Put a group of talented jazz musicians together, and they’re likely to turn out a wonderfully improvised and harmonious sound. Given the long and varied history of jazz music, that same group might be less likely to agree on a list of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Still, a few names would be likely to crop up again and again in any discussion of the all-time greats.
The first name to come up would likely be Louis Armstrong. A jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, “Satchmo,” as he was nicknamed, would show up at the top of most lists. Born in 1901, Louis grew up in a jazz-soaked city and learned to play the cornet. His talent would catapult him to a long career. Often credited for influencing the emphasis on solo performance in jazz, Armstrong is still seen by many as the greatest jazz player of all time. He also helped make “scat” singing popular, a vocal improvisation that relies on nonsense syllables and sounds rather than words.
Armstrong himself was mentored by Joe “King” Oliver, a bandleader and cornet player who composed jazz tunes still played today, including “Canal Street Blues.” King actually gave Armstrong his first cornet. Given Armstrong’s ultimate legacy, it’s hard not place Oliver on a list of jazz greats, but he’d likely belong there anyway for his own creative contributions, including the use of mutes to alter the sound of horns.
Born just two years before Armstrong was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, arguably the best jazz composer ever, and certainly one of the most innovative and creative composers in American musical history. Ellington was a pianist who became a hugely popular bandleader. He is remembered especially for the years his band played at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The 1930s and 40s were a golden age for radio, so Ellington’s music had a wide influence. Although he refused to be categorized and played music that was widely influenced by many genres, including classical, Ellington’s place in the jazz pantheon can’t be denied.
Although jazz music originated within the African American community, its creative energy soon transported it to other communities where musicians of other backgrounds learned from the pioneers and put their own stamp on the sound. the “King of Swing”, Benny Goodman, was born into a large family of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago. His early music lessons at synagogue combined with what he learned from traveling New Orleans clarinetists. It wasn’t long before Goodman was an accomplished clarinetist himself. He’s remembered not only for his amazing music but for leading one of the first racially-integrated bands.
Riding on the shoulders of these early greats was Miles Davis, born in 1926. An accomplished bandleader and trumpeter, he became known for his influence on the developing directions of jazz in the middle of the 20th century, especially bebop and cool jazz. Davis was considered a great musician and innovator.