Jazz drumming is an art form that requires unprecedented control, coordination, and rhythmic understanding. Jazz is a musical genre that has birthed some of the greatest drummers alive. And jazz drummers have also been pivotal in the development of the modern drum set.
In this article, I’m going to list ten of the best jazz drummers of all time. All of the jazz drummers I feature are true innovators and have made undeniable contributions to the genre throughout their careers.
Read on to discover my selection of the best jazz drummers of all time, who have had an enormous influence on the genre and helped to further jazz as an art form!
10. Peter Erskine (Born 1954)
Peter Erskine is a jazz drumming legend who picked up the drum sticks at the tender age of four. He is an incredibly diverse musician and is well-versed in all different forms of jazz and broader genres such as Funk and Pop. Erskine performed with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson before joining the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.
Erskine is an accomplished jazz drummer who is highly regarded for his efficient movement and exceptional technique. He effortlessly moves around the kit with real finesse, and he is a true master of swing and syncopation.
9. Steve Gadd (Born 1945)
Steve Gadd is widely regarded as one of the most influential drummers of all time and has set a new standard in contemporary drumming. He is a very accomplished musician and can play anything from jazz right through to Rock music. He has an impeccable playing feel that leaves listeners amazed.
As one of the ‘greatest groovers’ to ever pick up the sticks, he masterfully approaches jazz drumming with musical brilliance and delivers what the song requires, every time. Gadd’s feel, imagination, and technical ability makes him one of the best jazz drummers of all time.
8. Louie Bellson (1924-2009)
Delivering explosive and dynamic performances, Louie Bellson has cemented himself as one of the jazz drumming greats. Not only is he one of the best jazz drummers, but Bellson also matured into an accomplished author, composer, and entrepreneur. His expressive playing style was indeed a reflection of his varied and hectic life!
Louie Bellson helped to pioneer double bass drum sets, and he took full advantage of both bass drum pedals with his exciting and adventurous performances. He was one of the most incredible big band drummers of all time and played with a wide range of acclaimed artists during his long career.
7. Max Roach (1924-2007)
A true innovator of Bop drumming, Max Roach left an enormous legacy and is considered one of the most crucial jazz drummers in history. As well as pioneering Bop, he worked in many other music styles and performed with the very best artists of his time, including Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker.
Max Roach was one of the first drummers to utilize the ride cymbal to emphasize a rhythmic pattern, and this added a beautiful sonic texture to swing and jazz music. Roach innovated an entirely new drumming method by being one of the first drummers to utilize limbs independently.
6. Joe Morello (1928-2011)
Joe Morello was an incredibly skilled jazz drumming legend who became renowned for his technical proficiency in playing unusual rhythmic time signatures. He played with a real finesse that helped him to achieve superstar jazz drumming status by emphasizing irregular beats and rhythms through his playing.
Morello had an incredibly unique approach to the jazz drum set with Brubeck’s compositions. He held the music together while still showing his creative flair and originality with his unusual syncopations and exciting accents.
5. Tony Williams (1945-1977)
Tony Williams was one of the most inspiring and best jazz drummers of all time. He gained fame by performing with Miles Davis at 17 and significantly helped to pioneer jazz fusion. He was not only an incredibly versatile drummer, but he played with incredible precision and technical prowess.
Throughout his remarkable career, Tony Williams performed with other legendary musicians, including Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock. He performed with sublime control and power, unleashing dazzling polyrhythms and intricate patterns behind the drum set.
4. Elvin Jones (1927-2004)
Elvin Jones was an incredibly prolific jazz drummer who accompanied a wide range of pioneering artists, including John Coltrane, Charles, Mingus, Miles Davis, and more. He quickly distinguished himself as one of the best around his unique playing style – blending power with musical finesse.
With the John Coltrane Quartet, Jones helped to innovate jazz music by breaking the music free from the cagey bar lines that restricted the flow. Jones’ drumming paved the way for a modern style of jazz that flowed freely. His creativity, legato phrasing, and syncopations helped to push the boundaries of the genre.
3. Art Blakey (1919-1990)
Art Blakey was nicknamed “The Thunder” by Max Roach for his powerful and captivating drumming style. He was one of the most desirable and best jazz drummers throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Every jazz musician wanted to play with Art Blakey. He had an incredible signature style and was incredibly adept at maintaining independence with all four limbs.
Blakey had a more straight-ahead drumming style than most Bop drummers, but he also liked to innovate with different sounds behind the drum set. He can also be credited with inspiring the development of riveted cymbals by placing his keys over the ride cymbal wingnut to produce a sizzle effect.
2. Buddy Rich (1927-2004)
Without a doubt, one of the best jazz drummers of all time, Bernard “Buddy” Rich was one of the most technically gifted and dazzling drummers there ever was. He displayed incredible speed, consistency, power, and dynamics with his highly expressive drumming. Even though his style was wild and powerful, he was also adept at playing softer with drum brushes.
Buddy Rich performed with his time’s greatest jazz artists, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Harry James, and many more. From 1966 until his death, he led successful big bands even in an era when their population had diminished. Rich’s extended drum solos were phenomenal, and there is no denying he was one of the most influential drummers of all time.
1. Gene Krupa (1909-1973)
Gene Krupa is widely considered the founding father of modern drumming. Krupa’s style and showmanship were mesmerizing to watch. He was the first drummer to use a bass drum on a recording session and profoundly influenced the modern drum kit.
Krupa was the first drummer to perform solos in a song and helped to bring attention to the drummer within a band. Krupa’s superb drum solos became widely celebrated amongst jazz musicians in the 1930s. He had a crucial role in elevating the drummer’s position from an accompanying instrument to a solo voice.
There are far too many sensational jazz drummers to be able to list in a single article. There are countless drumming legends I have missed, who are all worthy of a feature! I hope you have enjoyed my selection of the best jazz drummers, who have all influenced entire generations of musicians and helped to further the legendary genre with their unmatched ability and creativity.
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