The 20 Greatest Saxophonists of All Time

It's considered by many to be music's sexiest instrument. Its versatile sound, so like a great singer's voice — sweetly seductive one moment, growling and blustery the next — has become virtually synonymous with the entire genre of jazz. Yet less than a century ago, the saxophone was considered a supporting player in orchestras and jazz bands — too awkwardly pitched halfway between brass and woodwinds to stand on its own but useful for blending the two (or as a sound of pure comic relief, a role it still ably filled many years later in the theme music to The Benny Hill Show).

Over the sax's 90-odd years as a lead instrument, the 20 men on this list have all advanced its role in jazz and popular music in important ways. Some have forged entirely new sounds and methods of playing. Others have helped popularize the sax by playing it on hit records and bringing it to new audiences. Many of them are recognized as the most skilled players of their eras. Several have managed to do all three.

Inevitably, a few worthy names fell short of making the list. But for our money, these are the 20 greatest saxophonists of all time.

20. Gerry Mulligan
Arguably the greatest baritone sax player in history — or at least the most influential — Mulligan's velvet tones eternally linked his instrument to the West Coast "cool jazz" sounds of the 1950s, especially through his work on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool sessions and his legendary L.A. "pianoless quartet" with trumpeter Chet Baker. But to reduce Mulligan's impact to cool jazz does his 50-year career a disservice. Mulligan was equally adept swinging alongside one of his heroes, Ben Webster, and later in his career explored modernist variations of big-band jazz on albums such as Age of Steam and 1980's Grammy-winning Walk on the Water. —Andy Hermann

19. Clarence Clemons
No rock saxophonist was more iconic than "the Big Man," who for nearly 40 years gave Bruce Springsteen's music much of its swagger with his forceful, King Curtis–influenced sound. Though powerful enough to emulate the great honkers of early R&B and rock & roll, Clemons' most famous solo, on Born to Run's "Jungleland," was remarkable for the way it combined that power with a gorgeously lyrical quality that perfectly matched the romanticism of Springsteen's songwriting. Throughout his career, he was a go-to session man for anyone who wanted a tenor sax solo with that rough-edged, rock & roll feel, from Janis Ian to Aretha Franklin to Joe Cocker to, improbably, Lady Gaga. —A.H.

18. Joe Henderson
As the hottest young tenor saxophonist during the height of the golden Blue Note era of modern jazz, Joe Henderson recorded for that label at least 37 times between 1963 and 1968. He became one of its signature voices, with his warm, slightly gritty sound punctuating his clear and quirky improvisatory figurations. His albums are essential listening for any jazz aficionado, and many of the tunes he wrote are now classic jazz standards, efficient vignettes of melodies and chords that helped to define modal jazz harmony. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this saxophonist has had on the legacy of jazz. —Gary Fukushima

17. Ben Webster
This Kansas City native was already part of jazz history in the 1930s, playing with Bennie Moten, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, but Webster came into his own in the '40s with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Congenial when sober, contentious when drunk, his Jekyll-and-Hyde persona surfaced in his music. His tender ballad playing would morph into raw but swinging aggression, voiced with a nasty signature growl emulated for decades by both jazz and rock & roll saxophonists. Webster later recorded with virtuoso pianists Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, producing some of the finest classic early jazz albums in history. —G.F.

16. Kamasi Washington
Ranking a 35-year-old saxophonist anywhere on this list, let alone ahead of such giants as Webster, Henderson, Clemons and Mulligan, might seem premature. But no jazz tenor player in nearly a generation has generated as much excitement. Raised in a jazz family in Inglewood and trained at UCLA under such luminaries as Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson, Washington has cultivated a sound both steeped in tradition and aggressively ambitious and forward-thinking; not for nothing did he title his 2015 debut solo album The Epic, or pointedly call its opening track "Change of the Guard." As technically gifted as Sonny Rollins, rhythmically adept as Rakim and boundary-shattering as Sun Ra, Washington is already taking jazz to new places — and he's just getting started. —A.H.

15. Albert Ayler
Ayler was one of the pioneers of the '60s free-jazz movement, following closely in the echo of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The latter thought so highly of Ayler that, on his death bed, Coltrane requested Ayler play at his funeral. His robust, folklike melodies disintegrate into terrifying chaos, invoking fear and fascination in the listener’s soul, an experience not unlike binge-watching episodes of The Walking Dead. His exploratory virtuosity and impassioned vitriol foretold the later efforts of saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, John Gilmore and other members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). —G.F.

14. Michael Brecker
Among veteran musicians from both the rock and jazz worlds, it’s hard to find a more respected saxophonist than Michael Brecker. He absorbed the language and strident sound of Coltrane, harnessing that energy to deftly move from progressive jazz with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny to every imaginable pop and rock session, with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Parliament-Funkadelic, etc. Brecker became the standard for modern saxophone playing, allowing for Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Donny McCaslin and other contemporaries whose virtuosity and aesthetics allow them to venture into any musical setting. —G.F.

13. Big Jay McNeely
The overblown (literally) style of sax playing called "honking" is difficult to attribute to just one person — it was a sound that spread across the country in the late 1940s via various jazz clubs, juke joints and the Chitlin Circuit. But if honking had a big-bang moment when it crossed over into popular music, it was surely Cecil James "Big Jay" McNeely's 1949 hit, "Deacon's Hop." McNeely, a Watts native who was just 21 when he recorded the searing instrumental, played his instrument with such unhinged ferocity that it inspired an entire generation of R&B sax players to, as McNeely liked to put it, "blow their brains out." —A.H.

12. Stan Getz
Among casual jazz fans, Philadelphia native and longtime L.A. resident (until his death in 1991) Stan Getz may be second only to Coltrane as the name most synonymous with the saxophone. He's most famous for Getz/Gilberto, his 1963 bossa nova collaboration with Brazilian musicians João and Astrud Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim, which became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. But his distinctively breathy, lyrical sound graced hundreds of recordings in a variety of styles, from cool jazz to bebop to fusion. His sound was "a paradoxical blend of light and heavy," Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddens wrote in his Visions of Jazz anthology; "he produced a breezy tone backed by heroic force." —A.H.

11. Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The jazz world had never seen anything quite like the Ohio native born Ronald Theodore Kirk when he burst onto the scene in the early 1960s. A master of embouchure and circular breathing, Kirk could play up to three different saxophones at once, including modified instruments he dubbed the "manzello" and the "stritch," as well as flute, oboe, whistles and castanets. Though the gimmickry sometimes threatened to overshadow his other accomplishments, Kirk is remembered today as a pioneer in combining the atonalities of free jazz with more traditional swing, blues and hard-bop chord progressions — and as a improviser who could squeeze magic out of one instrument as readily as he could make jaws drop with three. —A.H.

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