Top 25 Saxophone Players of All Time

Saxophone June 12, 2020
Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)
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Top 25 Saxophone Players of All Time

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Playing the Sax has become very popular since the instrument was first introduced in 1840. Many players have come up; some have succeeded while others have given up along the way. However, some saxophone players have stood out as the best to ever play this instrument. Below are some of them.

1. Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)

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Hawkin was the first tenor sax player. He starred at the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra as the lead tenor sax player in the year 1924. By the late 1950 most sax players tried to copy Hawkins methods in playing the instrument. Unsurprising most sax player sounded exactly like him.

2. John Coltrane (1926-1967)

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Also known as ‘Trane’ Coltrane is one of the most popular American jazz saxophonists. Also a composer he produced many albums in his music career. What most still remember about him, however, is his dedication to free jazz. Some of his albums such as the ‘Giant Steps’, ‘My Favorite Things’ and ‘A Love Supreme’ are still a hit today.

3. Stan Getz (1927-1991)

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Getz started playing the saxophone when he was thirteen. In that regard, he was already a skilled player by the time he came into the limelight. He was known for his light and warm tone which gave him the nickname ‘The Sound’. Getz is also credited a being one of the pioneers of the Bossa nova style.

4. Lester Young (1909- 1959)

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Young became famous while he was a member of Count Basie’s orchestra. Also nicknamed ‘prez’ Young played with a relaxed tone which was a contrast to most jazz musician then who preferred hard-hitting tones. Young also helped to popularize the hipster jargon that would become a symbol of jazz music.

5. Gerry Mulligan (1927- 1996)

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Mulligan is arguably the best baritone saxophonists ever to perform. His music produced a taste of the cool jazz sound of the 1950’s. Mulligan music was not limited to cool jazz; on the contrary, he starred alongside great jazz performers such as Ben Webster and Andy Hermann.

6. Joe Henderson (1937- 2001)

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In the 1960’s when the Blue note era was at its pick, Joe Henderson announced himself on the international stage. He became the most sought-after tenor saxophonist and went on to record not less than thirty-five times between 1968-1968. His work continues to be a great inspiration for the modern saxophone players.

7. Kamasi Washington (1981- present)

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Kamasi Washington is only 37 years, but such is his impact on jazz music that he finds himself mentioned among the greatest saxophone players. He learned his trade under the guidance of some the best names in the field. These include Billy Higgins, Kenny Burell, and Gerald Wilson. Kamasi music is already among the best out there, and to think he is just getting to his prime.

8. Branford Marsalis (1960- present)

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Most jazz music fans will recall Marsalis as the leader of the band Buckshot LeFonque. However, he is also known for his many compositions and solo performances. You are likely to find some citing him as one the leading living jazz instrumentalist in America. Marsalis continues to entertain fans worldwide as well as mentoring upcoming saxophone musicians.

9. Joe Lovano (1952- present)

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For a musician to be nominated for a Grammy award leave alone win it is an achievement. For Joe Lovano, he went a step further and won the award for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in 2000. This achievement alone confirms him as one of the best saxophonists in the industry. Lovano has more than 40 albums to his name and earned many honors as a result.

10. Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935- 1977)

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Roland Kirk was full of humor and hence a great entertainer. Most interesting however was his ability to play many instruments simultaneously. Beyond that, he was a talented player who had perfected playing the tenor sax.

11. Sidney Bechet (1897- 1959)

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Bechet was one of the pioneers of alto saxophone music and inspired players such as John Coltrane. Some of the alto saxophone standards that are recognized globally were as a result of his work. Later in his career, he also concentrated on the soprano saxophone to great success.

12. Paul Desmond (1924- 1977)

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Desmond was a great alto saxophone player and also a renowned composer. He was the face of the Brubeck Quartet band and composed their biggest hit ‘Take Five’. Unlike other artists, Paul Desmond coined his sound rather than copying others.

