Best Jazz Pianists: A Top 50 Countdown

From the smoky jazz clubs of New Orleans to the grand concert halls of New York City, the sound of the piano has always been a cornerstone of jazz music. And there have been some truly legendary jazz pianists who have taken the art form to new heights with their technical skills, innovative improvisation, and sheer passion for the music. In this article, we’ll be celebrating the best of the best, the jazz pianists who have left an indelible mark on the genre and continue to inspire new generations of musicians.

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The piano’s importance in jazz stretches back to the time of Scott Joplin, at the turn of the 20th Century, when ragtime – with its jaunty, percussive rhythms – proved an important early building block in the evolution of jazz music.

From ragtime piano came the more sophisticated and virtuosic “stride” style of James P Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith – with its locomotive, two-step, left-hand accompaniment – in the 20s and 30s, which in turn led to Fats Waller and ultimately culminated with Art Tatum. Hands down one of the best jazz pianists in history, Tatum was a blind genius who arguably created the most densely polyphonic and sophisticated pre-bebop piano style of all, fusing stride with swing.

In the mid-40s, the bebop revolution, instigated by horn players Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, resulted in a generation of artists (led by Bud Powell) who would enter the ranks of the best jazz pianists with an approach that treated the instrument like a trumpet or saxophone, picking out syncopated right-hand melodies with horn-style phrasing. When the 50s arrived, there were others, such as Bill Evans, who fused the bop aesthetic with a sensibility nurtured on classical and romantic music, producing a densely-harmonized piano style that was supremely lyrical and richly expressive. Evans’ influence – like Bud Powell’s before him – was pervasive, and many future jazz piano stars (from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to Keith Jarrett and, more recently, Brad Mehldau) are indebted to him.

The jazz world has produced an abundance of super-talented piano players – many more than can be accommodated in this list of the 50 best jazz pianists of all time. Indeed, whittling it down was not an easy task, but we’ve persevered and come up with a list of names that we believe represent the most important ivory-ticklers of the genre.

In our estimation, here are the 50 best jazz pianists of all time.

50: Lennie Tristano (1919-1978)

Opinions differ on the significance of this blind, Chicago-born pianist who played with Charlie Parker in the late 40s and went on to establish himself as a musician with a unique sound and style. What is certain is that Tristano was an uncompromising innovator whose unorthodox conception of melody and harmony presaged the birth of free jazz. He also experimented with multi-tracking recording in the early 50s – which most jazz musicians considered anathema – by overdubbing improvised piano parts. Tristano was also a noted jazz teacher and it is claimed that his influence affected Miles Davis (on Birth Of The Cool) as well as Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan.

49: Kenny Kirkland (1954-1998)

From Brooklyn, New York, Kirkland had a fruitful association with the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford, in the 80s and 90s, appearing as a sideman on many of their albums. Kirkland also played with jazz greats, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Elvin Jones, in the 80s, and appeared on five albums by ex-Police frontman, Sting. His own discography contains just one solo album, 1991’s Kenny Kirkland, for GRP, though it’s likely that, had he not died prematurely, aged 43, from congestive heart failure, Kirkland would have recorded many more solo albums.

48: Dave Grusin (born 1934)

A founding father of an accessible, R&B-inflected form of instrumental music called smooth jazz, Grusin is rare among the best jazz pianists for having also set up his own record label, GRP, in 1978. Originally from Colorado, Grusin began releasing piano-led albums under his own name in the early 60s, a decade that also saw him break into the world of television music, where he wrote themes for numerous US TV shows. Grusin went on to become a prolific composer of movie scores (among them On Golden Pond and The Fabulous Baker Boys) and has also released a raft of keyboard-oriented studio albums.

47: Duke Pearson (1932-1980)

Born Columbus Calvin Pearson in Atlanta, Georgia, Pearson’s career took off when he moved to New York City in 1959. That was the year he recorded his debut album for Blue Note, and he went onto become one of the best jazz pianists the iconic label signed. Enjoying a long association with Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff’s outfit, he not only recorded his own music, but worked as an in-house arranger and A&R man. A capable and versatile pianist, Pearson’s own records veered more towards the soul jazz style.

46: Elmo Hope (1923-1967)

A sideman for noted saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and Harold Land in the 50s, New Yorker Hope (real name St Elmo Sylvester Hope) was a bebop pianist with a bright sound, dynamic touch, and, like Thelonious Monk, had a penchant for dissonance. He recorded for Blue Note, Prestige, and Pacific Jazz in the 50s. Sadly, his life was blighted by drug addiction, which hastened his premature death at the age of 43.

