo, emotional fury that captured audiences.

Powell was a contemporary of, and often collaborated with, other legends on this list, including Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan. The legendary Miles Davis called Powell “the greatest pianist in this era.”

In his career, Powell released over 30 recordings. Some of Powell’s classic songs include “52nd Street Theme” and “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”

Powell did not have as long a career as others on this list. In 1966, he passed away of tuberculosis after three years of ill health.

39. Jimmy Smith

The master of the Hammond organ, Jimmy Smith, is perhaps the most influential organ player in jazz history. The Norristown, Pennsylvania, sensation studied the piano as a child but soon found his instrument of choice.

Smith was a fixture of the 1950s and 1960s jazz scene in New York City. Like many of the famous jazz musicians on this list, he was a part of the Blue Note Record company, collaborating with the best artists of his time and displaying an incredible prolificity—he released over 30 albums in his career.

Smith was awarded the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005. Sadly, he passed away that same year.

40. Freddie Hubbard

Hard bop, bebop, post-bop—if you like bop, Freddie Hubbard was your man. The Indianapolis, Indiana, trumpeter was influential in all these genres with his work that started in the late 1950s.

Hubbard was a fixture of the jazz scene in his early 20s. After Miles Davis’s endorsement, he joined Blue Note Records and began his prolific career. He then went on to release over 50 solo recordings in his nearly six-decade career. 

Hubbard’s 1962 album Ready for Freddie is one of the most iconic bebop albums ever, while the 1970 track “Red Clay” is undoubtedly his signature song.

41. Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan, a.k.a. Jeru, could do it all. The versatile musician pioneered modern jazz and, at times, was an arranger, composer, and conductor.

However, he is best known for his incredible skill as a baritone saxophonist. According to the Library of Congress, Mulligan has consistently been voted the number one jazz musician in polls worldwide.

Mulligan collaborated with a who’s who of jazz heavyweights, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Billie Holliday. Even casual jazz fans have likely heard and enjoyed his signature songs, “Walkin’ Shoes” and “Young Blood.”

42. Wayne Shorter

The Newark, New Jersey, composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter was a titan of the jazz genre for seven decades. National Public Radio states that his vision and improvisation helped shape 20th and 21st-century jazz, pop, world, and classical music.

Shorter rose to prominence alongside John Coltrane in the 1950s. He later joined Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers and famously collaborated with Miles Davis.

As part of Blue Note Records, he released Grammy Award-winning albums; in fact, he would go on to win 12 Grammys in his legendary career. Shorter’s signature song, “Footprints,” is one of the greatest songs in American culture. 

43. Chick Corea

The keyboard virtuoso Chick Corea composed music, led jazz bands, and was a stellar solo artist. He did everything from old-school bebop to modern jazz fusion.

Corea was there for it all, from the Miles Davis days of the mid-20th century to the modern jazz evolution of the 2000s. He incorporated his eclectic style of classic, Latin, and modern jazz, making him one the best.

The musiciaon—who’s skilled on the paino, keyboards, vibraphone, and drums—was nominated 71 times for performances, whether solo or in a group, and won 27 of them.

Sadly, Corea is no longer with us; he passed away in 2021 due to a rare form of cancer. However, his work lives on in his recordings and in the influence he’s had on many of contemporary jazz musicians.

44. Pat Metheny

Disregard the Kenny G hair and appreciate the fact that Pat Metheny is one of the all-time jazz legends. The guitarist-composer is a Grammy Award magnet, winning a record 20 awards in 10 different categories.

Metheny is unafraid to experiment, incorporating Afro-Latin, Brazilian, rock, funk, and soul elements in his classic guitar riffs.

The Kansas City, Missouri, native has collaborated with some of the most iconic artists in jazz over his five decades in the genre. His 1985 joint effort with David Bowie, “This Is Not America,” remains in regular American and European radio rotation.

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.

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.