What is it about the saxophone and about saxophone players that makes them so seductive? Is it because the saxophone is not an easy instrument to master? Is it how the saxophonist becomes one with his instrument while he is playing? Whatever it is, saxophones and the people who play them have been some of the most influential and unforgettable people in music history. These are the 10 most famous saxophone players of all time.
1. John Coltrane
There is probably no saxophone player in history more epic than John Coltrane. Recognized as one of the first to use modes in jazz and later, as one of the founders of free jazz, Coltrane was a legendary musical force whose work, especially those he made with Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, are still being played and awarded today. He influenced countless musicians and continues to inspire the work of young saxophonists and jazz aficionados today.
2. Charlie Parker
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the man to thank for bebop, is undoubtedly one of the most famous – and most important – saxophone players to have ever lived. He was a great improviser and innovator, continuously finding new ways to expand jazz. Parker was an icon for the Beat generation and his work is considered essential to every jazz canon.
3. Stan Getz
Unlike most of his contemporaries who played mainly biting, hard-edged tones, Stan Getz’s style veered towards the wispy, laid-back melodies of bossa nova. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto on several jazz-bossa nova albums, which included the tune The Girl from Ipanema.
4. Kenny G
Kenny G is probably the most commercially-successful of all the great saxophonists, though he is also one of the most criticized. While most of the saxophone players in this list explored many different styles, Kenny G chose to stick with classic jazz. In this arena, he managed to become immensely popular, selling millions of albums and becoming a legend in his own right. Though Kenny G opted to not stray too far from smooth jazz, he did contribute to the genre by attracting listeners who otherwise might not have explored jazz.
5. Sonny Rollins
One of the most famous saxophone players living today, Sonny Rollins has been an unstoppable figure in jazz music for more than six decades. During the heyday of jazz in the 1950s, Rollins managed to avoid the self-destructive ways of his contemporaries by coming to terms with his drug problem and taking sabbaticals from music. One of his greatest skills was the ability to not repeat himself when improvising, even with lengthy solos. Another was his capacity to absorb influences from the world around him and to adapt his musical style to what was currently popular.
6. Joe Henderson
A tenor saxophonist and composer, Henderson is known as a renaissance man in jazz. In his heyday, he created and performed a unique style that set him apart from the dominant saxophone players of the time. Though he started out playing bebop, Henderson also dabbled in rhythm and blues, avant-garde, and Latin music.
7. Lester Young
One of the – if not the – coolest saxophone players of all time, Lester Young epitomized old school jazz. While his contemporaries chose to play edgier tunes, Young went for smoother, more relaxed tones; but though he was a laid-back performer, he was also a genius in improvisation as is evident in his recordings with Billie Holiday, Harry Edison and Count Basie. His album The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio was one of the finest jazz albums produced in the 1950s.
8. Wayne Shorter
Another living saxophone legend, Shorter had an early start in music with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers more than six decades ago. His long career in jazz is punctuated by many accomplishments that include creating the group Weather Report and recording and performing a hit tune with Miles Davis.
9. Zoot from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem
Is he a man or is he a Muppet? Well, according to the guy who conceptualized him, Zoot is a fifty-something burnt-out musician. The brooding blue-haired Muppet plays the saxophone for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Their best performances include Can You Picture That and a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody.
10. Bill Clinton
He’s not exactly a professional performer, but he does play the saxophone and he is undoubtedly famous. In 1992 on the Arsenio Hall Show, Clinton busted out a saxophone and performed Heartbreak Hotel, showing America that not only could he lead a country, he could also belt out a tune like a pro.