25 Best Jazz Piano Players Across Genre That Are Timeless
Jazz is such a popular genre of music and specifically piano. There are so many amazing artists in the industry that it can be hard to pick the 25 best jazz piano players.
Many artists are so influential on the generations that come after them, but few are super versatile through the genre, choosing to focus on one aspect of jazz. However, we have compiled a list of 25 of the best jazz piano players of all time.
Best Smooth Jazz Piano Players
Let’s begin with Dave Grusin.
Dave Grusin was a surprise to the music industry. His beginning piano training was classical, but thanks to his parents being avid musicians, through bringing him to concerts he was exposed to the exciting world of jazz. However, his original life plan was to become a veterinarian before he decided to switch his college major to music so as to capitalize on the effort and expenses his father invested in him.
During college, when not in class, Grusin backed singers like Anita O’Day at local clubs. After college he travelled to New York for graduate work, but due to complications instead found himself hired by relatively new artist Andy Williams to play piano. When Williams started his weekly television show, Grusin was promoted to musical director.
Eventually Grusin left the Andy Williams show and after writing many scores and music for motion pictures, in 1983 cofounded GRP Records with Larry Rosen. The company produced many award winning artists including one for Grusin himself for the best instrumental arrangement for part of the Harlequin album.
One of the fathers of the smooth jazz style, Bob James melds genres like classical and R&B. Through his funky grooves, rich harmonies and elegant melodies, James became a Grammy-winning pianist with gold and platinum selling albums.
James began playing the piano at 4 years old before finding at age 7 that he had perfect pitch. This gift combined with his skill launched his professional career as a teenager. He created his first large-band composition with his first professional move of getting membership in the Earle Parsons Dance Band.
After high school, James ended his membership in order to attend college where he formed his own jazz trio. That trio won the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival gaining him a record deal with Mercury Records for his debut album Bold Conceptions. Eventually James went on to found the jazz supergroup Fourplay which toured the globe and won many awards with the song and album releases.
Ramsey Lewis is a major figure in contemporary jazz thanks to his work and experimentation with funk grooves and synthesizers. Lewis started learning piano at the age of four and attended the Chicago Music College Preparatory School to continue his education.
After his first job accompanying the church choir, Lewis eventually formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1956 and signed their first single with Chess Records, the swinging version of The In Crowd. It was a hit and the trio found themselves playing in famous jazz clubs and touring as full-time musicians.
As the members of the trio changed and shifted, Lewis began to expand his horizons recording for Columbia Records and even signing with GRP Records in 1991. From there he would collaborate with many successful jazz artists and eventually go on to host his own radio show all about jazz.
The thing that makes Jonathan Fritzen unique is his Swedish heritage. He not only proves that music is a universal language, but that even styles can cross between cultures such as jazz. He now has a global following with quite a few albums ranking in the number one spot.
Thanks to his musical parents, Fritzen could play several instruments by the time he graduated high school. He produced and played all the instruments in 2008 debut, Love Birds. It was praised by critics as reaching the core of great smooth jazz.
Since then he has released 4 more albums all reaching the top of global charts. He has gone on world tours and continues to produce his own music.
Bob Baldwin grew up playing piano and heavily listening to jazz and R&B albums. While he graduated college with a bachelor’s degree and initially worked as an accountant, he was constantly working on the development of his musical skills until he was able to transfer full time to performing and recording in the 80s.
Baldwin debuted as a solo artist in 1990 with A Long Way to Go followed by quite the successful run of albums. Each of his albums was ranked in the top 20 jazz albums on the Billboard Jazz Charts. He quickly became an in-demand collaborator and accompanist working with many big jazz names.
Recently he has been producing albums that are meant to give tribute to some of his favorite and influential artists. He puts his own smooth jazz twist on their iconic songs for artists like Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Stevie Wonder.
Known for his crossover musical style that touches jazz, funk and pop, Brian Culbertson is a big name in the current jazz industry. He is another musician that learned more than one instrument so that by junior high he was able to begin composing his own songs.
