Jazz music has been around for over a century, and it has taken many different forms since its inception. From traditional to swing, from bebop to cool, from free jazz to fusion and more, jazz has been a major influence in the music industry. Thanks to new talents such as Kamasi Washington, Sons Of Kemet and Nubya Garcia, jazz is back in fashion. But who are the best jazz musicians of all time? Let's take a look at the top 20 jazz musicians who have made an indelible mark on the genre. Chesney Henry Baker, also known as Chet Baker, was born in Oklahoma before moving with his family to California.
His chiseled good looks and seductive trumpet tone helped him become the poster boy for the West Coast “Cool School” scene of the early 50s. When Baker began singing on his records in 1953, in an androgynous and honeyed song, he substantially expanded his audience and even won an acting role in a Hollywood war film, Hell's Horizon. However, his career was checkered due to a long period of heroin addiction, and he died at the age of 58 after mysteriously falling out of the window of a hotel in the Netherlands. William “Count Basie” was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but first made his mark as part of the Kansas City jazz scene in the late 20s and early 30s. He formed his own orchestra, whose powerful horns, tight ensemble work and syncopated rhythms came to embody the sound and style of the swing era of big bands.
After World War II, when swing music went out of style, Basie disbanded his band for a while, only to restart his orchestra in 1952 and enjoy a revival with the help of albums such as April In Paris and Atomic Basie. Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, was born in Baltimore. Nicknamed “Lady Day”, she found solace in singing during her adolescence. Holiday recorded her first albums at the age of 18 in 1933, and by the end of her 40s she was a real jazz star recognized for the deep sensation she could invest in her performances. A combination of drug addiction and alcoholism conspired to lower the curtain early in Holiday's life; she died at 44 from cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite the brevity of her career, Holiday's influence on other singers has been profound. Keith Jarrett was a child prodigy from Allentown, Pennsylvania who began playing classical music before turning to jazz. After performing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' electric band in the 1960s, he established himself as a soloist. But it was on the independent German label ECM that Jarrett released his iconic 1975 album The Köln Concert, and his career really flourished. Jarrett has worked in many formats with duets, trios, quartets and even orchestras, but he is best known for his improvised solo piano recitals. Ornette Coleman was a revolutionary alto saxophonist from Texas who shook up the jazz world in 1959 when Atlantic Records released his third album The Shape Of Jazz To Come.
Bypassing conventional chord changes, Coleman's radical free jazz manifesto redefined the concepts of melody and harmony with his unfettered improvisations. Charles Mingus was a visionary bassist and composer whose career flourished in the 1950s. Originally part of the bebop scene, Mingus developed a very personal style that referred to the past of jazz while pushing music towards freedom and styles avant-garde. He recorded for a variety of labels during his 35-year career but arguably some of his best music was made in the late 50s on Atlantic Records. Charlie Parker, nicknamed “Bird”, was an alto saxophonist from Missouri who was the main architect behind bebop. Redefining jazz music as an art form with his co-pilot Dizzy Gillespie, Parker sparked a musical revolution that shaped jazz from the mid-40s to the 60s.
Although heroin addiction tragically ended Parker's life when he was 34, his influence can still be felt today. These revolutionary pioneers have left an indelible mark on jazz music that will never be forgotten. Their contributions have helped shape jazz into what it is today and will continue to inspire generations to come.