Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington…these names are synonymous with jazz, and their brilliance shines bright.
There are other players-Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Art Tatum-whose stars shine very, very brightly, though they may not quite be in the top 5 or 6 names in jazz history.
But this list isn’t about those people…it’s about other jazz luminaries whose stars don’t shine quite as brightly. These are some brilliant, prolific players out there who deserve more respect than they generally receive. And we should go back and give these unsung heroes our ears and our listening respect, digging on some forgotten, yet beautiful recordings!
The fun thing about a top ten list of underrated musicians is that it’s so subjective. There are many other musicians I considered to be a part of this list, but this is the list I ended up with after quite a bit of deliberation. There are two primary considerations: one is merit, the skill level and accomplishments of the jazz musician. The other consideration is the underrated factor, which has to do with the reactions of critics, name recognition, and the listening habits of those who love jazz.
I chose prolific jazz musicians with a good amount of output whose names just aren’t quite as well-known as they should be. There a few names on this list-Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt in particular-who’s names are fairly important in the jazz history text books, but I think they should be higher up in the discussion. Other names-like Ed Bickert and Sonny Clark-are just not nearly as well-known as they should be!
10. Ed Bickert
Canadian jazz guitarist played a telecaster instead of the tried-and-true jazz box, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to him. He’s a killer player with great tone and very little name recognition. He is even less well-known than other great guitarist deserving of wider recognition, such as Lenny Breau.
9. Sonny Clark
How is this stunning hard-bop pianist not more well-known? Seriously. The fact is that he died quite young, the age of 31. He didn’t quite have enough time to cement his reputation, although Clifford Brown died at a much younger age and still consisted ranks in the top 10 jazz trumpet players (more like top 5).
8. Shirley Scott
Shirley Scott was an incredible organist, and she really should have wider recognition for her incredible playing. She’s one of the most underrated jazz organists, without a doubt. She was also the wife of Stanley Turrentine, who could just about make this list himself just because he was such an amazing saxophone player, except that he was certainly more well-kwown than most of the other names on this list.
7. Harry “Sweets” Edison
This staple member of the Count Basie orchestra was an exemplary soloist on the trumpet. He recorded with lots of great musicians such as Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Buddy Rich. I think he should be higher on most lists of all-time greatest trumpet players!
6. Art Farmer
Art Farmer was a prolific jazz trumpet player, and he’s more well-known than many of the other names on this list. However, Art was such a brilliant player that I just don’t think he’s recognized as much as he should be. When was the last time you heard someone talking about the Art Farmer solo they just transcribed? That should happen more often!
5. Frank Rosolino
Frank Rosolino is one of the greatest jazz trombonists who ever lived. And yet, even professional jazz musicians sometimes have never listened to him. Some have never even HEARD of him. Unfortuantely, that’s a testament to the role of trombone in jazz. Trombones are generally not afforded the same opportunities as the trumpet or saxophone, and is unfortunately one of the most unheralded instruments in jazz. Frank Rosolino makes this tricky instrument sound like a tenor saxophone with his sheer brilliance.
4. Hank Mobley
This is one swinging saxophonist who is often overlooked. His swinging improvisations are certain to brighten up your day! This “Middleweight Champion of the Saxophone,” as jazz critic Leonard Feather hailed him, recorded some seriously great records for Blue Note. Hank Mobley played with Miles Davis, but didn’t become quite as well known as many of the other tenor players who played with Miles of that era. Here’s a nice piece that deals with possible reasons why Hank Mobley wasn’t more well-known.
3. Anita O’Day
This swingin’ chick singer is simply not rated nearly high enough. It’s a crying shame. She’s the type of vocalists that every aspiring singer should study for her brilliant phrasing and feel.
2. Gene Harris
Gene Harris is a titan of the jazz piano, and many jazz musicians don’t even know who he is! He was one of the pianists who worked in the Ray Brown Trio, along with Jeff Hamilton, years after the classic Oscar Peterson/Ray Brown/Ed Thigpen trio. Gene Harris’ recordings with Three Sounds early in his career and later with the Concord records are all brilliant. Gene Harris is one of the most underrated jazz artists of all time.
1. Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt is probably the most well-known person on this list, but why his name isn’t more oft included in the short list of top jazz saxophonists like Bird, Trane, Cannonball, and Sonny Rollins is beyond me. His brilliance as a saxophonist is simply breathtaking, and he should be on many more lists of top ten (or top 5!) jazz saxophonists. Sonny Stitt was a master of both the alto and the tenor saxophone, and played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. Perhaps the reason he isn’t higher on the short list of all-time greatest saxophonists was that he imitated Bird so freely, particularly earlier in his career.
He wasn’t quite the innovator that Bird or Trane was…still…Stitt was a SERIOUS force to be reckoned with! In my opinion he should be considered to be in the same Top 10 Tier with people such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker, and Wayne Shorter