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The Five Best Jazz Musicians of All Time

Jazz musician playng trumpet

Many jazz musicians and singers have shaped and changed the jazz music genre throughout history. It’s challenging to dwindle to five musicians, but after some research, we believe that the following people shaped jazz music into what it is today.

John Coltrane

During the 40s and 50s, John Coltrane developed his craft as a saxophonist and composer, working with famed musicians and bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. In 1949, he signed on with a big band led by Dizzy Gillespie, where he earned a name for himself over the year and a half he was with the band.


Coltrane revolutionized jazz with his innovative and demanding techniques while showing a deep understanding of sounds from other locales, including Africa, Latin America, the Far East, and South Asia. Even after he died in 1967, he received a Grammy in 1981 for his live 1962 recording of “Bye Bye Blackbird” and earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington began studying the piano at age seven, earning the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways. He wrote his first composition, inspired by his first job as a soda jerk, called “Soda Fountain Rag” at age 15! Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute, he followed his passion for ragtime and began playing professionally at 17. Duke rose to fame in the 1940s when he composed several masterworks, including “Concerto for Cootie” and “Cotton Tail.”

His blend of melodies, rhythms, and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience - complex yet heartwarming. Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, nine of which while he was alive. Some of his most famous songs were “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Sophisticated Lady.”

Miles Davis

Davis grew up in a supportive, middle-class family where his father introduced him to the trumpet at age 13. He quickly developed a talent for playing the trumpet without vibrato, a common style used by trumpet players like Louis Armstrong. Miles played professionally in high school and was invited on stage by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to replace a sick bandmate at age 17.

Miles Davis made his first recording as a bandleader in 1946 with the Miles Davis Sextet. He continued to develop his improvisational style that defined his trumpet playing style. Influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, he developed a fusion of jazz and rock and released an album called “Bitches Brew” that quickly became a best-selling album. This album landed Miles on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, becoming the first jazz artist to be so recognized.

Louis Armstrong

Probably one of the most well-known names in jazz, Louis Armstrong rose to fame in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with his daring trumpet style and unique vocals. Armstrong began earning a reputation as a blues player and the greatest cornet player in New Orleans, where Joe “King” Oliver started to mentor him. In the summer of 1922, he received a call from Oliver to come to Chicago to join his Creole Jazz Band on second cornet. He made his first recordings with Oliver in 1923 and earned his first recorded solo on the album “Chimes Blues.” 

In 1936, he became the first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography, Swing That Music, and was featured in the movie Pennies from Heaven later that year. He also became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937. In 1967, he recorded his most well-known song, “What a Wonderful World,” which became number one on the pop music charts in 1964, knocking The Beatles off the top.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was the first African-American woman to win a Grammy award in 1957. In the 50s and 60s, Ella earned the name “First Lady of Song” for her mainstream popularity and unparalleled vocal talents. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique. In 1938, she put out her first number-one hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and recorded her second hit, “I Found My Yellow Basket” later that year. Ella made acting debut in 1942’s comedy western Ride ‘Em Cowboy with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello.

She made her last recording in 1989 and her final public performance in 1991 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She has recorded over 200 albums and around 2,000 songs in her lifetime. With her vocal quality, lucid intonation, and broad range, Ella would go on to win 13 Grammys in total, selling more than 40 million albums. 

Enjoy Live Jazz Music at Maxan Jazz!

We provide a delicious and upscale dining experience with the freshest sushi around while you can enjoy some of the best modern jazz artists LIVE! Check out our entertainment calendar and call today to book a reservation.

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