- Louis Armstrong
Armstrong is not only one of the most well known jazz musicians, trumpeters, and voices of the world, he’s also an extremely important figure to the genre. The future jazz king was young and alive at the earliest peak of jazz, yet he was also black and southern during a time of prejudice and racism before even the breath of the Civil Rights Movement. His eventual fame and success would come at the combination of fate – being alive and talented at the right place and time – and ironic circumstance – selling his music, along with his blackness, to white audiences. His illustrious career would lead him to Chicago as well as New York City, where he would meet and go on to create a long musical friendship with Ella Fitzgerald.
2. Billie Holiday
Somehow Lady Day was able to give gloominess a sultriness. And with the blues embedded in the origins of jazz, is it any wonder? Holiday was described by her contemporary, Frank Sinatra, as “the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years” (Source 1, p. 368). This was said in 1958, merely months before her untimely death. The unparalleled sound of her iconic voice – its bright, high trilling to its low, smooth valleys – undoubtedly inspired a generation. Part of the Harlem Renaissance, Holiday brought cultural and sociopolitical context to a changing America, particularly with her rendition of the poem, “Strange Fruit”.
3. Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie is most closely associated with the Bebop generation of jazz, in which the genre took on a new, funkier, heavier sound. It was during this time that jazz even began to take on an ethnic interest, in which Gillespie explored Latin, Cuban influences. His large cheeks not only blew into the brass lips of his trumpet but also breathed new life into the fundamentals of jazz. With the help of his contemporaries, Gillespie reinvited the wildness of jazz, the roots of the genre that may have been forgotten.
4. Fats Waller
Famous for his entertaining performance as well his musical talent, Waller was a lively pianist. As a jazz figure, he is associated with ragtime, one of the earlier leanings of jazz music. His career overlapped with the widespread enthusiasm of radio and with it, radio shows, in which he starred in many. He was born in New York City, a hub for the jazz world, and easily gained popularity with both his adored ragtime tunes and sense of humor. His most famous song is the title, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” which may seem ironic to anyone familiar with his love for the ladies. Irregardless his vices, Waller was an influential early figure on the jazz community, opening the genre to white audiences, and concurrently helping jazz’s eventual leap into the mainstream.
5. Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington was involved and making music throughout many of jazz’s evolutions. This fact alone showcases his larger than life career and influence as one of the best jazz musicians. As a man both behind (conductor) and in front of (pianist) of the music, Ellington wrote and performed thousands of songs. Early success was found for the musician in the 1940’s, particularly with the big band and swing movements. One of his most popular tunes is “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” which inspired a generation of Americans during and after WWII. Sources:1. Visions of Jazz: The First Century by Gary Giddins (1998)