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The 18 greatest Jazz and Classical pianists of all time

To definitively name the greatest pianist of all time is an impossible task. Being the best takes more than technical ability, which means choosing the best is very subjective.

greatest pianists of all time

To make our list as inclusive as possible, we have chosen who we consider to be the most influential Jazz and Classical pianists ever.

Every artist on our list has something special that stood them out from the crowd.

The 9 greatest Jazz pianists:

1. Art Tatum (1909 – 1956)

Art Tatum was the pianist who made other pianists quit. Most greats have told stories of hearing Tatum for the first time and thinking there were two piano players.

He had huge hands and frightening technique that merged Swing, Stride, Bebop, and Classical elements.

Although Oscar Peterson carried the torch and became the King of Swing, it very much started with Tatum.

Considering that he was visually impaired from early childhood and his life was tragically short, his influence is unmatched.

He reimagined what was possible with two hands and 88 keys, making him arguably, one of the greatest Jazz pianists ever.

2. Bill Evans (1929 – 1980)

The life of Bill Evans was sadly plagued by drug addiction, yet the New Jersey native still accomplished more than most.

Although heavily inspired by Bebop and classical music, most of his work could fall under the Jazz ballad banner.

His romanticism, and more importantly, impeccable note selection, captivated anyone who listened, including many of the pianists on our list.

Despite a stellar career under his own name, his most significant work might have come on Miles Davis’ All Blues (Kind of Blue 1959).

The modal approach to that record and Evan’s playing, in particular, influenced everyone who came after.

Also, check out Waltz For Debby.

3. Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982)

Monk is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting pianists on our list. He was an eccentric Julliard graduate who didn’t play with anything close to a conventional technique. But, amongst the greats of the Bebop era, his genius was undeniable.

Mintons Playhouse (Harlem, New York City) was the mecca of Bebop, and you didn’t grace the stage unless you could really play.

Monk was the most admired house pianist at Minton’s, sharing the stage with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Many of his tunes are Jazz standards now, none more so than the iconic Round Midnight.

4. Oscar Peterson (1925 – 2007)

Oscar Peterson is one of the most easily identified pianists ever because no one swings like Oscar. As a child prodigy in classical music, his technique was perfect by the time he played on his first record in 1945.

His unique sound came largely from a love of Nat King Cole’s cool style, a desire to be as good as Art Tatum, and his incomparable technique.

Oscar’s performances weren’t just musically inspiring/intimidating, they were physically demanding beyond a level that most players could manage.

With his trio, Peterson was the benchmark for any Jazz player who wanted to swing hard.

5. Herbie Hancock (born 1940)

Herbie Hancock is one of the biggest household names in Jazz music and another pianist who came through the ranks with Miles Davis.

He served as the pianist in Miles’ second (and some say best) quintet with Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter.

Herbie is known for his ability to play the right thing at the right time, which comes from some harsh lessons during his time with Miles.

He can do it all, but he will never play two notes when one will do. He later formed Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and released now-famous tracks like Watermelon Man and Cantaloupe Island.

6. Keith Jarrett (born 1945)

Like Chick Corea, Jarrett was an extremely gifted classical pianist at a very young age. Many of his classical influences, like J.S Bach and Béla Bartók, were celebrated improvisers in their own right.

As a teenager, he turned to Jazz, which further satisfied his passion for improvisation and musical exploration.

His education in Jazz coming through Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Electric Band let him share his unique talent with the world.

His career is filled with genre-defining moments, whether in electric or acoustic music.

In 1975, he produced something extraordinary with the Köln Concert. This solo piano performance raised the bar for all others and became the best-selling solo album in Jazz history (a reported 3.5m copies).

7. Chick Corea (1941 – 2021)

Chick Corea, a classically-trained pianist, was one of the most forward-thinking musicians the world will ever know.

Although covering many styles from romantic ballads to Jazz Funk, the classical and Latin influence was omnipresent in his playing.

Like some of his peers, his most iconic work perhaps came as a sideman to Miles Davis, particularly the Bitches Brew album.

Corea went on to be a pioneer in Electric Jazz and Jazz Fusion with his legendary group Return to Forever.

8. McCoy Tyner (1938 – 2020)

McCoy Tyner is a Jazz pianist most famous for his work with The John Coltrane Quartet. Without McCoy Tyner, Seminal albums like A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things would not be the same.

He had an unapologetically percussive style that wasn’t to everyone’s taste (most notably, Miles Davis). But, it was innovative, expanding on Bill Evan’s Modal Jazz, creating chords from perfect 4ths rather than the more traditional 3rds.

These Quartal chords had a modern sound that lent itself well to improvisation and the use of pentatonic scales.

His solo performance of the Coltrane classic Giant Steps is breathtaking.