In college Culbertson signed with Mesa/Blue Moon label to record his debut album from his college apartment, until he eventually formed his own label, BCM Entertainment. His first break through into the industry in 1997 with Secrets saw Culbertson reaching number 15 on the contemporary jazz chart and spending 10 consecutive weeks in the top 5 of the adult contemporary charts.
Now, Culbertson remains a jazz chart regular with his continuous release of albums and his exploration of different moods including acoustic jazz and R&B-tinged romance. He is also known to collaborate with many current big names in jazz to produce smooth jazz pieces.
Gene Harris dabbled in many different style of jazz including big band and bebop, but ultimately he is known for his contemporary jazz style. Teaching himself piano at the age of 9, Harris cites Oscar Peterson and Junior Mance as some of his primary influences to his more mature playing.
Before becoming a professional musician, Harris played in an army band. Afterwards he formed his trio The Three Sounds and began playing in clubs around Washington to gain a following. Eventually the trio was able to make several recordings to skyrocket their fame.
Harris announced his semiretirement in 1977 and moved to Idaho, but in the mid-80s signed with another label and produced more than 22 more albums. Unfortunately, the Grammy winning artist died from kidney failure in 2000 while awaiting a kidney transplant.
A career that spanned 3 decade full of Grammy awards and many #1 radio hits characterize Gregg Karukas. Beginning to play piano at 6, Karukas lost the top of his middle finger six years later but continued to practice with 4 fingers until it had healed enough to be able to take the playing impact.
His professional career began in Washington DC where he was a studio musician and played at a few clubs. Afterwards he moved to Los Angeles where he wanted to play as many styles as possible and gained a reputation as an in-demand sideman.
In 1986 he became a founding member of the jazz group The Rippingtons who’s breakthrough in the industry was a Top Five jazz song Moonlighting. Eventually Karukas began to find himself in the company of some of the best acts in the smooth jazz world, prompting him to made his solo debut in 1987.
Karukas is well-known for incorporating Brazilian traditions into his music, once again show music can come from anywhere. It’s a universal language that Karukas embraced in order to make his debut and win multiple Best Keyboardist nominations at the Oasis and National Smooth Jazz Awards.
Jeff Lorber is one of the best known smooth jazz players in the industry. He was one of the main pioneers of the post-fusion sound of contemporary jazz. He especially was known for his smooth style and the ability to weave together elements from many genres like funk, R&B, electric jazz, and rock.
Beginning to play the piano at 4, by his teenage years Lorber had found performances with many R&B local bands. His love of jazz was sparked during his college years at Berklee College of Music. Afterwards he was inspired to start the Jeff Lorber Fusion band.
The band became the most popular jazz act of the decade after releasing their self-named album in 1977. During the height of the band’s success, Lorber went solo and released his first proper LP, Worth Waiting For. He remained one of the most prolific performers and producers.
Best Modern Jazz Piano Players
Let’s kick off this section with the talented Bill Evans.
Considered one of the most important jazz pianists of his generation, Bill Evans influenced many of the younger jazz artists like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Evans is known for his lyrical improvisations and harmonies.
His first piano teacher was his mother, and his spark continued through college were he graduated with a music teaching degree. Evans didn’t break through the jazz scene until his return from army service in 1956. He revealed a fully formed technique that was iconic thanks to its harmonic approach and phrasing.
Evans did an eight-month collaboration with Miles Davis in 1958 and was a key figure on Kind of Blue. Some consider this recording to be the finest example of modal jazz and Evans’s playing would influence jazz artists for years.
Evans was able to work well in small groups, even forming his own notable trio, but he could also flourish as a solo artist. He won multiple Grammy Awards, but unfortunately became addicted to cocaine before he died in 1980.
From a young age Fats Waller faced adversity eventually finding his path in music. He began learning piano at 6-years-old, but his clergyman father always hoped he would find a religious calling. However, after his mother’s death Waller moved in with his piano teacher’s family and learned from James P. Johnson how to master stride piano playing.
