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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 }

Bob May August 30, 2008 at 7:11 am

I really don’t think Brecker was better than Lester Young. That’s absurd. Brecker was a great sax player, but Lester Young had a much stronger influence and was equally, if not more innovative.
And what about Hawk and Rollins ? People are ignoring history.

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Chris Smith June 29, 2013 at 1:08 am

I entirely agree, greatness has a lot to do with influence on the continued development of jazz.
Hawkins has to be in there somewhere and Rollins (not history quite yet!) has articulation and phrasing second to none.

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Mike Cortina September 7, 2008 at 10:03 am

Nothing ( no-one)is “absolute”. To say,”this is the best” is to say,”this is my favourite”.
It is a matter of taste and there are many colors from wich to choose.
Thinking & playing fast does not necessarily make you better. ¿ Brain over Heart or Heart over Brain?

I admire M.Brecker and his virtuous dynamics, but then …soulful playing fills my heart…Stan Getz, Archie Shep (check this guy`s embochure & blowing it is so opposed to what`s considered “standard”.

Well, bottom line: I can`t say who`s the best.
Maybe if I took something from each of my favorite sax players i`d come up with my own Frankenstein saxmunster….Ummm…

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laudell jackson September 9, 2008 at 4:23 pm

what about kenny?

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David Thystrup November 8, 2008 at 1:32 am

I really don’t know. I dont think, that you can compare these, and tell who is the best. The only thing that matters, is what you like. Charlie Parker had insane improvisation and insane tempos. John Coltrane, who could be my favourite together with Parker, has a lot of feeling in his tone, which is nicely centered. I am not saying, that Parker didn’t had feeling in his tone, but Coltrane just had a bit more, and the other way around with the fast tempo and Parker. These little things makes the difference, i think.

Sonny Rollins should be ranked high at this list. He has something special, especially in his rytmical flow. And yes, where are the great names as Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and such?

It’s a matter of personal flavour, but i think, that Coltrane and Parker were/are the best. The greatest living could be Rollins, especially if you look at some of the things he made for several years ago.

Just as a last comment, i think that Johnny Hodges is a giant in Big Band-playing. He’s alto sax is perfect for Duke Ellington, and a lot of the things he made by himself is heavily underrated.

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D November 17, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Stan Getz “The Sound” is easily the best. Of Getz, John Coltrane said “We’d all sound like that . . . if we could.”

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Jimmy December 8, 2008 at 1:37 pm

I believe that in my lifetime there are 3 sax players worth mentioning. Phil Woods, still the omnipotent one. Michael Brecker, his effects will be felt for ages.And Eric Marienthal, whom I had the pleasure of going to school with at Berklee. Smooth jazz pays the bills,.but I’d put him against anyone when it comes to real playing! Check him out before voicing your opinion. You’ll definetly be surprised.

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E.S. February 9, 2009 at 2:07 am

I am sorry to tell an remind you that brecker is the first to join the work of the sound with harmonics and further (in Delta city blues you cannot play the theme if you don’t have the harmonics of your sax perfectly for example) with a virtuosity and a musicality (which already put him at the top) and, most of all, his vocabulary is at the top of the evolution of making tensions with a harmonic and rythmic context (think about his version of “naima”, or how he plays on modals tracks : so what, impressions, … ; parker, coltrane or young could really do better than that ?).

In fact, I think he was the good person at the good moment. The knowledge of music theory and history, a better technology on fabrication of the sax, musicians going in the same way than him, etc…

The question is “Who is the better between those who innovate for the first time or those who innovate more on the first one”

Charlie parker worked on young’s solos but on exercices books too, is he better if he apply new material not knewed by others which come from books ?

Coltrane couldn’t separate his mind from the chords so he worked them totally and was astonished on front of eric dolphy and ornette coleman, but their hero was coltrane !…So who is better than the other if the musicians themselves are sending each other this title of “greater musician”.

I think that the better musician will influence longer than the others but today to much of the greatest saxophonists are in the place so maybe we will know in a couples of decades !!!

Musically
E.S.

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Jeshurun James March 31, 2009 at 9:06 pm

HEHE ^^ i don’t know those people.. not one bit.. ^^ I’m a beginner.. still in my 4th month training with my ME, MYSelf, and my computer.. ^^ God Bless Philippines!