45: Kenny Barron (born 1943)

As a teacher, this capable Philadelphia pianist can count Maynard Ferguson pianist Earl MacDonald, and recent Blue Note signing Aaron Parks, as his star pupils. Barron’s own career began with sideman stints with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. A nine-time Grammy nominee, Barron has been recording since the late 60s and his many collaborators include fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. A master who is fluent in both the bebop and post-bop styles, Barron is one of the best jazz pianists alive today.

44: John Lewis (1920-2001)

As one of the charter members of The Modern Jazz Quartet, a pioneering group that fused bebop with classical music aesthetics, Lewis was an influential musician whose gleaming, staccato piano style was indebted to Count Basie and saxophonist Lester Young. Prior to the MJQ, he was a sideman for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Outside of his band, Lewis made many albums under his own name, the earliest in 1955.

43: Harold Mabern (1936-2019)

Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Mabern is unique among the best jazz pianists for having begun as a drummer before switching to piano. Moving to Chicago, and then New York, he was regarded as a go-to sideman in the late 50s and early 60s (playing with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Roland Kirk, and Wes Montgomery) before beginning his own recording career, which started at Prestige Records in 1968. A virtuoso who is fully fluent in bebop, modal, and post-bop jazz styles, Mabern is still actively recording and performing today at the age of 81.

42: Kenny Drew (1928-1993)

New York City-born Drew – who served his musical apprenticeship as a sideman for Buddy DeFranco, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker – was a highly-regarded bebop pianist and composer who enjoyed a long and fruitful association with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, when both musicians lived in Denmark during the 60s and 70s. Cutting his first solo LP in 1953, Drew recorded regularly for a variety of different labels up until his death. He died and was buried in Copenhagen.

41: Jaki Byard (1922-1999)

An eclectic, versatile pianist who also played saxophone, Massachusetts-born Byard’s own music drew on everything from ragtime to free jazz and also covered all styles in between. He played with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson in the late 50s, but his career really took off when he moved to New York City in the 60s. He spent two years with Charles Mingus, as well as working with Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. Though revered by the critics, Byard’s unique sound was less well-received by the public, but he remains one of the best jazz pianists in history, not only because of his impact on jazz in general, but also in relation to his role in the evolution of the piano itself.

40: Cedar Walton (1934-2013)

From Dallas, Texas, as a child this hard bop piano giant was raised on a diet of Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. Though their music infused Walton’s own style, he found his own voice on the piano and, after a stint with Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane, and The Jazztet, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1961, going on to cut nine albums with the group. Walton’s own career as a leader began in 1967 and, in the 70s, he dabbled with jazz-funk and fusion. In addition to being a gifted pianist, Walton was also a noted composer, contributing “Bolivia” and “Mode For Joe” to the jazz standards repertoire.

39: Barry Harris (1929-2021)

Born and raised in Detroit, Harris, whose mother played piano in church, was an early starter, taking up his chosen instrument at the age of four. When he was older, he was smitten by jazz and fell under the spell of modernists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. By the 50s, Harris was a jobbing pianist and worked with Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons; in the 60s he gigged with Cannonball Adderley. Stylistically, Harris is a staunch disciple of hard bop, which is reflected in the horn-like phrasing of his right-hand melodies, complex rhythmic syncopations, and dense harmonization. One of the best jazz pianists still with us from the bebop era.

38: Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Pittsburgh, Williams was a self-taught pianist who rose to fame as a teenage prodigy in the 20s. By the 30s, she was working as a freelance arranger, writing charts for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and, later, Duke Ellington. When bebop arrived, in the mid-40s, she had an affinity for the revolutionary new style, and was a mentor to Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. A prodigiously talented musician, Williams was an inspirational figure and paved the way for noted contemporary female pianists such as Tania Maria, the late Geri Allen, Eliane Elias, and Diana Krall.

37: Bobby Timmons (1935-1974)

One of a multitude of musicians who came through Art Blakey’s “Hard Bop Academy,” The Jazz Messengers, this Philadelphia musician was the son of a preacher and grew up playing in church. Gospel music left an indelible mark on Timmons and its DNA can be detected in his playing and much of the music he wrote, which included the classic tunes “Moanin’,” “This Here,” and “Dat Dere,” which earned him his place among the best jazz pianists for laying the blueprint for what became known as soul jazz in the late 50s and early 60s. Sadly, Timmons’ career was cut short, at 38, by his chronic alcoholism.