9. Bud Powell (1924 – 1966)

Bud Powell was lovingly referred to as the Charlie Parker of the piano. This nickname was in reference to his Parker-like virtuosity that let him play lines most could only dream of playing.

Bud Powell was never the most famous pianist, but he was always held in the highest regard by his peers.

He was an ever-popular session artist and a great recording artist in his own right. However, his legacy is primarily built on being a leader in the Bebop movement.

Bud Powell, along with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, was one of the most innovative musicians of his time.

The 9 greatest Classical pianists:

1. Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)

His third piano concerto, the Rach 3, is often considered the most challenging piece ever written for the piano.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, successfully performing the Rach 3 is a monumental achievement.

One of the reasons he could write such challenging pieces is that he could stretch from a 13th on the piano. For example, he could stretch from a C note to an A note the next octave up with one hand.

The truest sign of his genius is that he played such overwhelmingly complex pieces with heartfelt emotion.

Amongst musicians and music lovers, he is said by many to be the greatest Classical pianist of all time.

2. Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982)

In terms of lineage and pedigree, few come more credentialed than Arthur Rubinstein. He was taught by Karl Heinrich Barth, who was a star pupil of Franz Liszt.

The Polish American piano prodigy was playing with the Berlin Philharmonic by the age of 13.

He is commonly regarded as the best Chopin performer ever and was seen as a direct link to the likes of Chopin and Liszt.

To this day, many of his performances are considered to be the epitome of a virtuoso instrumentalist.

3. Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997)

Sviatoslav Richter is arguably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He was part of a group of Russian pianists who emerged around the same time, all with incredible technical ability.

The thing that set him apart from the others was his ability to manipulate rhythm so effortlessly. He could play complex rhythms with large chord structures at great speeds and make dramatic changes without missing a beat.

He’s somewhat of an Art Tatum of the Classical world.

4. Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

Franz Liszt was the 19th century equivalent of a modern superstar. The renowned virtuoso had people flocking to his shows in a frenzy that was colorfully referred to as Lisztomania.

His professional rivalry with Chopin perhaps brought out the best in both pianists. With his fans’ adoration and the respect of his peers, Liszt is one of the most revered composers/pianists in Classical history.

He produced some of the most technically challenging works, like his Sonata in B Minor and Mephisto Waltz.

5. Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

As a composer, Chopin’s work speaks for itself, but there are no recordings of him playing.

We add him to the list for two reasons: his contemporaries who were still around in the recorded era spoke of him as a true virtuoso, and his influence on other pianists is vast.

There was no shortage of virtuoso players and talented composers in the 19th century. However, there’s no denying that Chopin’s originality and expressive style made him one of the elite.

His Scherzo No.2 is an excellent example of his love of expression and dynamics.

6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

The most famous of all Classical composers, Mozart earned that fame through uncanny musical ability. Sadly, he is another great that we have no recordings of today.

He wasn’t just a talented composer/pianist, he was one of the most prolific of his time. He had an unmatched ability to make his work both serious and joyfully playful at once.

Mozart is famous for works like The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. However, if you want to compare his technical prowess to the elite, just listen to his Piano Concerto No 21.

7. Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)

Perhaps not as widely renowned today as her composer husband, Robert Schumann, Clara was the better pianist, and one of the most famous piano players of her era.

She was so good that she was one of the only female pianists to gain such star status in the 19th century.

She more than held her own with the virtuosos of the time and became a very talented composer, too. She was a true master of expression, and she played everything with intent and purpose; nothing was wasted.

Her ability to break through as a female undoubtedly inspired countless female pianists.

8. Myra Hess (1890 – 1965)

Dame Myra Hess was a pianist who achieved more than most at a very young age.

At age 12, she was granted a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. By age 17, she was performing with the legendary conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham.

Despite these early achievements, her crowning moments perhaps came at a time when the world needed music most.

During WW2, when many venues were closed-down if not destroyed, Hess used the National Gallery (London) to put on lunchtime concerts. Over six and a half years, she performed there around 150 times.

9. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

Debussy is a much-loved impressionist composer whose work is still heard often in Hollywood blockbusters.

But, with so many virtuosos to choose from, he might not be on everyone’s list. He’s on ours, in part, for his use of the whole tone scale.

Debussy is widely credited for bringing the whole tone sound to mass attention. If we take Voiles, a piece from his first book of Preludes, it’s written almost exclusively with one whole tone scale.

He was also one of the most romantic pianists ever, and his feel for the keys inspired all kinds of performers, from Classical to Pop.

Conclusion

The hardest part of making this list was that we only had so many spaces and had to leave out some monster pianists.

We encourage you to expand on our list and check out players who either influenced or were influenced by our choices.

Our choices come from the recorded era and way before, which gave us a lot of options.

We hope you enjoyed checking out who we consider the greatest and most influential pianists of all time.

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