Who are the Greatest Alto Saxophone Players of All Time?
Today we are going to take look at my top 10 of the greatest alto saxophone players.
This list, in no particular order, are 10 of the greatest and most influential classic jazz alto saxophone players of all time. If you play the saxophone you should know these musicians and be familiar with their sound, style, and recordings.
Of course, some of you may feel that I have missed someone who really should be on this list. If so please let me know in the comments so I can include them in a best alto saxophonists part 2 down the road.
One of the most important yet overlooked components to getting better on the saxophone is listening and studying the history and recordings of the masters that laid the groundwork for everything that came after.
I hope this video can serve as a starting point for anyone beginning their exploration.
Charlie Parker A.K.A “The Bird”
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first since this list could not be possible without him. I’m talking about Charlie Parker, of course.
As far as the saxophone goes and lots of other instruments for that matter, the Bird is the father of bebop. The innovator, the creator, the instigator.
He is without a doubt one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century so far ahead of his time if he were alive today his playing would still sound contemporary.
It’s ironic that many musicians that came after him were accused of being Charlie Parker clones, when in reality, Bird’s playing is still unmatched.
As far as I know, this is the only existing live performance video of Bird playing.
They are playing the Tad Dameron composition “Hot House” which is a contrafact, a bebop melody over the chord changes to the Cole Porter tune “What is this Thing Called Love.”
The technique is ridiculous. Check out the efficiency of finger movement and how rounded his fingers are. When he plays the palm keys none of the other fingers move.
He’s playing on his King Super 20 alto which is now on display at that the Smithsonian Museum of Black American Culture.
Notice he plays the middle D with the Eb palm key there to get a particular sound. This might make certain passages easier for those of you playing Charlie Parker transcriptions from the omnibook.
So for me that is a short yet perfect solo. I just wish we had more video of him playing live since there is so much to be learned from watching the masters.
From 1956-1966, I count 68 albums released by Stitt mostly as a leader. There are dozens of others outside that 10 year period. It’s just a phenomenal amount of recordings and they are all killer. For me if I put on a Sonny Stitt track, it leads down a rabbit hole of binge listening that can last for weeks
So while Sonny Stitt had been criticized for mimicking bird I think that is unwarranted. First of all he clearly developed his own unique sound and style albeit inspired by Bird. But as the great Bob Mover once said to me, “if you don’t have a little bit of Bird in your playing you’re doing it wrong.”
Check out this live recording of Loverman from I think 1965.
Again notice the impeccable finger technique, and how much mouthpiece he takes in. That’s one of his classic diminished scale licks.
Looks like he’s playing on a Selmer Mark VI with an otto link super tone master mouthpiece.
Julian Cannonball Adderley
Cannonball is off in a different direction. There is still the link to Charlie Parker’s bebop language but he’s got a very distinctive sound with a lot of edge in it. He played on a NY Meyer and a King Super 20 alto saxophone. Notice the heavy swing feel with his eighth notes and the very soulful style, which would eventually develop into what would be called soul jazz. Still very firmly rooted in bebop.
Check out his embouchure. That’s why of love these videos. you can see he’s got his bottom lip rolled in quite a bit.
Also he doesn’t take as much mouthpiece in his mouth.
One of the all time great saxophone players in any style. I could listen to Cannonball all day long. You should check out his work with Miles Davis and his solo albums
Known for his singing expressive tone, large bends, and wide vibrato – Johnny Hodges played lead alto with the Duke Ellington orchestra for almost his entire career from 1928 until 1970 (Except for a few years when he went solo).
Ellington wrote many compositions and arrangements that featured Hodges unique alto sound as a soloist. Like this version of “I’ve Got it Bad.”
He get’s that long bend, by slowly opening the E palm key.
He’s playing on his Buescher Top Hat and Cane model alto here and what looks like a Berg Larson mouthpiece to me.
I love watching these videos.
Benny Carter was a contemporary of Johnny Hodges and while there were some similarities in their playing style, I can broadly generalize by saying Carter was more of a technical improvisor, where Hodges was more of an emotional one.
Benny Carter was a prolific composer and arranger who also played the trumpet.
Here he’s playing over the standard Indiana which are key changes for Charlie Parker’s Contrafact “Donna Lee.”
Jackie McClean is one of the most important alto saxophone players in the history of jazz. His career spanned 5 decades of prolific recording and performing as not only a leader, but also as a sideman on some of the most iconic jazz records with many of the giants of the art form.
He is considered an early pioneer of what is called hard-bop. Bebop evolved into 2 distinct directions in the mid 50’s – hard bop and cool jazz. While cool jazz had more of a western classical music influence, hard-bop was very much black American music.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find an older video of Jackie performing live, but here is one from 1988 with is son on tenor. While Jackie Mclean was very firmly rooted in the bebop tradition, he later developed his playing into a more avant garde style.
In this solo he is playing a lot of tensions like whole tone scale patterns and then masterfully resolving them to typical blues language.
Lee Konitz is another highly influential and prolific saxophonist who’s career spanned seven decades. He’s one of the few to have developed a truly unique improvisational style. Here he is playing another contrafact called “Half Nelson” which is based on the chord changes to “Lady Bird.”
Konitz was best known for his cool jazz recordings, he was on the iconic Birth of the Cool album that featured Miles Davis in 1949. While many jazz improvisors have their own vocabulary that gets reused a lot, when you listen to Konitz it always sounds like something new and truly improvised.
Best known for his composition “Take 5,” recorded with the Dave Brubek quartet, Paul Desmond’s alto sound is characteristic of the Cool school of west coast jazz in the 60’s.
His sound is on the darker end of the spectrum and his articulation is very light and breathy. His playing is very thoughtful and melodic. The word delicate comes to mind for me. Clearly influenced by Lee Konitz, Desmond’s solos are studies in thematic development. Listen to how he takes an idea and plays it several ways before moving onto another melodic idea and repeating the process.
Night in Tunisia. This comes from a recording in Paris from 1960. Phil Woods carried on the bebop tradition of Charlie Parker. You can hear a lot of that influence in the sound and phrasing. Again you can see impeccable finger technique and hear the swing feel. He’s always a very creative improvisor
He actually married Charlie Parker’s widow and outside of the jazz world he is best known for his solo on Billy Joel’s Just the way You Are where he blows some killer bebop lines on a pop tune with a samba groove. That’s the 1970s for ya.
Listen to him sneak a flat 5 in on that solo so smoothly. Love it.
Ornette Coleman is the champion of individuality and doing your own thing regardless of what other people think or say. So whether or not avant garde music speaks to you, his commitment to innovation should serve as inspiration to anyone who’s ever had an original idea.
His music has been deeply controversial from the beginning, but by removing the elements of form and strict harmony from his compositions, he managed to create a more truly improvised music than traditional jazz is. So there’s that.
He was known for playing a white plastic Grafton saxophone but in this clip he’s playing a white lacquer Selmer Mark Vi with a low a key.
I recommend listening to Ornette Coleman with an open mind and without any expectations. You just may find it very liberating.
In any case, he has had an enormous influence on music and saxophone players.
Interested in more content with great alto saxophone players? Check out my “Sax Study with Jaleel Shaw.”
And don’t forget to check out the BetterSax Podcast! Listen below.