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Top 10 Famous Tenor Saxophonists

The saxophone was invented by Belgian Adolphe Saxe in the early 1840s. The main saxophones, classed by range from low to high are Baritone, Tenor, Alto and, Soprano, with the Tenor and Alto being the most commonly played.

While there is classical repertoire and some true virtuoso instrumentalists, the saxophones found their place, first in marching bands of the late 19th century and later in the big bands of the 1930s.

With the advent of bebop in the 1940s, the saxophone entered the modern era as a solo instrument. Saxophones can be heard in every style of music from Metal Rock to Free Jazz to Contemporary Classical ensembles.

The following ten tenor saxophonists are the most influential players from the Swing/Big Band right through to the modern jazz era.

1) Coleman Hawkins November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969

Coleman Hawkins

Born in St- Joseph, Missouri, Coleman Hawkins, affectionately known as “Bean”, is considered the first great tenor sax innovator. He played with The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at the same time as Louis Armstrong, who greatly influenced his playing.

His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” shocked the jazz world, almost totally eschewing melody for a more intervallic, arpeggiated approach, which in hindsight, may have heralded the coming of the bebop era.

Recommended listening:

Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins

Out of Nowhere – Coleman Hawkins

2) Lester Young August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959

Lester Young

“ Pres” as he was nicknamed rose to fame in The Count Basie Orchestra. His style has been described as “relaxed”. While a Coleman Hawkins solo felt like an unstoppable freight train, Lester Young’s felt more like a graceful floating dance.

He replaced Coleman Hawkins in The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and then went on to make several famous recordings with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson.

Listen to his solo over the rhythm changes song “Lester Leaps In”( written for him). Then listen to him accompanying Billie Holiday.  It’ll explain everything

Recommended listening:

Lester Leaps In – Lester Young

Solitude – Lester Young

3) Paul Gonsalves July 12, 1920 – May 15, 1974

Paul Gonsalves

Paul Gonsalves was Duke Ellington’s first great tenor saxophonist and remained one of Duke’s featured soloists until his death in 1974. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Gonsalves played a 27-chorus solo in the middle of Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” that to this day, remains a study in solo construction and development.

Gonsalves was a driving, fiery tenor player who could also blow lyrical as evidenced in his solos on Chelsea Bridge and In a Sentimental Mood. 

Recommended listening:

Diminuendo in Blue & Crescendo in Blue – Paul Gonsalves

Things Ain’t What They Used To Be – Paul Gonsalves

4) Dexter Gordon February 27, 1923 – April 25, 1990

In a career that spanned more than four decades, Dexter Gordon recorded sixty-plus albums as a leader and played on countless records as a sideman including with Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Herbie Hancock.

He was famous for his large sound and phrasing behind the beat and his command of the bebop vocabulary. In his later years, he became a successful actor appearing in Round Midnight and Awakenings starring Robin Williams.

Recommended listening:

Cheese Cake – Dexter Gordon

Our Man In Paris – Dexter Gordon

5) John Coltrane September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967

John Coltrane

Undoubtedly THE most influential tenor saxophonist of all time and one of the most important musicians of all time. In his 41 years on the planet, John Coltrane made gigantic leaps in technical prowess, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic developments.

He made important recordings with Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Duke Ellington. Giant Steps remains one of the most important records in Jazz history. Today, decades after his death, his playing sounds as urgent and life-affirming as ever.

Every single jazz musician in the world owes a huge part of their craft to Trane.

Recommended listening:

Naima – John Coltrane

My Favorite Things – John Coltrane

Giant Steps – John Coltrane

6) Michael Brecker March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker is one of THE most recorded saxophone soloists in the world. From Paul Simon to Saturday Night Live, James Taylor, his signature tenor saxophone sound has been heard on hundreds of songs, albums, and live tours.

While Michael Brecker was clearly influenced by Coltrane, he always stated that he wanted to sound like a guitar player. He won fifteen Grammy awards as a bandleader and composer.

Brecker’s technical and sonic mastery of the tenor saxophone raised the bar once again. He, along with Coltrane, are the two most imitated tenor players of all time.

Recommended listening:

Not Ethiopia – Michael Brecker

Naima Live at Massey Hall – Michael Brecker

Tales From The Hudson – Michael Brecker

7) Sonny Rollins September 7, 1930 –

Sonny Rollins

Born in Harlem NY in 1930 Walter Theodore Rollins Sonny Rollins’ saxophone playing would take him under the spell of the beboppers, Charlie Parker, and eventually came to be mentored by Thelonius Monk. It didn’t take long for Sonny to forge his own path.

The album Saxophone Colossus( Prestige 1956) remains his most famous record, with the track St Thomas being recognized as a jazz standard. Other important recordings include Tenor Madness with Coltrane and A Night At The Village Vanguard.

Recommended listening:

A Night At The Village Vanguard- Sonny Rollins

Tenor Madness – Sonny Rollins Quartet

8) Wayne Shorter August 25, 1933 –

Wayne Shorter

A prolific and much-played composer, Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone was a part of the second great Miles Davis Quintet, where he replaced Geoge Coleman. He was an original member of the internationally acclaimed band Weather Report, contributing compositions and his tenor sax voice. He forged his own path, eschewing bebop cliches and to this day continues to expand his own musical vocabulary. He’s recorded and performed with Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Steely Dan, The Rolling Stones, Jaco Pastorius and Lee Morgan

Recommended listening:

Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter

Footprints – Wayne Shorter

E.S.P – Wayne Shorter

9) Ben Webster March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973

Ben Webster

Ben Webster’s legacy was cemented during his time in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He was greatly influenced by Johnny Hodges and developed his own smooth melodic style of playing. In 1953 he recorded The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster( rereleased as King Of The Tenors) with Oscar Peterson.

Their musical relationship would continue throughout both of their lives. Like many other American jazz musicians, He went to Europe in 1964 and remained active as a musician until his death in 1973.

Recommended listening:

In a Mellow Tone – Ben Webster

10) Joe Henderson (April 24, 1937 – June 30, 2001)

Joe Henderson

A musician’s musician, Joe Henderson was a well-studied pianist, composer, and drummer, best known for his colossal saxophone playing. He recorded albums for Blue Note, Verve, and the Milestones labels. Like many of the others on this list, he developed his own sound, style, language, and vocabulary to emerge as a truly original voice on tenor saxophone.

Recommended listening:

Blue Bossa – Joe Henderson

Milestones – Joe Henderson

Each of these tenor saxophonists left indelible marks on both the instrument and the music they dedicated their lives to.

Thankfully there are thousands of recordings to listen to and in many cases today, actual video footage of these artists in their prime on any number of streaming services.

Happy Listening.