Top 100 Famous Tenor Saxophonists

Top 100 Famous Tenor Saxophonists

Top 100 Famous Tenor Saxophonists #1 Coleman Hawkins

Tenor Saxophonists

Blues, Swing and Big Band Tenor Saxophonists (1930s)

#1 of 100 — Coleman "Hawk" Hawkins (1904 - 1969)

Coleman Hawkins was one of the first prominent jazz musicians on the tenor saxophone and, arguably, the most influential. He is credited by Joachim E. Berendt with making the tenor saxophone an acknowledged Jazz horn.

Hawkins was first to tailor his method of improvisation to the saxophone, rather than imitating the clarinet techniques like his predecessors.

His rich emotional, loud, and vibrato-ladentonal style was the main influence on a generation of tenor players most notably Chu Berry, Charlie Barnet, Tex Beneke, Ben Webster, Vido Musso, Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, and Don Byas.

And through them the later tenormen, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Ike Quebec, Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves, and Lucky Thompson.

While Hawkins became well known with swing music during the big band era, he had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s.

#2 of 100 — Lester "The Prez" Young (1909 - 1959)

Lester Young exemplified Kansas City Jazz which marked the transition from big bands to the bebop influence of the 1940s.

Young was one of the most influential tenor saxophonists. Contrary to many of his peers, he played in a relaxed, cool tone using sophisticated harmonies.

Known for his hip, introverted style, he popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with jazz.

#3 of 100 — Ben "The Brute" Webster (1909 - 1973)

Benjamin Francis Webster, affectionately known as "The Brute" or "Frog", is considered one the three most important swing tenors besides Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

He had a tough, raspy and brutal tone on stomps (with growls) — a complete contrast to Lester Young. On ballads, however, he played with warmth and sentiment.

He played with Duke Ellington's orchestra from 1935, and credited Johhny Hodges, Ellington's alto soloist as a major influence on his playing.

Webster played the same saxophone from 1938 until his death in 1973 ans left instructions that it was never to be played again. It's display at Jazz Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

#12 of 100 — "Chu" Berry (1908 - 1941)

In the swing era, while saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins was in Europe, Leon Brown "Chu" Berry was one of several younger tenor saxophonists that vied for supremacy on the instrument along with Budd Johnson, Ben Wester and Lester Young.

It's not clear whether musicians called him "Chu" because he chewed on his saxophone mouthpiece or because he had a Fu Manchu mustache.

Berry's mastery of complex harmony influenced Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker immensely. Parker even named his first son in Chu's honor.

#80 of 100 — Tex Beneke (1914 - 2000)

Jazz critic Will Friedman considers Beneke one of the major blues singers who played with the big bands in the early 1940s.

Tex Beneke is popularly known as Glenn Miller orchestra's primary tenor sax soloist where he played on all but a few of the tenor sax solos on all the records.

#80 of 100 — Herschel Evans (1909 - 1939)

Herschel Evans was convinced by his cousin to switch from the alto to the tenor sax early in his career. the tenor untimately established his reputation.

Evan's reputation as a tenor saxophonist was at its peak around the time he returned Kansas City to become a featured soloist in Count Basie's big band. His musical duels with fellow band member Lester Young are considered jazz classics.

His sound is often described as full-bodied, with an emotional timbre.

#80 of 100 — Buddy Tate (1913 - 2001)

Just like Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate switched from the alto to the tenor sax early on his career, build a reputation for himself, and later joined the Count Basie band.

After Basie, he worked with several bands before finding success with his own. In the 1970s, he co-led a band with Benny Goodman.

#12 of 100 — Budd Johnson (1910 - 1984)

Albert J. "Budd" Johnson III was a big band tenor saxophonist who worked extensively with Earl Hines, Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie among many others.

Johnson, like long-term collaborator Earl Hines, was also an early figure in the bebop era, doing sessions with Coleman Hawkins in 1944. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993.

#80 of 100 — Charlie Barnet (1913 - 1991)

Charlie Daly Barnet was a famous, always restless, big band leader who regularly broke up his bands in the 1930s and changed styles.

The peak of his popularity came in the between 1931 and 1941 with his first truly permanent band. He later to switch from swing to bebop around 1947 and retired shortly afterwards because he lost an interest in music.

#12 of 100 — Vido Musso

Vido Musso was the Italian-American jazz tenor saxophonist who formed a big band with Stan Kenton in 1935. He went to play with Stan Kenton on the 1940s after he'd worked with Benny Goodman and Billie Holliday and many others.

Musso tried unsuccessfully to be a band leader. He spent most of hi career as a sideman.

Bebop Tenor Saxophonists (1940s)

#13 of 100 — Dexter Gordon (1923 - 1990)

Dexter Gordon was the first highly influential tenor saxophonist in bebop such as Charlie Parker was on the alto, or Bud Powel was on the piano, or Dizzy Gillespie was on the trumpet.

Dexter's sound was characterised as large, and spacious with a tendency to play behind the beat. He was known for humourous stage presence.

One of major influences was Lester Young. He, in turn, was an early influence to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

#22 of 100 — Wardell Gray (1921 - 1955)

Wardell Gray was a tenor saxophonist who straddled the swing and bebop periods.

Gray's break came when he joined the Earl Hines Orchestra as a alto as there was no tenor vacancy. He spent three years with Hines, and matured rapidly during this time. He soon become the bands tenor soloist.

He was known for a relaxed, fluent stylish tone, very much in the Lester Young mold.

After leaving hines, he went to the West Coast, where he held tenor battles with Dexter Gordon. These two were ideally matched: Wardell's light sound and swift delivery were more than a match for Dexter's big, blustering sound, and their tenor jousts became a kind of symbol for the Central Avenue scene.

Their fame began to spread, and Ross Russell managed to get them to simulate one of their battles on "The Chase", which became Wardell's first nationally known recording and has been assessed as "one of the most exciting musical contests in the history of jazz".

#26 of 100 — Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (1922 - 1986)

Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis was a jazz tenor saxophonist who played in the swing, bebop, hard bop, Latin jazz and soul jazz genres.

He played with Louis Armstrong and Count Basie bands and many others, as well as leading his own bands and recording as a leader. In 1946, his band, Eddie Davis and His Beboppers featured Fats Navarro, Al Haig, Huey Long, Gene Ramey and Denzil Best.

#24 of 100 — Paul Gonsalves (1920 - 1974)

Paul Gonsalves was the swing and bebop tenor saxophonist most associated with Duke Ellington. Gonsalves' performance of the 27-chorus solo in the middle of Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 is even credited with revilatizing Ellington's waning career in the 1950s.

Ellington nicknamed him "The Strolling Violins" for playing solos while walking through the crowd.

#20 of 100 — Don Byas (1912 - 1972)

Carlos Wesley "Don" Byas was a bebop tenor saxophonist who played with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie besides leading his own band.

He had his big break in 1941 when Count Basie chose him to succeed Lester Young in his big band. Despite his bebop associations, Byas remained deeply rooted in the sounds of swing first by emulating Coleman Hawkins and later Art Tatum.

Under Hawkins, he recorded what is said to be the first bebop issue "Woody 'n You" with bebop pioneers Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach and Gillespie.

He recorded "Be Bop" and "Salt Peanuts" with Gillespie and Young in January 9, 1945.

Don Byas' Dolnet tenor saxophone is on display at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies.

#11 of 100 — Lucky Thompson (1924 -2005)

Having played with the swing orchestras alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he played rythmn and blues, and then established a career in bebop, and hard bop, working with Kenny Clarke, Miles Davis, Gillespie and Milt Jackson.

Ben Ratliff noted that Lucky Thompson "connected the swing era to the more cerebral and complex bebop style. His sophisticated, harmonically abstract approach to the tenor saxophone built off that of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins; he played with beboppers, but resisted Charlie Parker's pervasive influence."

He recorded with Parker on two Dial Sessions and on Miles Davis' hard bop Walkin' session.

#28 of 100 — Sal Nistico (1941 - 1991)

Sal Nistico's solo work contrasts with his big band work. His solo work ins more in the thread of bebop, as heard on the Heavyweights recording.

On his big band work, he is most associated with Woody Herman (1962-65). This is considered one of Herma's best band. In 1965, he joined Count Basie but returned on many occassions to play with Herman.

