The baritone saxophone is the work horse in a big band.
Here are the 10 Greatest Baritone Saxophonists of All Time
#1 of 100 — Bob Gordon (1928 - 1955)
Bob Gordon is best known as a sideman for Stan Kenton, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, Maynard Ferguson Herbie Harper and most notably his friend Jack Montrose.
Jack Montrose wrote that “The union of Bob Gordon and the baritone saxophone must have been decreed in Heaven, for never have I viewed such rapport between the natural tendencies of a musical instrument and the mind of the man using it. I cannot imagine Bob Gordon using any other instrument”.
Bob Gordon is most associated with cool jazz acts. Here’s him playing Pretty with the Jack Montrose Sextet in 1955 with Jack Montrose on tenor, Conte Candoli on trumpet, Paul Moer on piano, Ralph Pena on bass and Shelly Manne on drums.
#2 of 100 — Cecil Payne (1922 - 2007)
Cecil Payne played the bari sax with prominent jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Randy Weston in in addition to to his solo work as a bandleader.
Payne took alto sax lessons from Pete Brown and begun his professional recording career with J.J. Johnson on the Savoy label in 1946. That’s the same year he began playing with Roy Eldridge, through whom he met Dizzy Gillespie.
He frequently performed with Randy Weston until 1960 when doing freelance work in New York City.
#3 of 100 — Charles Davis (1933 - 2016)
Charles Davis played alto, tenor, the baritone saxophone on which he performed extensively with Archie Shepp and Sun Ra.
In the 1950s he played with Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Sun Ra and Dinah Washington. In the 1960s he performed and recorded with Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Freddie Hubbard and many others.
In the 1970s he was a member of the cooperative Artistry in Music with Hank Mobley, Cedar Walton, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins. He co-led, composed and arranged for the Baritone Saxophone Retinue and toured Europe with Clark Terry, and toured the US with the Duke Ellington orchestra.
#4 of 100 — Gary Smulyan (1956 -)
Gary Smulyan has consistently been ranked the best baritone saxophone player in the annual Down Beat magazine readers’and critics’ polls.
He leads a trio with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Kenny Washington. He has played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Dave Holland Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, and has performed and recorded with the Carla Bley’s Big Band.
His biggest influence is Pepper Adams. When Adams died, Smulyan recorded an album entitled Homage which featured eight pieces composed by Adams.
Smulyan has recorded for Criss Cross Jazz and Reservoir Records, including the ciritically acclaimed High Noon:The Jazz Soul of Frankie Laine.
#5 of 100 — Gerry Mulligan (1927 - 1996)
Gerry Mulligan is primarily known as one of the leading jazz baritone saxophonists. He was known for playing the bari sax with a light and airy tone in the era of cool jazz. He was also known as an arranger working with Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, and others.
Mulligan’s pianoless quartet of the early 1950s with trumpeter Chet Baker, Bob Whitlock on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums, is still regarded as one of the best cool jazz groups. Later, Mulligan himself would occasionally double on piano.
Baker’s melodic style fit well with Mulligan’s, leading them to create improvised contrapuntal textures free from the rigid confines of a piano-enforced chordal structure.
Several of his compositions such as “Walkin’ Shoes” and “Five Brothers” have become jazz standards.
Throughout his orchestral work in his last years, Mulligan maintained an active career performing and recording jazz - usually with a quartet that included a piano.
#6 of 100 — Hamiet Bluiett (1940 - 2018)
Hamiet Bluiett is considered one of the finest players of the baritone saxophone. As a member of the World Saxophone Quartet he also played (and recorded) with the bass saxophone E-flat alto clarinet, E-flat contra-alto clarinet, and wooden flute.
In his mid-twenties, Bluiett was greatly inspired by Harry Carney when he heard him play in live concert in Boston. This made a strong impression on him of a baritone saxophonist who played as soloist rather than accompanist.
In the early 70s, Bluiett joined Charles Mingus and toured to Europe with him. He would often play on and off with him leaving at some pointsto play ith another band.
#7 of 100 — Harry Carney (1910 - 1974)
Harry Howell Carney was a baritone saxophonists who spent over four decades as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He is often credited as a critical influence of the bari sax in jazz.
Carney was invited to join Duke Ellington’s band for its performances in Boston in 1927 when he was 17. He soon recorded with Ellington in October that year and, having established himself in the band, stayed with it for the rest of his life.
After Ellington expanded the band in 1928, Carney’s main instrument became the baritone saxophone.
He was a dominant figure in baritone in jazz, with no serious rivals on the instrument, until the advent of bebop in the mid-1940s.