36: Andrew Hill (1931-2007)

Hailing from Chicago, as a boy Hill earned small change playing accordion on the Windy City’s streets. He worked mainly as a sideman in the 50s, but in 1963, after a move to New York, Hill began a long association with Blue Note Records that resulted in 16 albums. Though influenced by Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, Hill forged his own distinctive and complex style, both as a pianist and composer. His music tended to be chromatic and angular, and while it pushed the barriers, it also remained rooted in jazz tradition.

35: Brad Mehldau (born 1970)

From Jacksonville, Florida, Mehldau is undoubtedly one of the leading pianists in contemporary jazz. Though, compared to many of the best jazz pianists, his influences are wide and varied – ranging from pop, rock, folk, and classical music, to bebop, country, and even electronic music – he has distilled them all into a unique style which is inspired by the lyricism of Bill Evans and spellbinding virtuosic improvisation of Keith Jarrett. Mehldau’s long-running piano trio has also continually broken new ground with its near-telepathic collective improvisation and eclectic repertoire.

34: Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

A poet as well as a pianist/composer, this New Yorker was a leading light of the avant-garde movement in the late 50s and early 60s. Not for the faint-hearted, Taylor’s energetic style is often fiercely atonal, employing jarring cluster chords and a dense, polyrhythmic complexity. He released his debut LP in 1956 and recorded regularly for a raft of different labels up until 2009.

33: Nat “King” Cole (1919-1965)

Given his fame in the 50s as a pop singer with a silky croon, it’s perhaps not surprising that many often forget that Alabama-born Cole was also one of the best jazz pianists of his time. Starting out playing gospel music on the organ before being formally tutored in piano, Cole was schooled in classical music but quickly gravitated to jazz. He was especially influenced by Earl Hines, whose ornate, heavily embellished approach was the foundation for Cole’s own style, which developed within the confines of his own trio in the 30s and 40s. From 1943 onwards, it was Cole’s voice that drew more acclaim, however, and his success as a singer went on to eclipse his piano playing.

32: Sonny Clark (1931-1963)

Born Conrad Clark, this piano-playing exponent of hard bop from Herminie, Pennsylvania, enjoyed a brief period under the jazz spotlight between 1955 and 1961. Influenced by Bud Powell and noted for his horn-like right-hand melodies, Clark was a sideman for Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus, and also enjoyed a fecund five-year spell at Blue Note Records, where he served up nine albums, including the classic hard bop manifesto Cool Struttin’. Sadly, Clark was a heroin addict and died, aged 31, from a suspected (but never proven) overdose.

31: Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999)

Despite suffering from a genetic disease that stunted his growth, resulted in brittle bones, and gave him perpetual arm pain, France-born Petrucciani defied the odds to become one of the world’s best jazz pianists, and was inspired to take up the instrument after seeing Duke Ellington on TV. By 13, he was playing professionally, and at 18 recorded the first of many LPs. Though his lyrical approach to the piano was undoubtedly indebted to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, Petrucciani, who died at 36, nevertheless had an individual sound and style.

30: Hank Jones (1918-2010)

The elder sibling of trumpeter Thad, and drummer Elvin, Jones, this Mississippi-born/Michigan-raised pianist was initially influenced by Earl Hines and Fats Waller, but later fell under bebop’s spell. He recorded with Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker before embarking on a stellar solo career that blossomed in the 50s. Hired for his impeccable musical taste and sonic eloquence, Jones’ myriad sideman credits ranged from Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon to Anita O’Day and Marilyn Monroe.

29: Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

This Texas pianist’s music was largely forgotten until his tune, “The Entertainer” – which was used on the soundtrack to the 1973 blockbuster film The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman – revived interest in his work. In his heyday, in the early years of the 20th Century, Joplin was crowned King Of Ragtime, a jaunty, syncopated style of music that was an amalgam of African-American and Western European music. Though no recordings of Joplin exist, his status as one of history’s best jazz pianists is assured, thanks in part to piano rolls and sheet music from the time, illustrating his unique style, which went on to influence James P Johnson.