13. Kenneth Bruce Gorelick (1956- present)

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Better known as Kenny G he is a testimony on how popular saxophone music has become worldwide. With more than 75 million records sold, Kenny G is the leading seller of instrument-based music. Kenny G also earned a Grammy award in 1994 for his hit ‘Forever in Love’.

14. Cannonball Adderley (1928- 1975)

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Another Grammy winner, Cannonball Adderley was an alto saxophonist artist of the hard bop era. His single ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ was and is still one of the best crossover songs. Through his many public lectures, he helped popularize jazz music thus opening doors for other artists.

15. Joshua Redman (1969- present)

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The world took notice of Joshua Redman when he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991. Once he decided to concentrate fully on music, there was no stopping him. A tenor saxophonist Redman has produced many albums that have won him multiple Grammy nominations. He also has one Grammy award for the best classical crossover album.

16. Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

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If you are a jazz fanatic, you are probably familiar with the bebop style. Dexter Gordon was among the first saxophonist to adopt this style in his music. Dexter career spanned more than forty years making him one of the most popular tenor saxophonists to ever grace the industry.

17. Dave Coz (1963- present)

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Dave Coz is probably the most popular saxophonist in the modern era. Gracing the Hollywood hall of fame on multiple occasions, he is a leading ambassador of saxophonist music. Dave Coz already has nine Grammy nominations to his name and multiple No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Current Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.

18. Chris Potter (1971- present)

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Chris Potter majors on the tenor sax, however, he also performs using the tenor and soprano sax. In 2014, Down Beat magazine named him number one tenor saxophonist in the world. Potter has produced more than ten albums and also starred in over 150 CDs as a sideman

19. Johnny Hodges (1907- 1970)

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Alongside Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges is considered one of the two most influential alto saxophone figures of the big band era. He made his name as the leading soloist in the Duke Ellington’s orchestra where he performed for four decades. His mastery of the ballads still stands out up to today.

20. Lee Konitz (1927- present)

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Lee Konitz is a renowned composer and an alto saxophonist. He has perfected various styles such as bebop and cool jazz. During the 1950’s, Charlie Parker carried a lot of influence leading most saxophonist to copy his sound. Lee Konitz stood out at that time for his bravely to seek his sound. He has continued to defy age by producing quality performance up to date.

21. Charlie Parker (1920- 1955)

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Charlie Parker sadly did not live long. During his short life, however, he made a great contribution to jazz music than most will ever do in their lifetime. To start with, he helped in the development of the bebop style. On top of that, he introduced harmonic ideas such as rapid passing chords, chord substitutions, and new variants altered chords among others.

22. Candy Dulfer (1969- present)

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Candy Dulfer began playing sax at the age of six. By the time she was fourteen she had created her own band ‘Funky Stuff’. One of her best work is the world No 1 hit ‘Lily Was Here’ that she did with Dave Stewart in 1989. Currently, she has over ten studio albums, two live albums and still counting.

23. Lou Donaldson (1926- present)

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The work of Charlie Parker heavily influenced Donaldson. He, however, made some changes to establish a blue-based style. His blue note recordings became a major hit in the 1950’s. He went a step further to replace a pianist in his band with an organist a move that helped to distinguish the band from others.

24. Kenny Garrett (1960- present)

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Kenny Garret has released many albums which have propelled him to top of jazz music. The New York Times once credited him as the most admired alto saxophonist behind Charlie Parker. His 2013 album ‘Pushing the World Away’ received a Grammy nomination for the Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

25. Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)

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Yusef Lateef made a name for himself for combining sax performance with other non-western instruments. Playing eastern instruments such as bamboo flute, xun, koto among others confirmed him as a household name in the industry of jazz music. In 1988, he won the Grammy award for Best New Age Album for his work ‘little symphony’.

Final Thoughts

The list of the best saxophone players is endless. Above are only a few performers who have influenced the industry. Technology upgrade means there are better saxophones in the modern era. Thus, we expect upcoming players to do better than their predecessors.

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Agnes holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is an avid feline lover and adoring owner of two cats, Agnes’s love for music has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in the music space.
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