The saxophone is one of the world’s most unique instruments. Combining elements of both brass and woodwind, it is one of the most difficult instruments to master. Unlike many other woodwind instruments, there are several versions of the saxophone that hold equal importance in both solos and ensembles.
The following musicians have earned a name for themselves playing this dynamic instrument.
1. Adolphe Sax (1814-1894)
The first-ever saxophone player was the man who invented it, Adolphe Sax who was a Belgian musical instrument maker in the 1800s.
The son of both mother and father instrument makers, he started making instruments as a young boy, making his own flute and clarinet by the age of 15 and then performing on them at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
Sax dreamt of an instrument that married the best qualities of the woodwind family of instruments with those of brass instruments.
After four years of hard work and detailed crafting, his dream became a patented reality in 1846, and this is why saxophones are made of brass but played like a woodwind instrument with a reed.
2. John Coltrane (1926-1967)
John Coltrane was and is a legendary American composer and jazz saxophonist. He was influenced by the blues music of the small town he grew up in and the gospel music of his church.
Coltrane was self-taught and loved bebop. He worked his way up the ranks, switching from alto to tenor sax, and ended up with Miles Davis, but by 1959 he went his own way playing with his own bands.
As a sideman, he played on the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue among lots of others. As a bandleader, some of his famous albums include Blue Trane, Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme.
He spearheaded avant-garde jazz and was at the height of his career when he developed liver cancer and died in 1977 at the young age of forty leaving behind a huge legacy.
3. Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
Charlie “Bird” Parker is credited with the invention of bebop. He was born in 1920 in Kansas and took music lessons at public schools. In his early teens, his mother gave him an alto saxophone, and he became a virtuoso on the instrument.
Early on, he acquired the nickname Yardbird, later just “Bird”. This inspired the titles to some of his music, like Yardbird Suite, Ornithology, and Bird of Paradise.
He was known for his amazing speed and dexterity on the saxophone, playing with other jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
4. Candy Dulfer (1969-)
Jumping forward a few decades, next, we have famous female saxophonist Candy Dulfer, daughter of well-known Dutch jazz tenor saxophonist Hans Duffer, who is a modern pop saxophonist from the Netherlands.
She began playing the soprano saxophone at age 6 but switched to alto at age seven. By the time she was 11 years old, she played her first solo with her father’s band at the time, De Perikels (The Perils).
She went on to start her own band called Funky Stuff when she was only 14 years old.
In 1990, she received a Grammy nomination for her very first album called Saxuality and since then has played with some big names such as Madonna, Pink Floyd, and Prince.
5. Sonny Rollins (1930-)
Sonny Rollins was given an alto saxophone when he was seven or eight years old. He started as a pianist, played the alto sax for a while, and then switched to tenor, playing in a high school band with Art Taylor, Kenny Drew, and Jackie McLean.
In 1948 he began playing professionally and made a name for himself in bebop. Rollins recorded with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk and made his famous album Saxophone Colossus in 1956.
As well as playing he was also known for his compositions, penning such classic jazz standards as Oleo, St. Thomas and Doxy.
In 2001 and 2006, he won Grammys, and in 2004 he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. He stopped playing in 2012.
6. Stan Getz (1927-1991)
Born in Philadelphia, Stan Getz learned to play several musical instruments at a young age. His father gave him a saxophone at age thirteen, and Getz began practicing eight hours a day.
At sixteen, he joined trombonist Jack Teagarden’s band, playing with Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton. In 1961 he recorded the album Focus, described as one of the great masterpieces of twentieth-century jazz.
In 1972 he recorded a jazz fusion album, Captain Marvel, and later won several Grammys, one for The Girl From Ipanema in 1964.
Getz taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in the mid-1980s. He died in 1991 of cancer.
7. Lester Young (1909-1959)
Lester Willis “Pres” Young was an American tenor jazz saxophonist who also dabbled in the clarinet. He was born in Mississippi into a very musical family – his father was a teacher and bandleader, and his brother Leonidas Raymond became a well-known drummer.
They moved to New Orleans, where Lester began working at age five shining shoes and selling newspapers to help the family survive. By ten years old, he had also picked up the trumpet, violin, and drums and joined the Young Family Band.
He permanently left the band at 18 years old after refusing a tour of the Southern United States on account of the state of racial segregation in that area at the time. He began playing with Art Bronson’s Bostonians and eventually found his way into Count Basie’s band between 1933 and 1940.