At 15 years old, Waller dropped out of school to become a professional pianist working at theaters and cabarets. Eventually in 1922 he made his recording debut with Okeh Records. It wasn’t until 4 years later, when he signed with RCA Victor Label, that his career took off.
From there he was able to collaborate with Andy Razaf to write two songs that would become Waller’s most famous: Honeysuckle Rose and Ain’t Misbehavin’. He performed on radio and television, but eventually found his way back to his musical art and continued to tour and make music until his death.
Erroll Garner is the artist behind one of the best-selling jazz albums in history, Concert by the Sea. He is one of the most popular pianists in the jazz industry and is considered on of the most virtuosic players as well.
Garner is a self-taught artist beginning piano at the age of 3 and starting to professionally play by 7 with Candy Kids. Naming his main influence as Fats Waller, Garner developed an individual piano style and is often compared to his inspiration and Art Tatum.
Throughout his career Garner developed his solo style that was able to eliminate the need for rhythmic accompaniment. His rhythmic tempo consisted of block chords in the left hand leaving his right hand free to embellish and flourish the tune.
Horace Silver is one of the front pioneers of the hard bop style of modern jazz. It is an extension of bebop combining elements of rhythm, blues, gospel, and Latin-American music. Silver’s piano style can be described as imaginative, funky, and slightly terse.
The beginning of his career in the 1950s, Silver can be heard backing records with stars like Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Art Blakey. Eventually he was able to cofound his own jazz group with Art Blakey named the Jazz Messengers. Many of the songs on their first album came to be known as jazz classics.
Eventually Silver; left the Messengers to his cofounder in order to pursue solo recording. He began with Blue Note until starting his own recording label, Silveto. However, his work with his own label struggled to be distributed so he moved to Columbia Records and his work started up again. The biggest thing that sets Silver apart is his recognition specifically of being a composer and player, rather than just one.
The career of Ahmad Jamal is too expansive to cover all of it. He was one of the most individualistic members of the jazz industry on the piano, composing and arranging. He played with the skill of a virtuoso, but it was his intentional decision not to play notes, create an abundance of space in his music and his adept use of tension and release that sets him apart.
His style, influenced by Erroll Garner and Nat King Cole was meant to push the boundaries of the jazz industry. Jamal was a child prodigy starting piano at 3 and became an accomplished musician by his teens. He joined the Four Strings jazz group until the 1950s when he decided to create his own.
Jamal founded the Three Strings who were quite quickly signed by Okeh Records. His seminal live album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershings: But Not for Me was immensely successful commercially remaining on the Billboard album charts for over two years.
After disbanding the trio in 1961 and taking a two-year hiatus from the music industry, Jamal came back into the industry, reactivating a newer version of the trio in 1964. He produced many albums and continued to have fame through the 90s, and even into current day.
Lennie Tristano is one of the best jazz piano players in the industry, but often times is the most overlooked. Because his focus was less on performance and recording, people often prefer to talk about the more popular players like Armstrong or Coltrane. However, Tristano gave more to the jazz community than most other players.
Permanently blinded as an infant, Tristano began playing piano in taverns at 12-years-old. He studied music in college and afterwards moved to New York where his advanced concepts of improvisation and harmony helped him find a following.
However, his career in recording didn’t last super long. After his noted sextet recordings of 1949, where he was the first to play what is now known as “free jazz”, a track that is 100% improvised, Tristano turned his attention to teaching.
He opened his school of jazz, the first of its kind, in 1951 and ran it until 1956 when he moved into more private lessons. He rarely performed or recorded, his last U.S. public appearance being in 1968. However, his music was the inspiration for many others to come and his students would go on to push the jazz industry to its limits.
The career of Chick Corea spans decades, beginning with his piano start at age 4 and going until his death in 2021. He was the fourth most-nominated artist in Grammy history with 20 wins and over 60 nominations. He was claimed to be one of the most gifted improvisors of his generation, and became on of the most influential models for most youth jazz pianists in the 1970s.
