Black Music Month: The Great Men of Jazz

June 24, 2021

In our June 10 issue we celebrated Black Music Month by spotlighting the ‘Great Ladies of Jazz.’ This week it’s the men’s turn as we look at 15 Jazz legends that forever changed the face of music.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Daniel Armstrong, nicknamed “Satchmo”, “Satch”, and “Pops”, was an American trumpeter and vocalist who is among the most influential figures in jazz. His career spanned five decades and different eras in the history of jazz.

Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans. Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an inventive trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance.

With his instantly recognizable rich, gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer and skillful improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song. He was also skilled at scat singing. Armstrong is renowned for his charismatic stage presence and voice as well as his trumpet playing. By the end of Armstrong’s life, his influence had spread to popular music in general. Armstrong was one of the first popular African American entertainers to “cross over” to wide popularity with white (and international) audiences.

Dizzy Gillespie

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, educator and singer. He was a trumpet virtuoso and improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic and rhythmic complexity previously unheard in jazz. His combination of musicianship, showmanship, and wit made him a leading popularizer of the new music called bebop. His beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, scat singing, bent horn, pouched cheeks, and light-hearted personality provided some of bebop’s most prominent symbols.

Scott Yanow wrote, “Dizzy Gillespie’s contributions to jazz were huge. One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, Gillespie was such a complex player that his contemporaries ended up being similar to those of Miles Davis and Fats Navarro instead, and it was not until Jon Faddis’s emergence in the 1970s that Dizzy’s style was successfully recreated [….] Gillespie is remembered, by both critics and fans alike, as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time”.

Miles Davis

Miles Dewey Davis, III was an American trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He is among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music. Davis adopted a variety of musical directions in a five-decade career that kept him at the forefront of many major stylistic developments in jazz.

Born in Alton, Illinois, and raised in East St. Louis, Davis left to study at Juilliard in New York City, before dropping out and making his professional debut as a member of saxophonist Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet from 1944 to 1948.

Shortly after, he recorded the Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol Records, which were instrumental to the development of cool jazz. In the early 1950s, Miles Davis recorded some of the earliest hard bop music while on Prestige Records.

In 2006, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which recognized him as “one of the key figures in the history of jazz”. Rolling Stone described him as “the most revered jazz trumpeter of all time, not to mention one of the most important musicians of the 20th century,” while Gerald Early called him inarguably one of the most influential and innovative musicians of that period.

Duke Ellington

Born in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was based in New York City from the mid- 1920s onward and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Although widely considered a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music.

Ellington was noted for his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and his eloquence and charisma. His reputation continued to rise after he died. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.

Joe Williams

Joe Williams (born Joseph Goreed) was an American jazz singer. He sang with big bands such as the Count Basie Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and with his combos. He sang in two films with the Basie orchestra and sometimes worked as an actor.

Williams worked regularly until his death in Las Vegas on March 29, 1999, at the age of 80.

Muddy Waters

McKinley Morganfield, known professionally as Muddy Waters, was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician who was an important figure in the post-war blues scene, and is often cited as the “father of modern Chicago blues.” His style of playing has been described as “raining down Delta beatitude.”

In the early 1950s, Muddy Waters and his band—Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Elga Edmonds (also known as Elgin Evans) on drums and Otis Spann on piano— recorded several blues classics, some with the bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon. These songs included “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “I’m Ready.” In 1958, he traveled to England, laying the foundations of the resurgence of interest in the blues there. His performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 was recorded and released as his first live album, At Newport 1960.

Muddy Waters’ music has influenced various American music genres, including rock and roll and rock music.

Grover Washington, Jr.

Grover Washington, Jr., was an American jazz-funk / soul-jazz saxophonist. Along with Wes Montgomery and George Benson, he is considered by many to be one of the founders of the smooth jazz genre. He wrote some of his material and later became an arranger and producer.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Washington made some of the genre’s most memorable hits, including “Mister Magic“, “Reed Seed“, “Black Frost“, “Winelight“, “Inner City Blues” and “The Best is Yet to Come“. In addition, he performed very frequently with other artists, including Bill Withers on “Just the Two of Us“, Patti LaBelle on “The Best Is Yet to Come” and Phyllis Hyman on “A Sacred Kind of Love“. He is also remembered for his take on the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five“, and for his 1996 version of “Soulful Strut“.

Washington had a preference for black nickel-plated saxophones made by Julius Keilwerth. These included an SX90R alto and SX90R tenor. He also played Selmer Mark VI alto in the early years. His main soprano was a black nickel-plated H. Couf Superba II (also built by Keilwerth for Herbert Couf) and a Keilwerth SX90 in the last years of his life.

Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis, Jr., is an American jazz composer, pianist and radio personality. Lewis has recorded over 80 albums and has received five gold records and three Grammy Awards so far in his career.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Ramsey Lewis among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.

Myles Sanko

Myles Sanko is a British soul and jazz singer and songwriter of Ghanaian origin.

Sanko, who grew up in a small town on the coast of Ghana, then migrated to the UK with his family. There he sang and rapped as a teenager in Cambridge . Later he played with the Bijoumiyo and accompanied speedometers. With his debut EP Born in Black & White, initially self-distributed in 2013 , Sanko managed to become known in Europe. In 2014, Légère released the album Forever Dreaming and in 2016 Just Being Me. He wrote some of his songs together with Thierry Los. He performed at festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival , Elbjazz , Rheingau Music Festival or Jazz & Joy Festival.

Joe Sample

Joseph Leslie Sample (February 1, 1939 – September 12, 2014) was an American keyboardist and composer. He was one of the founding members of the Jazz Crusaders, the band which became simply the Crusaders in 1971, and remained a part of the group until its final album in 1991 (not including the 2003 reunion album Rural Renewal).

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor (born 1960) is an American smooth jazz saxophonist who has released eleven albums since his debut On the Horn in 1995. He is a graduate of University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), where he attended with a full music scholarship. He is signed to Peak Records. Although originally from Denver, Colorado, he is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He also played as a special guest with the Rippingtons for a short time in 1999 and 2000, after Jeff Kashiwa left the group and before Eric Marienthal joined them. He collaborated with many R&B vocalists such as LaToya London, Regina Belle, Maxi Priest, Peabo Bryson and Terry Dexter.

Jon Batiste

Jonathan Michael Batiste is an American musician, bandleader, and television personality. He has recorded and performed with artists in various genres of music (Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Sheeran, Roy Hargrove, and Mavis Staples), released his own recordings, and performed in more than 40 countries. Batiste regularly tours with his band Stay Human, and appears with them nightly as bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015

Batiste also serves as the Music Director of The Atlantic and the Creative Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. In 2020, he acted as co-composer on the Pixar animated film Soul, for which he received a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and an Academy Award for Best Original Score with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Learson Marsalis (born October 18, 1961) is an American trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has promoted classical and jazz music, often to young audiences. Marsalis has won at least nine Grammy Awards, and his Blood on the Fields was the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He is the only musician to win a Grammy Award in jazz and classical during the same year.

Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis is an American saxophonist, composer, and bandleader. While primarily known for his work in jazz as the leader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, he also performs frequently as a soloist with classical ensembles and has led the group Buckshot LeFonque. From 1992 to 1995 he led The Tonight Show Band.

Lou Rawls

Louis Allen Rawls (December 1, 1933 – January 6, 2006) was an American record producer, singer, composer and actor. Rawls released more than 60 albums, sold more than 40 million records, and had numerous charting singles, most notably his song “You’ll Never Find Another Love like Mine“. He worked as a film, television, and voice actor. He was also a three-time Grammy-winner, all for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

Read More About: ,