After leaving the Basie Band, Lester led many small groups, partnered with greats such as Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, returned to Basie’s band for 10 months, and served in the Army during World War II.
Lester was notorious for using a plastic saxophone reed from time to time in an attempt to create a unique sound.
8. Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)
Next, we have composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman who was one of the founders of free jazz. Some of his first performances were playing in a high school band from which he was dismissed for improvising.
Coleman eventually abandoned bebop in favor of avant-garde jazz and switched to alto saxophone in 1949.
In 1959 his seminal album The Shape of Jazz to Come was released to critical acclaim. In 1960 he released Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation which was met with much controversy.
Coleman continued to play well into the 2000s winning a Pulitzer Prize for his album Sound Grammar. He died of cardiac arrest in 2015 aged 85.
9. Wayne Shorter (1933-)
Born in 1933, Wayne Shorter started on clarinet but switched to tenor sax before studying at New York University in 1952.
He played saxophone in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet after playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for four years. He stayed with Miles Davis until 1970 and became a prolific composer.
In 1968 he started playing the soprano sax and formed the well known jazz fusion band Weather Report in 1970, only leaving in 1985.
In 2016 he toured with Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock in a supergroup called Mega Nova. Shorter stopped playing in 2021 after winning multiple Grammys through his long career and is a much-revered jazz artist to this day.
10. Grover Washington, Jr. (1943-1999)
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Grover Washington, Jr. is thought of as one of the creators of the smooth and soul-jazz genre, along with George Benson and Wes Montgomery.
He began playing with his first group called the Four Clefs in Ohio before being drafted into the Army. In the Army, he met drummer Billy Cobham, who introduced him to some New York City musicians.
The height of Grover’s career was in the 1970s and 1980s when he wrote a lot of his own music, which became some of America’s most memorable smooth jazz pieces. His hits include “Mister Magic,” “Inner City Blues,” and “The Best is Yet to Come.”
Grover also participated in some notable duets, such as “Just the Two of Us” with Bill Withers and “The Best is Yet to Come” with Patti LaBelle.
He is also well known for his 1996 hit “Soulful Strut,” just three years before his death of a massive heart attack at just 56th years old. He collapsed just before performing on The Saturday Early Show.
11. Cannonball Adderley (1928-1975)
Born in Tampa, Florida, Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley was a famous American hard bop alto saxophonist. He began playing saxophone at a very young age along with his trumpet playing brother Nat.
His nickname “Cannonball” originated as “Cannibal,” which his friends called him when he was a teenager because of his massive appetite.
In 1955, he moved to New York City to try his hand at playing saxophone professionally. He formed the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, which later became the much more successful Cannonball Adderley Sextet.
In the 1960s, he began releasing albums in the emerging electric jazz genre. His quintet played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, a scene from which appears in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me.
In 1975, Cannonball passed away after a stroke caused by a cerebral hemorrhage.
12. Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)
Coleman Hawkins played jazz tenor saxophone and was a pioneer of the instrument in jazz. As a child, he played cell and piano and started on the sax at age nine.
He landed a gig with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1921 and later joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1924, where he became famous for his solos and unique sound.
In 1937 he performed with Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter in Paris, and in 1939, he recorded the jazz standard “Body and Soul”. In 1944 he led the first-ever bebop recording session with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Don Byas, Clyde Hart, and Oscar Pettiford.
His last recording was in 1967, and he died of liver disease in 1969.
13. Sidney Bechet (1897-1959)
Born in 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sidney Joseph Bechet was one of the earliest American jazz saxophonists playing his first gigs in the early 1910s
For the most part, Sydney taught himself to play instruments, as there were several lying around the house. He initially favored the clarinet, and at just six years old started playing with Victor at a family birthday party.
It was in 1919 during a London stop of a tour when he picked up the soprano saxophone and developed a unique style that began to set him apart in the music world. He played saxophone like he did everything else – unpredictably.
People described him as hard to work with, and while touring in Paris, he ended up in jail after accidentally shooting a woman when he was aiming for a fellow musician who insulted him. Nevertheless, Sydney accomplished many milestones throughout his career.
Most notably, he is agreed upon as the first significant jazz soloist in America, making his first recording months before famous trumpet player Louis Armstrong.