Corea’s piano style was influenced by greats like Bill Evans, Horace Silver, and Bud Powell. His compositions included much Spanish style flair, and his playful melodies were able to catch an audience beyond the jazz boundaries.
Flourishing with his own solo career, Corea quickly became a known name in the industry. He played with many Latin bandleaders and worked in small jazz groups. His own trio released a track Now He Sings, Now He Sobs that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Heralded as one of the most innovative jazz players of his time, Dave Brubeck’s combination of his classical training into jazz was the epitome of the “West Coast Movement”. His mother taught him piano when he was 4, and Brubeck was immediately hooked. From then on his entire music career was essentially about working with other people.
In college he formed a 12-piece orchestra before serving in the army during WWII. After his return he founded the Dave Brubeck Octet with some college employees and classmates, and did a few recordings. However, at the time their innovative sound failed to find an audience because of their radicalism in music.
After college Brubeck formed a trio which eventually became a quartet, and it was with this group that he continued with most of his career. Within several months they had achieved national fame due to their innovative music style. Brubeck was featured on the cover of the 1954 Time Magazine, but unfortunately it was around this time he also began to encounter backlash.
The critics were growing to be more swayed by the East Coast bebop sound rather than the more innovative and intellectual sounds of the West Coast jazz movement. However, this didn’t stop the Octet and Brubeck from releasing the best selling jazz single of all time: Take Five.
Oscar Peterson was one of the greatest piano players of all time. Hailing from Canada, his is best known for his dazzling unaccompanied solos and the amount of notes he could fit into a song.
He started classical piano training at the age of six, and after winning a talent show in Montreal at 14, went professional. In 1949 he was invited to play at Carnegie hall for jazz promoter Norman Granz, and would be associated with him for most of his career. He toured with Granz’s all-star jazz group and recorded many times for his label.
For most of his career Peterson worked in small groups and it was very effective at bringing him fame. However, it was in the 1970s when he began to play more frequently as a solo or duet, that he became one of the most popular jazz pianists of his time.
Best Female Jazz Piano Players
Let’s begin with Lil Hardin Armstrong.
Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Hardin Armstrong is the woman behind the man that most people don’t know about. She was the one to build up her now ex-husband Louis Armstrong’s career. She also was one of the main influenced in the American music industry helping introduce the concept of jazz.
As a child, Armstrong’s mother only want to expose her to religious music, so she quickly learned to play the piano and organ. However, after they moved to Chicago, Armstrong found her love of blues and began to play in a music store. While she desperately wanted to be part of a band, at the time it was difficult to find a band willing to accept a female player.
Luckily for Armstrong, Lawrence Duhé and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band came to town and were looking to add a piano player. From there Armstrong quickly became a popular player on the nightclub scene eventually making connections with King Oliver’s Jazz Band and touring with them.
Later in her career, after helping Louis Armstrong rise to fame, Lil Hardin Armstrong formed two all-female bands and even became a band leader for an all-male band. However these journeys proved to be harder than anticipated as the public was not warm towards a female leader.
Unfortunately, Armstrong seemed to have lost her passion for music after her divorce from Louis and instead found other industries to try. However, that does not downgrade her music and compositions any less as she was one of the best jazz players of her time.
Alice Coltrane was a hidden figure in the jazz industry for quite some time. She began studying piano at 7 with her neighbor and transitioned to organ playing at church a few years later. The congregation refused to let her talent go to waste and decided to collectively sponsor her music education at a local school.
Coltrane stands out in the industry because her playing style is quite different from others. She was inspired by Dorothy Ashby, a harp player that brough the instrument to the bebop style. As such, Coltrane’s playing was full of arpeggios and clustered chords.
However, Coltrane stayed within quartets and trios traveling the world with many different artists until meeting her husband. They travelled and played together until he died from cancer. It was only after this that Coltrane released her solo debut A Monastic Trio and took off alone. She proceeded to release seven more albums in the next 4 years and continued in the music industry until her death.
