Jazz Drummers require great technical ability, immense control of dynamics, and solid improvisational skills. Practically every sub-genre of Jazz is very challenging to master. This article lists 20 of the best jazz drummers in history.
Make sure to check out the videos of each drummer to get a real flavor of their drumming styles and skills. By the end of it, we guarantee that you’ll be inspired to take up the sticks and learn something new!
- 1. Buddy Rich
- 2. Art Blakey
- 3. Elvin Jones
- 4. Gene Krupa
- 5. Louie Bellson
- 6. Roy Haynes
- 7. Tony Williams
- 8. Jack DeJohnette
- 9. Max Roach
- 10. Joe Morello
- 11. Peter Erskine
- 12. Jimmy Cobb
- 13. Philly Joe Jones
- 14. Jo Jones
- 15. Kenny Clarke
- 16. Billy Higgins
- 17. Mel Lewis
- 18. Paul Motian
- 19. Sonny Payne
- 20. Connie Kay
1. Buddy Rich
One of the most famous drummers in the history of Jazz, Buddy Rich inspired generations of musicians.
Having performed with the best artists of his time, from Count Basie to Tommy Dorsey, he was also known for his bad temper and his quest for perfectionism, which led him to many rivalries, such as the one with Frank Sinatra.
Buddy Rich was a technical genius. He mastered cross-sticking, stick-tricks, as well as many more virtuoso techniques. His style was mighty, but he could also play slower rhythms and use softer techniques, such as brushes.
2. Art Blakey
Another legendary drummer, who played with artists such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker (to name just a few), Art Blakey is considered one of the inventors of the modern bebop drumming style.
Fellow drummer Max Roach would refer to Blakey as “the Thunder” underlying his potent, swing-filled drumming.
While Blakey always denied studying music during his time in Africa, which he employed deepening his knowledge of religion and philosophy, his approach to the drums presents a lot of African influences indeed, with complex rhythmical layers and a tribal feel.
3. Elvin Jones
The drummer of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, and many other prominent jazz artists of the post-bop era, Elvin Jones excelled in several different techniques and approaches.
He was a master at dealing with polyrhythms and legato phrasings. He also inspired many rock’n’roll drummers, such as Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker, with his free-flowing solos, a technical paradise for fellow drummers, and a hypnotic treat for all the other listeners.
4. Gene Krupa
Often considered the founding father of the modern drumming technique (and equipment), Gene Krupa was and still is a great inspiration for countless drummers.
He changed the course of jazz, becoming the first drummer to play solos and indulge in long virtuoso sections, just like a guitarist or a pianist would do. This new approach first came to life in the 1937 song Sing, Sing, Sing, which features a mesmerizing and extremely popular drum solo at the beginning and in various parts of the score.
Krupa also had an important role in building the modern drummer set, collaborating with Slingerland at the creation of some new, revolutionary pieces.
5. Louie Bellson
An accomplished musician, educator, and entrepreneur, Louie Bellson had a variegated and intense life. A life that somewhat resembled his drumming: colorful, rich, and unapologetic.
Bellson left an important mark in the history of drumming, especially as he pioneered the use of two bass drums, later adopted by many rock and pop drummers as well.
6. Roy Haynes
Possibly the most eclectic drummer on this list, Roy Haynes is still grooving now, after spending more than seventy years on stage with some of the greatest jazz artists ever existed.
His experience spans from bebop to fusion, from swing to avant-garde jazz. Among such different styles and sub-genres, Haynes always kept a distinctive and personal drumming approach, based on some innovative use of cymbals, employed as solid rhythmical foundations rather than simple effects, and some very snappy snare drums patterns.
Haynes manages to translate the rhythmical complexities of melodies to his instrument, assigning a prominent role to the drums.
7. Tony Williams
One of the founding fathers of jazz fusion, Tony Williams emerged as a talented and inventive drummer while working with the legendary Miles Davis. Throughout his life, he went on working with prominent musicians, such as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and many others, always bringing his mighty and precise approach to drumming.
Tony Williams was another of those drummers you could recognize at first hearing. His style was powerful but controlled. He was particularly great at polyrhythms, using all the rhythmical layers at his disposal to build a rich and enticing sound.
8. Jack DeJohnette
Another pioneer of jazz fusion and collaborator of Miles Davis, Jack DeJohnette still distinguishes himself as one of the most original and talented drummers in modern music.
His unique style is the result of what we could call a “meditative approach” to the instrument. His presence in the “flow” while playing allows him to come up with inventive, unheard patterns. This peculiar style enriches any of the performances he takes part in, such as the legendary ones with Keith Jarrett in the Eighties.
9. Max Roach
A friend and admirer of Art Blakey, as highlighted in a previous paragraph, Max Roach was also a prominent figure in the jazz scene of the Fifties. He pioneered a bebop style of drumming which is still used by many jazz drummers around the world. He worked with the best artists of his time, such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie (just to name a couple).
Roach adopted a whole new method of drumming, to make the rhythmic patterns more flexible and adjustable during solo performances. Instead of using the bass drum, he would highlight the pulse with the cymbals, for example, giving a lighter texture to the drumming parts.
He also pioneered the use of his four limbs independently, creating a whole new technique that is now employed by almost any jazz drummer around.
10. Joe Morello
A master at dealing with odd time signatures, Joe Morello is mostly known for his work with Dave Brubeck.
The challenging tempos and signatures employed by Brukeck’s compositions had no secrets for Morello, who would highlight accents, rhythmical shifts, and breaks using all the resources he had, sometimes even approaching the drums with his bare hands, to get a more tribal and primordial sound.
Surely a drummer to study for any musical student who wants to learn how to make tempo, rather than just keeping it.
11. Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine is another famous name in the jazz world. If you’re familiar with Weather Report and Steps Ahead then you’ve probably already know who he is.
His career is one to behold, to say the least. Spanning from 1972 to the present day, he has achieved so much to solidify himself as one of the greats. Apart from his amazing jazz career, Peter Erskine is a world-renowned drummer, composer and educator.
Peter Erskine started playing drums at a young age and quickly developed a passion for jazz. He went on to study at the Berklee College of Music. With so many years under his belt, he has played with some of the biggest names in the music industry.
12. Jimmy Cobb
The recently departed Jimmy Cobb is another great that joins the ranks of this list. Cobb was an excellent American jazz drummer who formed part of Miles Davis’s First Great Sextet and received an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2009.
Jimmy Cobb had an amazing career as a jazz drummer and was one of the most recorded drummers in history. He played on Miles Davis’s 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue, as well as on many other classic jazz recordings. Cobb was an in-demand session drummer who also toured and recorded with his own groups. He continued to play and record until he died in 2020.
13. Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones was born in 1923, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a drummer, he began playing professionally at the age of fifteen. Jones worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, among others.
With a great career that spanned over four decades, Philly Joe Jones was one of the most important and influential drummers in jazz history. He was known for his distinctive style and his ability to swing.
Jones died in 1985, at the age of sixty-one. Leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire musicians today.
14. Jo Jones
Jo Jones was another great jazz drummer. His style influenced many great drummers that followed. Jo Jones is considered to be one of the pioneers of jazz drumming. He was born in 1911 and died in 1985, just a few months after Philly Joe Jones.
Jo’s career was one of the longest in jazz history. He started playing professionally when he was only fifteen years old. And, like Philly Joe Jones, he worked with many of the greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
It’s clear that Jo Jones had a huge impact on jazz drumming.
15. Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke or Kenneth Clarke Spearman was the pioneer behind the be-bop era of jazz drumming. He was born in 1914 and died in 1985, just a few months after Philly Joe Jones and Jo Jones.
Clarke’s career spanned over six decades. He started playing professionally when he was eighteen years old and worked with some of the biggest names in jazz. He was among the first musicians to employ a ride cymbal instead of the hi-hat to keep time, as well as utilizing the bass drum for irregular accents.
16. Billy Higgins
Another great among these names is Billy Higgins. He was born in 1936 and died in 2001. He was an American jazz drummer who played with some of the most influential musicians in jazz history.
Higgins began playing drums from an early age. He went on to play with such greats as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Wes Montgomery. He also played in Thelonious Monk’s quartet.
Billy Higgins had a profound impact on the jazz community. He was known for his versatility, his ability to swing, and his unique style.
17. Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis was another great jazz drummer. He was born in 1929 and died in 1990. He was known for his distinctive style and his ability to swing. Jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie have praised Lewis for his contributions to the jazz community.
His playing style has been highly influential to many jazz drummers. Lewis was also a bandleader and arranger. He founded the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, which is still active today.
Lewis worked with many greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. He was also a member of the Jazz at the Philharmonic Orchestra.
18. Paul Motian
Paul Motian was a great jazz drummer. He was born in 1931 and died in 2011. He was also known for his unique style and ability to swing. Motian helped liberate jazz drummers from time-keeping responsibilities, which were formerly necessary for music ensembles.
Motian was also a bandleader and arranger. He founded the Paul Motian Quintet, which was active from 2002-2006. The group recorded three albums and Motian worked with many greats.
19. Sonny Payne
Sonny Payne joins the list. He was born in 1926 and died in 1979. With a playing style that was influenced by Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke, Sonny Payne became one of the most important and influential drummers in jazz history. He was known for his hard-hitting style.
He played with many great jazz players and had bands of his own. He was a highly respected member of the jazz community. He was chosen to be Sinatra’s personal drummer for all of his events.
20. Connie Kay
The last name on the list is Connie Kay. He was born in 1927 and died in 1994. Kay was a highly-acclaimed jazz drummer who performed with some of the biggest names in the business.
He was known for his distinctive style and his impeccable timing. Connie Kay is considered to be one of the most important drummers of the hard bop era. With achievements like the ones he had, it’s easy to see why.
In conclusion, these jazz drummers surely made their time and influenced many other musicians with their innovative and unique approaches.
Above all, we can learn one precious lesson from them: after years of study and practice, artists should be able to find their own voice, without necessarily fitting in styles, genres, and existing schemes. They all made their own mark on drumming by doing something a little different.