11 Black Jazz Musicians Who Defined The Genre

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This list will introduce you to the most famous black jazz musicians of all time.

Since developing in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century, jazz music has been an epicentre of creative expression and musical excellence. Growing out of ragtime and blues over a century ago, jazz is fundamentally African-American in its origins.

Jazz went on to develop into sub-genres and spread across the world over the course of the twentieth century. Jazz music found popularity all over the world, but the majority of the best and most famous jazz musicians were black Americans. All the artists on this list can be considered amongst the greatest jazz musicians of all time.

Here are ten of the most famous black jazz musicians who shaped the history of jazz.

Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis is arguably the most famous jazz musician of all time. A prolific recording artist, his five decade career saw him as a leading figure at many of the biggest developments in the genre of jazz.

Miles Davis was a key figure in cool jazz, modal jazz, hard bop, and jazz fusion. He won eight Grammy awards in his career, receiving a staggering thirty-two nominations.

Out of his extensive discography – which is over sixty albums – some of Davis’ most influential records are Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), and Bitches Brew (1970). The modal jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue stands to this day as arguably the most iconic jazz album of all time.

Davis was a frequent collaborator with both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, who played sax on many of these records.

A true legend who is possibly the most famous black jazz musician of all time.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

louis armstrong

Louis Armstrong – known affectionately as ‘Satchmo’ – is one of the most famous black jazz musicians of all time. He is famous both as a singer, as a big band leader, and as a trumpeter.

His distinctive, gravelly voice is one of the most iconic voices in jazz, and is instantly recognisable in his hit song ‘What a Wonderful World’ (1967). His other hits include his rendition of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’ (1950), and ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (1964).

Armstrong was a charismatic and beloved figure within jazz, and is clearly one of the genre’s best-known and best-loved artists.

He has a staggering twelve recordings that have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame due to their contribution to the history of music. In 1972, he was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Ella Fitzgerald

Often referred to with the honorific title ‘Queen of Jazz,’ Ella Fitzgerald is arguably the best female jazz singer of all time. Many would say that her incredible vocal talents have never been matched.

A popular singer in the era of big band jazz, some of her most famous song renditions include ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me,’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).’

She is known in part for her iconic renditions of the songs of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter, as well as her collaborations with swing legends Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.

Fitzgerald picked up thirteen Grammy awards in her career, as well as being presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.

John Coltrane (1926-1967)

John Coltrane

John Coltrane may well be the most famous jazz trumpeter of all time. A pioneer of modal jazz and free jazz, as well as an accomplished bebop player, Coltrane is widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz musicians to have ever lived.

Coltrane is the best-known figure in the sub-genre of spiritual jazz. His 1965 album A Love Supreme is often considered to be his masterpiece, as well as the quintessential spiritual jazz record. His other iconic records include the 1961 My Favorite Things.

Coltrane was a frequent collaborator with Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, appearing frequently on the albums of those other two jazz greats.

In 1963, Coltrane married Alice, who is a highly regarded jazz pianist and harpist and one of the foremost figures in spiritual jazz.

In 1997, John Coltrane was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.

Nina Simone (1933-2003)

Nina Simone

You can’t get much more iconic than Nina Simone. The singer, songwriter, and pianist is one of the best-known and most-celebrated personalities in the history of jazz. She is sometimes referred to with the honorific title, ‘the High Priestess of Soul.’

In a career that spanned six decades, Simone first rose to success in the late 50s as a nightclub singer. A fascinating public figure and activist, and an enthralling performer, her music fused together elements of blues, gospel, folk, and jazz.

She is best-known for her renditions of ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me,’ ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ ‘Feeling Good,’ and ‘Sinnerman.’

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker – known affectionately as ‘Bird’ – is amongst the most-respected and best jazz saxophonists of all time. He was also a band leader and composer. 

Regarded as one of the great jazz virtuosos, Parker was a leading figure in the technically challenging sub-genre of bebop. He was regarded as an icon in the beat generation, who revered him as a boundary-pushing artist and intellectual.

The famous New York jazz bar ‘Birdland’ was named after Parker, with the song ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ being written in his honour.

His most famous records include the lush Charlie Parker with Strings (1950), and his collaborative album with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Bird and Diz (1962). Four of his albums have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including Charlie Parker with Strings.

Parker made his astonishing contributions to jazz before dying at the age of just 34 in 1955.

Miles Davis allegedly once said that you can tell the history of jazz in four words: “Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”

Nat King Cole (1919-1965)

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole is one of the greatest male jazz singers of all time. Noted for his ‘crooning’ style, Cole achieved staggering popularity in his time. Cole started out as a pianist, but his stunning and smooth voice saw him rise to success first and foremost as a singer.

Some of his numerous hits include ‘The Very Thought of You,’ ‘Almost Like Being in Love,’ ‘Smile,’ and ‘Autumn Leaves.’

In 1960, he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1990.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, and was hugely popular in the swing era. 

Holiday sang in two of the most popular swing bands of the era, including the Count Basie Orchestra and the Artie Shaw Orchestra. Along with Ella Fitzgerald, she was amongst the most popular swing singers of the time, and they two became friends.

Her most famous hit is her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit.’ Other songs she is known for include ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’ and ‘All of Me.’

Holiday won four Grammy awards, but unfortunately did not receive that recognition during her lifetime – all her Grammy awards were presented posthumously. 

Count Basie (1904-1984)

Count Basie

Count Basie is one of the most famous big band leaders of all time, as well as being a skilled pianist and composer. Basie led his orchestra for over five decades, and the orchestra continues to play under his name to this day – making it the longest running jazz orchestra of all time.

In 1958, Basie was presented with two Grammy awards, making him the first African-American to win at the Grammys – both awards were for his legendary album, Basie (The Atomic Mr Basie). He went on to win seven more Grammy awards over the course of his career.

Four Basie songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame – ‘One O’Clock Jump’ (1937), ‘Lester Leaps In’ (1939), ‘April in Paris’ (1955), and ‘Everyday (I Have the Blues)’ (1955).

One of the most influential black jazz musicians of all time.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie is amongst the most famous jazz trumpeters of all time. He is also respected as a band leader, composer, and singer.

Regarded as an innovator and virtuoso in the genre, Gillespie played a leading role in popularising the fast and technically challenging jazz sub-genre of bebop, along with Charlie Parker. He was also a pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Revered as one of the great trumpeters to have lived, it is well-known that Gillespie influenced Miles Davis, besides countless others who came after him.

Some of his greatest tracks include ‘Groovin’ High,’ ‘Salt Peanuts,’ and ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street.’

He was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

thelonious monk

Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. His distinctive style has an improvisational sound, and often an angular, percussive feel. He was an influential figure in the development of bebop, and was known as an entertaining performer.

Aside from his virtuoso piano playing, Monk is highly regarded as a composer. He is responsible for penning a number of tunes that became jazz standards including ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ ‘Blue Monk,’ ‘Ruby, My Dear,’ and ‘Round Midnight.’

His most-celebrated albums include Brilliant Corners (1957), Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959), and Monk’s Dream (1963).

Amongst his accolades, he has featured on the cover of Time magazine – style and cultural icon that he was – and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.


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