28: Ramsey Lewis (1935-2022)

Emerging on Chess Records in the 50s fronting a piano trio, Chicago-born Lewis racked up a trio of finger-clicking crossover pop hits in the mid-60s (the biggest was 1965’s “The In Crowd”) before plugging his piano into the mains socket and going the way of funk and fusion in the 70s. A classically-trained pianist, Lewis fused jazz with rhythm’n’blues and gospel music to forge a distinctive soul jazz style that spawned a host of imitators.

27: Wynton Kelly (1931-1977)

Influenced by Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell, Brooklyn-born Kelly is best remembered for his association with Miles Davis between 1959 and 1961 (he played on the iconic 1959 LP Kind Of Blue). He also recorded a slew of solo albums, all of which highlighted his glistening, horn-like right-hand melodies and penchant for block chordal accompaniment. Contemporary pianists who claim to have been influenced by him include Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau.

26: Willie “The Lion” Smith (1897-1973)

Together with James P Johnson and Fats Waller, William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (to give him his full name) was a noted practitioner of the stride style of playing. Born in New York, he rose to fame in the 20s as an accompanist of blues singers. His propulsive, dynamic style, with its dazzling finger-work, exerted a profound influence on both Duke Ellington’s and George Gershwin’s approach to the piano.

25: James P. Johnson (1894-1955)

This New Jersey pianist helped bridge the transition from ragtime to jazz with his stride piano technique, which built on ragtime’s locomotive, see-saw jauntiness but added more sophisticated harmonies and a stronger blues element. Though his music is mostly forgotten now, Johnson – who was also a noted accompanist for singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters – was a pioneer who earns his place among the best jazz singers in part because of his powerful influence over Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Art Tatum.

24: Bob James (born 1939)

Though Missouri-born James is widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of smooth jazz, ironically, he began his career in the vanguard of the early 60s avant-garde scene. By the 70s, though, James’ star was on the rise thanks to his being the in-house arranger at producer Creed Taylor’s influential CTI label. He made four hugely popular, radio-friendly albums for CTI, where he established himself as the doyen of a lighter, more accessible version of jazz-fusion. Though he’s an undoubted master of the electric Fender Rhodes keyboard (which dominated his classic 70s records), in recent years James has returned to the acoustic piano.

23: George Shearing (1919-2011)

Blind from birth, the much-honored London-born George Shearing (who, uniquely among the best jazz pianists, was a Sir, having been knighted in 2007) displayed an aptitude for the piano and accordion at an early age. He eked a living as a jobbing pianist for hire until emigrating to the US in 1947, where he quickly made a name for himself with his synthesis of swing, bebop, and elements drawn from classical music. A pioneer of block chords, Shearing’s group – which including the distinctive sound of the vibraphone – became hugely popular and influential in the 50s.

22: Joe Zawinul (1932-2007)

Inspired to take up jazz after hearing Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” Austrian-born Zawinul ventured to the US in 1959, where he immediately made his mark as a pianist and composer in Cannonball Adderley’s band. Though Miles Davis tried to poach him (Zawinul worked on Miles’ groundbreaking In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew albums at the end of the 60s), the pianist stayed with Cannonball until 1970 and then co-founded famed fusion pioneers Weather Report.

21: Teddy Wilson (1912-1986)

Dubbed The Marxist Mozart for his espousal of left-wing political causes, Texas-born Theodore Wilson was a virtuosic pianist who gained prominence in the swing era and worked as a sideman with some of the biggest names in jazz, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. He also made many recordings under his own name, but today is mostly remembered as Billie Holiday’s accompanist.

20: Horace Silver (1928-2014)

Born in Connecticut with Cape Verdean ancestry, Horace Silver was an archetypal hard bop pianist whose rise to fame began when he co-founded The Jazz Messengers (which Art Blakey later took over) in 1954. As well as a dexterous pianist who enjoyed a long and fruitful stretch at Blue Note between 1952 and 1980, Silver was a prolific tunesmith (among his most famous compositions is “Song For My Father”).

19: Red Garland (1923-1984)

For a jazz pianist who started out in life as a welterweight boxer, Texas-born William “Red” Garland had a decidedly delicate touch. He played as a sideman for Billy Eckstine and Charlie Parker, and was in bluesman Eddie Vinson’s band alongside a young John Coltrane. His path would cross with Coltrane’s again in the 50s, when both joined Miles Davis’ quintet and made several groundbreaking albums for Prestige and Columbia (among them Workin’ and ’Round About Midnight). Davis liked Garland for his Ahmad Jamal-like lightness of touch and use of space. Another hallmark of the Texan’s singular style was his use of two-handed block chords.

