40 Best Jazz Saxophone Players Of All Time (+Videos)

best jazz saxophone players alto tenor soprano baritone bari

You can’t have jazz without thinking about the saxophone. 

The two have been intertwined since the advent of the genre. 

As such, there are no shortage of amazing saxophonists who have popped up over the years. 

Adolphe Sax would be proud of how popular his instruments are! 

But if you want the best jazz saxophone players for each type of sax for all time, you’ll need to look for a pre-compiled list. 

Oh wait! That’s what I already did here! 

Look ahead after this list for details and videos of each jazz soloist. 

  1. Charlie Parker
  2. Sonny Stitt
  3. Julian Cannonball Adderley
  4. Johhny Hodges
  5. Jackie McClean
  6. Benny Carter
  7. Lee Konitz
  8. Phil Woods
  9. Paul Desmond
  10. Ornette Coleman
  11. John Coltrane
  12. Sonny Rollins
  13. Lester Young
  14. Stan Getz
  15. Dexter Gordon
  16. Ben Webster
  17. Coleman Hawkins
  18. Illinois Jacquet
  19. Gene Ammons
  20. Hank Mobley
  21. Sidney Bechet
  22. Lucky Thompson
  23. Steve Lacy
  24. Zoot Sims
  25. Jerome Richardson
  26. Wayne Shorter
  27. Jane Ira Bloom
  28. Sonny Fortune
  29. Gerry Niewood
  30. Chris Potter
  31. Pepper Adams
  32. Ronnie Cuber
  33. Gerry Mulligan
  34. Harry Carney
  35. Cecil Payne
  36. Hamiet Bluiett
  37. Ronnie Ross
  38. Lauren Sevian
  39. Bob Gordon
  40. Gary Smulyan

10 Best Jazz Alto Saxophone Players

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker, also known as the bird or yardbird, was a killer alto and tenor player at the height of jazz. 

He was most active from 1937 to 1955. 

He was known for pushing the tempo and virtuosic playing of jazz solos at the time. 

Further Reading: The Best Jazz Saxophone Solos Throughout Time

Sonny Stitt

Sonny Stitt, the stage name of Edward Hammond Boatner Jr., played alto saxophone during the bebop and hard bop phases. 

His tone was notable for its warmth when the sax was still considered a more aggressive and brassy instrument. 

Julian Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball thrived during the hard bop phase of the 1950s and 1960s. 

He even won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. 

His nickname was a play on the word, cannibal. Supposedly, he had quite the appetite which spawned this nickname. 

Johhny Hodges

Cornelius Hodges (called Johnny by his friends and fans) played alto sax with Duke Ellington, a gig which made him famous. 

Interestingly, he did play the soprano sax at first but then refused to play it later on in his career. 

He had one of the longest active careers, stretching from 1927-1970. 

Jackie McClean

Jackie McClean didn’t get as much love in the jazz world as some of the others on our list, but he was influential as a performer, composer, and band leader. 

In fact, he’s one of the few people who was honored in the DownBeat Hall of Fame on the same year he died. 

His active years ran from 1951-2004, making him one of the people who helped bring jazz sax in to the modern era. 

Benny Carter

Benny Carter’s career ran from the 1920s until 1997,  a 70+ year career. 

Benny Carter was known for his love and grasp of instrumental jazz. 

While he was best known as a sax player, he also played many other instrument, notably the trumpet and clarinet. 

Lee Konitz

Lee Konitz’s career stretched over many substyles of jazz, from hard bop to avant-garde jazz.

His composition skills were amazing, but his saxophone solo skills weren’t a slouch either. 

He passed away only recently in 2020.  

Phil Woods

Phillip Wells Woods played the alto sax and clarinet equally well. 

And he also ran a band well too! 

Woods was one of the most popular players of all time, earning the fan favorite award with DownBeat 30 times in his career. 

Paul Desmond

The Dave Brubek Quartet is legendary in the saxophone and jazz world. 

Paul Desmond played with this group on the alto and composed one of their biggest hits, Take Five

He was best associated with the cool jazz subgenre. 

Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman played the alto sax like an angel, but he was even better known for transforming the jazz scene. 

