Top 10 Influential Jazz Musicians

Script written by Kelly MacDonald. Jazz: the original art form of the American south. For this list, we considered musicians who made significant contributions to jazz as a genre, and whose work had an historical impact on contemporary music, as a whole. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 most influential jazz musicians. Special thanks to our users jkellis, Kuhn Imthor II, SaxyAndrewTheatre, Aaron Orel, Al Bebak, Alex Johnson, Jaime Enrique Gutierrez Pérez and ThisXGuy for submitting the idea on our Suggest Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by Kelly MacDonald.

Jazz: the original art form of the American south. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 most influential jazz musicians.

For this list, we considered musicians who made significant contributions to jazz as a genre, and whose work had an historical impact on contemporary music, as a whole.

#10: Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993

With trademark swollen cheeks, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was a groundbreaking bebop performer and master improviser as well as a pioneer of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz. With a deep passion for music rooted in African traditions, Gillespie collaborated with a variety of Caribbean and South American performers, fusing new styles into his modern jazz interpretations. Gillespie’s long career saw him tirelessly touring, captivating audiences with horn-rimmed, virtuoso spectacles and becoming jazz’s unofficial ambassador to the world in the process.

#9: Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959

Though she never composed her own music, Billie Holiday is considered to be one of jazz’s greatest performers. Holiday turned “Embraceable You,” I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I Cover the Waterfront” into famous jazz standards, while her rendition of “Strange Fruit” is considered to be one of the most important songs in American history. Though her life was fraught with tragedy, Holiday’s improvisational genius, combined with her raspy, somewhat fragile voice showcased a depth of emotion unparalleled by other jazz singers.

#8: Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007

With an expansive career that saw him compose everything from a classical ode to Bach and one of the first jazz ballets, Oscar Peterson’s work was as socially significant as it was musically innovative. Peterson opened one of the first jazz schools in Canada. And his “Hymn to Freedom” was a major anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Deemed the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” by Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson was one of the most talented and important jazz pianists of his generation.

#7: Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982

A piano player and electrifying performer, Thelonius Monk’s jarring, and dissonant compositions featured the melodic twists synonymous with contemporary jazz. Monk’s style played with sound and the lack thereof, featuring energetic, percussive attacks on the keys, juxtaposed with periods of drawn out silence. Composing classics like “Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser,” Monk ended his days in relative obscurity, yet his influence on modern jazz remains to this day.

#6: John Coltrane
1926 - 1967

Heralding free jazz, John Coltrane was constantly experimenting with new instrumentation, composition and style. Creating “sheets of sound” with his alto sax, Coltrane played multiple chords at once, manipulating traditional harmonic progressions. His contribution to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue captures Coltrane’s originality when it comes to phrasing and rhythm. Though his life was cut short due to illness, Coltrane is considered one of jazz’s most important musical innovators.

#5: Nat King Cole
1919 - 1965

Known for his silky vocals, Nat King Cole infused popular American music with jazz sensibilities. Cole’s smash hit, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” was based on an African-American folk story, proving that traditional material could have wide appeal. Cole was also one of the first African-Americans to host a variety TV program, which featured jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt. A phenomenal pianist and standout improviser, Cole was one of the first jazz greats to become a true pop icon.

#4: Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955

A virtuoso saxophonist, Charlie Parker is known for his rapid-paced chord progressions and the interpolation of his own melodies over traditional jazz standards. His use of classical, Latin and Blues styles helped lead to the development of bebop. Having a personal style and expression that epitomized the iconoclast sensibility of the Beat Generation, Charlie Parker was a true artistic intellectual, whose contributions to jazz music are as important as his cultivation of jazz culture.

#3: Miles Davis
1926 - 1991

At the helm of almost every major jazz innovation in the late twentieth century, Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, ushered in the era of cool jazz. Playing alongside many jazz greats throughout his career, Davis also collaborated with artists outside the genre, cultivating what is now called “jazz fusion.” Tirelessly pushing the boundaries of artistic expression, Davis is often characterized as one of the coolest men to have ever lived and a true musical genius.

#2: Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974

Pianist, bandleader and composer, Duke Ellington was as gifted as he was prolific. Composing thousands of songs over his fifty-year career, Ellington penned many famous standards like “Cotton Tail” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Classically trained, Ellington and his brilliant musicianship always considered the skill and style of his fellow performers. With arrangements that were more formal and sophisticated in structure than other jazz compositions, Duke Ellington elevated jazz to a bona fide art form.

Before we unveil our pick for number one, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Dave Brubeck
1920 – 2012
- Benny Goodman
1909 – 1986
- Charles Mingus
1922 – 1979
- Herbie Hancock
1940 –
- Wynton Marsalis
1961 -

#1: Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971

Trumpet player Louis Armstrong is celebrated for his lively virtuoso style, inventive musical expression, and dynamic showmanship. Known for his signature raspy voice, Armstrong also helped to give scat a wider audience with his recordings. The American musician’s “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” groups produced multiple true jazz classics. With a career spanning over five decades, Armstrong’s impact on popular music is immeasurable. For this reason, Louis Armstrong is usually considered the greatest jazz musician of all time.

Do you agree with our list? Who’s your favorite jazz musician? For more entertaining top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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