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Brian June 16, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Well…I personally think the best saxophonist is Claude Delangle over at the Paris Conservatory (though I guess this was more oriented towards jazz, despite Mule and Rascher on it).

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admin June 16, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Yep, I didn’t come up with the options for it. Thanks for telling me about Claude Delangle, I’ll check him out!

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Calvin Green July 8, 2009 at 6:00 am

All these players are great in one shape or form but yet every list always leaves off My personal favorite ACE CANNON

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Charles Benoit September 7, 2009 at 4:46 pm

For me it’s all about having fun. Here’s my rule of thumb – what can I put on at a party that will have my non-jazz-fan friends up and jumping? There’s probably dozens, but no one gets them moving faster than Sam Butera.

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Ton November 5, 2009 at 9:29 am

Why is no one mentioning Benny Carter who is in my opinion the very best alto player. Even Charly Parker had him as an idol.

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admin November 5, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Hey Ton, just added Benny Carter to the list on the page, haha. He could play. What’s your favorite recording by him?

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Alan LaCross November 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Boots Randolf! Yes, he played a lot of commercial stuff, but live…he could really cook! And he laid down a lot of technique which was copied by other players, and still is. The man had technique, soul and a great sound!

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Victor Naidoo April 23, 2013 at 7:02 am

yes I agree with you Boots Randolph
played great music on the Tenor Sax
and what about Johnny Hodges I am
surprised he never came up, as far as
I am concerned he should be with the
guys,

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Neal April 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Thanks Victor, good suggestion with Johnny Hodges, just added him to the amended list.

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tosyn 'saxist' oluwadare December 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm

every one’s has got good opinions but in my own view, the legends we refer to as best all have where they made their land mark in areas such as speed, chord analysis, tone =, feelings, and other thing that could be learnt from them, as for me, am not biased by names ;i just absorb what i want to learn from each individual…. no player sounds the same so we all got something to offer!

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Lesgo January 18, 2010 at 8:17 am

i dont know if you have heard from Paquito D’Rivera, a clarinetist and saxophonist from Cuba, which is really the best sax player in Latin America that sounds like Charlie Parker, it’s good you’re more of it, lives in New York and play with Dizzy Gillespie some other. i vote for the genious john coltrane

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Neal January 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Hey Lesgo, yep, definitely have heard of him. Great player! I have some of his stuff. He’s in the movie Calle 54 too.

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barry bailey January 30, 2010 at 1:38 am

james moody
gary bartz

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Neal January 30, 2010 at 11:55 pm

James Moody is great! I’ll check out Gary Bartz, not too familiar with him yet

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Nick Tirre July 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

Gerry Mulligan could certainly be included for his extensive contribution to the jazz idiom,along with Paul Horn(flutes,clarinet).

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Neal July 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Hey Nick,
Yep, Gerry Mulligan could play!

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Bob April 10, 2011 at 3:14 pm

For sheer listening enjoyment Stan Getz should come in somewhere. In the car the last couple of weeks I probably listened to Contrane’s Giant Steps a half a dozen or more times – fascinates me to the Nth degree.
But when home and relaxing Getz is soooo easy to listen to…just picked up the “Stan Getz with Gerry Mulligan” cd and…well, just lay back…
Thus, in my book, for the “Enjoyment Factor” Stan Gety should be up there somewhere!

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Neal April 10, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Hey Bob,
Definitely. He’s up there for sure. You can learn a lot from Stan Getz, esp. his tone and phrasing. Probably most of the guys on this list who heard his sound really loved it. Have seen a few quotes about that.

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Simon Mountney April 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Joshua Redman as a personal favourite. Jazz Crimes is an epic tune, and his recent stuff is fantastic. I went to see him in Germany playing with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in Germany and it’s great to see such a great player flexing his chops and trying new ideas. But his 1994 (maybe?) album Moodswing is still, I think, one of the greatest sax albums ever made. Hints of Sonny Rollins in there at times, and I’m sure I’m picking up bits of Coltrane’s Love Supreme too. Absolutely perfect. Play it from beginning to end. Faith (track 4) is now getting butchered by my piss-poor attempts on tenor, but this is the album that made me want to learn how to play. Inspiring stuff.