14. Paul Desmond (1924-1977)
Paul Desmond was a composer and jazz alto saxophonist, famous for writing the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s hit song “Take Five”.
He made his mark with his years of playing in the Brubeck Quartet until 1967 and was popular on the cool jazz scene.
He started playing clarinet at age twelve and began playing the sax in college. In 1976 he joined Brubeck for a tour, playing twenty-five shows in twenty-five nights around the U.S. He has a lengthy discography and served as bandleader at various times.
He died of lung cancer in 1977, playing his final concert with Dave Brubeck just three months prior.
15. Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996)
Gerry Mulligan is famous for being a leading jazz baritone saxophonist but was also a pianist, clarinetist, composer, and arranger. His songs “Five Brothers” and “Walkin Shoes” have become jazz standards.
Mulligan studied clarinet with Sammy Correnti and played the sax in local dance bands as a teenager. In 1951 he recorded Mulligan Plays Mulligan, the first album recorded under his own name. He played at sold-out performances with Chet Baker at the Haig in 1952.
Mulligan also appeared with Dave Brubeck in 1973 and worked with him on and off until he died in 1996 due to complications following knee surgery.
16. Melissa Aldana
Currently, only in her early 30s, Melissa Aldana is a modern tenor saxophone player from Santiago, Chile. She is the daughter of professional saxophonist Marcos Aldana, who began teaching Melissa to play the saxophone at the age of six.
She began with the alto saxophonist and was inspired by Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Michael Brecher. But, it was hearing the work of Sonny Rollins that inspired her to begin playing the tenor saxophone.
Melissa currently resides in Manhattan, but she maintains her strong Chilean roots. She formed the Melissa Aldana & Cash Trio in 2012, the Melissa Aldana Quartet in 2017, and finds frequent opportunities to solo.
She was awarded the Altazor National Arts Award in Chile and the Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, and she often performs at famous jazz festivals around the world.
17. Ben Webster
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Benjamin Francis Webster was a famous American jazz tenor saxophone player.
He learned saxophone from Budd Johnson, played with Lester Young in his Young Family Band, partnered with famous jazz singer and bandleader Blanche Calloway, and joined the Bennie Moten Orchestra with Count Basie. He accomplished all this by his early 30s.
In his later career, he continued recording with jazz greats and became a soloist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He left the orchestra in 1943 following an incident during which it is rumored that he cut up one of Ellington’s suits.
After recording many hits with other jazz artists, he moved to Europe and played in London, Scandinavia, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. During this period, a street was named after him in Copenhagen.
He made up and reunited with Duke Ellington in 1971, just two years before passing away from a cerebral bleed after a performance back in Amsterdam.
Surprisingly, he only played one saxophone from 1938 on. It is currently on display at the Jazz Institute at Rutgers University, and there is an order straight from Ben that it shall never be played again.
18. Michael Brecker (1949-2007)
Michael Brecker is a multiple Grammy award-winning jazz composer and saxophonist who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music by Berklee in 2004. He started learning the clarinet at age six, encouraged by his jazz musician father.
After playing in a few jazz groups, Brecker moved to New York in 1969, where he made a name as a jazz soloist and played with Dreams, a jazz-rock band.
He played on almost nine hundred albums collaborating with artists such as Dire Straits, Aerosmith, Steely Dana and Parliament, Jaco Pastorius, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton.
In 2004, Brecker was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and, in 2006, died from leukemia in Manhattan.
19. Amy Dickson (1982-)
Amy Dickson started learning piano at the age of two and saxophone at age six. She is an Australian classical saxophone player who made her concert debut at sixteen, playing the Concerto pour Saxophone Alto by Pierre Dubois.
She moved to London with a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music and became the first saxophonist to win a gold medal at the Royal Overseas League Competition. Dickson has arranged works by Philip Glass and John Tavener for saxophone and commissioned new works from Ross Edwards, Huw Watkins, and Steve Martland.
She released eight albums between 2008 and 2019 and now lives in London.
20. Art Pepper (1925-1982)
Art Pepper played the clarinet and tenor and alto saxophone in West Coast jazz. He began playing the alto sax at the age of thirteen. At seventeen, he played professionally and joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, becoming recognized as one of the leading jazz saxophonists in the 1950s.
Pepper is known for the beauty of his melodic playing style and sensitive, gentle notes. He was recognized as second only to Charlie Parker as an alto jazz saxophonist in a 1952 poll.
He died of a stroke in 1982, but his wife continued to put out his previously unheard material after his death.
21. Arno Bornkamp (1959-)
Arno Bornkamp is a classical saxophonist who was born in Amstersdam in Holland. He is a professor of the Conservatory of Amersterdam and has won many awards for his music.
Bornkamp has been a part of the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet, in which he plays the tenor sax. He has been recorded on twelve albums between 1989 and 2008. He studied with Daniel Defayette in France and Ryo Noda in Japan and has worked with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio.
He made his solo debut in Rome, performing Concertina da Camera by Jacques Ibert, and has played in hundreds of concerts worldwide.
22. Johnny Hodges (1907-1970)
Johnny Hodges played alto sax in Duke Ellington’s band, where he made a name for himself with his solos. He grew up with saxophonists Charlie Holmes, Harry Carney, and Howard E Johnson, learning first to play piano and drums.
In his teens, he took up the soprano sax and earned himself the nickname Rabbit. He joined Duke Ellington in New York in 1928 after making a name for himself in the Boston area.
He wrote tunes for orchestra members such as “Jeep’s Blues” and “Sultry Sunset” and his smooth style of playing can be heard on “Magenta Haze”, Flirtibird, and “Blood Count”.
Hodges died of a heart attack in 1970 during a visit to the dentist.
23. Phil Woods (1931-2015)
Phil Woods was a jazz saxophonist revered for his technique and clean, bright sound. Woods studied music at the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard. He had to study clarinet at Julliard because there was no major course on the sax back then.
In the 1950s, he played with his own bands before accompanying Dizzy Gillespie on a world tour. In 1968 he moved to France and led the jazz group European Rhythm Machine but returned to the U.S. in 1979.
He also played for artists such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. He won two Grammy awards and died of emphysema in 2015.
24. Sonny Stitt (1924-1982)
Sonny Stitt played bebop jazz on alto and tenor saxophone. His musical family gave him up for adoption in 1924.
Stitt met Charlie Parker in 1943 after playing in Tiny Bradshaw’s, Billy Eckstine’s, and Dizzy Gillespie’s big bands when Parker observed that Stitt sounded just like him. He recorded on many albums between 1949 and 1988 as a bandleader.
Sonny Stitt died of cancer in 1982 in Washington D.C.
25. Lee Konitz (1927-2020)
Lee Konitz was an alto saxophonist and composer who performed in a wide variety of jazz styles. He was known for his improvised melodies and odd note accents and influenced Art Pepper and Paul Desmond.
He started playing clarinet at age 11 and received training in classical music from Lou Honig. However, he soon switched to tenor sax and later moved on to alto. Konitz played with the likes of Claude Thornhill, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis and eventually became a bandleader.
In 1967 he recorded the Lee Konitz Duets and in 1981 performed at the Woodstock Jazz Festival. He continued to play up until two years before his death of pneumonia due to COVID-19 in 2020.
26. Benny Carter (1907-2003)
Benny Carter pioneered the alto saxophone with Johnny Hodges and was an arranger, composer, trumpeter, and clarinetist. In his twenties, he was an arranger for Fletcher Henderson and was first recorded in 1927 as a member of the Paradise Ten.
He was considered a leading alto saxophonist in the 1930s and also a leading trumpet soloist. Carter traveled to England, France, and Scandinavia, where he recorded music with local players before returning to the U.S. in 1938. He also taught music at Princeton University, which in 1974 awarded him an honorary doctorate.
He had an extraordinarily long career and died at the age of 95.
27. Illinois Jacquet (1922-2004)
Another legendary sax player, Illinois Jacquet played the alto saxophone as a child in his father’s band. At age fifteen, he started playing with a Houston dance band, the Milton Larkin Orchestra and became a skilled melodic jazz improviser on the tenor sax.
His sax solo on “Flying Home” is recognized as the first in R & B, and the song became a major hit. In 1943 he joined Cab Calloway’s orchestra, and in 1944 he appeared in the short film Jammin the Blues. In 1993 Jacquet played C-Jam Blues during Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball.
Jacquet died of a heart attack in 2004.
28. Marcel Mule (1901-2001)
Marcel Mule was born in France, where his father introduced him to the sax when he was eight. He became a teacher for six months before being called up for military service, and he played in a military band in 1921.
