30 Of The Best Saxophone Players of All Time
Saxophones are one of the most popular instruments in the world and have been played by some of the most iconic musicians in history. It’s no wonder then that there are so many great saxophone players out there, each with their unique style.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at 30 of the best saxophone players of all time, ranging from jazz legends to contemporary pop stars. So whether you’re a fan of the sax or just want to learn more about this incredible instrument, read on!
- 1. John Coltrane
- 2. Zoot Sims
- 3. Charlie Parker
- 4. Joshua Redman
- 5. Dexter Gordon
- 6. Sonny Rollins
- 7. Johnny Hodges
- 8. Lester Young
- 9. Sidney Bechet
- 10. Wayne Shorter
- 11. Earl Bostic
- 12. John Dankworth
- 13. Lee Konitz
- 14. Eric Dolphy
- 15. Grover Washington Jr.
- 16. Jan Garbarek
- 17. Coleman Hawkins
- 18. Sonny Stitt
- 19. Ben Webster
- 20. Stan Getz
- 21. Louis Jordan
- 22. Benny Carter
- 23. Gene Ammons
- 24. Sam Rivers
- 25. Gerry Mulligan
- 26. Candy Dulfer
- 27. Art Pepper
- 28. Albert Ayler
- 29. Ornette Coleman
- 30. John Surman
- Final Thoughts
1. John Coltrane
First on the list is one of the most iconic jazz musicians of all time: John Coltrane. While he’s best known for his work on the tenor sax, Coltrane was also a master of the alto, soprano, and tenor saxophones. His unique style combined elements of bebop, hard bop, and free jazz, and helped to shape the sound of jazz in the 1960s.
One of his most notable works is “Blue World (Visualizer)”, which was recorded in 1964. The song is a beautiful example of Coltrane’s mastery of the saxophone, and the visualizer does a great job of highlighting his exceptional playing.
2. Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims is a saxophonist who was active from the 1940s until the 80s. He’s best known for his work in the cool jazz genres. He became part of a big band but pursued a solo career where he made a name for himself.
One of his most remarkable pieces is “My Old Flame”, which is a jazz cover for a song from the film “Belle of the Nineties”. If you want to give it a listen, you can find it on Youtube.
3. Charlie Parker
Another legendary player, Charlie Parker’s style was the definition of bebop. He was known for his fast and complex solos, as well as his use of altered chord progressions. His signature tune “All The Things You Are” is a perfect example of bebop at its finest.
He was called “Yardbird” or “Bird” and was an influence on nearly every saxophonist that came after him. If you’re looking to get into bebop, or just want to hear some incredible sax playing, Charlie Parker is a must-listen.
4. Joshua Redman
Born in the late 1960s, Joshua Redman is one of the most well-known and respected jazz saxophonists working today. He’s been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards and won other prestigious accolades like the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
One of his fans’ personal favorite tunes is “Unanimity”, which features Redman on tenor sax. If you’re a fan of modern jazz, Joshua Redman should be on your radar.
5. Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon is popular for his stage presence and his humor, but most of all he’s remembered for his fantastic tenor saxophone sound. He was one of the first bebop players to gain widespread recognition and is credited as a major force in the development of jazz.
His piece, “I Want More”, features his signature style: a deep, rich sound with a strong melodic sensibility. If you’re looking for some classic jazz saxophone, Dexter Gordon is a great place to start.
6. Sonny Rollins
With over 60 albums under his belt, Sonny Rollins is one of the most prolific and well-respected saxophonists of all time. His influence and his virtuosic improvisations are the stuff of legend.
In this live performance, Rollins shreds through an extended solo on “Without a Song” that will leave you mesmerized by his skills. His masterful control of the saxophone is on full display, and it’s easy to see why he’s considered one of the greats.
7. Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges is a saxophone legend who played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra for over three decades. He was known for his smooth, elegant style and his ability to create beautiful solos that fit perfectly within the context of a song.
This performance of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is a perfect example of Hodges’ skill as a soloist. He weaves his solo in and out of the melody with ease. It’s a masterclass in how to play a saxophone solo.
8. Lester Young
One of the most influential jazz saxophonists of all time, Lester Young’s style would go on to have a huge impact on future generations of players. He was originally part of Count Basie’s orchestra but still managed to develop his own sound and approach.
“St. Tropez” is a perfect example of Young’s laid-back style and effortless cool. He went on to be the pioneer of the hipster jargon which became popular in the jazz scene.
9. Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet was one of the very first jazz saxophonists and also played clarinet and trumpet. He was a master improviser and his style was very influential in the development of jazz during the early days.
He produced some great recordings during his career, but “Summertime” is arguably his most famous composition. It’s a beautiful and haunting melody that has been covered by countless artists over the years.
10. Wayne Shorter
Co-founder of the Weather Report jazz band, Wayne Shorter is a renowned jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader. Born in 1933, he started playing the clarinet and alto saxophone when he was just a teenager. He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and began to develop his own style of playing.
His most famous composition is “Footprints”, which was recorded on the album “Adam’s Apple”. The tune has become a jazz standard and is often played by saxophonists all over the world. You can still stream this piece on all music platforms out there.
11. Earl Bostic
Earl Bostic is a legendary alto saxophonist who was born in 1913 and passed away in 1965. His style of playing was very unique and he was known for his ability to play fast solos. He recorded many hit songs throughout his career, but “Flamingo” is definitely his most famous composition.
His love for music led him to open his very own R&B club called the Flying Fox which was located in Los Angeles. He also toured with many famous musicians throughout his career.
12. John Dankworth
Also known as Johnny, Dankworth was a British jazz composer, bandleader, and clarinetist who is often credited with being one of the first musicians to bring jazz to Britain. He wrote the theme tune for the TV show “The Avengers.”
An example of his work is “Just in Time” which features some great saxophone playing by Dankworth himself. A lot of his work includes elements of bebop and swing, making it perfect for anyone who wants to get into those genres.
13. Lee Konitz
The next iconic saxophonist on this list is Lee Konitz. Konitz is a jazz alto saxophonist and composer known for his cool and innovative style. He’s played with some of the greats, including Miles Davis.
One of his most famous pieces is “I Remember You” which has been covered by many artists over the years. The saxophone playing in this track is truly beautiful and Konitz’s unique style is on full display.
14. Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy was an American jazz alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist who was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of his generation. He’s known for pushing the boundaries of jazz and for his unique approach to improvisation.
His pieces “Out There” and “Les” are both excellent examples of his saxophone playing. In “Les” in particular, Dolphy shows off his skill on the saxophone, playing complex melodies with ease.
15. Grover Washington Jr.
Grover Washington Jr. was an American jazz-funk and soul-jazz saxophonist. His 1973 album “Mister Magic” rose to fame and is commonly regarded as one of the best saxophone albums of all time. The title track “Mister Magic” is a prime example of Washington’s smooth and soulful style.
He is also one of the artists behind the popular R&B track, “Just The Two Of Us”, which is taking the internet by storm once again thanks to a recent TikTok challenge.
16. Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek is a highly respected jazz musician and has been nominated for several Grammy Awards throughout his career. If you’re trying to enter the field of jazz music, Garbarek’s music is worth checking out.
“Had To Cry Today” is a track off of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s album “Afric Pepperbird”, which was released in 1970. The album is a mix of jazz and world music, with African rhythms and percussion providing the backdrop for Garbarek’s beautiful saxophone playing.
17. Coleman Hawkins
Considered one of the first great jazz tenor saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins rose to prominence during the 1920s. His signature tune, “Soul Blues”, has become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time.
There is no doubt that Hawkins played a big role in the development of the jazz saxophone. His style was influential to many other greats that followed.
18. Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt is a legendary jazz saxophonist who was also known for his bebop style of playing. He recorded over 100 albums during his career and played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
One of Stitt’s most famous recordings is his version of “There’ll Never Be Another You”. This song has become a jazz standard and has been covered by many other artists.
19. Ben Webster
Next on the list is another one of the great tenor saxophonists, Ben Webster. He is best known for his work with Duke Ellington’s orchestra and for his recordings of “When I Fall in Love” and “Soulville”.
Webster has been cited as an influence by many other saxophonists. His style is characterized by a warm sound and a lyrical approach to improvisation. There is no question about Webster’s place among the greats of jazz saxophone.
20. Stan Getz
Born in Pennsylvania, Stan Getz was a highly influential jazz saxophonist who is best known for his work in the cool jazz and bossa nova genres. He won multiple Grammy Awards during his career and is considered one of the greatest saxophone players of all time.
Getz’s version of “The Girl from Ipanema” is one of the most well-known recordings in jazz history. The song became a smash hit and helped to popularize bossa nova in the United States.
21. Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan was a highly influential jazz and jump blues musician. He is best known for his recordings of “Caldonia” and “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman”. Known as the King Of Jukebox, Jordan had a significant impact on the development of both genres.
