34 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Saxophone Players Of All Time

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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The saxophone, an instrument combining elements of both brass and woodwind, has been a cornerstone in the world of music since its invention in 1846 by Adolphe Sax.

With its unique capabilities to mimic the human voice and its wide range of expressions, it has found a home in various genres. The true magic of the saxophone, however, lies not just in the instrument itself but in the hands of those who have mastered its art.

Thus in this article, let’s talk about the lives and works of 34 of the greatest and most famous saxophone players of all time, from pioneers to contemporary artists. Read on to learn more!

1. Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax

The first-ever saxophone player was the man who invented it — Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musical instrument maker in the 1800s.

The son of both mother and father instrument makers, Sax 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

Up next is the legendary composer and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. 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.

Coltrane 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 40, leaving behind a huge legacy.

3.Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker

Known as “Bird” or “Yardbird,” Charlie Parker was a trailblazer in the world of jazz, credited with the invention of bebop. He was born in 1920 in Kansas and took music lessons at public schools.

At the tender age of 11, he picked up the saxophone, and by the time he was 20, he was leading a revolution in modern jazz music. His nickname inspired some of his works, including “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology,” and “Bird of Paradise.”

Throughout his career, Parker 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

Jumping forward a few decades, we have up next the famous female saxophonist Candy Dulfer, daughter of well-known Dutch jazz tenor saxophonist Hans Duffer, who is a modern pop saxophonist from the Netherlands.

Candy began playing the soprano saxophone at age six 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, Candy received a Grammy nomination for her very first album called Saxuality. Since then, she has played with some big names such as Madonna, Pink Floyd, and Prince.

5. Sonny Rollins

At just seven or eight years old, Sonny Rollins was given an alto saxophone. 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, Rollins began playing professionally and made a name for himself in bebop. He recorded with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk and made his famous album Saxophone Colossus in 1956.

Rollins was just not known for his playing; he was also known for his compositions, penning such classic jazz standards as “Oleo,” “St. Thomas,” and “Doxy.”

His works earned him several Grammys, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2004. Due to respiratory issues, Rollins retired in 2012.

6. Stan Getz

Stan Getz

Born in Philadelphia, Stan Getz learned to play several musical instruments at a young age. His father gave him a saxophone at age 13, and Getz began practicing eight hours a day.

At 16, 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 20th-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

Lester Young

Though he also dabbled in the clarinet, Lester Willis “Pres” Young was best known as a tenor jazz saxophonist. 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, and by the time Lester was 10 years old, he had also picked up the trumpet, violin, and drums and joined the Young Family Band.

Lester permanently left the band at 18 years old and began playing with Art Bronson’s Bostonians. Between 1933 and 1940, he eventually found his way into Count Basie’s band.

After leaving the Basie Band, Lester led many small groups, partnering with greats such as Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. Interestingly, he was notorious for using a plastic saxophone reed from time to time in an attempt to create a unique sound.

8. Ornette Coleman

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. A year later, 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 at the age of 85.

9. Wayne Shorter

Born in1933, 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 Davis until 1970 and became a prolific composer.

In 1968, Shorter 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 throughout his long career. To this day, he is a much-revered jazz artist.

10. Grover Washington Jr.

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.

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” and “Inner City Blues.”

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 56 years old. He collapsed just before performing on The Saturday Early Show.

11. Cannonball Adderley

From Tampa, Florida, our next saxophonist is Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley. He began playing saxophone at a very young age along with his trumpet-playing brother Nat.

His nickname, “Cannonball,” originated from “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.

Sadly, in 1975, Cannonball passed away after a stroke caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 46 years old.

12. Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins

Known as the Father of the Tenor Saxophone, Coleman Hawkins was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1904. His musical journey began at the age of five when he started piano lessons, followed by cello, and finally saxophone.

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 1966, called Sirius. Sadly, Hawkins died of liver disease in 1969, and Sirius was later released in 1975.

13. Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet

Born in 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sidney Joseph Bechet was one of the earliest American jazz saxophonists. He played his first gigs in the early 1910s.

For the most part, Bechet taught himself to play instruments, as there were several lying around the house. He initially favored the clarinet, and at just six years old, he started playing with his older brother 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.

Though people described him as hard to work with, 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

Famed for his distinctive alto saxophone sound, Paul Desmond was a key figure in the cool jazz movement. His style of playing was fluid and airy, with very little vibrato, creating a smooth sound that became his signature.

He was also famous for writing Dave Brubeck Quartet’s hit song “Take Five.” Desmond made his mark with his years of playing in the Brubeck Quartet until 1967.

He then joined Brubeck for a tour, playing 25 shows in 25 nights around the US. Throughout his career, Desmond created a lengthy discography and served as band leader at various times.

Sadly, he passed away of lung cancer in 1977, after playing his final concert with Brubeck just three months prior.

15. Gerry Mulligan

Renowned for his baritone saxophone playing, Gerry Mulligan was an integral figure in the development of cool jazz during the 1950s. His sound was characterized by its mellowness and warmth, a stark contrast to the more aggressive styles prevalent in the era.

Not only was Mulligan 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. A year later, he played at sold-out performances with Chet Baker at the Haig.

Mulligan also appeared with Dave Brubeck in 1973 and worked with him on and off until he passed away 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.

Aldana 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 Aldana 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 before leaving in 1943.

After recording many hits with other jazz artists, Webster moved to Europe and played in London, Scandinavia, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. During this period, a street was named after him in Copenhagen.

Interestingly, 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

A towering figure in the world of jazz, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker was born in 1949. Initially learning the clarinet and alto saxophone, he eventually found his true voice in the tenor saxophone.

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 900 albums, collaborating with artists such as Dire Straits, Aerosmith, Steely Dana and Parliament, Jaco Pastorius, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton.

As a jazz composer and saxophonist, Brecker won multiple Grammy awards, as well as an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Berklee in 2004. That same year, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and, in 2006, died from leukemia in Manhattan.

19. Amy Dickson

At just the age of six, our next musician, Amy Dickson, started learning the saxophone. An Australian classical saxophone player, she made her concert debut at 16, 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. Between 2008 and 2019, she released eight albums and now lives in London.

20. Art Pepper

Up next is Art Pepper. This talented musician began playing the alto sax at the age of 13. He also played the clarinet and tenor saxophone in West Coast jazz.

By the time he was 17, Pepper was playing professionally, and he 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.

Sadly, he passed away from a stroke in 1982, but his wife continued to put out his previously unheard material after his death.

21. Arno Bornkamp

A virtuoso in the classical saxophone world, Arno Bornkamp hails from Amsterdam and was born in 1959. Known for his unique presence in both the saxophone realm and the broader classical music sphere, he has carved out a distinctive career over several decades.

He made his solo debut in Rome, performing Concertina da Camera by Jacques Ibert, and has played in hundreds of concerts worldwide.

He is also a member of a Saxophone Quartet based in Amsterdam, which specializes in music from Argentine culture, including Tango, Piazzolla, folk music, and more.

In addition to his performing career, Bornkamp is an esteemed educator. He serves as a professor at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and has given several master classes worldwide.

22. Johnny Hodges

Known for his soulful, expressive playing, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was a key figure in the world of jazz. Born in 1907, he was best known for his solo work with Duke Ellington’s big band.

He honed his saxophone skills locally before making the move to New York in 1927 to work with the Chick Webb Orchestra. The following year, he joined Duke Ellington, marking the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration.

Hodges 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.”

After spending 23 years with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, he took the bold step of starting his own band in March 1951. This venture lasted until September 1955.

23. Phil Woods

Jazz saxophonist Phil Woods was revered for his technique and clean, bright sound. He studied music at the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard. At first, he studied 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 US in 1979.

Over his career, Woods also played for artists such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan and won two Grammy awards. He passed away from emphysema in 2015.

24. Sonny Stitt

Renowned for his virtuosic technique and impressive improvisational skills, jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt was a defining figure in the bebop movement. Born in 1924, he is best known for his work on both the alto and tenor saxophone.

Stitt’s love for music began at a young age when he learned to play the piano. However, it wasn’t until he picked up the saxophone that he truly found his calling.

Moving to New York in 1943, he joined the Tiny Bradshaw band but quickly made a name for himself by joining Billy Eckstine’s big band, where he played alongside other jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Throughout his career, he recorded more than 100 albums and wrote many compositions, leaving behind an extensive body of work. He remained dedicated to his craft, performing right up until his death in 1982.

