As a life long lover of all things jazz piano, I have not only enjoyed a successful career as a performer but I have also had the pleasure of teaching hundreds of people to play. If you are jazz-curious, here is a list of ten jazz pianists that will make you fall in love with jazz.
Lists like this are hard
Before diving into this list, I have to point out that "best of" lists always pose a ton of problems. First off, they are highly subjective - these recordings reflect my opinion, but I would bet that I'm not alone in naming the pianists I name.
The other challenge is that when I pick ten, it means I am leaving out dozens of other legendary jazz pianists. Don't worry - I will very likely make a part two (and a part three and a part four...)
So now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's dive in to Ten Jazz Pianists That Will Make You Fall in Love with Jazz. Get ready!
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#1: Oscar Peterson playing C Jam Blues
This was the recording that started it all for me. My high school band director played me this exact recording and I had my "aha" moment. It was in that moment I discovered my destiny: I was going to be a jazz pianist.
Did you know that Oscar Peterson is Canadian? (Like me!). He was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec and lived out his later years in Mississauga, Ontario. His touch, his soul, his virtuosity, his creativity all make him truly one of the greatest of all time.
#2: Thelonious Monk Playing I Mean You
Monk is one of those artists that even non-jazz fans know and love. His canon of compositions is expansive and he had a creative spirit and approach to the piano that is copied by many. It's hard to play one of his pieces and NOT try to sound like him!
I found this fantastic live recording of his quartet playing in Paris. Isn't this wonderful?
#3: Duke Ellington Playing Lotus Blossoom
Duke Ellington is widely considered the Mozart of his time. No one match him with sheer output of masterpieces. Many associate him with his jazz orchestra, but Ellington was no slouch at the keyboard.
This is an incredible live solo performance of Lotus Blossom which was composed by his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Pure magic!
#4: Ahmad Jamal playing Poinciana
Ahmad Jamal is by far one of the most unique jazz pianists of all time. He had a highly developed concept for his playing, often showcasing an expansive sense of space and composition in his improvising.
He famously turned Miles Davis down, when he was invited to join his band, because he felt so committed to his own work. This iconic recording is so unexpected and thrilling, it's no wonder it's become a go-to for learning how to excite your audience.
#5: Bill Evans playing B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine)
Bill Evans has always been one of my biggest influences at the piano, combining lush harmonies with an incredible sense of line and melody in his improvisations.
While there were any number of iconic recordings I could have shared, I chose this later recording of his from the You Must Believe in Spring Record for it's sheer beauty. It's hard not to be drawn in by this one.
#6: Mary Lou Williams playing The Man I Love
Mary Lou Williams was like Duke Ellington in so many ways. She composed an incredibly range of material over a decades-long career that included small and large ensembles, vocal works and Mass settings.
She was widely recognized as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, even though she never got her full due because she was a woman. Despite the challenges of being a female jazz artist, her mark was left. In this incredible live performance you will get a sense of her remarkable abilities on the piano.
#8: Wynton Kelly playing Autumn Leaves
Wynton Kelly was a member of the legendary Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet during the 1950s and was know for his comping as well as his melodically driven improvisations.
Wynton is considered the gold anchor standard for bebop piano and is often the first pianist that is studied by jazz piano students. Here is a terrific trio recording of Wynton playing Autumn Leaves.
#9: Hank Jones playing Oh! Look at Me Now
Hank Jones had a career that spanned seventy years. As a young man he played alongside bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker and his career continued through the 2000s. His output what phenomenal and although he was firmly rooted in the traditions of jazz, he always had a sense of sophistication and modernism that makes him a compelling listen.
I have always been a huge fan of his solo playing, and this recording him Hank playing Oh! Look at Me Now (famously recorded by Frank Sinatra) shows that perfect balance of sophistication and swing.
#10: Red Garland playing Billy Boy
Red Garland was another notable pianist who played with Miles Davis in the 1950s. This recording of his heavily swung version of the Irish folk song Billy Boy was recorded on the Miles record Milestones.
You may notice that Miles doesn't even play on this track! How many bandleaders would highlight a side musician in this way on their record. It is so blistering and swinging - it's no wonder Miles wanted it on this album!
Jazz Piano Has So Many Dimensions
What I hope this list points out is that jazz piano can mean many things! There are so many incredible jazz pianists who bring so many different characteristics to the table.
Who is your favorite jazz pianist? Who should I add to the next list?
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