For your listening pleasure, here’s a sample of jazz saxophone players in a variety of styles, in roughly chronological order. Have a listen, and see who you want to listen to more as you define your own personal style!
The earliest jazz styles did not make heavy use of saxophones. If there were woodwinds in the band at all, it was more commonly clarinet. Sidney Bechet was a clarinet player in this era, and sometimes used a saxophone to project his sound and be heard through the brass players around him. This early New Orleans style of woodwind playing is characterized by simple melodies and heavy vibrato. Listen to Sidney play background behind the group at the beginning, and the soprano sax solo around the 2:15 mark.
During the Big Band era the role of the soloist was diminished, and the music focused on sections or the entire band. The style of the day still used very heavy vibrato. Listen to this Duke Ellington tune, with Johnny Hodges on lead alto. The saxophone section is featured around 2:35.
Lester Young played with the Count Basie Orchestra, Fletcher Henderson, and various other groups of the day. He’s known for a light, airy tone on tenor, and for holding his saxophone out to the side instead of in front.
Coleman Hawkins had a long career in jazz, and was more interested in the saxophone as a solo instrument rather than a background instrument.
Charlie Parker is one of the two most influential jazz saxophone players of all time! Parker started off in the same vein as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins…
…but is most known for his bebop style. His solos feature many arpeggios and scales and are very tonal.
John Coltrane, along with Charlie Parker, are arguably the two most influential jazz saxophone players in history. Coltrane’s Giant Steps may be the best-known jazz saxophone piece of all time. His solo style is described as “sheets of sound” – a constant stream of notes with few rests.
Ornette Coleman was a pioneer in the Free Jazz movement. His music is frequently “outside the box” tonally, intentionally playing notes that don’t fit the chords in the way that listeners of earlier jazz styles would expect.
Julius “Cannonball” Adderley was at one time a school band teacher in Florida before becoming a professional musician. He frequently worked with his brother Nat. His style is reminiscent of Charlie Parker.
Stan Getz made his name with the Woody Herman Big Band, but later became a solo artist.
Wayne Shorter was a leader in the Jazz Fusion movement of the 70s and onward that blended jazz with rock and other styles. He collaborated frequently with Herbie Hancock.
Bob Mintzer is known for funk music, latin jazz and smooth jazz, both as a soloist and with his Bob Mintzer Big Band. If you want to go straight to the music, skip forward to the 1:00 mark:
Michael Brecker is one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of the “modern” era – his most well-known recordings are from the late 80s – early 2000s. Brecker’s brother Randy is also well-known as a trumpeter. Michael Brecker has won several Grammy awards, both individually and as part of the Brecker Brothers group.
Chris Potter is a modern jazz saxophonist with a style that remembers the “old masters” of jazz playing.
Joshua Redman is not afraid to use unconventional techniques in his playing.
Jeff Coffin first stepped onto the world stage as saxophonist with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and joined the Dave Matthews Band in 2008 after the untimely demise of their original saxophonist LeRoi Moore. Coffin sometimes uses some unconventional sounds and techniques, including multiphonics, slap-tonguing and playing both alto and tenor saxophones at the same time. His own group of all-star musicians is named the Mu’tet, as Coffin believes music must mutate and evolve in order to survive in an ever-changing world.
This is list is by no means comprehensive – who did I leave out?