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5 Best African American Jazz Players

Apr 24, 2022 02:00PM ● By Anand Subramanian

Of course, there is no comprehensive list of the greatest jazz artists of all time. There are, however, several well-known jazz performers that come to mind whenever we discuss the players who have had a significant impact on the evolution of the genre. The performers on this list are not just some of the genre's most prominent players; they have transcended their music to become jazz legends. So, although every jazz musician or jazz lover reading this will have their own opinion, we think you'll agree that this list offers hours of inspiring music and some of the finest jazz musicians in history.

Louis Armstrong

From 1920 until 1960, he was known as "Satchmo" or "Pops," and he was a very important jazz trumpet player and vocalist. Louis Armstrong, a jazz trumpeter who grew up in great poverty in New Orleans, broke through racial boundaries and became a massively recognized mainstream star at a period when this was exceptional for African Americans. He was perhaps the first big jazz artist, and many consider him to be the greatest jazz performer of all time, according to his rhythmically advanced, operatic style. Armstrong popularised scat singing, and his gravelly voice could subsequently be heard on pop tunes such as "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong's singing and trumpet playing impacted many greats, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Armstrong is regarded as one of the most influential musicians in American history, and he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Figure 1 - Portrait of Louis Armstrong. Source - Google

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

Ellington is widely regarded for elevating jazz to the level of an art form. Not only was he a well-known bandleader, but he was also a well-known pianist and composer. He has almost a thousand compositions to his credit, with many of his songs becoming standard canon in jazz music. "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," published in 1943, is one of his most popular tunes. This musician has impacted several performers, like Tony Bennett, who have recorded his tunes. Ellington has earned several honors and prizes for his music, including 13 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, an NAACP Spingarn Medal, and his image on a Commemorative United States quarter.

Figure 2 - Portrait of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Source - Google

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Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was a trailblazer as the first female jazz musician to be named one of the greatest jazz performers of all time. She was not only a well-known jazz pianist, composer, and performer, but she also started her career as a kid musical prodigy. She started composing and arranging music for bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman before she was in her twenties. Williams was also a friend, teacher, and mentor to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, among others. "Roll 'Em," one of her most successful songs, was published in 1945. Williams' legacy lives on at Duke University's Mary Lou Williams Centre for Black Culture.

Figure 3 - Portrait of Mary Lou Williams. Source - Google 

Miles Dewey Davis III

Known as one of jazz's greatest innovators. Miles Davis is one of the greatest musician of all time. The American bandleader, trumpeter, and composer was a driving force behind several stylistic shifts in jazz music, including be-bop, hard bop, cool jazz, funk, and techno. His career lasted five decades, from the 1940s through the 1990s. During this period, he has contributed so much to the evolution of jazz music that he is regarded as one of the most celebrated individuals in jazz history. He is regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of jazz music, and his achievements were emphasized in the recent film Miles Ahead (2015). "Stella by Starlight," published in 1958, is one of Davis' most well-known tunes. Davis has eight Grammy Awards to his name and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Figure 4 - Portrait of Miles Dewey Davis III. Source - Google

Nancy Wilson 

Nancy Wilson, a jazz soprano born in Ohio, came to New York City in 1960 after extensive touring. She immediately secured a record deal with Capitol Records. She had the wonderful fortune to record with label stars Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing right away. Both recordings were huge successes. Wilson's physical attractiveness most likely aided in her marketing. Wilson would go on to have a great career with Capitol, which lasted from 1960 through 1971. She'd also be successful on TV–with her own program, in nightclubs, at jazz festivals, and so on. She received several awards, including a Grammy and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Until 2011, she continued to perform and record with different labels.

Figure 5 - Portrait of Nancy Wilson. Source - Google

 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

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