“Caldonia” is one of Jordan’s most famous recordings. The song was originally recorded in 1945 and has been covered by many other artists over the years. You can still find Jordan’s version on major music platforms.
22. Benny Carter
Benny Carter was an American jazz alto saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader. With a career spanning over 70 years, he was a major figure in jazz from the 1930s to the 1980s.
This multi-talented artist produced some of the best saxophone performances of his time. “My One And Only Love” is a beautiful and heart-rending ballad that showcases Carter’s impeccable skills on the saxophone.
23. Gene Ammons
The next jazz great on this list is tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. Nicknamed “The Boss”, Ammons was one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century. He was a major part of the bebop and hard bop movements.
“Just Chips” is a fun and upbeat track that features Ammons’ signature style. His solos are dynamic and full of energy, making this one of the best saxophone performances of all time. You can still listen to it on Youtube.
24. Sam Rivers
Sam Rivers is a saxophonist, flutist, and composer who is known for his contributions to the free jazz movement. He has recorded over 30 albums as a leader and has appeared on many more as a sideman.
“Point Of Many Returns” is one of Rivers’ most famous compositions. It is an excellent example of his avant-garde style and features some of the best saxophone playing you will ever hear.
25. Gerry Mulligan
Commonly known as “Jeru”, Gerry Mulligan was a jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer. He was one of the most influential musicians of his generation and played a major role in the development of jazz.
“Satin Doll” is a track from Mulligan’s album “The Gerry Mulligan Quartet”. It is a beautiful and relaxing piece that showcases Mulligan’s incredible skills on the saxophone. This is one of the best examples of his playing and is a must-listen for any fan of jazz.
26. Candy Dulfer
The next jazz legend on the list is Candy Dulfer. Hailing from the Netherlands, Dulfer is a world-renowned saxophonist who has performed with some of the biggest names in music. She is best known for her appearance in the 1991 hit single “Lily Was Here”, which reached the top 10 in several countries.
Dulfer has also been praised for her work debut album, “Saxuality”, which received a nomination for a Grammy award. She is a truly talented musician and has inspired many young women to pick up the saxophone.
27. Art Pepper
Also known as “The kid”, Art Pepper was an American saxophonist who rose to fame in the 1950s. He is considered to be one of the greatest alto saxophonists of all time and was highly influential in the development of west coast jazz.
Pepper’s career was unfortunately plagued by substance abuse, but he managed to overcome his demons and produced some truly incredible music. “Patricia” is one of his most famous pieces and showcases his mastery of the saxophone.
28. Albert Ayler
Known for his distinctively raw, passionate sound and his pioneering innovations in free jazz, Albert Ayler was one of the most controversial figures in jazz. His saxophone playing was characterized by its distinctive “wailing” or “cry” tone, which he achieved by using wide vibrato and reed distortion.
Ayler’s music was often met with hostility by conservative jazz critics, but he found an enthusiastic audience among free jazz fans and fellow musicians. “Spirits Rejoice” is one of his most popular and accessible recordings, and it showcases his unique approach to the saxophone.
29. Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist and composer known for his innovative approach to harmony and melodic arrangement. His style of playing, which he called “harmolodics”, was a departure from the more traditional chord-based improvisation of bebop. Coleman’s recordings helped to usher in the free jazz movement of the 1960s.
One of his most famous pieces is “Ramblin”, which was released in 1959 for his album “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. The composition is based on a simple three-chord motif, but Coleman’s use of space and angular melodic lines gives it a distinctive character.
30. John Surman
Wrapping up this list is the British jazz saxophonist John Surman. “The Wizard’s Song” is taken from his 1987 album “Private City”. His use of circular breathing allows him to sustain long phrases, and his use of extended techniques creates a wide range of sounds and textures.
John Surman is a highly respected musician. He has won the Grammy For Lifetime Achievement In Jazz. He is also noted as one of the founders of the jazz-rock genre. His pieces can still be found on music stands around the world, and he is considered one of the best saxophonists of all time.
The saxophone is a beautiful instrument with a rich history. These thirty players represent some of the best the world has ever seen. They have pushed the boundaries of the instrument and created new ways to express themselves. I hope you have enjoyed this list, and we encourage you to explore the music of these great musicians.
John Coltrane Featured Image (Top-Right) by: Hugo van Gelderen (Anefo), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Zoot Sims Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Tom Marcello Webster, New York, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
John Coltrane Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Tore Sætre, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons