Gain Instant Inspiration with these 16 Unsung Tenor Heros

Unsung Tenor Saxophone Heros
Clockwise starting on the far-left: Stanley Turrentine, Don Byas, Johnny Griffin, Lucky Thompson, and Warne Marsh

We’re all raised on a steady diet of the tenor greats, of which there are many. So many of the movers and shakers of jazz played this horn, people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Wayne Shorter, continuing into more recent times with people like Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano.

I don’t think there are any jazz instrumentalists, period, who have not had a steady diet of these greats in their musical upbringing. But, like any great tradition, there are so many saxophone players who are so important to the lineage,  yet are too often overlooked. These are musicians who were contemporaries of the greats, and who made massive contributions to this music, inspiring everybody around them. Many of them might have never made a name for themselves as leaders, instead preferring to work on the sidelines under the names of others, and others spent much of their careers living abroad or working in oblivion.

Still, their contributions were significant and they are well worth listening to. So many of today’s great players who are looking for a sound of their own have most certainly gone to these often unsung heroes for direction. Personally, as I’ve grown as a player and looked for new things to add to my own playing, I’ve sought more and more inspiration from them.

I thought it would be fun to give a list of 16 of them who have inspired me over the years, along with links to a great recording of theirs that you can start your listening adventure with.

Disclaimer: This is a very partial list. A complete list would be endless.

Also, I stuck only to players who are no longer with us. The list of unsung greats with us today would also most certainly be endless, and might even cause a lot of room for debate, a debate that I’m not particularly interested starting or being a part of. I’ll leave debates of who is greater than the others to the jazz magazines and cable sports networks.

(In no particular order…)

1. Don Byas (1912-1972)

Don was one of the great early tenor players, and a big influence on the early beboppers. In fact, he appears on a number of recordings with Charlie Parker. Although his style is more in the Coleman Hawkins tradition, the sophistication of his playing is stunning. He spent the last 26 years of his life living in Europe, and is often overlooked as a result. Most of his albums are out of print, but here’s a great compilation that’s out there:
Complete 1946-54 Paris Recordings

2. Lucky Thompson (1924-2005)

Lucky played with a stunning sound, and complete melodicism. He also played with some of the swing greats, such as Count Basie, as well as many of the best beboppers. His recording, Tricotism (‘56), featuring the great bassist Oscar Pettiford, blew my mind as a young player.

Lucky Thompson Meets Oscar Pettiford (Dig)

3. Roland Kirk (1935-1977)

Roland Kirk is most famous for playing multiple horns at the same time, including some very unusual woodwinds. While this was a breakthrough, especially considering he was blind from an early age, his tenor playing on its own is stunning. Big, blustery sound and just incredibly swinging. It’s rough around the edges, and probably not for everyone, but worth checking out.
Rip, Rig & Panic/Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith

4. Paul Gonsalves (1920-1974)

Best known for his 27-chorus blues solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, captured on the recording Ellington at Newport (‘56), Gonsalves was one of the creamiest, most creative saxophone players ever. He appears on a number of Ellington’s great recordings from the 50’s, and really shaped the Ellington sound alongside the other great saxophonists in that group.

Ellington At Newport 1956

5. Clifford Jordan (1931-1993)

Clifford was one of the great players from Chicago, steeped in rhythm and blues, and known for his playing with Charles Mingus and his three Blue Note recordings as a leader. Jordan died when I was first getting into jazz as a teenager, and I quickly found myself a copy of his recording Spellbound and learned several solos from it. His sound was completely his own, and the swing is incredible.


6. Johnny Griffin (1928-2008)

Nicknamed the “Little Giant” due to his small stature, he was another Chicago great. I was fortunate to see him play a few times as a kid and will never forget it. He could play lightning-fast tempos like nobody else, and had a huge sound. He played with Thelonious Monk briefly in the 50’s, and these recordings are some of my favorite Monk.

Thelonious Monk in Action

7. Gene Ammons (1925-1974)

Yet another Chicago great. The son of a famous Boogie-Woogie pianist, he could play a mean blues and bring that blues sense to everything he played. Check out his recordings with Sonny Stitt. He certainly didn’t match up with Stitt technically, but what a fantastic sound and feel.

Boss Tenors

8. Dewey Redman (1931-2006)

Born in Texas, he is most famous for his early recording with Ornette Coleman and later as a member of Keith Jarrett’s first quartet. He is also Joshua Redman’s father. His sound is a massive force, and his melodicism is stunning. He could play inside as well as he could play free, and the cry in his playing is infectious. He is a huge influence on some major players today.

Fort Yawuh

9. Illinois Jacquet (1922-2004)

Although people know him for some of his more honking playing that influenced many of the rock players that would follow him, he could swing as well as anybody and break your heart with a ballad. He’s most famous for his solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home,” which shook the music world.

Flying Home: Best of Verve Years

10. Sam Butera (1927-2009)

Best known as the singer Louis Prima’s saxophone sidekick, his solo on “Just a Gigolo” is a growly, blustery wonder, something that every saxophone player should know. His playing is such an extension of the New Orleans tradition that he and Prima came out of, and it’s totally infectious, full of humor, spirit, and soul.

Collectors Series: Louis Prima

11. Warne Marsh (1927-1987)

The greatest disciple of the Lennie Tristano school, he was one of a kind, and has become a huge influence on young players of the last ten years. He was one of the truest improvisers to play this music, and this is undoubtedly some of the most sophisticated and delicate playing in the saxophone lineage.

Live at the Half Note

12. Charlie Rouse (1924-1988)

Many great saxophone players played in Thelonious Monk’s band over the years (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Steve Lacy, Johnny Griffin), but Rouse played with him the longest and perhaps played Monk’s music more like it was intended to be played. The unique swing, use of space and dry humor in his playing delights.

Monk’s Dream

13. Sal Nistico (1938-1991)

I was first introduced to Nistico’s playing by Dick Oatts, one of the true saxophone heroes of today. Known for a long association with Woody Herman, where he shines, the depth of his lines is incredible.


14. Eddie Lockjaw Davis (1922-1986)

Best known for his playing with Count Basie as well as the two-tenor groups he lead with Sonny Stitt and Johnny Griffin. This is some bigtime saxophone playing.

Complete Cookbook Sessions

15. Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000)

The most masterful and elegant of the blues players, here is complete mastery of the instrument, an incredibly identifiable sound, and an amazing soulfulness. He is most known for his commercial successes of the 70’s on CTI, but check out some of his earlier work for some more revealing tenor playing, especially this collaboration with the great Oliver Nelson (another great and unsung saxophone player).


16. Eddie Harris (1934-1996)

Another player who had some commercial successes, but is too often overlooked by saxophonists. His playing is so spare and understated, even with his extensive and refined use of the altissimo register and extensive use of lines based on fourths. Nobody else could do so much over two chords as Eddie when it came time to be funky, and the opening notes of “Shadow or Your Smile” on this record still make me melt.

In Sound

If you have some players to add to the list, I would love to see your thoughts in the comment section below.

Learn with and Listen to Sam

Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others.

His new book, 12 INTERVALLIC ETUDES for Saxophone, is available here. His albums can be purchased at

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