The ten best saxophonists of all time

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Anytime a discussion of jazz saxophone takes place, a handful of names invariably crop up, even from those only vaguely familiar with the form. And there's a good reason for that: While there have been innumerable saxophonists over the last century or so, none have been as influential as these players, whose impact was so profound that their shadow still darkens the path of the countless young cats who have followed in their wake. Keep reading for a rundown of the ten best saxophonists in jazz.

See also: Ten essential jazz albums for those who know squat about jazz

With his 1959 Atlantic debut, The Shape of Jazz to Come, alto player Ornette Coleman helped usher in free jazz and avant-garde jazz. Recording without piano helped liberate the songs of a recognizable chord structure and his harmolodics philosophy sought to to free musical compositions from any tonal center. Coleman also used somewhat inventive instrumentation, such as the double quartet (one quartet on each side of the stereo channel), on albums like Free Jazz. The 2006 live album Sound Grammar is among the 83-year-old saxophonist's better recent efforts.

Some folks thought Rahsaan Roland Kirk's playing multiple horns at once was a gimmick. Granted, the guy looked like a madman with all sorts of woodwinds strapped around him, with maybe a tenor sax or manzello and stritch (both obscure saxophones) in his mouth at the same time, but Kirk was a hell of an improviser, often harmonizing with himself. There's a live recording of Kirk playing "Sentimental Journey" on one horn and Dvorak's "New World Symphony" on the other, and Kirk said it's splitting the mind into two parts. "It's like making one part of your mind say, 'Ob-la-di' and make the other part of your mind say 'What does it mean'?" Not only was Kirk a damn fine saxophonist but his flute playing, while scatting, heavily influenced Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.

While Lester Young might have had a warm tone, Stan Getz's was even more relaxed and wispy, especially on the jazz-bossa nova albums he did with Brazilian pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer and guitarist Joao Gilberto, including the 1963 album Getz/Gilberto, which included "The Girl From Ipanema." Sure, Getz's tone was perfectly suited for bossa nova, but the tenor player could also work his around bop tunes. His playing is especially gorgeous and fluid on Focus, which included string arrangements by arranger Eddie Sauter.

Julian Adderley's nickname "Cannonball" was derived from "cannibal," which he was dubbed in high school because of his large appetite. But the alto player also had a voracious hunger for music, which showed in his inventive improvisations, especially on Miles Davis's watershed album Kind of Blue and Adderley's remarkable Blue Note release Somethin' Else. His 1961 album You Know What I Mean? with Bill Evans and live albums like Mercy, Mercy, Mercy are also commendable.

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Great list, but no Coleman Hawkins? (Or Sidney Bechet?)  Those two practically invented the Saxophone!  We're still following Coleman Hawkins, and not just in Jazz!  Still a great list... I agree that we really need a top 15 at least!  I'm so glad Ornette, Prez, Cannonball, Sonny and Wayne Shorter are all there- I was afraid Cannonball and Wayne might get overlooked (I have both in my top 8, and probably quite a bit higher...)!  And you can't argue with the top 2.  Bird and Trane... too bad they can't both be #1!  Bird invented modern jazz, and had more melody than any musician ever, could go wild or play it cool and sweet (as on Charlie Parker with strings)... and then listen to A Love Supreme and realize Coltrane created several albums in that style and on that level!  (Listen to the Villiage Vanguard recordings from 61 and Live from Birdland!)  Not to mention his other styles!  Even The Beatles made only one Abbey Road!  Anyway, that's what's so great about these comment sections... we get more!  (Thanks!)


Even Coltrane would say that Bird is the greatest--we've been playing Bird's music for 70 years. I'm old enough to have seen Bird in concert, and I've seen Coltrane-- Bird's charisma was astounding, he filled the concert hall with his person, and his astonishing music. Coltrane was a great great player -- he idolized Bird -- there's a photo of Coltrane in Dizzy's big band watching Bird, and Coltrane is totally stunned by his idol.

Phil Woods came up as a Bird clone -- without Bird there's no Phil Woods  -- a great player.

Then there's Sonny Stitt on tenor., Lee Konitz, James Moody, Jimmie Heath, Wardell Grey, Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley......

One more thing about Bird -- he reinvented Wagner's harmonic language. Bird is #1 by miles,


Agree on separating the type of sax -- then you would have an alto section, and then you would have the greatest alto player of all time, Phil Woods.  No single player of ANY instrument has been awarded more reader and critic Down Beat awards.  See him live -- I have a dozen times. Only Dexter was as nimble as a soloist.  


Again, I was prepared to have issues with this list as in the trumpet list, but you guys pretty much nailed it! However it's a little disingenuous to say 10 best saxophonists.  Because unlike the trumpet & piano there are 4 types of saxophones in jazz: soprano, alto, tenor & baritone with MAJOR contributors on each.  Missing are Sidney Bechet who is the Louis Armstrong to saxophone; Coleman Hawkins in the same category.  Where's Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter for alto and Harry Carney for baritone: without each of these guys, the rest of all saxophonists would have no idea how to approach the instrument.  And how about Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams for baritone?  Maybe you should've had 15 best saxophonists to get some of these guys in.

Pepper Varga
Pepper Varga

But you forgot Karl Denson and Angelo Moore.

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