Everyone loves the bari sax, but there aren’t nearly as many specialists on this instrument as there are on alto and tenor saxophone.
To celebrate the release of the new BetterSax Burnin’ Baritone Mouthpiece, I put together a list of some of the greatest bari sax players of all time. Consider this part history lesson and part listening list.
This list is in no particular order since you cannot rank musicians, these are just some of the players I like to listen to and think you’ll enjoy checking out as well.
You’ll notice that one thing all the people on this list have in common is that they are no longer with us, physically at least. There are tons of great active bari sax players out there now, and I will gladly make another video about them in the future. Please don’t get upset if I left someone off this list you think should be here, just put their name in the comments so we can all see.
We will start off with Harry Carney who was the baritone saxophonist for the Duke Ellington band. In fact he was the only baritone saxophonist for the Duke Ellington band since he got the gig in 1927 when he was still in school at the age of 17 and held that chair for his entire life, 46 years in total. He and Duke were very close and while the rest of the band travelled in the tour bus, Duke would ride separately in Harry Carney’s car so he could write and rest. Apparently, Carney was a safe and relaxing driver.
Here he is playing Sophisticated Lady, one of his regular solo features with the Duke Ellington orchestra.
Leo Parker started out as an alto player and was on the original bebop recording session with Coleman Hawkins in 1944. He then switched to baritone later that year when he joined the Billy Eckstine band where he played alongside Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. There are 2 Blue Note record dates Parker made as a leader in 1961 which are highlights of his career, unfortunately he died a year later at the age of 36. Here’s a selection from one of those records that all baritone saxophone players should check out.
Bob Gordon a West Coast baritone saxophone player whose career was really taking off in 1954 when he worked as a sideman on several prominent projects and recordings including the track we are about to listen to with a young Clifford Brown. He also recorded his first album as a leader in that year, but once again a very promising young musician’s life was cut way too short. Bob Gordon died in a car accident the following year. He was only 27 years old.
Serge Chaloff was inspired by Harry Carney and took up the baritone saxophone at a young age. He ended up playing in the then very popular Woody Herman big band and was part of the notorious “Four Brothers” saxophone section including Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward and later Al Cohn.
He credited Charlie Parker as a major influence on his playing style but unfortunately he was also influenced by a bad heroin habit. Apparently Woody Herman’s band had more than its fair share of addicts and Serge was particularly troublesome.
Reportedly, after being fired from the band, Chaloff led Herman to the balcony of the hotel where they were staying and pointed to the river below that had dozens of sheets of paper floating in it.
He said, Woody, you can’t fire me. That’s the baritone book in the river and I’m the only person who knows all the parts.
Chaloff did eventually get clean and recorded the album Blue Serge in 1956. It’s considered the highlight of his musical career. Shortly after that he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1957 at the young age of 33.
BetterSax Burnin’ Baritone Mouthpiece
Real quick, let me tell you a little bit about the new Burnin’ mouthpiece for baritone saxophone which continues where the alto and tenor versions left off. This mouthpiece design lends itself very well to baritone saxophone playing and here’s why. As you can hear in many of the examples the baritone voice in jazz music stands out in the mix when it has a bit of bite to it. Our long roll over baffle and straight side walls allow you to get the projection and power you need as well as the clear higher frequencies for a beautiful, stand out bari sax tone.
All Burnin’ mouthpieces are made in the USA from premium hard rubber, and hand finished and play tested at the Jody Jazz factory. Thanks to this mouthpiece I’ve been playing a ton more bari lately and have been loving it.
Click the link in the description to learn more or order one for yourself.
Now back to our list.
Perhaps the best known baritone saxophone player from the cool jazz era, Gerry Mulligan was also a prolific arranger and composer. He wrote and arranged some of the tunes on Miles Davis’ Legendary Birth of the Cool album, had a pianoless quartet with Chet Baker and in known for having played an old gold plated conn baritone saxophone for his entire career. He continued to perform actively up until the year he died 1996 at the age of 68.
Pepper Adams doesn’t have the same name recognition as Gerry Mulligan, but any fan of classic jazz will be familiar with his playing on Charles Mingus’s Moanin’ and Chet Baker’s version of Alone Together.
He played the baritone saxophone with the technical proficiency and speed of the top alto and tenor players of the time. He ended up recording 18 albums as a leader in the latter part of his career and participated in over 600 recording sessions as a sideman.
I came across this video of him performing at the Grammys in 1982. Just think about how not all that long ago, it was common to have burnin’ bebop like this being played and televised at the Grammy awards ceremony.
Nick Brignola is another baritone saxophonist with burnin bebop technique. He recorded more than 20 albums as a leader and worked on countless projects with jazz heavyweights.
Here is a taste of his playing on I’ll Remember April.
Ronnie Cuber was a technical master of the baritone saxophone who was at home in a wide variety of styles from bebop to latin to fusion and pop music. He had a prolific recording career putting out 18 albums as a leader and working on countless other projects as a sideman. Notably, the Mingus Big Band, Frank Sinatra, The Saturday Night Live Band, Paul Simon, Dr. John and many more.
Here are some other great bari sax players to check out and you’re going to love watching this video next, it’s my top ten alto sax players from the classic jazz era.
Other Notable Bari Sax Players to check out: