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The 10 greatest jazz pianists of all time

The greatest jazz pianist of all time is a title that you could arguably give to any artist on this list and just as easily to many who aren’t listed.

In my opinion, jazz is the pinnacle of creative art forms, and today, we stand on the shoulders of giants who pioneered defining eras in jazz history. This list highlights some of those giants.

About me

James Nugent, author and contributor at Higher Hz

As a pianist, Thelonious Monk inspired my passion for jazz. Through Monk, I developed a love for bebop, harmony, and individualism.

I’ve spent the last two decades learning from the words and music of these pianists, and I imagine I’ll do so for a lifetime.

How I chose the greatest jazz pianists?

Before choosing any pianists for this list, I wanted to better define in my mind what it meant to be the greatest. The list would never end if it were simply about being the most talented; there are too many amazing pianists to consider.

To create some distinction, I chose to add pianists who, while being amongst the most talented, had the most significant influence on jazz music. Some influenced the technique of others, some influenced creative choices, and some pioneered entire movements.

What they each have in common is that without them, something vital is missing, and jazz doesn’t take the same path.

The most difficult part is accepting that I’ll have to leave out so many worthy artists.

Art Tatum (1909 – 1956)

jazz pianist Art Tatum
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Art Tatum was the pianist who made other pianists want to quit. There are countless stories of jazz pianists hearing Art Tatum for the first time and thinking it was two pianists. Tatum redefined what was possible with two hands and 88 keys.

Although Tatum lost most of his sight by age four, the child prodigy could read music in Braille. He also had perfect pitch, allowing him to quickly learn anything he heard on the radio or in his mother’s piano roll collection.

He could do it all: stride piano, bebop, swing, but Tatum is often overlooked in discussions about the giants of jazz or reduced to someone with remarkable technique and could play very fast. While that’s true, Tatum also had a creative mind years ahead of his peers. If you remove the fast tempo, you’ll hear him making sublime harmonic choices; he heard music like no one else in his time.

Watch this rare footage of Art Tatum performing live

I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.<span class="su-quote-cite">jazz legend Fats Waller on Tatum's arrival</span>

Bill Evans (1929 – 1980)

jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans
Photo: Jan Persson

Bill Evans lived a musically brilliant but troubled life. Like many musical greats, Evans struggled with substance abuse, primarily heroin and cocaine.

Regardless of his struggles, Evans became a leading figure in jazz, playing on some of the most influential records ever. One such record is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which changed the harmonic landscape of jazz by trading some harmonic complexity for melodic freedom.

Evans’ playing on this iconic modal jazz album was mind-blowing: his use of quartal harmony and cantabile right-hand lines inspired generations.

Evans continued to display his unique interpretation of harmony and melody through extensive work leading his trio. His early trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian recorded one of his seminal albums, Portrait in Jazz.

Thanks to his advanced musical mind and impeccable execution of modern musical ideas, Evans would remain part of the jazz vanguard as long as he lived.

Watch this footage of Bill Evans performing “Waltz for Debby”

You can’t explain Jazz to anyone without losing the experience because it’s a feeling, not words.<span class="su-quote-cite">Bill Evans</span>

Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982)

American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

I don’t think Monk would be on everyone’s list because he wasn’t the flashiest player in the world. But, make no mistake, Thelonious Monk was a genius who held a place at the forefront of the bebop movement, which is no small feat.

The bebop era produced some of the biggest names in jazz history and some of the most virtuosic players, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Although Monk didn’t always display conventional technique, he was a standout Juilliard graduate who also studied under the great James P. Johnson (stride pianist).

Monk could play like anyone he chose to; his quirky, eccentric style wasn’t born out of being unable to do other things; it was by choice, and I’m incredibly thankful for it.

Monk had a way of getting right to the core of harmony and melody; he could strip away anything unnecessary, keeping only the most impactful notes. He did so in a way that created powerful harmonic content, highlighted by his strong use of dissonance. Monk always played with an unapologetic, crunchy feel that is still instantly identifiable.

Watch this footage of Thelonious Monk performing with his Quartet

If you’re a Jazz musician and you think you’re not influenced by Thelonious Monk, either you’re not a Jazz musician, or you are influenced by Thelonious Monk.<span class="su-quote-cite">modern jazz superstar Kamasi Washington</span>

Oscar Peterson (1925 – 2007)

jazz pianist Oscar Peterson at Boys Club
Photo: John Boyd

Oscar Peterson might be at the top of many lists, and I understand why: nobody swings like Oscar.

Although he started in classical music as a child prodigy, Oscar Peterson was drawn to the jazz tunes he heard on the radio at a young age. After hearing the unmistakable Art Tatum, Peterson was motivated to become even better than him, and to many, he succeeded.

Peterson played on his first record in 1945, soon becoming one of jazz music’s most in-demand pianists. His unique style that blends virtuosic technique with the smoothness of Nat King Cole’s singing is one of the defining sounds of jazz piano.

Oscar Peterson was also heavily influenced by Duke Ellington, and even his trio arrangements had a level of sophistication rarely heard.

Peterson is best known for his insane technique, machine-like left hand, and swinging like no other, but his music was more than those things, as you can hear in his 1962 composition, “Hymn to Freedom” (written for Martin Luther King Jr.).

Watch this footage of Oscar Peterson performing “Hymn to Freedom”

If you have something to say of any worth, then people will listen to you.<span class="su-quote-cite">Oscar Peterson</span>

Herbie Hancock (born 1940)

jazz pianist and keyboardist Herbie Hancock
Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Herbie Hancock is perhaps the most famous name in jazz piano thanks to a prolific career spanning many decades and genres.

Herbie Hancock recorded his first solo album, Takin’ Off, in 1962. The debut album included one of his most iconic tunes, “Watermelon Man.” Takin’ Off featured some jazz heavyweights like Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon and announced Hancock as a serious force in music.

Herbie’s sense of rhythm and modern approach to harmony caught the ear of Miles Davis, who quickly drafted Hancock into his new band. That band featuring Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter is perhaps the greatest quintet in jazz history.

The lessons Hancock would learn in his time with Miles Davis turned what was already undeniable talent into a jazz powerhouse in his own right.

Herbie Hancock went on to have huge success in jazz and funk and even had a mainstream 80s chart hit with the single “Rockit” from Future Shock. He also won an Oscar in 1986 for scoring the movie “Round Midnight”.

Watch this video of Herbie Hancock performing live at the Java Jazz Festival

The value of music is not dazzling yourself and others with technique.<span class="su-quote-cite">Herbie Hancock on music having a deeper purpose</span>

Keith Jarrett (born 1945)

pianist and composer Keith Jarrett
Photo: Olivier Bruchez

Keith Jarrett is a monumental figure in the world of jazz piano. He is a naturally gifted pianist who inspires and intimidates in equal measure.

As a young classical pianist, influenced heavily by the work of J.S. Bach and, later, Béla Bartók, Jarrett developed immaculate technique and a passion for improvisation. Classical music featured heavily throughout Jarrett’s recording career, but his love of improvisation and exploration would make jazz his defining genre.

As one of the most prolific performers and composers on my list, Jarrett played with a who’s who of jazz icons, most notably Art Blakey and Miles Davis. It’s fair to assume that Jarrett was so prolific because he was ahead of his time and always searching for the next thing. The Köln Concert became the best-selling solo album in jazz history (3.5m+ sales).

Whether he was performing jazz standards with a big band or fusion with the Miles Electric Band, innovation was at the forefront of his mind. He is a true pioneer of new ideas and perhaps the best example of a musician’s instrument being an extension of themselves.

Watch this video of Keith Jarrett performing a solo concert

Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple.<span class="su-quote-cite">Keith Jarrett</span>

Chick Corea (1941 – 2021)

jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea
Photo: Alberto Cabello

Chick Corea was a classically-trained pianist who became one of the most critically acclaimed musicians in jazz history. The 27-time Grammy winner wrote and performed some of the most forward-thinking compositions over a career spanning well over 50 years.

Latin music influenced his work heavily, and even in his jazz fusion days, the classical and Latin influences could still be heard. In 1969, Corea played on the milestone Bitches Brew album with Miles Davis. His work on this album cemented Chick Corea as a permanent fixture amongst the jazz elite.

He would later write some of his most iconic tunes that are considered jazz standards today, like “Spain” and “Armando’s Rhumba”. Chick Corea was known for the creative use of harmony and blazing solos that often included mirroring both hands.

Chick Corea toured extensively throughout his professional life and gave so much to his fans through his love of sharing wisdom.

Watch this video of Chick Corea performing live with his band

I call myself a teacher because they want me to call myself a teacher, but actually, what I’m doing is studying.<span class="su-quote-cite">Chick Corea</span>

McCoy Tyner (1938 – 2020)

American jazz pianist McCoy Tyner
Photo: Joe Mabel

McCoy Tyner is most famous for his work with The John Coltrane Quartet. John Coltrane was a unique voice in music, the likes of which we won’t hear again. One of the biggest tributes I can pay to McCoy Tyner is that even behind such a powerful presence like Coltrane, his voice was heard.

Rather than blend into the background, Tyner’s signature percussive style played a massive role in the success of The John Coltrane Quartet. You can hear it on seminal records like A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things.

McCoy Tyner’s playing style often divided opinion, with many, including Miles Davis, saying he was too heavy-handed. However, Tyner remained true to his percussive style and innovative use of quartal harmony and pentatonic scales.

Although Tyner utilized many concepts that seemed simple in theory, his implementation was nothing short of genius, and his ability to seamlessly drift inside and outside the tonal center was remarkable. His solo performance of “Giant Steps” is breathtaking.

Watch this video of McCoy Tyner performing “Giant Steps”

To me, living and music are all the same thing.<span class="su-quote-cite">McCoy Tyner</span>

Bud Powell (1924 – 1966)

jazz pianist Bud Powell
Photo: Haeyong Moon

Bud Powell is one of the most underrated jazz pianists ever. As part of the bebop vanguard who held court at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City, his peers called him the Charlie Parker of the piano. This nickname was a nod to his unbelievable virtuosic ability to play things others simply couldn’t.

Despite not always getting the recognition from wider audiences that many of his peers received, Bud Powell changed how every jazz pianist after him played. His influence was so significant that even his one-time mentor, Thelonious Monk, decided to write a song about him called “In Walked Bud”.

Sadly, after an alleged racially motivated incident, the police beat Powell to the head so much that he never fully recovered. He recaptured his best form occasionally, but physical and mental health issues largely diminished his career. In a very short time, Bud Powell showed the world that he was a true jazz great.

Watch this footage of Bud Powell performing live

No one could play like Bud; too difficult, too quick, incredible!<span class="su-quote-cite">Thelonious Monk on Bud Powell</span>

Barry Harris (1929 – 2021)

jazz pianist and educator Barry Harris
Photo: Marek Lazarski

Barry Harris may be a surprising addition to the list, but I’m adding him for his contribution to jazz education as much as his performance.

Barry Harris was a bebop master from a musical family who displayed early prodigious talent. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Harris championed the bebop sound pioneered by musicians like Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. He would go on to cement the sound of hard bop as the pinnacle of jazz at the time, alongside people like Milt Jackson and Tommy Flanagan.

While Harris didn’t achieve the record sales or notoriety of many on the list, his influence is particularly relevant today. For much of his life, Harris taught weekly low-cost classes to students of all ages and ignored the many calls to teach at exclusive universities. He wanted jazz education to be available to anyone, and not only those who could afford expensive courses.

In recent years, students worldwide have turned to Barry Harris’s masterclasses online, particularly for his application of the Major 6 Diminished scale.

Watch this video of Barry Harris performing live at Clasijazz

The minute you make a mistake – that’s improvisation.<span class="su-quote-cite">Barry Harris</span>

Conclusion

The one thing stronger than my adoration for the pianists on this list is my regret over those I’ve left out. But that would be the case no matter who I chose.

The musicians above are giants of the jazz world in many different ways, and studying them will benefit any musician immensely. I encourage all musicians to learn more about the pianists above and then keep going with the many greats who aren’t listed.

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4 comments
  • Very well done with regard to selections and presentations. However, leaving Errol Garner, and to a lesser extent Jamal and Shearing out is, in my view, extremely inappropriate.

    • Excluding Garner, Jamal, and Shearing, three absolute giants, is undoubtedly harsh. As difficult as it is to exclude them, I’d also have a hard time removing others; I think it’s fair to say you could double the length of this list and still exclude worthy names. At that level, it becomes more subjective because they influence each of us differently, and I wanted to include some pianists who perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve elsewhere. Thank you for highlighting those very important musicians!

  • I always hate these kinds of lists because inevitably I see a couple choices that completely disagree with. But just wrote to say you nailed it by my metrics:)
    If there was room to add a few more we’d probably need Brad Mehldau as the modern era pianist with the most influence. And Duke Ellington laid the foundation for players like Monk, and even Bill Evans.

    • Thank you very much! You’re right about Duke Ellington; you can hear his influence in the playing of most who came after him. Deciding who to leave off a list like this is often more difficult than deciding who to add.