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Greatest Saxophone Player of All Time?

by Neal

The greatest saxophone player of all time…..

Certainly up for debate.  But a number of saxophone players are definitely contenders.

Saw a poll on Sax on the web about who the greatest sax player ever is. Here are their results:

Charlie Parker 48 27.75%
Ornette Coleman 0 0%
John Coltrane 38 21.97%
Brecker 18 10.40%
Mule and Rascher 10 5.78%
Branford Marsalis 3 1.73%
Lester Young 11 6.36%
Plas Johnson 1 0.58%
Cannonball Adderley 14 8.09%

So Charlie Parker and John Coltrane get the top two spots. Makes sense. The other players on the list certainly sound great as well. Who do you think should also rank in the top tiers?

A few more contenders I would add to the list of possibilities would be-

Coleman Hawkins
Stanley Turrentine
Stan Getz
Sonny Stitt
Joe Henderson
Dexter Gordon
James Moody
Paul Desmond
Hank Mobley
Eddie Harris
Wayne Shorter
Sonny Rollins
Grover Washington Jr.
Benny Carter
Gene Ammons
Maceo Parker
Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis
King Curtis
Jimmy Heath
Jr. Walker
Louis Jordan
Gerry Mulligan
Illinois Jacquet
Earl Bostic
Johnny Hodges
Art Pepper

It’s somewhat a question of taste. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were pioneers of bebop though.

Another question might be who you think the greatest living saxophone player is.

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{ 120 comments… read them below or add one }

jeff ervin May 24, 2013 at 2:24 am

Most amazing technician? Easy. Earl Bostic.

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Neal May 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Thanks for the input. He is on the amended list.

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Randy May 31, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Seriously I cannot believe with all you historian type Sax Players & Fans you guys all forgot Dr. Wu! Who is the good Doctor? Well if you are a Steely Dan fan he once played on a song with that title. Donald Fagon calls out to him in the song, “Can you hear me Doctor?” I got to see the good Doctor live once at a place no longer exists called Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach. A nite I will never forget! Check out his music sometime…

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Randy June 1, 2013 at 1:21 am

PS: Spyro Gyra is a band name not a Sax Player but the leader of the band Jay Beckinstien he can play lights out. Seen the band in the early 90’s at a diner club in Costa Mesa I believe. Always nice to get diner and a show. I miss the Strand in Redondo Beach. They made a awesome club diner house into some kinda dork Aldor Farms market! Good God what a waste!

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Neal June 3, 2013 at 1:16 am

Thanks for sharing Randy, I knew about Spyro Gyra

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Neal June 3, 2013 at 1:16 am

Think he would be the greatest of all time though?

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Mel August 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Wheres the women in this list…….How about Candy Dulfer definitly up there with Maceo Parker :)

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Neal November 2, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Candy Dulfer is good, not sure if anyone calls her the greatest of all time though.

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mark O'Shea September 19, 2013 at 4:35 am

Arguably the greatest and the greatest living Phil Woods
It’s interesting to me how he never seems to be on the top of the list. Arguably as good as Charlie Parker some say. Tours mainly in Europe

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Chazz Pratt September 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I think the real question here is:

“What Sax Players should I add to my Playlist and study so that I can learn more about the various styles, interpretations, and increase my awareness as to how other Sax Players put their unique signature on a tune?”

Although I have my personal favorites, I’m not ready to crown a “King of Sax” much like the Music world did with Elvis & Michael, but based on the comments above, there’s evidence that I need to listen to some Sax Players I’ve never even heard of or haven’t gotten to hear in depth yet.

Earlier this year, I decided to listen more. I got a book called, “Masters of the Jazz Saxophone” by Dave Gelly and started looking & booking – as in looking up these Sax Greats on YouTube and Bookmarking them on my computer. (BTW, as far as the book, it’s a great read too!)

I like listening to many – and my playlist is growing and growing. What I like about the older Sax Cats is that they often had various “Takes” (in other words, they ran the song over and over again in the studio and recorded it. Sometimes known as Alternate Take #_). John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Paul Desmond, Jimmy Forrest, Stan Getz, and countless others have alternate takes to popular songs they recorded. This gives you as the listener/learner an opportunity to hear the various interpretations of the same song and unique ways in which the legends of the Saxophone used their technique, phrasing, scales, modes, etc., in the song. New ideas surfaced as they played and I believe it just helps us expand our knowledge and appreciation of their skills.

All this helps us develop our own personal style and jazz conception.

And, for those who enjoy not only Mainstream/Vintage/Jazz Standards, but the Modern Jazz tunes, you can check out some of the first recordings of Sax Players when they first recorded a tune. (i.e. Brecker’s “Straphangin'” – the title cut for the studio album or “Straphangin'” the LIVE version from Some Skunk Funk Michael & Randy Brecker & WDR Big Band. Listen to the studio (non-LIVE) version first and then the LIVE version and notice the difference in Brecker’s solos when performing live.) They often remixed or re-recorded it, or performed it LIVE, which adds a whole new dynamic and experience for us to learn from and view from a fresh perspective.

Thanks for adding to the list of Sax Players who just got added to my “MUST LISTEN” List!

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Neal November 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Hey Chazz,
Thanks for the input!

You are correct about what this post should potentially have as its title.

-Neal

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Howard November 24, 2013 at 9:48 am

George Bernard Shaw maintained that comparisons are odious,however Art Pepper surely deserve a mention.

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Darlene December 25, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Wow that is really surprising very interesting

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mo February 12, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Hi Neal.
Although all the player you mentioned are unique and great in there own rights . Being from the uk do you you think any British player should be added. Oh yes what about Dexter Gordon.

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Neal February 12, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Dexter Gordon is on the extended list, not sure offhand of sax players from the UK who would be contenders, any you can think? (I’m more familiar with American musicians in terms of saxophone players).

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