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Neal April 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Hey Simon,
Joshua Redman is a great player, saw him a week ago in Monterey. That’s cool you’re playing some of his stuff.

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Simon Mountney April 13, 2011 at 2:42 am

Trying to. I can assure you that we’d never be mistaken for one another any time soon. Only started playing again last October, so a long way to go! Fun times.

S

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Neal April 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm

haha, as long as you’re having fun with it, you’ll be all right and you’ll sound better.

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flip April 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

I cant believe no one has mentioned Grover Washington, what a great player he was and also played couf superba 1. a unique sounding horn. he gets my vote..

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Neal April 17, 2011 at 11:04 am

Good call Flip, I love Grover Washington Jr.’s music. And he was definitely a pioneer in a new style that has become very popular. Have him on CD and vinyl actually. Wasn’t aware of the horn he played, thanks.

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johnny brock April 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Lest we not leave out the likes of Tom Scott, (my personal hero). Jerry Bergonzi, Scott Hamilton, and Bob Mintzer.

Pretty amazing stuff, check it out.
I’d say that the consensus here is primarily based upon what we (as fellow horn players) consider as “good” when we hear it.
“Good” in our minds is based upon what we like verses what we dislike.

We are our own worst critics and thus, we are also their worst critics.
Breaking down every note, every phrase, every nuance. Always trying to emulate what once was to create what is now and what will be.

For every one guy who hits the big time, there’s 500 or so who will never see the light of day past the living room. The best horn playing ever, probably took place in the Green Room before a show or in a practice room at the local music store, or on the street corner in the city. None of us will ever know who is the best.

The finest hat in my collection however, goes off to the man who started it all and gave us the porthole of life for which we were born to travel. The guy whom, without his ingenious work of art, would alternately have us making muffins in a factory somewhere for 14 hours a day.

Like the Bass player in the band.
The dad to all of us who never gets any recognition or his just due.

Mr. Adolphe Sax

Without him, none of us would be possible.

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Neal April 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Hey Johnny,
Those are certainly some great saxophone players.

I added them to the list on http://saxstation.com/greatest-living-saxophone-player.htm

Not sure if they’re the best of all time, but they certainly are great musicians.

What do you think?

Finding recordings of Mr. Sax is a bit tough, haha. But yes, he deserves some credit. He led some crazy life. The book, ‘The Devil’s Horn’ goes more into some of his life.

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johnny brock April 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Neal,

My emphasis on who is/was the best of all time is what I believe to be based on personal preference. I don’t think that Coltrane or Bird ever thought that they were the best either, but like I said earlier, we are all our worst critics.

“The Devil’s Horn” sounds like an interesting read. I’m going to go on line and get my copy. Thanks for the tip on that.

I read a book a few years back that I got for Christmas when I lived in Oakland called “The Jazz Life.” Don’t remember who wrote it but it was a paper-back with a yellow cover. The emphasis was on Coltrane and J. Adderly during the Blue Note Miles years, Ornette Colman, and some others. Nothing on Bird though that I can remember. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Cheers, johnny

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Neal April 18, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Hey Johnny,
Fair enough. Most great musicians are very humble, that’s probably true what you said about Coltrane and Bird.

Hadn’t heard of that book yet, thanks.
-Neal

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Chester April 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Hey what about Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis you can’t forget that awesome tenor player.

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Dan May 21, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Maybe not the best but for pure drive— Zoot Sims. Then of course Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges and Hey Sonny Stitt One who nobody recalls — Arnie Lawrence

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Simon Mountney May 22, 2011 at 2:51 am

Fair point, Stitt, Rollins and Gillespie on Sonny Side Up were awesome!

S

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Neal May 23, 2011 at 11:25 am

Definitely.

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Neal May 23, 2011 at 11:25 am

Thanks Dan, those first four are great players. Not too familiar with Arnie Lawrence, I’ll have to look him up.

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Bob May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Well nobody mentions Earl Bostic, didn’t he teach Sonny Rollins.
How about a couple of UK guys John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and Tommy Whittle.

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Neal May 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Earl Bostic is definitely a great player. He should probably be up there. Might be a bit before living memory for some of us, but I have definitely heard the name and some of his music. I’ll check out the UK players you mentioned, wasn’t so familiar with them. Thanks

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sheila June 18, 2011 at 7:36 am

I think its too difficult to say. You should look at who had the greatest influence on saxophonists that followed.

