The guitar may be the backbone of rock & roll, but the saxophone is a prominent instrument in a variety of popular genres, including jazz and blues. Its players have been some of the most talented in history, and their music will live for centuries to come. While there have been innumerable saxophonists over the last century or so, none have been as influential as those on this list. Their impact is profound, and their contribution has helped shape the instrument into what we know and love today. Here are just eight of the most famous saxophonists of all time, in no particular order.
Sidney Bechet wasn’t just a saxophonist–he played the clarinet and was a respected composer, too. He was one of the first solo jazz artists to record in the studio, and by the time he was 17 he had performed and played with some of the best most influential musicians in his hometown of New Orleans. Soon after discovering the soprano saxophone in a London shop in 1920, he made his first recordings and became known for his reedy soprano blowing, which had tons of vibrato and emotional intensity. The only saxophonist on this list to be born in the 1800s, he has the distinction of being the first significant saxophonist in the jazz music genre.
Known for his time with the Duke Ellington Orchestra that lasted from the mid-1930s to the late-1940s, he worked alongside the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fletcher Henderson throughout his career as a saxophone musician. Ben Webster was affectionately referred to as Brute and the Beautiful because he gave his music an exceptional touch of gentleness while his faster tempos were very physical, almost animal like. His bluesy tenor saxophone is one of the most identifiable in jazz, and is his style is studied by many young musicians today.
Charlie Parker is hailed by many as being the best jazz saxophonist (ever!) and with good reason. He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas into the genre, and even helped pioneer the inclusion of classical and Latin influences into jazz. Unfortunately, Charlie Parker was a troubled individual and suffered from addiction to alcohol and drugs. He only lived until he was 34 years old as a result of complications with his liver, which makes us wonder what more he could have done for the genre if he lived a much longer life. His sheer influence, talent, and contribution to the genre as a whole is even more impressive when you consider how young he was when he died.
Although he was born in Philadelphia, Stan Getz became one of the most popular tenor saxophonists of the West Coast cool school scene of the 50s. He began playing the saxophone at the age of 13, so he became highly skilled at the instrument at a very young age. He worked with some of the most well-known names in the industry, including Charlie Parker. Credited with pioneering the bossa nova style which is still popular today, Getz could also play bop and fusion, making him one of the more versatile saxophonists on this list. He’s also guested on plenty of pop records, and has hundreds of albums under his belt.
Grover Washington Jr.
Extremely popular in the 70s and 80s, Grover Washington Jr. is credited with having inspired greats such as Kenny G and Steve Cole. Another incredibly versatile musician on this list, he could also expertly play the alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones. Known for his work in the smooth jazz genre, he was also involved in hugely successful projects that had elements of jazz funk and soul jazz. A large mural of Washington sits just south of the intersection of Broad and Diamond streets in Philadelphia, so if you’re ever in the area be sure to check it out.
Michael Brecker, born and raised in Pennsylvania, grew up listening to jazz and rock. As a result, he never acknowledged musical boundaries and played sax in a variety of pop and rock sessions in the 70s, for everyone from Steely Dan to Art Garfunkel. He had an uncanny ability to move from progressive rock to jazz to pop and back again, and he quickly became the standard for modern sax playing, influencing the likes of Joshua Redman and Chris Potter. While he made records with a more straight jazz feel later in his life, he’ll always be known for his versatility.
Responsible for ushering in the free and Avant garde jazz movement, Ornette Coleman was born in Texas but spent most of his professional life in New York. An alto saxophonist and composer, he was one one of the most powerful innovators in the history of modern jazz music. Because of his influence, jazz musicians in the 50s and 60s didn’t feel like they had to stick with the rules of harmony and rhythm, which helped set American jazz apart from the rest of the world. Plus, the fact that Ornette Coleman played on a plastic alto saxophone before upgrading his instrument is living proof of why we hold our annual Upgrade Your Sound event.
Want to check out even more saxophone musicians? Check out Important Jazz Saxophone Players Through History.