Hard bop Tenor Saxophonists (1950s)

#16 of 100 — Hank Mobley (1930 - 1986)

Henry "Hank" Mobley was a hard bop and soul jazz tenor saxophonist. Leonard Feather once described him as the "middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone". The critic Stacia Proefrock once stated that he is "one of the most underrated musicians of the bop era."

His tone was not as aggressive as John Coltrane's nor as mellow as Stan Getz, and his style was laid-back, subtle and melodic, especialy as compared to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane.

#21 of 100 — Harold Land (1928 - 2001)

Harold de Vance Land was an American hard bop and post-bop tenor saxophonist. He developed his style playing with drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown.

He often rivalled Brown's instrumental ability with his own inventive and whimsical solos. His tone was strong and emotional, yet hinting at a certain introspective fragility.

Kenny Burrell founder and director of the UCLA Jazz Studies Program said that "Harold Land one of the major contributors in the history of the jazz saxophone."

#25 of 100 — Charlie Rouse (1924 - 1988)

Charlie Rouse was an hard bop tenor saxophonist whose career is marked by his collaboration with Thelonious Monk for more than a decade.

Like more Swing era musicians, Rouse first played the clarinet before switching to the tenor in the big bands.

He worked with the Billy Eckstine Orchestra (1944), the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band (1945), the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1949), the Count Basie Octet (1950), Bull Moose Jackson And His Buffalo Bearcats (1953), Oscar Pettiford Sextet (1955), and then Thelonious Monk Quartet (1959 -1970).

In the 1980s, he was a founding member of Sphere as a tribute to Monk.

#15 of 100 — Joe Henderson (1937 - 2001)

Joe Henderson was a tenor saxophonist with a career spanning four decades who played with many of the leading American players of his day and recorded for several prominent labels.

In the 1960s Henderson appeared in nearly 30 albums for Blue Note, including five released under his name. These range from relatively conservative hard-bop sessions to more explorative sessions.

Although his earliest recordings were marked by a strong hard bop influence, his playing encompassed not only the bebop tradition, but also Rythm and Blues, Latin and Avante-garde.

He played a prominent role in many landmark albums for Blue Note including most of Horace Silver's, Herbie Hancock's, Lee Morgan's and Andrew Hill's.

#27 of 100 — George Coleman (1935 - )

George Coleman is a tenor saxophonist known for his work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the 1960s.

Coleman started out on the alto working with Ray Charles but later switched to the tenor when he started working with B.B King. He's played with many other musicians most notably Chet Baker's The Prestige Sessions and with Charles Mingus.

#29 of 100 — Booker Ervin (1930 - 1970)

Booker Telleferro Ervin II was an jazz tenor saxophonist most associated with Charles Mingus.

He was known for a strong, tought sound and blues/gospel phrasing.

Ervin played with Charles Mingus (1958 - 1960), his own quartet with Jaki Byard (ex-Mingus associate pianist), Richard Davis (bassist), and Alan Dawson (drums), and many others including Dexter Gordon and appeared in various jazz festivals.

#8 of 100 — Sonny Rollins (1930 - )

Walter Theodore "Sonny" Rollins is a tenor saxophonist widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. Rollins has been called "the greatesrt living improviser" and "the Saxophone Colossus".

In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano, as accompaniments for his saxophone solos, a texture that cam to be known as strolling.

Soul Jazz, Rythm & Blues Tenor Saxophonists (1960s)

#30 of 100 — David "Fathead" Newman (1933 - 2009)

David "Fathead" Newman was a soul and R&B tenor saxophonist who is best known as a sideman on seminal 1950s and 1960s recordings by pianist Ray Charles.

Newman is sometimes cited as a leading exponent of "Texas Tenor" saxophone style which is a big-toned, bluesy style of jazz.

AllMusic Guide to Jazz wrote that "there has not been many saxophonists and flutists more naturally soulful than David 'Fathead' Newman".

Free Jazz, Avante-garde Jazz Tenor Saxophonists (1960s)

Free jazz developed on the 1960s when musicians, who saw bebop, hard bop and modal jazz as too limiting, attempted to chnage or break down jazz conventions, such as regular tempos, tones, and chord changes.

Free jazz draws heavily from world music and ethnic music traditions — often described as an attempt to return to primitive, often religious, roots.

