The 20th Century’s Greatest Jazz Musicians
Originally published on RubinSpannJr.com
Jazz music was first born in New Orleans, Louisiana during the late 19th century, and has since become America’s own form of classical music; one that has shaped nearly every genre of music we listen to today.
With so much innovation being fostered throughout its earliest stages, the opportunity for musical legends to manifest was immense. Below are just a few of the many iconic jazz musicians that have shared their talents with the world.
Most famously known as a virtuoso bassist, Charles Mingus was also a highly skilled composer, writing scores for nearly every instrument found within a typical jazz band. The high energy and chaotic chords that came with Mingus’ compositions were, rightfully, used throughout many revolutionary periods, specifically the 1950s and 60s. His style mirrored that of a rebellion and rejection of conformity.
A household name in the world of jazz, John Coltrane was the definition of a saxophonist, and widely considered the greatest of all time. Almost the polar opposite of Mingus, Coltrane emulated a well planned out musical style with an emphasis on the spirituality of jazz. From Giant Steps to A Love Supreme, nearly every one of his albums flowed perfectly from track to track, displaying his mastery of the saxophone.
Mary Lou Williams
Up until 1981, the world was gifted with Mary Lou Williams’ piano playing, whose first days consisted of playing in a swing band, eventually moving on to more modal music in the 1970s. Her playing ability was able to harness both jazz and classic features, which explains why she was one of the very few jazz musicians invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra. In addition to the piano, Williams was a talented composer and mentor for fellow musicians.
Yet another musician whose name immediately conjures the thought of a soothing trumpet, Miles Davis brought a psychedelic feel to jazz that no other musician had done so before. Davis’ unique style almost made it sound as though his trumpet could sing, mastering vibrato and an impressive range. He performed with the all-star group the Miles Davis Quintet, who recorded arguably one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Kind Of Blue, which featured David, Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.
George Benson continues to carry his legacy to this day as one of America’s greatest jazz guitarists, singer and songwriter. His unique style is reminiscent of the late, great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Considered a child prodigy by many, Benson started his career in the 1960s at just 21 years old. Today, his solo career spans the genres of jazz, pop, R&B, and even scat singing. His album Breezin, released in 1976, reached a remarkable triple-platinum status and was number 1 on Billboard’s album chart of that same year.
A recipient of an incredible seven Grammy Awards, Alwin “Al” Jarreau’s amazing vocals can be heard alongside musical legends like Chick Corea, Joe Sample, Miles Davis, and the aforementioned George Benson. Jarreau is perhaps best known for his album Breakin’ Away, released in 1981, featuring such hits as We’re in This Love Together and Roof Garden. However, he would go on to release 12 more albums, proving his timeless talent and musical endurance.
The Canadian-born Diana Krall, through her amazing vocals and piano skills, has sold over 6 million albums in the United States, and over 15 million worldwide. A modern-day jazz legend, Krall was named the second “Jazz Artist of the Decade” (2000-2009) by Billboard after starting her career in 1993 and is the only jazz singer to have eight albums debuting at the top of Billboard’s Jazz Albums lists to this day. She is the winner of eight Juno Awards (much like the American Grammys) and three Grammy Awards.
Though these are just a few of the many iconic jazz musicians to share the spotlight throughout the 20th century, they are arguably among the most elite. With how innovative the genre of jazz music is as a whole, there is the potential for even more musicians to come forward and claim the title of modern-day legend in the very near future.