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Ten Early Jazz Musicians

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Listed below are ten of the most important musicians of early jazz. In the beginning of the 1900s, the innovations of these instrumentalists laid the groundwork for jazz to evolve into the vibrant art form it is today.

1. Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Joplin is considered the foremost composer of ragtime music. Many of his compositions, including “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” were published and sold across the country. Ragtime, although based on European classical music, led to the development of the style known as stride piano, one of the first forms of jazz.

2. Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931)

Courtesy of Cassel
Trumpeter Buddy Bolden is credited with bringing a loose, raw approach to instrumental jazz with his loud tone and emphasis on improvisation. He infused ragtime with the blues and black church music, and organized ensembles consisting of brass instruments and clarinets, changing the way jazz composers tended to orchestrate their music.

3. Joe “King” Oliver (1885-1938)

Courtesy of Decca Jazz
Best known as a bandleader, King Oliver was also Louis Armstrong’s teacher, and was responsible for launching Armstrong’s career by featuring him in his band. Oliver played with many of the great musicians of early jazz, including Jelly Roll Morton. He famously turned down a regular gig at New York’s Cotton Club in 1927 that was snatched up instead by Duke Ellington, and which subsequently helped Ellington rise to fame.

4. Nick LaRocca (1889-1961)

Courtesy of ASV Records
Cornetist and trumpeter LaRocca was the leader of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (later changed to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band), which made the first jazz recordings in 1917. The group consisted of drums, piano, trombone, cornet, and clarinet, and their first cut was called “Livery Stable Blues.”

5. Jelly Roll Morton (Lemott; La Menthe; La Mothe; Ferdinand Joseph [1890-1941])

Courtesy of Milestone
A prolific performer who began by playing in New Orleans brothels, Jelly Roll Morton combined ragtime with various other musical styles, including blues, minstrel show tunes, Hispanic music, and white popular songs. His virtuosity at the piano, and his mixture of composition and improvisation had a lasting effect on jazz performance. Near the end of his life, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a series of interviews with the pianist. To this day, the recordings of Morton speaking about his early days in New Orleans, and playing examples of various musical styles, provide a valuable glimpse into the beginnings of jazz.

6. James P. Johnson (1891-1955)

Courtesy of Musicmasters
Growing up listening to Scott Joplin’s rags, James P. Johnson was one of the originators of the stride piano style. His music, which used most of the conventions of ragtime, also included improvisation and elements of the blues, two aspects that were widely influential in the development of jazz. The music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk is due in large part to the innovations of James P. Johnson.

7. Sidney Bechet (1897-1959)

Courtesy of Living Era Records

Bechet began playing the clarinet, but developed skill on a multitude of instruments. He is best known for his virtuosic playing on the soprano sax, on which he played lyrical melodies with a voice-like wide vibrato. He is considered the first great jazz saxophonist, and he was the major influence on later stars, especially Johnny Hodges.

8. Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

Courtesy of GNP Records
With his unique lyrical approach to the trumpet, Armstrong changed the face of jazz, shifting the focus from collective improvisation to personal expression through soloing. He was also a singer with a distinctive voice, and had a knack for scat singing. Throughout his career, he never lost the ability to appeal to a wide audience, and because of his celebrity and his lovable persona, he was selected by the U.S. State Department to represent his country as a musical ambassador, promoting jazz on international tours.

Read my profile of Armstrong's life and work.

9. Frankie Trumbauer (1901-1956)

Courtesy of Old Masters
Trumbauer, who played alto and C melody saxophones, is best known for his collaborations with Bix Beiderbecke. Trumbauer’s sound was clear and refined, and his thoughtful improvisations inspired later great saxophonists, most notably Lester Young.

10. Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931)

Courtesy of ABC Music
The only contemporary of Louis Armstrong who could hold a candle to the legendary trumpeter, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke had a smooth tone and constructed elegant and subdued solos. Despite being one of the leading musicians in Chicago and New York, Beiderbecke was unable to overcome personal demons, and developed a severe dependence on alcohol. He died at age 28 after consuming excessive amounts of toxic prohibition-era liquor.
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