18: Tommy Flanagan (1930-2001)

For many, Detroiter Thomas Lee Flanagan’s name is synonymous with saxophone giant John Coltrane. He played on Trane’s totemic 1960 masterpiece, Giant Steps, and as a sideman also featured on significant LPs by Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus) and guitarist Wes Montgomery (The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery). Describing his approach to piano, Flanagan once said, “I like to play like a horn player, like I’m blowing into the piano.” Though he was a valued sideman, he also made a slew of albums under his own name for a raft of different labels between 1957 and 1997.

17: Erroll Garner (1923-1977)

With his predilection for performing in an ornate style that comprised lush chords, liquid runs and complex syncopations, this Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh was a child piano prodigy who first recorded in the 40s but blossomed spectacularly in the 50s. He would arguably earn his place among the best jazz pianists solely for giving the jazz world the perennially popular standard “Misty,” which he composed in 1954 and recorded many times thereafter. Arguably the most compelling album he made was 1955’s classic Concert By The Sea, which captures Garner in all his glory.

16: Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

One of an elite handful of jazz artists to score a big crossover pop hit in the 60s (“Take Five”), California-born Brubeck, who grew up on a ranch, studied to be a vet but switched to music during college. A near-fatal diving accident in 1951 caused nerve damage to Brubeck’s hands and changed the way he played piano, where fleet-of-finger lines were replaced by dense block chords. Even so, Brubeck could still play with imagination and elegance, and often composed music using unusual and asymmetrical time signatures.

15: Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941)

Given that he once claimed to have singlehandedly invented jazz, modesty was most certainly not a recognizable trait in the character of this New Orleans pianist born Ferdinand LeMothe – though he wholly deserves recognition among the best jazz pianists. As both a composer and arranger, Morton was a seminal figure in the development of early jazz – among his most famous recordings is “Black Bottom Stomp” – and he was also a noted pianist whose propulsive, jaunty style grew out of ragtime and anticipated the stride development.

14: Earl Hines (1903-1983)

From Duquesne, Pennsylvania, Earl “Fatha” Hines was a key figure in the evolution of jazz piano-playing. He started as an orthodox stride-style player but soon introduced innovations. In a bid to be heard in a big band ensemble, Hines began articulating melodies with octaves (or what he called “trumpet notes”), as well as using a tremolo effect (a rapid alternation of two notes). Though he began his recording career in 1923, he was able to adapt to changing styles in jazz and kept recording until 1981. A jazz piano colossus.

13: Count Basie (1904-1984)

Like fellow jazz aristocrat Duke Ellington, Count Basie’s prowess at the piano was often eclipsed by his role as a successful bandleader. Originally from Red Bank, New Jersey, Bill Basie rose to fame during the big-band swing epoch with popular tunes such as “One O’clock Jump.” He usually led from the piano, adhering to a minimalistic less-is-more aesthetic and employing forceful percussive accenting and octaves so that his bluesy notes cut through the full band sound.

12: Fats Waller (1904-1943)

Native New Yorker Thomas “Fats” Waller didn’t live to see his 40th birthday (he succumbed to pneumonia at 39), but nevertheless proved to be an influential pianist, particularly for his contribution to the evolution of the highly rhythmic stride style, an important foundation stone in jazz piano. Waller was also an organist and composer whose repertoire included the immortal tunes “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

11: Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

It’s often overlooked that Washington, DC-born Edward Kennedy Ellington was a tremendous jazz pianist with his own inimitable style. That’s because Ellington earned greater fame as a popular bandleader and composer during the big band swing era of the 30s. There are a few solo piano entries in the jazz aristocrat’s extensive discography (most notably, perhaps, 1953’s The Duke Plays Ellington) that reveal the full extent of Ellington’s skills.

10: Ahmad Jamal (born 1930)

Pittsburgh-born Ahmad Jamal possesses a delicate, nimble touch and intuitively knows how to use space to good effect. It was the latter quality that made Miles Davis such a big fan of his music in the 50s, attempting to replicate Jamal’s light piano style in his groups of that era. Jamal first recorded for OKeh in 1951, but it was later in the same decade when took his position among the best jazz pianists of all time, with the best-selling live album At The Pershing, which took his music to a larger audience. A master of musical understatement.