In the 1960s, he released an album called Free Jazz which became the name for the new jazz style after it came out. 

Not many people have a whole style named after their work! 

10 Best Jazz Tenor Saxophone Players

John Coltrane

Coltrane is perhaps the most celebrated and recognized jazz saxophone player of all time, let alone on the tenor saxophone, specifcially. 

His solo work on the track Giant Steps alone was enough to reshape the way musicians thought about jazz. 

This work is still studied intensely by amateur and professional musicians. 

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is one of the grandfathers of modern jazz. 

His tenor playing is legendary, as is his bandleader skills. 

As of this writing, Sonny is still alive, though much less active, at the young age of 92. 

Lester Young

Lester Young, or Prez, was one of the earliest jazz performers. 

Though, he didn’t play a long time, living only 49 years, is tenor playing helped set the stage for many tenor soloists later on. 

As with many sax players, he also played the alto, but he was best known for the tenor. 

Stan Getz

Taking direct inspiration from his idol, Lester Young, Stan Getz helped to affirm the tenor sax’s role as a sweet-sounding jazz instrument. 

His nickname was “The Sound” due to his iconic, warm sound. 

He also won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album. 

Dexter Gordon

Dxter Gordon was a contemporary of other great jazz musicians in the early bebop days. 

This includes Bud Powell, Dizzie Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. 

On top of playing the tenor saxophone, he also composed, led bands, and acted! 

Ben Webster

Ben Webster played with Duke Ellington’s famous orchestra, and he looked up to Johnny Hodges as his main influence. 

He built a lot of relationships with other jazz artists of the time who helped him to release some stellar albums. 

Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins, oddly known as Hawk or Bean on occasion, was really the performer who put the tenor saxophone on the jazz map. 

Before his playing, the tenor wasn’t thought of or used very much. 

He really changed the landscape for this instrument. 

Illinois Jacquet

Jean-Baptise Jacquet, called Illinois on stage, played a mean tenor saxophone. 

He is largely credited for keeping the saxophone in popular music genres as music evolved. 

His album, Flying Home, is considered the first R&B saxophone work. 

Gene Ammons

The Boss was the child of jazz and music. 

His father was a prominent piano of the boogie-woogie era. 

Gene Ammons brought Soul to the saxophone and jumped into the R&B trend as well. 

Hank Mobley

Henry Hank Mobley was lovingly called the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” 

With his band, The Jazz Messengers, Hank would bring the tenor saxophone to play across various subgenres, including hard bop and soul jazz. 

10 Best Jazz Soprano Saxophone Players

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet was there when jazz was born. 

He was among the very first soloist in jazz at all and switched between soprano saxophone and clarinet quite often. 

Some people point to Sidney as one of the key influences of all jazz solos to come. 

Lucky Thompson

Thomspon played both tenor and soprano saxophone quite often, and he did so while combining elements of swing and bebop. 

In an age where the tenor and alto saxes had risen to dominate the jazz world, Lucky brought it back. 

Though Coltrane also played the soprano and helped make it popular again, Thompson’s enthusiasm predates Coltrane’s. 

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy is one of the more modern soprano sax players in jazz, and he’s credited as a major influence in keeping the soprano relevant in today’s music world. 

Beginning life as a Dixieland musician, Lacy would go on to be known as a composer as well as a soloist. 

Zoot Sims

Zoot Sims doesn’t get as much public attention as some of his contemporaries, largely due to his shorter lifespan. 

But those who listen to him play can’t help but respect his musical skills. 

Early in his career, he played mostly tenor and alto saxophones, but later one, he picked up and became known as a stellar soprano sax performer. 

Jerome Richardson

This jazz soprano musician was know for his versatility on all sorts of instruments. 

While he’s featured on this list for his soprano skills, he could also be included for: 

  • Alto Sax
  • Tenor Sax
  • Bari Sax
  • Flute
  • Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Alto Flute
  • Piccolo

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter was one of the most performed soloists in jazz. 

He joined many great bands over the years including Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. 

He also cofounded Weather Report, a jazz fusion band. 

Jane Ira Bloom

You won’t notice many women on this list of jazz sax players. 

This is unfortunately due to the lack of opportunities give to women during the early days of jazz. 

