53 Best Saxophone Players, All Very Famous

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Dexter Gordon

If you know your bebop jazz history, you’re probably all too familiar with Dexter Gordon. His sound was undeniably as large as his tall stature and was perfectly complemented by a knack for being a great entertainer.

For those of you who love when jazz players insert musical quotes from other songs into the song they’re playing, you’ll love Dexter Gordon. This characteristic would come to be one of his musical signatures, leaving everyone in anticipation of what he might quote next.

Dexter Gordon

Sonny Rollins

If there’s one person who has made playing the saxophone a lifelong pursuit, it’s Sonny Rollins. After 84 years of performing professionally, Rollins finally hung up the phone in 2014.

During that impressively long career, Rollins has gone on record multiple times to state how important his practice routine and learning new material was to his personal approach. Where others would be content to rest on the laurels of their hard-earned legacy, Rollins continued to push the envelope.

Throughout the 1950s, Rollins worked with many of the biggest names in bebop jazz music. There’s no doubt that the influence of his contemporaries informed the direction of his playing throughout his life thereafter. 

Sonny Rollins

Illinois Jacquet

Are you familiar with the 1939 Benny Goodman jazz hit, Flying Home? If so, you’ll have heard a teenage Illinois Jacquet playing a solo that is still regarded as one of the best-recorded saxophone solos.

In fact, Jacquet’s solo would often be the highlight of the night during that specific period of Benny Goodman's performances. Some of his other highlights include playing with President Bill Clinton and earning the first residency for a musical artist at Harvard. 

Illinois Jacquet

Ben Webster

Duke Ellington is a name that just about everybody is familiar with, even if they aren’t well-versed in the jazz world. If there was to be somebody that was a nemesis to Ellington, it would be Ben Webster, who served as a member of Ellington’s band for a period of time. 

In the 1950s, after Webster left Ellington’s band, he worked alongside names like Johnny Hodges, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Herb Ellis. During the following decade, Webster found moderate success living and playing jazz in Europe. 

Ben Webster

Ike Quebec

Not every player has to be considered a boundary-pushing pioneer to be considered one of the greats. Such is the case with Ike Quebec, who made his name playing the tenor sax in the world of big band music.

Eventually, big band music fell out of popularity to other emerging styles of jazz, and with it, so too, did Ike Quebec’s career. Despite this, the work he did toward the end of his career with Grant Green and Jimmy Smith remains some of his outstanding examples.

Ike Quebec

Sahib Shihab

It isn’t a regular occurrence that a musician be equally virtuous and fluent on both the saxophone and the flute. Sahib Shihab, on the other hand, is an exception, which allowed him to work alongside some famous names during his long career.

Sahib Shihab was also a pioneer in the spiritual realm, setting an example for infusing Islamic influences into his playing. If you’re unfamiliar with Shihab’s playing, be sure to check out Coltrane’s 1957 self-titled album as well as Quincy Jones’s albums from 1959-1960.

Sahib Shihab

Wayne Shorter

2023 saw the unfortunate death of Wayne Shorter, signaling the definitive end of a very prestigious career. Shorter made a name for himself in the famous Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group, eventually rising to hold a role as its primary composer.

While he worked alongside many of the greatest jazz players of all time, Wayne Shorter is perhaps best known for his role in the band, Weather Report. He’s also had a decorous career as a session musician, lending his skills to the likes of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. 

Wayne Shorter

Joshua Redman

There aren’t too many musicians who can say they had a cameo on the popular children’s show, Arthur. For the modern saxophone virtuoso, Joshua Redman, this is just one of many of his career highlights.

Joshua Redman’s career is the perfect meeting point for jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike who can appreciate tasteful saxophone playing. He’s one of the few that have been able to collaborate with Pat Metheny, Umphrey’s McGee, and The Dave Matthews Band, among an impressive list of others. 

Joshua Redman

Alto Reed

For a saxophone player, Alto Reed had one of the most creative names in the industry. However, there’s a good chance you aren’t immediately familiar with his work unless you’ve seen him on TV or taken the time to read album liner notes.

Do you remember the saxophone solos in Old Time Rock And Roll, and Turn The Page? If you’ve spent any time at all listening to Bob Seger’s biggest hits, you’ve heard Alto Reed’s playing, maybe without even knowing.

Alto Reed

Albert Ayler

John Coltrane wasn’t the only saxophonist pushing the boundaries of spirituality-influenced free jazz. While his name isn’t as prominent as Coltrane’s, Albert Ayler was a saxophone player who deserves his share of recognition.

Part of what makes Ayler one of the best saxophone players of all time is that his style is undeniably unique and almost indescribable. Unfortunately, Ayler’s career was cut short due to an early death at the age of 34, the cause of which could be either suicide or murder. 

Ayler is, by far, one of the only musicians on this list to have been discovered floating in the East River. 

Albert Ayler

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley is a name that everybody who is slightly interested in jazz makes a point to check out. His intriguing name is ubiquitous in the stories of some of the greatest jazz musicians.

If you’ve ever listened to Miles Davis’s biggest records from the end of the 1950s, you’ve heard Cannonball without even knowing it. He also managed to have a massive hit with the song, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, which ended up performing extremely well on Billboard charts at the time. 

Cannonball Adderley

James Moody

There’s no denying that the bebop stylings of Dizzy Gillespie contain some of jazz’s greatest recorded moments. Dizzy’s career was littered with some legendary lineups, some of which included saxophonist, James Moody.

Moody actually worked with Dizzy in both the late 1940s as well as the 1960s and appears on many Dizzy records from that era. As a leader, Moody has an impressive catalog, with his work during the Blue Note and Prestige Records eras being his most notable. 

James Moody

Jim Pepper

If there’s one thing you may have ascertained by now, it’s that jazz music often embraces the sonic influence of different cultures. Jim Pepper is notorious for the fact that he's one of the few Native Americans to include the sounds of his heritage in his approach.

Of course, Pepper made his name legendary working alongside jazz guitarist, Larry Coryell in The Free Spirits. This particular group is credited with creating the fusion jazz movement that would become so prominent in the 1970s.

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Jim Pepper

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