9: Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Like Keith Jarrett, Armando “Chick” Corea, from Chelsea, Massachusetts, was an early starter – he began playing piano aged four – and later rose to fame as a sideman with the great Miles Davis (replacing Herbie Hancock). Though influenced by the romanticism of Bill Evans, there’s always been a palpable Latin inflection to Corea’s music, which has ranged from straight-ahead jazz to electric fusion (he led the jazz-rock behemoth Return To Forever in the 70s).

8: Keith Jarrett (born 1945)

From Allentown, Pennsylvania, Keith Jarrett started playing piano at the age of two and rapidly blossomed into a precociously gifted child prodigy steeped in classical music. As a teenager, Jarrett was seduced by jazz and quickly became fluent in its idiom. He played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid-60s before joining the groups of Charles Lloyd and, later, Miles Davis. In the 70s, at ECM Records, Jarrett – eschewing electric instruments – patented a lyrical style and, in the same decade, released an improvised solo recital called The Köln Concert, which set a new benchmark for unaccompanied jazz piano. An intrepid improviser whose imagination knows no bounds.

7: Bud Powell (1924-1966)

This Harlem-born musician was the first pianist to approach the piano as if it were a horn instrument. Though he gleaned much from the left-hand stride-style of Art Tatum, alto saxophonist and bebop architect Charlie Parker was Bud Powell’s main inspiration. As a result, Powell proved highly influential, even though his career was short (he died aged 41, after years of mental health problems). The missing link between Art Tatum and bebop, his status as one of the best jazz pianists of all time is forever assured.

6: McCoy Tyner (1938-2020)

From Philadelphia, McCoy Tyner rose to fame as a member of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking quartet between 1960 and 1965, playing on the saxophonist’s iconic 1965 album, A Love Supreme. An exponent of modal jazz with a passion for blues, Tyner’s main hallmark is using chords with prominent fourths. He also often attacks the piano with brute force, though he can also play with extreme delicacy, employing staccato right-hand runs. After Coltrane, Tyner established himself as one of contemporary jazz’s pre-eminent pianists with a series of astounding albums for Blue Note and, later, Milestone.

5: Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

Originally from Quebec, Canada, Peterson was a classically-trained child prodigy who fell under the influence of Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole. He made his first recording in 1945, but it was in the 50s, after he joined jazz impresario Norman Granz’s Verve label and led a piano trio, that he became a household name. Renowned for ornate filigrees and a hard-swinging style, Peterson was a dextrous improviser.

4: Herbie Hancock (born 1940)

Though he’s flirted with funk, dabbled with disco, and even dallied with electro and hip-hop (exemplified by his 1983 global hit, “Rockit”), at heart this Chicago-born musical chameleon is a committed jazz pianist. Though influenced by Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock forged his own style in the 60s, both as a solo artist and as a member of Miles Davis’ pathfinding post-bop quintet. Though he’s almost 80, Hancock still has the musical inquisitiveness of a teenager.

3: Bill Evans (1929-1980)

A troubled soul, this New Jersey pianist was plagued with drug addiction problems throughout his adult life and professional career, but it didn’t stop him producing a remarkably beautiful and consistent body of work. Reflective romantic ballads with lush chords were his undoubted forte, but Evans – who drew on both bebop and classical music for inspiration – could also swing with verve, especially in a live setting. (Start with his legendary trio recordings with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, like Sunday at the Village Vanguard or Waltz for Debby for evidence of both.) Myriad pianists have fallen under Evans’ spell, including Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and, more recently, Brad Mehldau.

2: Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

Misunderstood by many, this North Carolina-born maverick (who was rarely seen without a hat) is one of the most idiosyncratic of the world’s best jazz pianists. Emerging in the bebop dawn of the mid-to-late 40s, he pursued his own idiosyncratic path, creating a unique musical universe where angular but hummable melodies, dissonant cluster chords, and a lightly-swinging rhythmic pulse ruled. As a composer, Monk contributed several standards to the jazz songbook – including “’Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser” – and, as a keyboardist, recorded several albums of unaccompanied piano, including the classic Thelonious Alone In San Francisco.

1: Art Tatum (1909-1956)

At the pinnacle of our list of the 50 best jazz pianists of all time is the man regarded as a keyboard deity. Visually impaired from infancy, Ohio-born Art Tatum learned to play the piano by ear as a child and, blessed with perfect pitch, quickly excelled at the instrument. He patented a technically advanced, uniquely florid style from an early age that melded elements from stride, swing and classical music. Though hugely influential – Oscar Peterson was one of his prime disciples – Tatum’s life came to an end shortly after his 47th birthday.

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