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.
10. Dexter Gordon
The son of the first African-American doctor in Los Angeles, Dexter Gordon also broke new ground as the first tenor saxophonist to play bebop. His immense stature (literally — he stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall) contributed to his huge tone and super-relaxed time feel. He had a long, successful career, punctuated by a triumphant comeback in the '70s with the landmark live album Homecoming. Gordon’s charisma was also seen on-screen, as a fading jazz icon in Round Midnight (earning him an Oscar nomination for his role), and as a silent patient alongside Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings. —G.F.
9. Maceo Parker
Whenever you hear James Brown yell “Maceo!” you know an already funky track is about to get even funkier. For an incredible run that lasted more than two decades, Maceo Parker's tenor and alto sax solos — bright, staccato, syncopated — were virtually synonymous with funk music. Pulling double duty in both Brown's band and George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, Parker laid down some of funk's most indelible solos, especially on such Brown classics as “Mother Popcorn,” “Super Bad” and “Licking Stick.” He was also a sideman for Prince for many years and has released more than a dozen solo albums that showcase his versatility as a bandleader and soloist working in soul-jazz, R&B and fusion. —A.H.
8. Wayne Shorter
You could make a strong case that Wayne Shorter, at 83, is the most influential saxist who still walks among us, as well as the greatest player of the soprano saxophone the world has ever seen. Throughout his career, Shorter has had an uncanny knack for being an active participant in jazz's evolutionary leaps, from the hard bop he played as part of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to the modal jazz he helped define (as both sideman and songwriter) in Miles Davis' “Second Great Quintet” to the funk-laced fusion of Weather Report. He also, not incidentally, recorded quite possibly the greatest sax solo in jazz-rock history for Steely Dan's “Aja.” —A.H.
7. Ornette Coleman
In an art form where finding one’s unique voice is paramount, no one did so with as much conviction and defiance as Ornette Coleman. His refusal to let the chords of a tune interfere with his melodic concepts initially got the alto saxophonist into severe trouble with audience members and bandmates alike. Yet Coleman and his visionary quartet would create a revolution in jazz as they ushered in the free-jazz movement. For many, his playing still represents the ultimate expression of liberty — literally from the bonds of harmony and form, metaphorically from the bondage of oppression and prejudice. —G.F.
6. Coleman Hawkins
Before Hawkins played it, the tenor saxophone was considered a clownish, comedic instrument. He was able to coax a smoother yet still rugged tone from it, and upon playing with Louis Armstrong in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, sought to revamp his approach to explore more complex harmonies in his improvisation. His now-immortal solo on “Body and Soul” helped to cement his title as “The Father of the Tenor Saxophone.” Hawkins was the first to demonstrate unlimited potential for the tenor to become the money instrument of jazz, paving the way for every other tenor player on this list. —G.F.
5. Cannonball Adderley
Depending on your point of view, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was either an underrated genius whose brilliance was overshadowed by his more famous collaborators, or the luckiest guy in the room when he recorded Milestones and Kind of Blue as part of Miles Davis' celebrated sextet. But Adderley's fluid, melodious style helped bridge the gap between Coltrane's free-flowing torrent of ideas and Davis' more buttoned-up approach. And his own works as a bandleader, especially his prolific 1968-70 run at Capitol Records with recently departed producer David Axelrod, stand as reminders of what a fearlessly inventive soloist and stylist he could be, flirting with everything from gospel to classical to Afrobeat. —A.H.
4. Lester Young
He was one of the three original giants of the tenor saxophone, along with Webster and Hawkins, but Lester Young separated himself with a sweet tone and a buoyant sense of rhythm. His approach would become the model for Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and so many others to follow. Young also had style in spades, always wearing his signature porkpie hat, holding his horn at a 45-degree angle, and introducing new vernacular, including “cool,” “bread” (for money), “dig” and even “homeboy.” In many ways, Young shaped the direction of not only jazz but of American culture. That’s cool. —G.F.
3. Sonny Rollins
He was on a destructive path of substance abuse when the tragic death of clean-living trumpeter and bandmate Clifford Brown prompted Sonny Rollins to turn his life around. At age 86, Rollins' stupendous body of work confirms his stature as one of the greatest improvisers alive today, and indeed to have ever lived. An early adopter of motivic development, he could nurture a single seed of a melodic idea, growing it over the course of his solo into a forest of brilliant concepts. If life is creation, then Rollins has certainly lived it to the fullest. —G.F.
2. John Coltrane
John Coltrane wasn't pussyfooting around when he titled his 1960 album Giant Steps. Having already established himself as his generation's greatest virtuoso of the tenor sax through his work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, 'Trane was determined to take his so-called “sheets of sound” style one step further and create a new language for jazz. It's a goal most agree he achieved less than five years later on A Love Supreme, a masterwork that imbued the saxophonist's mix of free and modal jazz with the ecstatic spiritualism of a Pentecostal sermon. To this day, 'Trane's combination of unbridled emotion and dazzling technique remains the unattainably high standard every young sax player strives to live up to. —A.H.
1. Charlie Parker
Who else? Parker changed the course of history, turning jazz seemingly overnight from an entertaining dance music into the highest form of spontaneous artistic expression. His blazing virtuosity came from years of marathon 11- to 15-hour practice sessions, and the hard work coupled with his insightful genius resulted in the creation of an entirely new harmonic and melodic language, which became known as bebop. Every single serious jazz musician from that point on has owed their very existence as such to Parker, whether they have known it or not. Parker is surely our Mozart, the single greatest musical mind in American history. —G.F.
[Note: An earlier version of this list misspelled Cannonball Adderley's last name. We regret the error.]