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams is most well known for her composition, arrangements, and her solo career. She taught herself piano from a young age and developed perfect pitch by the age of 4. Her professional debut at the age of 12 with a big band jazz set her on the path to become a great jazz player.
After marrying her husband in 1927, Williams worked solo as a pianist and music arranger for a year before moving to join him in the band Twelve Clouds of Joy. Working with that band she was praised for her original arrangements and piano playing ability.
Eventually Williams moved back to New York and became involved in the up and coming musicians. Her apartment became a meeting place for these artists to join together and create music. She also founded Mary Records, the first company of it’s kind to be established by a woman.
Throughout her career Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded over one hundred records. She is an icon for not only making it on her own as a jazz artist during a time of great segregation and sexism, but for the immense talent that she was able to share with the world.
Marian McPartland stands out among jazz artists because of what she did with her skill. Rather than simply be recording and such, she chose to host her own public radio show Piano Jazz. It was one of the longest running jazz shows in history. Her show was all about jazz where she and a guest would play duets and talk about music.
McPartland began playing piano at 3 years old in England. In 1938 she joined a touring piano quartet that played popular music, despite her religious parents wanting otherwise. This first experience helped McPartland begin to build up her famous repertoire and improvisation skills.
She left the quartet during WWII when she went to entertain the allied troops. This is also where she met her husband Jimmy McPartland, eventually going to join his Dixieland band. However, the American sounds of bebop and cool jazz led McPartland to New York City’s night clubs and in 1950 began leading her own trio.
By the 1970s she was running her own record label, Halcyon and also taught about jazz in all levels of schooling. Afterwards her radio show began to air and she never looked back until her final episode after 30 years on air.
With a career that spanned 35 years, Geri Allen is not only an amazing jazz player, but also made sure to pay it forward and help teach the next generation. She stood out because she was well versed in a variety of modern jazz styles rather than just one. She played with spontaneity and a melodic gift, so despite her many imitation or tribute tracks, they were always her own.
After graduating school with quite the extensive resumé in music education, Allen went professional with her playing. While her group records were quite conventional tracks for the jazz industry, Allen’s solo career found her pushing the improvisational boundaries of jazz.
Allen continued to entertain internationally until her death. However, she also became the Director of Jazz Studies at Pittsburgh University, helping to shape the next generation of jazz players.
Nina Simone turned to playing jazz because of discriminatory policies that barred her from continuing her classical training. She had been classically trained since the age of 3, but after running out of money to continue studies at Julliard, was denied admission to her local music school because of the color of her skin. So she found the freedom of jazz.
Simone played in the clubs of Atlantic City during the 1950s, eventually recording and releasing her first album in 1957. The track I Loves You Porgy quickly climbed the ranks to a Top 20 hit. She continued to release albums through the 70s before taking a break and returning in the 80s.
Her classical training continued to show throughout her jazz playing. However that only made her style that much more interesting and appealing. Her work was during the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and through titles such as Young, Gifted, and Black and Four Women, she was a big contributing voice as well.
Our last jazz player that is one of the greatest of all time is Dorothy Donegan. She rose to prominence with her unique musical style and flamboyancy. She mixed almost every type of musical genre into her playing that kept her audience on her toes and was praised for her versatility and creativity.
With the encouragement of her mother, Donegan began playing piano at 5, was performing in church at 10 and nightclubs at 14. She was 17 when she was hired to play with the Bob Tinsely Band, but she quickly was able to make a name for herself as a solo act.
Donegan was the first African American to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, as well as one of the first jazz pianists. In reality, However, despite this success Donegan still desired to be a classical pianist. She continued those studies and learned to perform both styles as well as combine them and define her own style.
Critics say that she was a band all in herself, making her one of the best jazz piano players, and the reason she wasn’t in groups for most of her career. She was known for her performances rather than her records because it was a combination of her personality and her mixed styles and versatility in genre that drew in audiences.
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