| Lists |

The ten best jazz drummers of all time

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

An integral part of jazz is the swing feel, and drummers are often the ones stoking that fire, helping to propel the song along with the other players involved. While the saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists and guitarists all get their fair share of attention, the importance of a great drummer can't be understated in the combo or big band setting. Although there are a number of outstanding players worth inclusion (Kenny Clarke, Brian Blade, Joey Baron, Joe Morello, Billy Cobham, Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe Jones), these are the ten best jazz drummers of all time.

See also: Ten essential jazz albums for those who know squat about jazz

10. BILLY HIGGINS After playing on some of Ornette Coleman's early efforts in the late '50s, albums like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Something Else!!!, Billy Higgins, who was usually smiling behind the kit, played on dozens of excellent Blue Note hard-bop releases from first-rate players like Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean. He also shows what a great groove player he was on albums like Eddie Harris's mid-'60s releases, The In Sound and Mean Greens. Some of the final records made by Higgins, who passed away in 2001, were with Charles Lloyd, including Hyperion With Higgins and Which Way is East, both of which are highly recommend.

9. PAUL MOTIAN There's something inherently beautiful about Paul Motian's drumming, which was unmistakable early on his career, especially on the late '50s and early '60s recordings he did with the Bill Evans Trio. There was that subtle lilt on some of the songs, which was quite the opposite of some of the heavy-handed drummers of the time. Motian, who passed away in 2011, was not only an inventive drummer and improviser, he was a remarkable composer, releasing a number of outstanding discs under his own name on ECM and Winter & Winter, including the gorgeous trio of records he did with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

8. JACK DEJOHNETTE After playing with avant-garde players Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell in Chicago, Jack DeJohnette moved to New York in 1966 and joined Charles Lloyd's group, which also included pianist Keith Jarrett. While DeJohnette would spend decades lending his precise time-keeping skills to Jarrett's groups since 1971's Ruta and Daitya, he performed with Miles Davis during his electric period, including discs like Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and a Tribute to Jack Johnson. DeJohnette's ECM releases with Special Edition are highly recommended, as is Saudades, the 2006 Trio Beyond with John Scofield and Larry Goldings.

7. TONY WILLIAMS At just seventeen years old, Tony Williams was part of Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet that also included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. While Williams was a genius on the ride cymbal, which is clear on many of the recordings Williams did with Davis's group throughout the '60s, his jazz-rock fusion work with the Tony Williams Lifetime, which he formed in 1969 with John McLaughlin and Larry Young, was heavy and primal, evidenced on great albums like Emergency!

6. MAX ROACH Another innovator in bop drumming, Max Roach played alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. While Roach could swing something fierce, especially on the albums he did with Bird, he's in great form on the mid '50s recordings he did with the group he co-led with consummate trumpeter Clifford Brown, especially their burning take on "Cherokee," from 1955's Study in Brown. After Brown died at 25 in a car crash, Roach released some great records with Max Roach + 4 in the late '50s, and went on to release dozens of fine albums as a leader over the next four decades.

5. ROY HAYNES Early on in his career, Roy Haynes gigged with the great saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and he was later an occasional sub for Elvin Jones in John Coltrane's quartet in the early '60s. One of the most recorded drummers in jazz history, Haynes has lent his talents to hundreds of albums over the last six decades with luminaries like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Stan Getz and Pat Metheny. Haynes' 1962 album, Out of the Afternoon , is one of his strongest solo efforts. Now at 88, Haynes is still a powerhouse behind the kit and still tours.

4. ART BLAKEY While Art Blakey was a key pioneer in bop drumming during the '40s and '50s, working with heavies like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, he was equally home in hard bop and laying down thick grooves. While Blakey's authoritative presence can be heard on exceptional discs like Moanin' and At the Café Bohemia, his drum solo on the title track of A Night in Tunisia is a tour de force. Blakey also had a knack for recruiting young up-and-coming players for his group, the Jazz Messengers, players like Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Johnny Griffin in the late '50s and '60s, and Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis in the '80s.

3. GENE KRUPA Gene Krupa's thundering tom-tom work on the 1937 recording of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" is regarded as some of the first extended drum soloing to be laid down on record. With that, he was the first to bring the drum kit into the spotlight and make it something more than just a support instrument, and he was the first to be inducted to Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. A consummate swing drummer, Krupa worked with Goodman for three years in the '30s and later in the '40s while also making a number of film appearances.

2. ELVIN JONES Possibly the most explosive of all jazz drummers, Elvin Jones was extremely powerful behind the kit and a master of polyrhythms, as evidenced on nearly every one of the albums he recorded during his five-year stint with John Coltrane's classic quartet, especially Crescent (check out "The Drum Thing") and A Love Supreme. Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Sextet's 1963 recording, Illumination, which also featured Coltrane sideman McCoy Tyner, and 1965's Dear John C. are also stellar, and Youngblood and It Don't Mean a Thing are two of his better later-period recordings.

1. BUDDY RICH Hailed by many as the world's great drummer, Buddy Rich was a consummate maestro behind the kit. He got his first taste of the stage lights when just eighteen months old when he performed in vaudeville with his parents and showed proficiency very early on. From being a child star in big bands to fueling bands lead by Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey to leading his own big bands, Rich was known for his commanding technique, power and speed. Big Swing Face, Swingin' New Big Band and Mercy, Mercy are a few of his of stronger big band releases. His small group recordings, meanwhile, on Argo, EmArcy and Verve showcase the drummer in various combo settings and also includes some astounding drum soloing throughout.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.