If you’re interested in jazz saxophones you should have a look at our reviews of Yamaha saxophones, which we discussed in another article. There are three people that can be considered the best jazz saxophonists of all time: Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. They all influenced the world of jazz, and that’s why they can be considered legends.
We decided to do a top five countdown of the people considered the best saxophonists of all time, and although the first three positions were clear, the forth and the fifth ones were heavily disputed.
On the fifth spot on your list, we could have had anyone from Wayne Shorter to Stan Getz, or Coleman Hawkins, but we decided to give this spot to Cannonball Adderley. He was a jazz alto saxophonist that was part of the hard bop period between the ‘50s and the ‘60s.
Born in Tampa, Florida in 1928, he was nicknamed cannibal by his classmates because of how much he was eating. He proceeded to move to Tallahassee where he played with Ray Charles and his own brother, Nat during the early 1940s. After he finished his music studies he moved again to Broward Country, Florida, where he became the band director of the local high school.
There he was considered a local legend for how good of a player he was, but he eventually moved again, this time to New York in order to study at the conservatory there. He brought his saxophone with him and one night he performed at Cafe Bohemia.
He got to do that out of luck because the saxophonist that should have been performing there was late that night, and he took advantage of the occasion, impressing everyone with his skills. That’s how he got started and went on to form a band with his brother Nat.
Miles Davis saw how good he was, and liked his blues-rooted style, and that’s why he joined Davis’ band in 1957. In his successful career, he even made some time to help the younger generations, narrating the Child’s Introduction to Jazz in 1961.
Nicknamed Pres, Lester Young was born in 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi. He got his fame while playing with Count Basie’s orchestra, and he is considered one of the most influential saxophonists.
He had a certain style, and unlike his peers, he didn’t play so stiff, but he rather preferred to approach the instrument in a relaxed manner. He had a free and cool tone, and he used harmonies that were considered sophisticated at the time. His playing style was pleasant for both the ears of critics and for those that wanted to dance and have some fun too.
Young wasn’t the flamboyant player like many others, but he was rather introvert, and that brought him attention too. He was known for his hip and he helped popularize the hip jargon at that time, a style that was associated with the music he played.
He had a long and fulfilling career, and that may have been due to the fact that he grew up in a family of musicians. His father was a teacher and a musician, several family members performed professionally, and one of his sisters was a drummer.
His youth was a difficult one, as he had to work from the age of five to help his family make some additional money, and despite that, he still managed to learn several instruments by the age of 10. He was a prodigy that was touring the region with his family.
That experience helped him greatly later on in life when he played with the Count Basie orchestra. Alongside the saxophone, he also liked playing the clarinet and he also has some professional recording of him playing that instrument.
Walter Theodore Rollins was born in 1930 in New York City, and since then he has been playing jazz like no other. Thanks to his career that lasted for seven decades he has been considered one of the most influential jazz musicians and saxophonists of all time.
In his long career, he managed to record more than sixty albums, all as a leader of a band. Some of these albums and songs have become a standard in jazz and many beginners aspire to learn them.
Sonny Rollins, who is still alive today, is seen by many as one of the best improvisers and is respected as a “saxophone colossus” by his peers. In his youth, he got a saxophone when he was just a boy and when he got to high school he already had a band that he formed with his friends and they were performing locally.
Rollins started playing professionally as soon as he finished high school in 1949. He had some rough years soon after, as in 1950 he was arrested for armed robbery and then again in 1952 for use of heroin.
After going through rehabilitation, he played with the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955. He lost two of the band members the following year because of a car accident, and the music that he created in that period is some of the best he made.
He eventually got to tour the country and then the world, from Japan to Norway. He became a celebrity over the years, as he also performed solo. He got to the stage of his career where he didn’t play in small nightclubs but only in large concert halls. Due to health issues, he stopped performing in 2012.
Born in 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri, Charles Parker Jr (also known as Bird or Yardbird), was a famous American jazz saxophonist that also had many masterful compositions. During his career, he got the status of a highly influential soloist in the world of jazz, and he was one of the people to start the bebop movement.
Bebop is a type of jazz that can be seen as employing fast tempos, advanced harmonies and the use of virtuosic techniques. Parker was just the kind of musician to play like that, with fast hands and flair.
He influenced the world of saxophone music with his ideas about harmonics. He played fast passing chords, he added new variants of altered chords to the style, and he also made use of chord substitutions.
Parker was an all-around great player, and he was able to have a wide range in tone, from a clean and penetrating sound to a somber and sweet one. He was always capable of capturing his audience.
He was so popular that his nickname was even used as inspiration for some songs. That was how big of an icon he was, especially in the hipster culture. He was seen not only as a great musician and entertainer, but also as an artist that will do everything for music, and an intellectual at the same time.
Most people consider John Coltrane the best jazz saxophonist of all times, and those who don’t see him the best forget that he died at the age of 40. Unfortunately, the world missed on a lot of great music that this saxophonist could have offered in his elder years, but we still have some of his best work.
Born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926, he quickly got to play the instrument and became an influence in jazz soon after. He got to experience the bebop and hard bop styles early in his career and that is how he got to play with the use of modes and others, thus helping bring free jazz closer to people.
Coltrane was a genius that, unfortunately, suffered from the problems most inspired artists suffer from – he had problems with heroin and alcohol and that’s why some believe that was what brought his illness and eventual death too early.
He had a successful career in which he was the leader of the band for more than fifty recording sessions, and he also got to play alongside other famous musicians of his time, including Thelonious Monk, a great pianist and the trumpeter Miles Davis.
He might be known for the spirituality that he associated with his music in the latter stages of his career, and that certainly set him apart from other players of his time. For the influence that he had on jazz and spirituality, he received posthumous awards including the African Orthodox Church canonization and a Pulitzer Prize.