10 Of The Greatest Jazz Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

if asked to name a jazz composer, lots of people might be able to name Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, but there are many more famous jazz composers who deserve recognition and admiration for their contribution to this amazing art form.

In this post, we’re going to look at the lives and music of 10 of the greatest jazz composers you should know.

1. Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

With a career that spanned more than fifty years, Duke Ellington is one of the most recognizable names in jazz history – and for good reason.

Born in 1899, Ellington created his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at the age of fifteen, which was inspired by his current job as a soda jerk. 

While he did receive a scholarship at seventeen to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington decided he’d rather perform ragtime professionally, and he put together a band that would later grow into a ten-piece ensemble that evolved into the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Throughout the 1930s, Ellington hit the road with his band, which included members like Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, and began appearing in film and radio. 

Ellington’s most famous jazz song would become“Take the A Train,” which was composed by Billy Strayhorn. 

However, most of Ellington’s most famous compositions that he wrote himself came from the 1940s – during this time, he created masterpieces like“Prelude to a Kiss” and“It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing” and would go on to receive nine Grammys while he was alive and three more after his death in 1974. 

2. Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

Known as one of the first creators of modern jazz and bebop and one of the greatest African-American composers, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk dropped out of high school to pursue his music career and ended up forming his own four-person group.

During the 1940s, Monk performed out of Harlem with his band and began experimenting with certain sounds that many people now associate with modern jazz but is more correctly known as hard bop.

He was also quite different during his performances and as the other musicians continued to play, Monk would stop, stand up, and dance before returning to his piano to play again.

As a composer, Monk would create several masterpieces that have continued to last the test of time, including “Blue Monk,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Round Midnight,” and “Well, You Needn’t,” which are all staples of the modern jazz repertoire.

His 1956 album, Brilliant Corners, is one of Monk’s most well-known masterpieces, and in 1964, he was one of the first four jazz musicians to ever make the cover of Time magazine.

3. Miles Davis 

Miles Davis by Tom Palumbo (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Born in 1926, Miles Davis would go on to become one of the jazz world’s greatest influences during the end of the Second World War and post-WWII era.

As a teenager, Davis had a talent for the trumpet and he worked to develop his musical abilities with a private teacher. 

Unlike a lot of the current trumpet players, such as Louis Armstrong, Davis’ teacher encouraged him to play without vibrato.

As a result, Miles Davis began developing his own style (which would later be called the “Miles Davis style“) and even started playing professionally while he was in high school. 

During the 1940s, Davis became a member of a nine-piece band, and began composing and releasing singles that would become part of the album, Birth of the Cool

Some of his most famous compositions include “So What”, “Donna Lee”, “Milestones”, “Four” and “All Blues”.

While he was coming into his own as a full-time jazz musician, he also developed a heroin addiction that made his performances inconsistent and haphazard.

Davis was able to overcome this addiction during 1954, and his final album of the decade, Kind of Blue, is still considered one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. 

Davis’ success would earn him the opportunity to be the first jazz musician featured on the cover of The Rolling Stones magazine and more best-selling albums like Bitches Brew

4. Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn

With more classical training than a lot of jazz musicians and composers around his time, pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn’s professional music career really took off once he met Duke Ellington and the two began working together.

In fact, it’s Billy Strayhorn who would compose“Take the A Train,” which would become one of Duke Ellington’s most famous performances and an instant classic. 

Strayhorn and Ellington would continue to work together throughout their entire careers, and the two musicians even composed“Queen’s Suite,” for Queen Elizabeth (who has the only pressing of it).

Given that he also composed favorites like“Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lotus Blossom,” it’s no surprise that Strayhorn earned the Esquire Silver Award for outstanding arranger in 1946. 

5. Thad Jones

Not only did Thad Jones teach himself how to play the trumpet but his career as a professional musician started fairly early at the age of sixteen.

He’s actually part of an elite trio of jazz musicians and composers  – the other two include his younger brother and famous jazz drummer, Elvin, and his older brother and pianist, Hank.

Even as a teenager, Jones was writing his own compositions but his career didn’t truly take off until he returned from serving in the army and joined Count Basie in 1954.

Jones would spend almost ten years here and freelance as an arranger, but he eventually started his own band with Mel Lewis in 1963.

