Famous Jazz Saxophone Players of the Past: Instrumental Inspirations

Yet another Friday and another return to jazz. This weeks post is diving into the saxophone world by looking at some famous jazz saxophone players. Simply to help narrow the topic down a bit I have chosen to only look at saxophone players who have already passed away but still have a lasting effect on the world of jazz and playing the saxophone. Since I have only choose to cover 3 saxophone players in this post, it is clear that I will be revisiting the saxophone and the fantastic people who have been able to make successful music careers playing it.

When many of us think of the saxophone, whether it is the soprano sax or baritone sax, we immediately think of jazz music. Since the saxophone is a relatively new instrument it isn’t recognized for its long history like the trumpet of flute. Some may even think of the jazzy tunes played by Lisa Simpson in the oh so popular cartoon, The Simpsons, when the saxophone comes up in conversation.

Regardless of how different people see the saxophone it has certainly earned its place in the woodwind family, as well as, in the world of instruments. However, the saxophone could not have gained its popularity and recognition without the great musicians who have played the instrument and gave it life. People young and old continue to yearn to play the saxophone, getting inspiration from past and present saxophone inspirations. I have heard many professional say and I tend to agree that anyone can play the saxophone but it takes great skill to make it sound great. The musicians highlighted in todays post clearly had the skill required to make make the saxophone sing. Todays instrumental inspirations are:

  • Charlie Parker
  • John Coltrane
  • Coleman Hawkins

Famous Jazz Saxophone Players of the Past

Charlie Parker (August 29th, 1920 – March 12th, 1955)

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker is a well known name to all saxophonist and Jazz players. He was an influential jazz improvising soloist and a leading figure in the development of bebop in the 1940s. Although his life was cut short his influence has had a lasting effect on the saxophone and its role in jazz music.

Parker found his love for music from lessons he received in school. Although Parker started playing the baritone sax, he switched to the alto sax at the age of 15 and began performing   the alto saxophone in the local club scene of Kansas City, Missouri with local bands. Parker eventually quit school to pursue a music career.

During his career Parker travelled around playing with a number of different jazz groups in Kansas City, Missouri, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He even toured Europe in 1949.  He also created his own group while also performing with Dizzie Gillespie. While working together Parker and Gillespie invented a whole new stye of Jazz known today as bop or bebop.

Parker was a also a successful composer, contributing greatly to the modern jazz solo. some of his compositions include Yardbird Suite, and How High The Moon.

Because I absolutely love this tune, here is Charlie Parker playing Summertime.

John Coltrane (September 23rd, 1926 – July 17th, 1967)

John Coltrane

“John Coltrane 1963” by Gelderen, Hugo van / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 915-6748. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Coltrane_1963.jpg#/media/File:John_Coltrane_1963.jpg

Many jazz musicians and fans recognize John Coltrane as an extremely influential individual with regards to the development of jazz music and the saxophone. Coltrane’s love for music was influenced by his father who also had a passion for music and played several instruments. His first exposure to jazz was from listening to the music of Lester Young and Count Basie. At the age of 13 he began to play the saxophone, attempting to imitate the sounds of other jazz greats such as Charlie parker.

After graduating High School Coltrane continued to study music but was called to duty to serve in the war in 1943. He Served one year in a Navy band in Hawaii. It was actually during his time serving in the Navy that Coltrane released his first recording with a group of sailors.

After returning to civilian life Coltrane continued to work on his music career as a saxophonist. During the early years of his career he joined many different groups including a big band led by Dizzy Gillespie. By the 1950’s his career was really starting to take off but sadly many opportunities were cut short due to his ongoing drug addictions. His talents got big recognition when he joined the Miles Davis quintet. During his time with the Miles Davis Quintet Davis encouraged Coltrane to experiment with his saxophone playing. However, despite Davis’s attempt to help Coltrane with his drug problems, Coltrane did not quit and was fired from the group.

John Coltranes career did not end there. He was able to kick his drug addiction and continued his music career, including playing with Thelonoius  Monk for 6 months, as well as, creating a successful solo career and an ensemble of his own called The John Coltrane Quartet.

Coltrane influenced an entire generation of musicians and continues to influence jazz musicians today. He is well known for his experimental techniques and respect for music of other cultures including Africa and Latin America.

John Coltrane performing A love Supreme.

Coleman Hawkins (November 21st, 1904 – May 19th, 1969)

Coleman hawkins

Coleman Hawkins is known as one of the first prominent jazz musicians to be known for playing the tenor saxophone. Hawkins like so many other famous musicians began playing music at a very young age. He learned to play the piano first at the age of 5, then the cello at age 7 and finally the tenor saxophone at the age of 9.

Hawkins music career really began to  take off in 1921 when he received his first professional gig with he orchestra of the 12th Street Theater in Kansas City. By 1922 he was  playing with Maime Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, whom he made his first recordings with.

After leaving Maime Smith and Her Jazz Hounds Hawkins teamed up with Fletcher Henderson who he worked with until 1934.  During there time together they toured around the United States. By 1934 Hawkins had created a sound of his own and set out alone to  tour the country with various local back up bands.

He also toured Europe with Jack Hyltons’s Band in 1934  and The Ramblers the next year. He remained in Europe for several years to continue to pursue a solo career there prior to returning to the United Stated in 1939.

Shortly after returning to the United States Hawkins released his recording of Body and Soul which led him to great success. Hawkins continued to perform through out the United States with various bands and released several recordings.  He also returned to tour Europe on several occasions.

Coleman Hawkins remains a major contributor to jazz music. He is known to have been a large influence for other great Jazz musicians such as Lester Young and Miles Davis.

Coleman Hawkins performing Body and Soul.

 Now there are some really great inspirations for all musicians. This was merely a taste of the great musicians who have became known as famous jazz musicians. There are many, many more of them and future posts will highlight their contributions as well. I would love to hear what you have to say about these and other great saxophone players. Who do you think I should include in my next post that highlights famous jazz saxophone players.


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