The 10 Most Underrated Jazz Musicians

Underrated Jazz Musicians

When was the the last time you heard any Jazz? Sadly this musical genre that began at the turn of the 20th century is under appreciated in modern culture and many of the great musicians of the past are forgotten. Here’s a top 10 list to introduce you to some of the most underrated musicians and vocalists  ranging from the big band era to solo piano.

1. Jack Payne and his Orchestra

Born in the U.K. he started organizing bands while serving during the First World War, but rose to prominence as the bandleader for the first BBC official dance band. Famous for their easy listening – highlighted in “By a Waterfall” – they would be featured in the BBC’s first television broadcast in 1929.

2. Fletcher Henderson

This overlooked arranger and bandleader ranks alongside Duke Ellington in skill and influence. Establishing himself in the 1920s he would also create the formula for the distinctive swing sound. He would sell many of the rights to his music to Benny Goodman yet without Fletcher, there could be no swing, or big band sound. Take a look at All About Jazz review of a biography by Jeffrey Magee; the Interim Director of the University of Illinois School of Music, as well as Professor of Music and Theatre.

3. Vince Guaraldi

offical website – after his first recording with Cal Tjader in 1953 Vince would join two bands before going solo in 1959.  Perhaps only known in pop culture for composing a suite for Charle’s Schultz’s Peanuts and A Boy Named Charlie Brown his groovy interpretation of The Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby” deserves far more recognition.

4. Lennie Tristano


Hope you didn’t think Ray Charles was the only blind pianist, stricken blind in his infancy Lennie was first taught music by his mother, later attaining a bachelor’s from the Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music.

Lennie set out with his distinctive cerebral style recording the first known examples of free Jazz, a form that is purely improvised. Although he had difficulties trusting record companies Lennie became a popular concert pianist and would teach several important students. He was posthumously recognized with a Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013.

For more on Tristano’s teaching method check out this blog post featuring a video with one of his students.

5. Grant Green

Though he was mostly ignored during his life Grant’s distinctive guitar style of single note lines gives his music what Critic Dave Hunter calls a “lithe, loose, slightly bluesy and righteously groovy” tone.  Thankfully in recent years his reputation has only continued to grow, try out Grant’s smooth and laid back music in the video below.

6. Booker Little

One of the first players to develop a unique trumpet style. This inventive and uncompromisingly avant-garde musician would study at the Chicago Conservatory for two years. But sadly his career would be cut short by his passing away at only 23 in 1961. Learn – and sample – a little more at NPR’s kplu channel.

7. Horace Parlan

homepage – Born in 1931 Horace would be afflicted with polio during his childhood but he never let this impacted his musical aspirations, in fact he used it to his benefit. As his right hand had been crippled he simply compensated with his left, and this helped him stand out of the hard bop crowd.  Find out more in his interview in 2001 with JazzTimes magazine, don’t forget to follow them on Twitter @JazzTimes.

8. Bill Coleman

bill coleman

A fantastic trumpeter who’s lyrical style should have earned him a place on the must listen musicians play lists of Jazz. He would start playing professionally in the 1920s but rose to prominence in the 30s and toured Europe.

Bill preferred to live in Paris – to avoid racial segregation – and was awarded the French Ordre National du Mérite in 1974.

9. Blossom Dearie

Like many Jazz vocalists Blossom would start in the Cabernets that were at the height of their popularity at the time, but unusually for a singer she had also studied music. Beginning with Classical music on piano she would transition to Jazz during High School. After moving to Paris she became a founding member of  The Blue Stars of France, another member Christiane Legrand was the sister of Michel Legrand. Blossom would leave the group to go solo and return to New York, her music sweet and sophisticated would make her a popular singer in the Manhatten clubs of the Mad Men era.  Stop by Jazz Wax for more by Wall Street Journal contributor Marc Myers, check out his Twitter @JazzWax.

10. Abbey Lincoln

Raised in Michigan Abbey would make a name for herself in the Jazz scene of Chicago, moving to New York after marrying fellow musician Max Roach Abbey was introduced to the city’s Jazz aficionados and  intelligentsia, which brought her to musical activism. With her political lyrics and emotional depth to her singing Abbey would become attached to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Never shy about singing each word for maximum effect she is perhaps the only heir to Billie Holiday.

About the Author: Roshelle Caron is a college student living in a small town in New England and out of boredom has a longer iTunes play list then any one person should. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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