When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in 1841, he couldn’t possibly have imagined how popular the instrument would one day become. The guitar may be the main instrument in rock and roll, but the sax is regarded by many as being the backbone of jazz. Its players have been some of the most innovative and talented in history, and their music will live on for centuries to come. While there have been innumerable saxophonists throughout the years, none have been quite as influential as the players on this list. From Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, here are a few of the best jazz saxophonists in history.
Nicknamed “Hawk” and sometimes “Bean”, Coleman Randolph Hawkins was one of the first prominent tenor sax musicians in American history. Although other saxophonists had come first, Hawkins was the first to truly catch the eye of the public. With his full tone, flowing lines that never seemed to end, and heavy vibrato, he had one of the most recognizable voices in jazz. His professional career began in 1921 when he joined Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, and by 1924 he was the original lead tenor in the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. While he’s known primarily for his work in the swing and jazz genres, he also had a hand in the development of bebop. As a pioneer in multiple genres, Hawkins had an impact on jazz that only a few others could rival.
As one of the major ancestors of bebop, Charlie Parker is hailed by many as being the best jazz saxophonist (ever) and with good reason. He was an exceptionally fast virtuoso, introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas into jazz, and even helped pioneer the inclusion of classical and Latin influences into the genre. Although initially panned by jazz critics and musicians, his bop innovations eventually became a mainstay in jazz. His unique style of composition involved the interpolation of original melodies over existing jazz forms and standards. Known as contrafact, the practice is still quite common in present-day jazz music. His sheer influence, talent, and contribution to the genre as a whole are even more impressive when you take into account that he was only 34 years old when he died.
Regarded as one of the most prolific jazz artists in history, John Coltrane made some of the biggest contributions to the development of jazz. As one of the elite players of bebop, hard bop, and jazz, he was instrumental in the development of the use of different musical modes and was a frequent collaborator with Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker. With over fifty recording sessions under his belt, Coltrane influenced innumerable musicians and remains one of the most significant saxophonists in the history of music. Coltrane is living proof that practice makes perfect. It’s rumored that he practiced anywhere from ten to twelve hours a day, including after gigs and between sets. In honor of his musical contributions, he received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007 for supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.
While saxophonists of the 30s and 40s opted for a sharp and edgy tone, tenor saxophonist Lester Young preferred a warmer, more relaxed sound. Rather than attacking a song, his sax floated over the song with ease. Known for his hip, introverted style and for tilting his saxophone sideways in his mouth, Young invented much of the hipster jargon that’s come to be associated with the music. Born in 1909, Young came to prominence as a member of Count Basie’s orchestra and beautifully backed Billie Holiday on many notable recordings, including Fine and Mellow. With a soft, distinctive style, he was not only on of the most important swing era musicians, but Young helped define the sound of cool jazz several decades before the genre was invented.
Quite simply, Sonny Rollins is one of the greatest tenor saxophone players who ever lived. With a biting, clear tone that’s instantly recognizable, he’s played with some of jazz’s greatest talents throughout his lengthy career, including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. While his solos may not be as fast and note-heavy as some of his jazz contemporaries, he has the unique ability to rarely ever repeat himself when improvising, even during lengthy solos. With a focus on thematic improvisation, Rollins dissects melodic lines, elaborating and expanding on them until every direction has been explored. Throughout his career, Sonny Rollins has received nearly twenty decorations and awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 2010 and an Honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music in 2003.