53 Best Saxophone Players, All Very Famous

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Coleman Hawkins

It might be a little hard to believe, but there was a time when the tenor saxophone wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. Coleman Hawkins changed all of that and, in turn, influenced a generation of jazz musicians that are widely considered the greatest of all time.

Hawkins is primarily known for playing the tenor sax specifically and essentially approached the instrument as a trumpet player would approach a solo. As you might guess, the tenor saxophone was never pigeonholed to play accompaniment after Hawkins.

Coleman Hawkins

Hank Mobley

If you’ve listened to any Blue Note records from the late-1950s until 1970, it’s probable that you’ve read Hank Mobley’s name in the liner notes. Mobley is, by far, one of the greatest saxophonists to emerge during the era of bebop.

Before he was even 20 years old, Mobley had worked with Dizzy Gillespie and played with Duke Ellington a few years later. Hank Mobley seemed to have the perfect blend of energetic and calm in his sound, while simultaneously displaying a true talent for crafting original compositions. 

Hank Mobley

Johnny Hodges

In today’s day and age, the big band era often gets a little overlooked compared to that of bebop. Despite this, there are, indeed, certain names that have gained recognition that has lasted the test of time.

Johnny Hodges was influenced by players like Sidney Bechet and made his name playing in Duke Ellington’s band in his early 20s. In turn, he would come to be a massive early influence on John Coltrane.

Johnny Hodges

Ornette Coleman

The later part of John Coltrane’s career is usually associated with his foray into the free jazz movement. Of course, any attempt Coltrane made was, at the very least, influenced by Ornette Coleman, who is credited as the player who planted its seed.

It’s no secret that Ornette Coleman and the free jazz movement were not met with the best reception initially. However, it’s also quite evident that he was a musical genius who knew all the “rules” of music theory, as the only way to break the “rules” is to first master them.

Ornette Coleman

Michael Brecker

Have you ever watched Saturday Night Live episodes from the 1980s? If so, you’ve probably seen Michael Brecker playing the tenor saxophone in the show’s house band.

Brecker’s playing has been quite influential, and his style made him one of the most in-demand musicians in history. His playing is featured on over 900 studio albums, playing for artists like Paul Simon, Parliament-Funkadelic, John Lennon, Steely Dan, and Todd Rundgren. 

Michael Brecker

Yusef Lateef

If you’ve ever taken the study of music seriously, you may have attempted to pick up Yusef Lateef’s book, Repository Of Scales And Melodic Patterns. Of course, one thing that becomes very clear is that Lateef obviously had a deep knowledge of even the most minute details of practical music theory.

This knowledge, along with a knack for infusing Middle Eastern sounds into his playing, is what made Lateef one of the greatest. His skill was not limited to the tenor sax either, playing the bassoon, oboe, and a number of folk instruments. 

Yusef Lateef

Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy is one of the most renowned names in all of jazz history and is known for his virtuous playing on numerous instruments, including the alto saxophone. While his skills gave him early local notoriety, it wouldn’t be until he was 30 years old that he gained a widespread reputation.

Eric Dolphy is especially noted for his works with both Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. His playing during Coltrane’s legendary 1961 Village Vanguard era remains some of the greatest saxophone work recorded to tape. 

Eric Dolphy

Gerry Mulligan

Sometimes, it pays off to drop out of school to dedicate one’s focus to a specific thing, especially if there is a real skill already developed. While not everyone has success with this path, it certainly worked out for the baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan. 

Mulligan is one of the key figures in the cool jazz movement, especially because of his involvement with Miles Davis’s legendary 1948 lineup. This would be the lineup featured on the widely-known album, The Birth Of Cool. 

Gerry Mulligan

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Being virtuous at the saxophone is the bare minimum to be considered a great player. But being able to play 2 instruments at the same time is something that only Rahsaan Roland Kirk could have done.

Not only was he a phenomenal musician, but he possessed a spirit that was both strong and resilient. Childhood blindness aside, Kirk lost mobility in one of his arms and modified his instruments so he could still play them. 

If that’s not considered tenacity, then the definition of the word itself is obsolete.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Gene Ammons

We hate to break it to you, but Bruce Springsteen was not the original musician to bear the name “The Boss”. Indeed, that title originally belonged to the tenor saxophonist, Gene Ammons.  

Despite having a career put on pause on different occasions due to imprisonment, Gene Ammons had a decorous career. His accessible playing style made him one of the most in-demand tenor sax players of his day. 

Gene Ammons

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

In the music world, nicknames are not earned without reason, though many questions surround the reasoning for Eddie Davis’s nickname. Either way, like Cannonball Adderley, Lockjaw’s moniker certainly adds another layer of memorability to his career.

If you’ve ever heard the combination of the tenor saxophone paired with a Hammond B3, you’re hearing Lockjaw’s influence. He is cited as being one of the pioneers who made that particular sound so popular during the late 1950s. 

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd is one of the few people still playing today that rubbed elbows with many of jazz’s greats during the 1960s. Not only was he influential in the jazz scene at the time, but he also spent time working with The Beach Boys during the 1970s.

Because of his history, Lloyd’s playing is modern while being influenced and informed by the experiences he’s gained over the years. The year 2022 saw a number of albums being released on Blue Note, which feature collaborations with Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, among others.  

Charles Lloyd

Sam Rivers

If you’ve ever listened to Miles Davis’s live album, Miles In Tokyo, you’ve gotten to experience Sam Rivers on the tenor saxophone. Rivers made his name with the free jazz movement, with a style that eventually caused him to be replaced in Miles Davis’s lineup by Wayne Shorter. 

Despite being a bit “out there” by straight-ahead jazz norms, Rivers had a talent for crafting improvisation filled with exposition. This was not limited to the tenor saxophone either, as he was fluent in a number of different instruments. 

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Sam Rivers

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