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  • Southern Jazz Musicians
  • Charles Joyner (bio)

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The cornetist, trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader Louis Armstrong (here) synthesized the contributions of the New Orleans pioneers, but his own chops—his tone, his range, his speed, and his creative solos—were like nothing jazz had known before. Photograph courtesy of the New York World Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

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Selecting the top ten southern jazz musicians proved to be a more difficult task than I expected. Some of the choices are obvious, others perhaps less so. Had I used other criteria, some selections might well have been different. But when I chose to base my list on their significance to the historical development of jazz, many brilliantly talented musicians and personal favorites did not make the cut. Except for the top two places, which would have been the same in any case, I have arranged my selections by chronology rather than by their popularity or my critical assessment.

Numbers eight through ten are great New Orleans pioneers. It is difficult to imagine what jazz would have become without them. Reeling off feathery arpeggios with his right hand against complex counter-rhythms by his left, the pianist, composer, and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton (10) synthesized the blues, ragtime, and marching band traditions that created jazz and anticipated the big-band arrangements that would follow. The cornetist and bandleader King Oliver (9) was the most influential of the early jazz musicians. Famed for his subtle, laid-back lyricism and his beautiful, burnished tone, he created a sensation in Chicago as he took the authentic accent of jazz north. The fierce attack, romantic tone, and bravura embellishments of Sidney Bechet (8) on the clarinet and especially the soprano saxophone took him even further, earning an awesome international reputation for jazz in general and himself in particular. Each of them, in his own way, evoked the great musicians of the past and influenced the great musicians who would follow.

Numbers five through seven belong to three southern musicians who made basic and crucial contributions to jazz during the big band era. The pianist and bandleader Fletcher Henderson (7) reached back into African call-and-response patterns to develop the riff, which afforded a means for musicians to maintain improvisation as a defining feature of jazz as it moved into the big band era. The unamplified strumming of the guitarist Freddie Green (6) in Count Basie’s rhythm section not only made it the swingingest band in jazz history but also played a key role in making swing a defining attribute of jazz. The ecstatic wails, melancholy moans, and bellicose growls of the trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley (5) transformed Duke Ellington’s band from one that played the notes on the page with the sounds that came with the horn into an inimitable jazz band that expressed in music what Ellington would come to call “pride in black culture and history” as well as “what it is to be black in this country.”

The third and fourth positions are postmodern tenor saxophonists. Ornette Coleman (4) was immediately controversial when he first appeared on the jazz scene in 1959, dividing musicians, critics, and fans into opposing camps. Many found his music atonal, anarchic, and disagreeable. Some even called it schizoid and repellent. Others called it “free jazz” and praised it as a sophisticated pantonal move beyond bebop. Undaunted, Coleman followed his muse for nearly five [End Page 22] decades. In 2007 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “powerful impact on how musicians play, improvise, and compose, on how music lovers listen, [and] on the color and sound of music the world over.” John Coltrane (3) played his hyperactive “sheets-of-sound” with a scorching intensity, faster than most jazz fans could listen. His solos developed an increasingly spiritual dimension before his death in 1967, leaving a legacy of influence on both mainstream and avantgarde musicians.

The first two positions are a tie between two nonpareil musicians who completely rewrote the jazz vocabulary at different times in its development. The cornetist, trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader Louis Armstrong synthesized the...


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