Nothing hits quite like a saxophone solo, no matter what style of music the instrument is accompanying. This woodwind instrument has a unique vocal quality with a massive range of expression beyond the playing of simple notes.
While the saxophone has gone through various eras of popularity, the instrument’s capabilities continue to be pushed to new boundaries. All of the following saxophone players are considered to be the best and are often studied by students of all instruments.
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John Coltrane is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most recognizable names to be associated with the saxophone. Many of his works, including Giant Steps, and My Favorite Things, continue to be challenging staples that all serious saxophone players learn.
A huge part of Coltrane’s success is the fact that he worked with so many iconic jazz legends in his formative years. Some of the names Coltrane worked with include Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, among others.
Coltrane is noted for being a pioneer, particularly where the free jazz movement is concerned. However, his experimentation was not always met with the best reception at the time.
John Coltrane is also one of the few musicians to actually become a bona fide saint in a church. Toward the end of his career, Coltrane began making conscious efforts to make his performances a spiritual fusing of soul and mind.
Without Sidney Bechet, you might as well assume that none of the names on this list would be as they are. Sidney Bechet had the fateful opportunity to be one of the first people to record a jazz solo on record.
What resulted from this is the fact that Sidney Bechet’s influence rubbed off on almost every name in this article. He was also a formative member in helping to pioneer the sound of swing jazz alongside Louis Armstrong.
Bechet’s style is certainly indicative of that New Orleans sound that we all know today. Even his recordings from nearly 100 years ago still serve as repositories all learning saxophone players should study.
If there was to be 1 name that would stand out as the most influential out of all the others mentioned in this list, it would be Charlie Parker. In some sense, Charlie Parker is the saxophone equivalent of what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar.
Charlie Parker’s virtuosic skill remains unparalleled even by today’s standards. However, it’s a safe bet that almost every serious saxophone player since Parker’s time has been directly influenced by his insanely fast and clean playing style.
His nickname “Bird” is just as ubiquitous, finding mention throughout pop culture history well outside the context of jazz. Many of his songs continue to be must-learn repertoire, including the track, Donna Lee.
Alongside Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker helped to pioneer the sound of bebop jazz. Though it was met with mixed reception at the time, it’s needless to say that its impact is still felt and heard to this day.
What’s even more insane is that Charlie Parker accomplished the notoriety of his legacy early in life. He passed away at the age of 34, with the wear and tear on his body due to certain habits taking its toll.
Clint Eastwood directed a film entitled, Bird, in 1988, which dramatizes the saxophonist’s life.
If you thought saxophone-led jazz music was a dying art, you’d better think again. Listening to Kamasi Washington will show you that the instrument, and the way that it’s played, is still evolving for modern times.
Kamasi Washington is the youngest player on this list, but he has the chops to go toe-to-toe with the best of them. What makes his approach unique is that he is influenced by both traditional jazz elements and free jazz, with some modern pop stylings sprinkled in for good measure.
Be sure to check out his version of Clair De Lune from his 2015 album, The Epic. You’re guaranteed to at least crack a smile.
Scott Hamilton is likely a name that you recognize, but this particular Scott is not known for his professional figure-skating skills. The saxophone player Scott Hamilton picked up the instrument at the spry age of 16, and just 10 years later began working with the famous Benny Goodman.
Scott Hamilton is primarily known for being a bandleader, with his career skyrocketing in popularity during the 1980s. With that being said, Hamilton does have a massive catalog of recordings, both as a bandleader and as a hired sideman.
His traditionalist approach to jazz has seemingly always been in demand, appearing on records by artists such as Duke Robillard, Gerry Mulligan, and Jimmy Bruno. Hamilton’s latest solo release came out in 2021, proving that he’s still quite active today.
Not all of the names on this list made their claim to fame in the jazz world. If you’ve ever spent time listening to Bruce Springsteen, you’re probably all too familiar with Clarence Clemons and his saxophone style.
Some of the songs you’ve heard Clarence play include Springsteen’s Spirit Of The Sky and Blinded By The Light, along with Jackson Browne’s You’re A Friend Of Mine. Interestingly enough, Clemons also had a career as an actor, appearing on various popular TV shows throughout the years.
How familiar are you with the hit song, The Girl From Ipanema? This Stan Getz song became an international hit in the mid-1960s, helping to cement the sound of bossa nova in the fabric of pop culture.
One of the biggest names to be associated with the tenor saxophone specifically is Stan Getz. At a young age, Getz was rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in jazz music, including Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, and Jimmy Dorsey.
Certain pop songs that feature the saxophone have become prominently known worldwide specifically for the saxophone sections. The iconic Gerry Rafferty song, Baker Street, is undeniably one of the most influential saxophone parts in all of pop music, featuring Raphael Ravenscroft on the instrument.
Funnily enough, Ravenscroft has gone on record to say that he isn’t a fan of his playing on the recording. While it’s imperceptible to the average ear, his saxophone was slightly out of tune.
Baker Street is a song that continues to have frequent play on radio stations across the world. Outside of this, you’ll also hear Ravenscroft on Pink Floyd’s album, The Final Cut.
Jimmy Heath has a story that runs parallel with so many of the biggest names of jazz during the 1940s. Early in his career, Heath’s playing was derivative of Charlie Parker’s stylings, which eventually prompted Heath to transition to tenor saxophone.
During the 1950s, Heath began experiencing the fallout consequences of having a heroin habit. However, he managed to tame the dragon and stay clean from 1959 until the end of his life in 2020.
Jimmy Heath’s catalog is certainly impressive, with a massive collection of recordings as a bandleader and sideman. Some of the biggest names he worked with include Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
Some musicians seem destined for greatness from an early age. Environmental factors almost ensured that Jackie McLean would become a big name considering some of the mentors he had at a young age.
When he was still in high school, McLean received lessons from Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. He even worked with Sonny Rollins while still in school and would go on to record with Miles Davis shortly thereafter.
You’ll hear Jackie McLean on records made by some of the most famous names in jazz music. This includes cuts by Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others.
Jazz is often associated with and depicted as being something extremely hip and cool. It’s also stereotyped as having a massive dictionary of slang terms that are commonly used amongst jazz musicians.
History accounts Lester Young and his influence as being a primary factor in jazz being portrayed in such a manner. Watching and listening to him play, you can immediately tell that he exudes a relaxed sense of cool in his note selection.
Lester made a name for himself alongside Count Basie, but would, unfortunately, experience a decline in his ability due to alcoholism.
Fred Ho is unlike many of the saxophone players listed in this article. While his playing fits into the “jazz” genre, his personal style is influenced by his Chinese heritage, which undoubtedly brought a new perspective to the genre.
Fred Ho might not be a household name, but his works spanning from the 1980s until the early 2010s are sure to suit any saxophone fan’s fancy. Outside of music, Ho was a social activist and also wrote a number of books informed by his personal battle with colon cancer.
As you’ve seen, many of the names mentioned in this article had the heyday of their career in the first half of the 20th century. Like any instrument, the generation that followed was greatly influenced by these greats, with Joe Lovano being an excellent example.
Joe Lovano is considered to be in today’s upper echelon of jazz saxophonists, especially when taking into account his frequent collaborators. The legendary jazz guitar players Bill Frissel and John Scofield are just a couple of names you probably recognize.