In 1923 his career took off when he became a saxophone soloist in the Garde Republicaines band after his military service. He played classical music but also became a composer and taught saxophone to more than three hundred students.
Mule toured the U.S. in 1958 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was hailed as “the Rubenstein of the saxophone”. He is recognized today as a modern master of classical saxophone and a virtuoso.
Marcel Mule died in his sleep at one hundred years of age.
29. Jess Gillam (1998-)
Jess Gillam is a British classical saxophonist whose debut album RISE reached number one in the U.K. Classical chart. In 2016 she became the first saxophonist ever to reach the final of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year contest.
She signed up with Decca Records in 2018 and released two albums. Gillam is a presenter on Radio 3 program, This Classical Life, and studied with saxophonist John Harle since age fifteen.
He also wrote two saxophone concertos for her and produced her first album, Time. Gillam studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and played in the Carnival Band, which promoted her to take up the saxophone.
30. John Harle (1956-)
John Harle was born in England and studied at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Paris to study with Daniel Deffayet. He was a member of Michael Nyman’s band and an orchestrator for Stanley Myers, the film composer, early in his career.
He began a career as a composer and saxophonist in the 1990s and composed the theme tune and music for the BBC’s television series Silent Witness. The BBC described him as the most recorded saxophonist in the world, and he was Paul McCartney’s artistic advisor for six years.
Harle has collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, and Elmer Bernstein and is a professor of saxophone at the Guildhall School of Music.
31. Eugene Rousseau (1932-)
Eugene Rousseau was born in Illinois in the U.S. and is a classical saxophonist who plays mainly alto and soprano sax. He studied with Marcel Mule in 1962 and then earned a doctorate at the University of Iowa. In 1969 together with Paul Brodie, he organized the first World Saxophone Congress in Chicago.
Rosseau has been a consultant to Yamaha on saxophone research since 1972 and was a teacher at Indiana University between 1964 to 2000. He is also an orchestral saxophonist who has recorded with the Budapest Strings, the Haydn Trio of Vienna, and the Winds of Indiana.
32. Jackie McClean (1931-2006)
Jackie McClean was a jazz alto saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. In his childhood, he was tutored informally by Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell, who were neighbors. When he was twenty, he played on Miles Davis’ Dig album and also recorded with Gene Ammons, George Wallington, and Charles Mingus as a young man.
He was known for his piercing bitter-sweet sax tone that had a strong blues foundation. Later in his career, he established the African American Music Department at the University of Hartford and its Bachelor of Music in jazz studies.
He died in 2006 after a long illness after recording on many albums and was elected to the DownBeat Hall of Fame that same year.
33. Vi Redd (1928-)
Still alive today at age 92, Vi Redd is one of the earliest well-known female saxophone players. Her primary genre is the blues, and she has played with greats such as Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.
She was born in Los Angeles, California and learned the art of music from her father and her great aunt, vocalist, musician, and teacher Alma Hightower.
She toured with Earl Hines in 1964, and then co-led a jazz group in San Francisco with her husband, drummer Richie Goldber group in San Francisco. After touring with Max Roach in Japan, London, Sweden, Spain, and Paris, she landed back in Los Angeles.
She has earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Jazz Society and the Mary Lou Wiliams Women in Jazz Award from the Kennedy Center.
34. Jane Ira Bloom
And last, but by no means least, Jane Ira Bloom is an American jazz soprano saxophone player and composer.
She was born in Boston, Massachusetts and began playing the piano and drums first picking up the alto saxophone at nine years old and then switched to the soprano and never looked back.
Jane was the first-ever musician commissioned by the NASA Art Program after composing three original pieces. They even named the asteroid 6083 Janeirabloom after her.
She was also awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, the Chamber Music New Jazz Works award, and the Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound for her 2017 album Early Americans. She currently teaches at New York City’s The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
Summing up the Greatest Saxophone Players
It is hard to say if Adolphe Sax envisioned his creation becoming such a major influence in the music of the world when he invented it back in the 1800s.
From the dawn of jazz through modern soul and the Latin influence of artists like Melissa Aldana, these famous saxophonists have carried on the legacy of Adolphe Sax, created legacies of their own, and sustained the saxophone as a key member of the world’s musical family.