The other question is, if you gave them the same music and asked them to play it the exact same way, whose would be more compelling.

The great jazz players improvised so much that its difficult to know what their music would have sounded like if they played exactly as some of today’s musicians who are out to appeal to the masses more than to explore the limits of the instrument.

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Neal June 18, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Thanks Sheila,
Part of the reason I think it’s an interesting question is to see who other people really enjoy listening to and to check out some new music.

You pose some interesting questions about it. Thanks

-Neal

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AJ Jones July 3, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Why do people always put Kenneth Gourlick(Kenny G) on the same level as a Charlie Parker? He did not change jazz. He could not stand toe to toes with Bird or Train. Sonny Rollins is still alive and will bury him. Mike Phillips does not get the credit he deserves because he is actually innovating jazz( fusing R&B,jazz,hip-hop) and making the innovations to popular music. Wayne Shorter, Adderly, Gordon and even Lester Young…There are over 50 great sax men who are better than Kenny G.

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Neal July 4, 2011 at 11:39 am

He’s not above those guys on my list, haha. Probably wouldn’t be according to himself at this point either.

However, he has had a successful career playing sax and he plays music that many people enjoy. Probably has even made the saxophone more popular through what he does.

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Bob July 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm

There is no doubt that we need players as Kenny G to spread the gospel that music needs more than 3 chord wonders on guitars.

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Steven Charles July 11, 2011 at 4:13 am

I agree with Mike & David at the top, there’s no way to determine who’s “the greatest”. I always hate questions like that, as they are way too subjective & open-ended. If you broke it down into categories, like: “who most inspired/inspires you”, “who do you actually listen to the most, to this day”, “who was the most innovative, or best writer, or genre-bender/creator, or most versatile, etc….

I’ve listened & loved so many it would be really impossible, but one factor for me is the intensity of their “connection” to their horn & music, as they play. Definitely Trane, Pharoah Sanders, & Eric Dolphy & Roland Kirk were main men in that category, but then I’d have to also put cats like Dexter Gordon, Brecker, Gato, oh, and George Adams (who used to play with Mingus) too, & Fred Anderson! Wayne Shorter’s uniqueness & quirkiness showed me how free you can be, along with Ornette, who I used to listen to a lot.
As for players I tend to listen to the most, to this day, for pleasure, I’d have to say Dexter, Getz, Turrentine, & also Pharoah & Gato….
You might be able to tell I am more into feeling, melody, lyrical soloing, & tone, more than speed, chops, & number of notes….

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sam tedesco July 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I have been listening to jazz saxophone since I was 15yrs old and am now 64. There are many great players, but it is not fair to ask “who is the best.” It is like saying which color of the rainbow is the best. You appreciate each great playing saxophonist for the “color and voice” he/she is sharing. I play tenor too, so I know how difficult it is to please a listener. My personal preference is Joe Henderson. He always rolls my sox up and down when I hear him. I would sacrifice a gonad for his tone, even though it is somewhat subdued, compared to players using metal/high baffled mouthpieces. His tone, technique, style, and creativity is tops.

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Neal November 28, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Thanks Sam, yep, Joe Henderson was amazing. I would hear stories about him at sax lessons sometimes because two of my teachers studied with him. The Song for My Father solo is something I have enjoyed for a long time and heard not too long after I started playing.

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Dan Sheets August 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

I don’t know who would be considered the best…I think each of the great saxophonist have had a moment or many that were brilliant. I believe the greatest solos are from the heart and happen so rarely..I can always tell when it comes from within…I think that all of them have contibuted greatly to moving Jazz forward..I think that is what it is all about…Peace..Dan

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Neal August 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Yep, there are a lot of great saxophone players and all the great players had their own sound. You can learn from them all. Thanks Dan

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Malik C. August 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I actually like Cannonball better than Bird.. They’re both amazing though!!. Im actually a Tenor player. Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz are my favorite. Oh and of Course Neal.. :)

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Neal September 3, 2011 at 4:13 am

Hey Malik, haha, I definitely enjoy listening to Cannonball more than Bird sometimes too, depends on the mood I’m in.

My sound, still working on it…… Glad you like what I’m doing! Thanks

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Steven Charles August 29, 2011 at 8:37 pm

If you stop to think about it, & for all you very young cats, just wait, but who you think is “the greatest” will shift & change as you grow, you discover other players, & even your musical values & taste will change. Someone may hate Trane or Bird, only to fall in love with them 20 years later, or think Kenny G is the man, & then be blown away by the more slower playing Dexter Gordon, one of my personal favs (& also someone Trane once listed as one who influenced his own playing)….

And really, maybe for some players it might be, but I’ve never viewed playing as a competition to see “who’s best”, & I can tell you, that most of greatest players aren’t even thinking about any other players, as they are far more (even obsessively) concerned with their playing, & judge themselves vs what they are trying to do, not what Joe Blow down the street is doing. I’ve always valued being told I have my own sound, more than even ten other people saying “you’re great”…

Even Jerry Garcia had the right idea:
“You don’t want to be the best of the best. You just want to be the only one who does what you do.”. . . – Jerry Garcia.

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Neal September 3, 2011 at 4:12 am

Thanks Steven, appreciate your response. It took me a while to appreciate ‘salsa dura’. It doesn’t sound that clean sometimes and there is a lot of ‘clank’ to it. But now I love it. What you say about sax players being concerned about their own playing probably has a lot of truth to it from what I have seen anyway.

Discussing the greats here on this post is mainly a way for some people to find out about who might be good to check out and listen to more of. And of course you should be listening to far more than just sax players. But you can’t quite hear everything, so checking out who other people like can be a good starting point.

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samjones October 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Best is easy, if you determine most techniquely skilled and fastest player – Roland Kirk is the Art Tatum of the Saxophone

But as regards greatness (assumed to mean influence), I would say Charlie Parker, Trane or Rollins.

However the best sounding in terms of lyricism and tone, as well as the best composer are far more difficult to determine, and I would not even attempt to pass judgement on this.

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Neal October 26, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Hey Sam,
Thanks for weighing in, sounds like you know some music. It’s subjective. The main point of the post is to mention some players people should check out, possibly some new names to some.

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Bob October 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Hi Neal,
I have just been introduced to the music of Spike Robinson and I think it is worth a listen beautiful tone.

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Neal October 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Hey Bob,
Cool, thanks for the suggestion.

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Sam golden February 23, 2012 at 12:40 am

Hey Neal,

James Moody should place on the list as one who connects words to jazz notes(sax), emphasizing meaning. Luis Armstrong did the same in an earlier time.

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Neal February 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Hey Sam,
Definitely! Great musician. I’ve been listening to him for a while now.
-Neal

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Bill February 24, 2012 at 7:57 am

I’m glad to see someone mentioned Ben Webster. I recently ‘discovered’ him and he has given me a sound to aim for.

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Neal February 24, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Yep, he should be on the list.

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brad mayer March 7, 2012 at 11:25 pm

hey check out jeff coffin my fav #41

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Sam Lawley March 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm

What about Boots Randolph?
The guy who wrote Yakety Sax, better known as the Benny Hill Theme?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zcq_xLi2NGo

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Neal March 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Hey Sam,
Distinctive style and sound, do you think he’s the greatest ever though?

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Jerry April 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

I can’t imagine a list that does not have Pharoah Sanders on it. Also, Jimmy Heath, John Klemmer and Jimmy Castor, and Jr. Walker can’t go unmentioned.

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Randy May 8, 2012 at 11:37 am

I love Bird… he was a pioneer is so many ways. And then came Trane… I have waffled back and forth over the many years and finally had to admit that it was Trane who deserved the crown. Funny thing though… the one guy I listen to and can listen to for hours isn’t either of these giants… it’s Art Pepper. An alto guy that soars above so many and yet I didn’t see his name mentioned anywhere here. ???

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Randy May 8, 2012 at 11:40 am

P.S. My vote for a wonderful young talent who has proven himself over and over is Eric Alexander. Really WONDERFUL sax player!!!

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Josh July 1, 2012 at 7:56 am

dont know how i came acros this site but questions like Who is the greatest saxophone player of all time? And conversations like this sax player is beter than that sax player defeats Whole Purpose of music for me.Here’s a list of some sax players who rely inspire me all for different reasons hope you enjoy checking them out as much as I have some have literally changed my life!
Evan Parker,Warne Marsh,John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Steve Coleman,Lee Konitz,Sonny Rollins, Lester Young and Paul Dunmall

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Neal July 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Hey Josh,
Sometimes questions are posed to get a response.