With his own band, Jones’ success as an arranger and composer continued to flourish, and he crafted time-tested favorites like“A Child is Born,” and“Big Dipper.

6. Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus by Tom Marcello (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Born in 1922, Charles Mingus would not only go on to become one of the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century, but also a bandleader, composer, accomplished pianist, and virtuoso bass player.

As a teenager, he wrote his first piece,“Half-Mast Inhibition,” but it wouldn’t hit the stage for another twenty years. 

During his early career, Mingus worked with big names like Louis Armstrong, but during the 1950s, he began working with other influential composers and musicians like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and even Duke Ellington. 

While his primary instrument was the double bass, Mingus asserted himself as a leader of musicians – not only did he create his own publishing and recording company to protect his own music, but he also created the“Jazz Workshop,” which was designed to help new, young composers. 

Some of Mingus’ most famous compositions include “Revelations” and “The Black Saint and Sinner Lady” album.

7. Bill Evans 

Bill Evans

While he also studied flute and violin, pianist Bill Evans’ love affair with the piano began at the age of six.

After playing with several local bands, serving in the army, and even teaching at Southeastern Louisiana College, Evans came out with his first album, New Jazz Conceptions, in 1956.

He garnered a lot of praise for the album, which also contained the recording for one of his fan-favorite compositions,“Waltz for Debby.” 

In 1958, Miles Davis asked Evans to join his jazz group, and Evans worked with Davis and other big names for about a year and during this time, he also composed “Blue in Green” which was recorded on “Kind of Blue.”

Evans quickly gained a reputation as a musician who enjoyed jazz traditions and believed in the purity of a song’s structure. 

After playing with Davis and even forming his own jazz trio, Bill Evan’s next album, Conversations With Myself, won him several Grammys and an overseas tour.

Evans continued to create masterpieces and promote his singular vision of jazz and piano music until his death in 1980. 

8. Count Basie

Count Basie

As one of the all-the-time-greats, Count Basie not only helped shape a lot of the twentieth-century’s most popular sounds, but he was also the first African-American male recipient of a Grammy. 

While Basie played in a few different musical groups, he became an even bigger name on the jazz scene when he created the Barons of Rhythm.

Not long after, he’d also transition from Basie to Count Basie. This switch happened when a radio announcer decided to spice up his name, and“The Count” continued to stick. 

During the 1940s, the Count Basie Orchestra put out hit after hit of big-band sounds – including“One O’Clock Jump,” and one of Basie’s compositions, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” 

While Basie’s own music group was a major success, he continued to record with other big names, like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jackie Wilson, well into the 1960s and ‘70s.

This was also when he made history by winning his first Grammy award, and today, some of Count Basie’s work has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. 

9. Mary Lou Williams 

Mary Lou Williams

Not only would Mary Lou Williams go on to compose hundreds of hits over her career, but after teaching herself to play piano as a child, her professional music career would start at the age of fifteen when she played alongside Duke Ellington. 

By the late 1930s, Mary Lou had already become known as a composer, producer, and arranger within the jazz scene and in 1947, she even started her own radio show, Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop. 

During the 1950s, Mary Lou Williams embraced her faith, and many of her later jazz hits are tied to religion and the Catholic faith, including“Black Christ of the Andes,” and,“Music for Peace.

By the end of her career, Williams would direct the Duke Jazz Ensemble and even perform at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. 

10. Chick Corea

Known as a masterful and versatile pianist, Chick Corea experimented with several different sounds, including classical jazz, electric fusion, and post-bop.

Corea’s career really took off once he started recording and releasing solo albums during the 1960s, such as Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. In fact, the title-track on that album would even get inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. 

During 1969, he’d even do some work on Miles Davis’ critically-acclaimed album, Bitches Brew, and working with Davis would encourage Corea to create his own musical fusion group, Return to Forever.

Before his death in 2021, Corea’s music and experimentation with fusion would earn him twenty-three different Grammy awards. 

Summing up the Most Famous Jazz Composers

With so many amazing musicians and composers working over the last 100 years or so of jazz, it’s impossible to name all the greats and this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

But, we hope you’ve enjoyed reading and learning about the ones in our list that every jazz aficionado should know about.

These musicians created some of the most influential music in modern history and will forever be remembered for their contributions to the genre.

Jump on YouTube and explore some more of their music and let us know who we should add to this list next.

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.