Yes, female singers were around, but in the instrumental world at the time, it was definitely a man’s game. 

To compensate for his horrible lack of equity, I’m going to share extra about this amazing performer. 

Bloom loved music from an early age and tried different instruments until settling on the soprano sax as her main one. 

She earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music from Yale before moving to New York to found her own record company. 

Bloom was the first musician commissioned by NASA to produce music, with whom she composed and recorded three pieces to critical acclaim. 

She’s still active today as a professor and performer. 

Her recent album, Early Americans, received a Grammy Award in the Best Surround Sound category. 

Sonny Fortune

Sonnny never reached the fame of his colleagues but was well-respected in the saxophone community where he played all types of sax, including the soprano.

If you name a famous jazz musician of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, chances are, Sonny recorded with them at some point. 

Gerry Niewood

Gerry Niewood was a soprano sax and flute player who graduated from the prestigious Eastan School of Music. 

He often worked with the illustrious Chuck Mangione and was most active in the New York jazz scene. 

Chris Potter

Chris Potter is still active to this day and is best known now for his solo works on a variety of instruments, including the soprano sax. 

Though he started as a sideman in different jazz groups to other, more prominent musicians, he’s since risen to be known as both a solid ensemble performer and soloist. 

Potter has two Grammy award as of this writing. One for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. 

10 Best Jazz Baritone Saxophone (Bari Sax) Players

Pepper Adams

Pepper Adams showed the bari sax could be a featured instrument in jazz, not just n the background. 

During his active years, he wrote 42 pieces, lead the release of 18 albums, and played in 600 recording sessions. 

Ronnie Cuber

Ronnie Cuber plays many instruments, but the baritone sax is first choice. 

Besides his jazz work, he’s also performed in Latin, pop, rock, and blues styles. 

Gerry Mulligan

Though he didn’t live very long, Gerry Mulligan made a big impact on the music world. 

Jeru, as he was called, played several instruments, but the most notable were the bari sax and piano. 

Harry Carney

Harry was another one of the stellar musicians to come out of an association with Duke Ellington. 

As such, he was in the public eye a lot and did much to make the bari sax and respected instrument. 

Cecil Payne

Cecil Payne had a long and active career in jazz. He played many instruments but always found his way back to the baritone sax. 

On top of his own solo work, he also did a lot with Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Weston. 

Hamiet Bluiett

Another jazz legend, Hamiet is widely regarded as one of the most skilled bari sax ever to have lived. 

It wasn’t just his work with others that drew attention to him; it was his technical skill on the instrument. 

Ronnie Ross

When you think of jazz, you think of America. 

Jazz is considered one of the only purely American-born styles. 

But jazz found its way everywhere. 

Ronnie Ross was a killer bari player who came from Britain, proving that jazz was a worldwide phenomenon. 

Lauren Sevian

Sevian is a young bari sax soloist currently taking the world by storm. 

She started playing at the young age of 12, and it’s been pedal to the metal ever since. 

She’s currently active in New York, performing and releasing new music constantly. 

Her numerous awards include: 

  • 2019 Downbeat Critics Poll “rising star” baritone saxophone
  • 2019 Hothouse Jazz Awards winner baritone saxophonist of the year
  • 2018 LSAT 1st place in the Made in NY jazz competition
  • 2011 Grammy award winner with the Mingus Big Band
    for “Live at the Jazz Standard”
  • 2010 SESAC Jazz National Performance
    Activity award for “Blueprint”
  • 2009 Clube de Jazz station poll
    “new talent” nominee
  • 2008-2017 Downbeat Critics Poll nominee
    “Rising Star” Baritone Saxophone

Bob Gordon

Bob Gordon ruled the cool jazz world on his bari. 

He died in a car accident on the way to a gig at only 27 years old. 

Another saxophonist, Jack Montrose, said, “The union of Bob Gordon and the baritone saxophone must have been decreed in Heaven, for never have I viewed such rapport between the natural tendencies of a musical instrument and the mind of the man using it. I cannot imagine Bob Gordon using any other instrument.”

Gary Smulyan

Smulyan is an active bari sax player performing with one of the best-known jazz trios with Ray Drummond and Kenny Washington. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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