It is also referred to as "avante-garde jazz" and as "modern jazz", "creative jazz" or "art music" in Europe.

#9 of 100 — John Coltrane (1926 - 1967)

Having worked in bebop and had bop early in his career, John William Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was a forefront of free jazz.

Over the course of his career, Coltrane's music took an increasingly spirituaol dimension. He remains one of the most influential tenor saxophonists in music history.

#9 of 100 — Pharoah Sanders (1940 - )

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the founders of free jazz, described Pharoah Sanders as "probably the best tenor saxophonist in the world." He is an important figure in the development of free jazz.

Sanders is known for his free jazz techniques such as harsh overblowing, multiphonics and other extended techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from this tenor sax.

#9 of 100 — Albert Ayler (1936 - 1970)

Albert Ayler started out playing bebop but begun recording music during the free jazz era of the 1960s. Undeniably original and unorthodox, Ayler took a deconstructive approach to his music, which characterized the free jazz era.

Although his music does not strictly adhere to the critical understanding of free jazz, it is often classified as "avante-garde jazz".

#18 of 100 — Clifford Jordan

Cool Jazz Tenor Saxophonists (?)

#17 of 100 — Stan Getz (1927 - 1991)

Stan Gayetski was known for a warm, lyrical tone on the tenor, his primary Idol being the wispy, mellow timbre of Lester Young.

Getz performed in bebop and cool jazz groups. In the mid to late 1950s working from Scandinavia, Getz became popular playing cool jazz with Horace Silver, Johnny Smith, Oscar Peterson, and many others.

After returning to America in 1961, Getz became a central figure in introducing bossa nova to the American audience, teaming with guitarist Charlie Byrd. He popularized bossa nova in America with the hit single "The Girl from Ipanema" (1964).

#23 of 100 — Larry Mckenna

#31 of 100 — Dewey Redman

#32 of 100 — Eddie Harris

#33 of 100 — Houston Person

#34 of 100 — Jimmy Heath

#34 of 100 — Ike Quebec

#34 of 100 — Al Sears

#35 of 100 — Sam Rivers

#36 of 100 — Scott Hamilton

#37 of 100 — Warne Marsh

#38 of 100 — King Curtis

#39 of 100 — Sam Butera

#40 of 100 — Michael Brecker

#41 of 100 — Plas Johnson

#42 of 100 — Kirk Whalum

#43 of 100 — Clarence Clemons

#44 of 100 — Sonny Stitt

#45 of 100 — Zoot Simms

#46 of 100 — Illinois Jacquet

#47 of 100 — Arnett Cobb

#48 of 100 — Arnett Cobb

#49 of 100 — Stanley Turrentine

#50 of 100 — Gene Ammons

#51 of 100 — Scott Hamilton

#52 of 100 — Booker Ervin

#53 of 100 — Charlie Rouse

#54 of 100 — John Gilmore

#55 of 100 — David Murray

#56 of 100 — Bob Cooper

#57 of 100 — Jimmy Forrest

#58 of 100 — Harold Floyd "Tina" Brooks

#59 of 100 — Chris Potter

#60 of 100 — Bud Freeman

#61 of 100 — Benny Golson

#62 of 100 — Von Freeman

#63 of 100 — Fhil Phillips

#64 of 100 — Sam Koontz Donahue

#65 of 100 — Fred Anderson

#66 of 100 — Jerry Bergonzi

#67 of 100 — Junior Cook

#68 of 100 — Joe Daley

#69 of 100 — Teddy Edwards

#70 of 100 — Bill Evans

#71 of 100 — Booker Ervin

#72 of 100 — Archie Shepp

#73 of 100 — Ron Holloway

#74 of 100 — Dave Koz

#75 of 100 — Richie Kamuca

#76 of 100 — Dewey Redman

#77 of 100 — Al Cohn

#78 of 100 — Zoot Sims

#79 of 100 — Red Prysock

#80 of 100 — James Moody

#19 of 100 — Kamasi Washington

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I've played the alto and then the tenor saxophone for close to a decade now. I gig with several bands around the world for most months in a year. I created SqueakingSax to share with you some interesting tips and techniques I've picked up along the way.

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