53 Best Saxophone Players, All Very Famous

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Pharaoh Sanders

Like Charlie Parker before him, John Coltrane completely revolutionized the way the saxophone would be played. If there was to be a spiritual predecessor to Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders would likely fit the grade.

Sanders’s playing is directly informed by his experience playing alongside Coltrane during his free jazz years. His career spanned nearly 58 years, with his final album (released in 2021) widely being regarded as a masterpiece. 

Pharaoh Sanders

Arthur Blythe

Jazz is a genre of music that openly welcomes the challenge of the status quo. While most of these challenges do not always please audiences initially, it is the result of this that has allowed the style of music to progress and evolve.

Arthur Blythe could very well be considered one of these saxophonists, who had a distinct style and regularly broke the rules regarding the types of instruments featured in his ensembles. He might be a “small fish” compared to most of the names mentioned here, but his work from the 1970s through the early 2000s has proved fundamental in forming jazz’s modern sonic landscape.

Arthur Blythe

Lee Konitz

Mention has already been made of Gerry Mulligan’s involvement with The Birth Of Cool sessions on the tenor sax. Lee Konitz was the man who held the alto saxophone role in this legendary lineup. 

Part of what makes Konitz so fascinating is that he developed his own unique style when everyone else was trying to be Charlie Parker. His subtly obtuse musical approach is what helped him stand out during the bebop era and beyond.

Lee Konitz

Benny Carter

One of the earliest saxophonists to gain recognition as a bona fide soloist is Benny Carter. In fact, he is also known equally as much for his skills on the trumpet as well as the alto sax.

From an early age, Carter displayed a natural tendency to compose pieces that gravitated toward a higher range of difficulty than what was being played at the time. Carter’s career would end up spanning nearly 70 years before finally retiring at the age of 90. 

Benny Carter

Lou Donaldson

Lou Donaldson is an alto saxophone player who made his come up in the early 1950s after working with Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. While he was initially influenced heavily by the stylings of Bird, he began to gradually shift his sound as time went on.

This is especially evident when you compare recordings from early in his career with that of his later years. Rather than displaying a constant flurry of notes, his approach became more heartfelt, and in a way, more authentic as well.

That’s certainly not to discredit his earlier works, as some of the sessions he’s been involved in are truly legendary. The album, Night At Birdland, is still critically acclaimed. 

Lou Donaldson

Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson is a product of a positive environment, especially when it comes to the music recommendations he was given as a child. This would eventually cause him to be inspired by the saxophone players that were at the height of their careers at the time.

As a result, Henderson would come to be a prominent name in the following generation. While starting out as a sort of Lester Young disciple, by the late 1960s, Henderson was helping to pioneer the funk-infused jazz that would become popular not long thereafter.

Joe Henderson

Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis is probably a name that you’re all too familiar with, especially considering that his brother, Wynton, is a trumpet virtuoso. It’s quite clear that the Marsalis brothers had extremely positive formative experiences.

Branford has had massive success in both the jazz world and rock-based genres. Some of the artists he’s worked with include The Police, Grateful Dead, as well as appearing in a Spike Lee joint. 

Branford Marsalis

Charles McPherson

Charles McPherson made a name for himself early in his career by regularly working with Charles Mingus. He would revisit this role fairly regularly over the course of 14 years.

In addition to this, McPherson made a strong debut as a band leader, recording 6 albums on the Prestige label. McPherson is still considered an active player today at the age of 84, with his most recent album released in 2020.

Charles McPherson

Sonny Stitt

While many saxophone players during Charlie Parker’s meteoric rise attempted to emulate him, only one player came the closest. In fact, Parker himself laughed and told Stitt that their playing styles were practically synonymous.

When he moved to the tenor sax, however, Stitt’s signature style started to make itself known. It's this style of playing that made his dynamic partnership with Gene Ammons so incredibly powerful.

Sonny Stitt

Eddie Vinson

Some nicknames are ambiguously obscure in their origins, but that isn’t the case with Eddie Vinson. All you need to do is look at one picture of him to immediately see that his clean-shaven head is the primary culprit here.

Eddie Vinson is primarily known for a few different things, one of which includes his alto sax skill. The other thing Vinson is known for is having an incredibly pure singing voice, which he utilized to moderate success.

Interestingly enough, Vinson also employed John Coltrane during Coltrane’s formative years. 

Eddie Vinson

Grover Washington, Jr.

There have been certain hit songs over the years that remain timelessly iconic, with a saxophone solo that only elevates its delivery. Grover Washington, Jr. has had his saxophone playing in more hit songs than practically every player in this article.  

One popular cool jazz track he’s featured on is the undeniably legendary song, Take Five, by Dave Brubeck. He also played the saxophone for the massive Bill Withers song, Just The Two Of Us.

Grover Washington, Jr. helped give rise to the smooth jazz movement that would eventually rise to popularity in the 1980s. 

Grover Washington, Jr.

Ernie Watts

If your personal music background is rooted more in the classic rock side of things, you’re probably familiar with Ernie Watts. Aside from being a touring member of The Rolling Stones, Watts has had an impressive career as a session musician.

Some of his best-known works include sessions done for Frank Zappa, Boz Scaggs, Paul McCartney, and Marvin Gaye. His work is also well-known in the jazz world and has a massive collection of studio albums recorded over nearly 50 years. 

Ernie Watts

Maceo Parker

The saxophone has always been a key ingredient to a funk band’s sound, and Maceo Parker is a legend in that respect. Parker instantly made a name for himself after joining James Brown’s legendary 1960s lineup.

Of course, this only opened doors for him, serving time with both Prince and Parliament-Funkadelic. His playing has also found its way onto tracks recorded by groups like De La Soul and Jane’s Addiction. 

Maceo Parker

Bleeding Gums Murphy

Ah, yes, Bleeding Gums Murphy…surely this has to be a joke, right? Well, if the animated and fictitious group, Gorillaz, could be considered one of the best pop groups, Bleeding Gums Murphy deserves a mention.

After all, can you really name another animated character (that isn’t Lisa Simpson) who is known primarily for playing the saxophone? Despite not appearing beyond the 6th season of The Simpsons, the memory of Bleeding Gums Murphy is still alive and well for anyone who has seen the show.

Bleeding Gums Murphy is known for being a direct influence on Lisa Simpson’s dedication to her saxophone. His story is parallel to many in the jazz world who rose to fame only to lose it to addiction. 

Dan Higgins, the person who played the saxophone behind the scenes, undoubtedly deserves his own mention. In addition to providing work for over 800 soundtracks, he's worked with some of the biggest names in music history, including Selena, John Mayer, Kenny Rogers, and Aerosmith. 

Bleeding Gums Murphy

Top Jazz Saxophone Players, Final Thoughts

You’re not wrong if you think that this list of best saxophone players is exceptionally lengthy. However, the beauty of this particular instrument is that all of these people helped to shape how the saxophone is played today.

History has shown us that the saxophone isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In another 20 years, this list will have only grown with a new generation of saxophone players evolving its sound.

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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