#8 of 100 — Joe Temperley (1929 - 2016)
Joe Temperley was a Scottish baritone saxophonists whose also most associated with the soprano saxophone and the bass clarinet.
Although his first instrument was the cornet, he started playing the saxophone aged 14. He got his first job at the Glasgow-based Tommy Sampson’s Orchestra. He later moved to the US and recruited by Woody Herman, with whom he toured for two years.
He performed and recorded with Buddy Rich, Joe Henderson, Duke Pearson, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Clark Terry among many others.
In October ‘74, he toured and recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra as a replacement for Harry Carney.
He was a founding member of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and served on the faculty of the Juilliard School for Jazz Studies.
#9 of 100 — Nick Brignola (1936 - 2002)
Nick Brignola was a American baritone saxophone most associated with Hard bop and bebop eras.
As a mostly self-taught musician, he developed his facility on all of his instruments using unconventional techniques, which gave his playing an unmatched fluidity.
At the age of 20 he dropped his alto saxophone off to be repaired, and the only horn the shop had to loan him was the bari sax. After that, the baritone sax became his main, but not only instrument.
Brignola gained gained initial international exposure when he toured with Ted Curson in the mid 1960s. They remained friends for the rest of his life. The even reunited in the mid 1970s and played several gigs at the Tin Palace in New York City where they recorded their only album.
Though commonly known as a bandleader, he recorded and released albums such as Baritone Madness with one of his idols, bebop heavyweight Pepper Adams, and a several tribute albums with an equally stunning cast paying respect to Gerry Mulligan and Lee Morgan.
He played a crucial role in the three-baritone sax band which also payed tribute to Gerry Mulligan.
#10 of 100 — Pepper Adams (1930 - 1986)
Park Frederick “Pepper” Adams III was a baritone saxophonist, and composer who worked with an array of musicians, and had especially fruitful collaborations with trumpeter Donald Byrd and as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band.
Adams is considered, in many ways, as the antithesis os cotemporary players Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff who favored melodic cool jazz. He managed to bring the cumbersome baritone into the blisteringly fast speeds of hardbop with “very long, tumbling, double-time melodic lines, and a raw, piercing, bark-like timbre.”
Adams began playing with Willie Wells, who he had heard played for Fletcher Henderson, Fats Navarro, Tommy Flanagan, and Willie Anderson. He received casual instruction from Wardell Gray and Billy Mitchell and played with a group led by Little John Wilson.
He spent time in a US Army Band, and briefly had a tour of duty in Korea.
Upon returning from Korea, Adams played at the Blue Bird in Detroit with Thad Jones under the leadership of Beans Richardson. Jones left to play with Count Basie and Adams became the music director at the Blue Bird. He later left Blue Bird to Kenny Burrell’s group at Klein Show Bar.
Later, he became a founding member of the the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, with whom he played from 1965 throught to 1976.
Adams also co-led a quintet with Donald Byrd between 1958 and 1962. He embarked on a solo career from 1977 in California, where he soon played in gigs with Mingus, Baker, and Hampton.
Adams played a Selmer baritone sax.
#11 of 100 — Serge Chaloff (1923 - 1957)
Serge Chaloff is widely renowned as the first and greatest bebop baritonist. He is often colorfuly described as the “most expressive and openly emotive baritone saxophonist jazz has ever witnessed”.
His tone often varied “between a light but almost inaudible whisper to a deep sonorous shout with the widest, incredibly moving vibratos.”
In July 1944, he joined Boyd Raeburn’s short-lived big band where he played alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Al Cohn. With Raeburn, he made his first recordings , including “Interlude” (Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia) where his baritone can be heard in the opening section of the song.
It is during this time that his heard Charlie Parker, who later became his major stylistic influence.
Chaloff became a household name in 1947, when he joined Woody Herman’s Second Herd, known as the “Four Brothers Band” comprising of himself, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward, a little later Al Cohn.
#12 of 100 — Ronnie Cuber (1941 -)
Ronald Edward Cuber is a jazz baritone saxophonist who is known for hard bop and Latin jazz. As a sideman, he has played most notably with B. B. King, Paul Simon and Eric Clapton.
Cuber can be heard on Freeze Frame by the J. Geils Band, and one of his most spirited performances in on Dr. Lonnie Smith’s 1970 Blue Note album Drives. He can also be heard playing in Frank Zappa’s group in the mid-70s including the album Zappa in New York.
Cuber is a member of the Saturday Night Live band. Has been a member of the Mingus Big Band since its inception in the early 1990s among many other engagements.
His first notable works were with Slide Hampton (1962), with Maynard Ferguson (1963 - 1965), with George Benson (1966 - 1967), and with Lee Konitz (1977-1979).