It’s hard to argue against the notion that some of America’s greatest all-around artists were in fact jazz musicians. A genre with nearly unparalleled variety and exploration, great instrumentalists and vocalist continually pushed the musical envelope throughout their careers. In the entirety of the genre’s century-long history, these jazz musicians were fantastic innovators, powerhouse performers, and true experts in the craft of making great music.
- Louis Armstrong. Known affectionately as “Satchmo”, Armstrong’s gravelly vocals and powerful horn defined jazz for decades. It is said that, in early recordings, producers actually made Armstrong stand outside the recording room for trumpet solos. Otherwise, he blew too hard and loud for any of his band mates to be heard. Though he drew criticism from critics for being something of a “Jim Crow” on stage, Armstrong’s goofy antics and impressive talent endeared him to millions of jazz listeners.
- Duke Ellington. In the big band era of jazz, no composer was more talented or prolific than Duke Ellington. In his tenure at the top of the jazz scene, he penned literally thousands of compositions, all of which were put together intricately and with a touch of class. In addition to writing the music, Ellington also played it – leading his orchestra on the piano in live performances.
- Charlie Parker. This sax player, who pretty much forged the “bop” subgenre of jazz on his own, was known for technically astounding musical capabilities. Unfortunately, he was also known for being hopelessly addicted to heroin for much of his life. Though he passed away at the age of only 35, Parker’s legacy as a pioneer of experimental jazz remains strong and intact.
- Thelonious Monk. A truly weird guy, Monk approached piano playing much like a percussionist would approach a set of drums. He was known for hammering the keys with his fingers in a style that no jazz player before him had tried. Though his odd, heavily improvisational music is challenging to most listeners at first, it has developed a large and dedicated following among serious jazz fans and critics over the decades.
- Miles Davis. No list of jazz musicians is complete without the King of Cool. From his introduction to the jazz scene in the swing era, Davis’ sharp trumpet led the way for many of the most significant musical developments in the genre. From the pinnacle of cool jazz in the iconic album “Kind of Blue” to the introduction of electric free jazz in “Bitches Brew”, no other jazz musician was as open minded and innovative as Davis.