The ten best jazz drummers of all time

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An integral part of jazz is the swing feel, and drummers are often the ones stoking that fire, helping to propel the song along with the other players involved. While the saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists and guitarists all get their fair share of attention, the importance of a great drummer can't be understated in the combo or big band setting. Although there are a number of outstanding players worth inclusion (Kenny Clarke, Brian Blade, Joey Baron, Joe Morello, Billy Cobham, Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe Jones), these are the ten best jazz drummers of all time.

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

10. BILLY HIGGINS
After playing on some of Ornette Coleman's early efforts in the late '50s, albums like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Something Else!!!, Billy Higgins, who was usually smiling behind the kit, played on dozens of excellent Blue Note hard-bop releases from first-rate players like Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean. He also shows what a great groove player he was on albums like Eddie Harris's mid-'60s releases, The In Sound and Mean Greens. Some of the final records made by Higgins, who passed away in 2001, were with Charles Lloyd, including Hyperion With Higgins and Which Way is East, both of which are highly recommend.

9. PAUL MOTIAN
There's something inherently beautiful about Paul Motian's drumming, which was unmistakable early on his career, especially on the late '50s and early '60s recordings he did with the Bill Evans Trio. There was that subtle lilt on some of the songs, which was quite the opposite of some of the heavy-handed drummers of the time. Motian, who passed away in 2011, was not only an inventive drummer and improviser, he was a remarkable composer, releasing a number of outstanding discs under his own name on ECM and Winter & Winter, including the gorgeous trio of records he did with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

8. JACK DEJOHNETTE
After playing with avant-garde players Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell in Chicago, Jack DeJohnette moved to New York in 1966 and joined Charles Lloyd's group, which also included pianist Keith Jarrett. While DeJohnette would spend decades lending his precise time-keeping skills to Jarrett's groups since 1971's Ruta and Daitya, he performed with Miles Davis during his electric period, including discs like Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and a Tribute to Jack Johnson. DeJohnette's ECM releases with Special Edition are highly recommended, as is Saudades, the 2006 Trio Beyond with John Scofield and Larry Goldings.

7. TONY WILLIAMS
At just seventeen years old, Tony Williams was part of Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet that also included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. While Williams was a genius on the ride cymbal, which is clear on many of the recordings Williams did with Davis's group throughout the '60s, his jazz-rock fusion work with the Tony Williams Lifetime, which he formed in 1969 with John McLaughlin and Larry Young, was heavy and primal, evidenced on great albums like Emergency!


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25 comments
661corp
661corp

It's hard to take seriously any best-of drummer list that doesn't include Billy Cobham.

retromomm
retromomm

Guy Viveros was an awesome drummer.  Buddy Rich mentioned him on the Johnny Carson show.

john.stark
john.stark

Jo Jones (Basie's drummer) and Philly Joe Jones are hard to overlook.

David Mortimore
David Mortimore

yeah, he hasn't been around for awhile now - but once you'd seen or heard him play, he was a one off. Saw him when I was a kid at Ronnie Scotts in London, then once in Denver in mid 80's.

Sita Levy
Sita Levy

my brother was a drummer!! he drove us crazy! everything was an instrument to be drummed on!! lol including my head!! hahaha

Sita Levy
Sita Levy

that's it!! I knew I recognized him!! I agree! I loved him

David Mortimore
David Mortimore

Sita, this is Buddy Rich, most exciting jazz drummer ever. He had his own big band, incredible solos.

Sita Levy
Sita Levy

David, what was this mans name in the photo? I remember him.

Steve Holmberg
Steve Holmberg

Johnny Vicodovich...a living NOLA jazz drumming legend.

Michael Howell
Michael Howell

Steve Gadd. He plays everything well, including jazz.

Roger Charles Hall
Roger Charles Hall

There are so many. Right off the top of my head Peter Erskine, Billy Cobham, Alex Acuna, . These kinds of lists are kind of silly really.

David Mortimore
David Mortimore

Rufus Jones, played with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington.

Ric Cabot Podmore
Ric Cabot Podmore

Even though he is mostly notable for his work on some of the biggest pop and rock records of all time, his massive resume includes work with many of the modern era's jazz greats including George Duke, George Benson, Bob James and Dave Koz. Like most who are not in the know, I encourage you to meet the most recorded drummer of all time, John JR Robinson. He is the first call session drummer in the world and has been for the last 25 years. www.johnjrrobinson.com.

bigD
bigD

Any list without Morello on it is automatically suspect...

Graham Marshall Mueller
Graham Marshall Mueller

philly joe jones, papa joe jones, louie bellson, sam woodyard... but if i only had 10, then the list is pretty accurate

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