9 Best Jazz Soloists of All Time

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According to the good people at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, April is Jazz Appreciation Month. With this in mind, we'll attempt to name nine great jazz soloists you might want to check out, especially if you're curious about jazz but don't know where to start with your listening. When a musician, while playing a composed piece of music, chooses to imaginatively make up original music that complements the composition's melody, chords, and rhythms, what they're doing is "soloing." In a jazz performance, a musical ensemble will often play a composition once through, more or less sticking to what has been notated by the composer, and then take turns individually or collectively making up additional music on the spot, creatively expounding upon the composition. Confused? Well, check out our first jazz soloist, the great Louis Armstrong, and listen to how his trumpet solos frame his own unique vocal rendition of the song. Then check out the rest of the artists as well!

  1. Louis Armstrong

    Before trumpeter Louis Armstrong, there was the cornet player Buddy Bolden, who started playing a new kind of improvised music at parades and dances in New Orleans around 1895. Never recorded, Bolden was remembered by musicians who heard him, including Armstrong, as one of the finest sounding horn players in jazz. Born in 1901, Armstrong pioneered new ways to play and improvise with both his trumpet and voice defining what are now commonly acknowledged as the elements of jazz performance. In this recording of the classic mid-tempo ballad "Stardust," you'll hear Armstrong solo on trumpet before and after his vocal delivery, which in itself transforms and elaborates upon composer Hoagy Carmichael's melody.

  2. Ella Fitzgerald

    As the era of big band swing music gave way to the innovations of a new, complex form of music called bebop, singer Ella Fitzgerald began to experiment with what became known as scat singing, a technique of improvising with her voice that mirrored what she heard bebop horn players like Dizzy Gillespie doing in performance. Fitzgerald was the undisputed master of scat singing, transforming the role of a singer into that of an instrumentalist, as innovative as any member of the bands she sang with.

  3. John Coltrane

    Tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane enjoyed a level of popularity that was unprecedented for most jazz musicians, especially after the release of his 1965 album A Love Supreme. Always pushing himself, Coltrane would go on to push his playing and improvising into wilder, more extreme territory, and alienate some members of the jazz community as a result. Coltrane once said, "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am." His composition "Giant Steps" is an example of Coltrane's harmonic innovations both as a composer and soloist, and still trips up musicians who attempt to play it today.

  4. Jim Hall

    The electric guitar came into its own as an instrument of choice for jazz musicians thanks in part to artists such as Charlie Christian and Grant Green. Guitarist Jim Hall, who at the age of 81 is still recording and touring, combines economy and emotional poignancy to his playing, and continues to inspire contemporary players like Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. His 1963 recording Undercurrent, a set of duos with pianist Bill Evans, is a stark yet soulful collection of standards, with a respect for silence and awareness of space that calls to mind Miles Davis' groundbreaking album Kind of Blue.

  5. Charles Mingus

    Well known as a ground-breaking composer, bassist Charles Mingus was also a great soloist, inspiring the late fretless bass player Jaco Pastorius and upright players William Parker and Charlie Haden to name just a few. The first track from Mingus' 1957 album The Clown begins with a fierce, virtuosic upright bass solo inspired in part by Mingus' rage at the injustice of racism. On the same album, Mingus and his ensemble improvise freely, without chords or a set musical form, behind the improvised narration of Jean Shepherd, to tell the story of a clown who, like great musicians, just wants to make people happy.

  6. Clifford Brown

    Trumpet player Clifford Brown, a truly gifted soloist, died at age 25, but left behind a recorded legacy that continues to inspire contemporary trumpet players, including Donald Byrd and Wynton Marsalis. Brown's attack and melodic invention called to mind fellow trumpet players Miles Davis and Fats Navarro, but his sound was always unmistakably his own. Like Coltrane, Brown pushed himself as if he was on a spiritual quest. "Oh, he was always, always learning something," said Brown's friend the great drummer Max Roach. "He loved music."

  7. Thelonious Monk

    When it came to playing the piano, did anyone sound like Thelonious Monk before Thelonious Monk? Monk's classic recordings are startling for how contemporary and funky they still sound almost half a century after they were originally released. Check out Monk's solo beginning seven and a half minutes into this live recording of his composition "Misterioso." Filled with tension and humor, especially in its concluding punctuation, it's a nice contrast to the previous solo from tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin.

  8. Albert Ayler

    Breaking down what tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler was actually doing when he played and soloed collectively with his bands — creating an intense, uncompromising kind of music that became synonymous with civil rights, the black power movement, and spiritual enlightenment — is helpful, especially if the timbre of Ayler's sound and unsettled, kaleidoscopic quality of his music is initially unsettling. You can trace Ayler's technique back to the earliest days of New Orleans jazz, where collective improvisation centered around and would repeatedly reference a song's melodic line. Check out the live performance of "Ghosts" performed by Ayler and an ensemble of similarly forward-thinking musicians that includes trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray.

  9. Alice Coltrane (1937- 2007)

    Wife and collaborator of John Coltrane, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane had a profound impact on the direction of her husband's music and the free, avant-garde, and jazz-fusion scene in general as it was developing over the course of the late '60s and on into the '70s. After her husband's death, Alice Coltrane remained active as a recording and touring artist, playing in ensembles that sometimes included her children, creating a repertoire of meditative, spiritually-minded music. She's one of the few harpists in the history of jazz to record as a bandleader.

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