Thanks for telling us about some of the sax players you really like. A few new ones that weren’t already on the list.

-Neal

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RICK SALDE July 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm

NEAL.there are so many of great sax player out thier. like the up and comming sax player,like RICHARD ELLIOTT,BONEY JAMES,MINDI ABAIR AND MY BEST IS GROVER WASHINGTON JR. SMOOTH!!!!!!!!!RICK S.

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Edward July 29, 2012 at 3:00 am

Choosing a single favourite in any sphere is rarely possible. I love many tenor players – Hank Mobley, Turrentine, Webster etc. But if I had to take discs of only one to a desert island I would choose Spike Robinson. Who he? American who settled in England circa (I think) 1950 – 2000 ish)

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Neal November 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Thanks Edward,
Have heard of Spike Robinson from a couple people now, will have to check him out some more.

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harold pizer July 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm

I gravitate to the sax players that played melodically and with emotion. And I prefer blues based jazz and standard tunes. The two sax players I listen to the most are Gene Ammons and Eddie Lockjaw Davis.

Ammons had a bigger and fatter tone than anyone in his time(the 50s,60s,and early 70s) or now for that matter. He could hold his own in a blowing session against any other tenor man, but he was probably best known for his beautiful, melodic, and sensitive but at the same time powerful ballad playing. Eddie Lockjaw Davis also had a huge tone but with more bite and raspiness to it. Lockjaw’s playing was blues-drenched. Whether he was improvising on the blues or a Cole Porter or Gershwin tune, you felt like you were in a black baptist church on Sunday morning listening to a sermon.

Part of what made Lockjaw’s playing so exciting was his unpredictability. Just when you thought you knew where he was going or how he would end a phrase or what he would play over a II V I progression he surprised you by playing something you weren’t expecting, something outside the chord, something that had a very hip sound. Flatted 5ths, sharp 9ths, augmented 5ths, flatted 9ths. Because of this, his playing had a very strong tension and release quality to it and a very modern , hip and cool sound. I didn’t mean to write a term paper Neal, sorry for the long-windedness, I just got carried away.

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Neal November 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Thanks Harold, those are two great sax players. They should be on the list!

I like Ammons Boss Tenor a lot.

What are your favorite recordings by Lockjaw?

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Mark September 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm

You have to add Sonny Rollins in there as well and in more recent times you cannot afford to ignore Kirk Whalum

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Neal September 27, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Hey Mark, yep, I had already added Sonny Rollins. Kirk Whalum is another important name in the world of the saxophone, good call.

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Mark September 27, 2012 at 7:58 pm

One of the best by far Mr. Junior Walker, hey Neal you better recognize

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Neal September 28, 2012 at 12:03 am

Have heard his name, but not too familiar with all that he’s played, any recommendations to check out first? Thanks

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Tony November 5, 2012 at 7:54 am

Surprised to see Louis Jordan missing from the list, who probably did more than anyone to bring the instrument out of the Jazzer niche and into popular music acceptance. Nice to see King Curtis in there. The poll result is unsurprising given that so many members of SotW are Jazz geeks.

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Neal November 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Thanks Tony, I wasn’t too familiar with him, but that is another important part of the history of the saxophone in spreading it to other styles. He is important, but would that mean he’s the greatest saxophone player as the question was posed on SOTW?

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Tony November 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

My guess is that it would depend on how you would classify greatness, which is highly subjective. Being a leader in any musical endeavour is a club with a very small membership, however, I think that creating a new genre (LJ has arguably been credited with creating the first rock n roll record “Saturday Night Fish Fry”) is a club with a far smaller and more exclusive membership.

I guess my point is; if you poll a forum where the majority of the readers are Jazz enthusiasts, then you’ll get results like the above… but it’s hard to contrast with an instrument like the Sax as its user base is so heavily rooted in the Jazz genre. But to compare and contrast, if you were to ask a Jazz forum who the greatest guitarist was, you’d get an entirely different response than if asked on a rock/blues/punk/acoustic/folk/reggae forum; and chances are none of the responses would be wrong, and you end up with cross genre contention, which is almost never easily resolved :)

Perhaps to add a different slant (even if no one is interested!) my list might include Ben Webster, Paul Desmond, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Maceo Parker, King Curtis, Plas Johnson, Herbie Fields, Sam Butera.