25. Lee Konitz

Up next is Lee Konitz, 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

Along with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter pioneered the alto saxophone and was an arranger, composer, trumpeter, and clarinetist. In his 20s, he was an arranger for Fletcher Henderson and was first recorded in 1927 as a member of the Paradise Ten.

Carter was considered a leading alto saxophonist in the 1930s and also a leading trumpet soloist. He traveled to England, France, and Scandinavia, where he recorded music with local players before returning to the US in 1938.

Music playing aside, Carter 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

Another legendary sax player, Illinois Jacquet played the alto saxophone as a child in his father’s band. At age 15, 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, he played “C-Jam Blues” during Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball. Jacquet died of a heart attack in 2004.

28. Marcel Mule

Classical saxophonist Marcel Mule was born in France, where his father introduced him to the sax when he was eight. He later became a teacher before being called up for military service, and he played in a military band in 1921.

After his military service, in 1923, his career took off when he became a saxophone soloist in the Garde Republicaines band. He played classical music but also became a composer and taught saxophone to more than 300 students.

Mule toured the US 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.

He retired in 1967. Living a very long and successful life, Mule passed away in 2001 in his sleep. He was 100 years old.

29. Jess Gillam

In the world of classical music, British saxophonist Jess Gillam has been making waves with her virtuosic performances and infectious energy.

Gillam’s journey began as a child in Cumbria, England, where she fell in love with the saxophone at the tender age of seven. It led her to become the first saxophonist to reach the final of the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016.

Two years later, she signed up with Decca Records in 2018 and released two albums. She also became a presenter on the Radio 3 program This Classical Life.

Despite her young age, Gillam has already achieved a great deal. Her debut album, RISE, released in 2019, reached #1 in the UK Classical Charts.

30. John Harle

Our next saxophonist, John Harle, is also from England. He 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. His work earned him a Best Television Soundtrack Ivor Novello Award.

Over his career, Harle has collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, and Elmer Bernstein. In 2017, he published his own book, The Saxophone: The Art and Science of Playing and Performing.

31. Eugene Rousseau

From the classrooms of Indiana University, where he taught from 1964 to 2000, Eugene Rousseau has shaped countless young musicians, inspiring them with his knowledge and love for the saxophone.

His impact as an educator extended beyond the university, influencing the global saxophone community. He co-founded the World Saxophone Congress in 1969, providing a platform for saxophonists worldwide to share their music and learn from each other.

His influence reached the industry when he served as a chief consultant to Yamaha Corporation for the research and development of saxophones. His insights and expertise played a crucial role in refining the design and sound quality of the instruments, making him an integral part of the evolution of the modern saxophone.

32. Jackie McLean

Up next is the jazz alto saxophonist, bandleader, and composer Jackie McLean. In his childhood, he was tutored informally by Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell, who were neighbors.

When he was 20, he played on Miles Davis’ Dig album and also recorded with Gene Ammons, George Wallington, and Charles Mingus. 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.

After recording on many albums, McLean passed away in 2006 after a long illness. That same year, he was elected to the DownBeat Hall of Fame.

33. Vi Redd

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, the vocalist, musician, and teacher Alma Hightower.

Redd toured with Earl Hines in 1964 and then co-led a jazz group in San Francisco with her husband, drummer Richie Goldber’s group in San Francisco. After touring with Max Roach in Japan, London, Sweden, Spain, and Paris, she landed back in Los Angeles.

Redd 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

A trailblazer in the world of jazz, Jane Ira Bloom is a gifted soprano saxophonist and composer hailing from America. Her journey into music began in Boston, Massachusetts, where she initially explored the realms of piano and drums.

However, it was the allure of the alto saxophone at the tender age of nine that truly captured her musical soul. Eventually, she transitioned to the soprano saxophone and has since then, become a master of this instrument.

Bloom holds the distinction of being the first musician ever to be commissioned by the NASA Art Program. This partnership resulted in three original pieces and an unusual honor — an asteroid named 6083 Janeirabloom in recognition of her contributions.

She has been graced with many awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, the Chamber Music New Jazz Works award, and a Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound for her 2017 album Early Americans.

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.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.