Apologies for the long reply!

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Alex Brown November 17, 2012 at 10:56 am

One person missing from this list also is my budy Chris Godber he is probly my altime favorate player i have ever listend to!

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Neal November 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

He’s a possibility for being the greatest saxophone player of all time?

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johnny brock December 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Neal

We went over this in great length some time ago. The choices that we are given to determine who is the Absolute Master are based on those who we’ve heard and/or are familiar with. With the infinite possibilities of the Saxophone and with music in general, there’s no correct answer to this. This will however make for really great posting and alot of it. Tom Scott is still my hero but Grover and Sanborn were major inspirations for me when I was coming up.

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Ofuje December 15, 2012 at 11:04 am

It is indeed a wonderful idea to seek out the greatest sax player of our time! However, my opinion in this matter is that, every sax player who have made a ‘mark’ on this contemporary dispensation is great! Everyone good sax player are unique in their various area of specialization. Charley Parker was, and is still a grand master! We all have individuals that we prefer as a result of their style. I personally love Kirk Whalum! …they are all unique in their own way and style; no one is best!

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Andy December 17, 2012 at 6:08 am

Surprise!!!!!!
Sadao Watanabe, Hank Crowford, Dave Koz and Spyro Gyra did not make the list.
Interesting.

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sven January 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm

did someone mension illinois j ?a very good tenor sax player.

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Neal January 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Good call Sven, thanks.

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Riou January 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Wow! This is certainly a matter of taste there are just too many great sax players to name as the best! Personal favorites would be more appropriate for most sax players like myself. From Coltrane to Bird to Stitt!! Don Byas, Kenny Garrett who played with Miles Davis, Johnny Griffin! Brecker, Turrentine Mobley, Illinois Jacquet! My, My, My!!! Dexter Gordon! And the beat, I mean the sax goes on!!!

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James Greene February 17, 2013 at 11:51 am

I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between greatest musician(universal) and the greatest saxophonist which to me means greatest technician on the instrument. And if you’re looking at absolute greatest physical player is 100% Michael Brecker, he was able to do things that literally no one was able to do. His use of harmonics, altissimo, alternate fingerings, and dynamics was completely jaw dropping and I honestly don’t believe anyone will ever be that great. When it comes to greatest soloist or musician that very much about taste and what moves you specifically but technical ability is objective and is something we can judge here. If you don’t think Michael is the greatest horn player ever, I encourage you to pick up a horn and try the things that he could do without even trying.

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The Dude February 21, 2013 at 7:58 am

What about the less jazz type of guys? Such as Jeff Coffin or LeRoi Moore? Moore’s musicality was amazing. Jeff’s solo’s are ridiculous.

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Neal February 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Both great sax players, I’ve met Jeff.

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tom March 8, 2013 at 11:28 am

Someone is a little biased towards dave saxes

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tom March 10, 2013 at 8:43 pm

That being said, they are both incredible and I am also a huge fan.

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Alain March 12, 2013 at 3:40 am

I have to agree with the other saxophone players on here there isn’t really “the best” of all time every saxophone player is great in their own creative way.

Charlie Parker is defiantly one of the biggest influences for many including me but there are a couple modern saxophone players such as David Sanborn, great alto tone. I do have a vinal record somewhere of a tenor saxophone player that I listen to a lot which from I heard John Coltrain mentored from. I will let you know once I find the record though!

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Lee Harris March 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I really IHMO love Stan Getz as even his mouthpieces are legends(Joke). I can not emulate his tone as hard as I try but love his sound for ballads and bosa nova.

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Helio Lacerda March 29, 2013 at 11:28 am

Hi Neal!
For me, after Parker and Coltrane, saxophone greatest player of all time is Wayne Shorter. In this order.

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Neal March 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thanks Helio

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Marlon March 30, 2013 at 7:15 am

What about Maceo Parker!! A living legend.

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Neal March 30, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Good suggestion, I love Maceo’s sound

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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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