Who Are The Best Tenor Saxophonists Of All Time? Our Top 4

ed lozano

The saxophone was created in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and inventor. And, even though it’s a relatively new instrument, as compared to the violin and the piano, the saxophone has always been associated with jazz.

old tenor sax

However, it wasn’t a very popular instrument from the outset. Brass and woodwind players didn’t like it very much and, subsequently, the saxophone wasn’t taken very seriously. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that military bands from Europe and the US began to adopt the instrument and, along with some marketing campaigns, the saxophone became known as a popular novelty instrument.

Ragtime musicians and important band leaders like Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa took interest in the instrument. But, it wasn’t until the 1920s in the US that “the hot music of the day” changed the perception of the saxophone from a novelty instrument to an instrument that was capable of more colour and different sounds.

sax quintet

In fact, the instrument provided the capacity of imitating a variety of sounds while demonstrating a wide range of textures. In addition, the saxophone came in a variety of ranges from sopranino to baritone and, since the 1920s, the saxophone has been associated with jazz.

The Golden Age of the Saxophone

During the period from the late 1920s to the 1940s, the saxophone matured into the hallmark instrument of jazz. The sound of jazz as well as the legacy of the instrument lied in the hands of four classic tenors:

  1. Coleman Hawkins
  2. Ben Webster
  3. Chu Berry
  4. Lester Young

Most of the early saxophone players weren’t jazz players at all. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong came along and, in the 1920s, changed the face of jazz. Armstrong influenced the way that jazz was played by using long and short eighth notes that were played slightly behind the beat.

Coleman Hawkins 

Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969) was also nicknamed “Hawk” and sometimes “Bean”. In addition, he is sometimes referred to as “The Father of the Jazz Tenor Saxophone”.


Hawk was raised in Kansas City and was a well-rounded musician. He played the piano and the cello and possessed a deep understanding of music theory.

In the early 20s, he moved to New York City and joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra where he met Louis Armstrong who had also joined the band. This meeting was very influential on Hawk and changed his approach to playing completely. Armstrong’s improvisational style had a tremendous impact on Hawkins’s style.

Although Hawkins was accomplished on the instrument, his musical interpretation (prior to Armstrong) was rather stiff. He used a technique called slap tonguing that (when overused) sounded, well, corny.

Hawk abandoned the stiff ragtime-style rhythm, adopted the long-short eighth notes that Armstrong introduced and his improvisations took off. He also diminished his use of slap tonguing and developed his trademark, cello-like vibrato. This new approach to the sound and inventiveness of his improvisational skills set the standard for the saxophonists that followed.

Check out Coleman Hawkins playing “Lover Man” below.

Hawkins’s health declined in the late 60s and he ultimately passed due to complications from liver disease.

Ben Webster

Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) was born and raised in Kansas City. During the 1930s, Coleman Hawkins spent a lot of time in Europe and had tremendous success. Back in Kansas City, sax players were lining up to take his place in the highly competitive Kansas City jazz scene. Ben Webster was one of those players.

ben francis webster

Webster took Hawkins’s ideas and was able to put his own twist to it. One of the amazing attributes regarding Ben Webster was in the variety of sounds that he brought to the instrument. He was a smooth player that could sound buttery and velvety when playing a ballad. He also possessed a beautiful vibrato. It was said that he could play the most sensual ballad known to man.

Here’s an example of Ben Webster playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, a familiar tune but taken to new heights by way of his amazing interpretation.

Likewise, when he played an uptempo number, he could lean into the horn and create growls and raucous textures that were executed with attitude.

Check out Ben Webster performing “Perdido”.

During the late 1930s, Webster came into prominence when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in what was then called the Ellington/Blanton Orchestra. Duke was known for having the best soloists in his band but he never really had a great saxophonist. When Webster was added to the band, Ellington’s band was complete and he had a hot improviser in every seat.

Webster went on to make some prominent recordings with bassist, Jimmy Blanton. He died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in Amsterdam following a performance.

Chu Berry

Leon Brown “Chu” Berry (September 13, 1908 – October 30, 1941) was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. Chu is probably the least-known player on this list. Berry spent most of his early years in the midwest playing with many of the important bands of the early- to mid-30s. His most important association was with Cab Calloway in the late 30s and early 40s.

chu berry

Chu Berry had assimilated all that Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster had contributed to the saxophone while putting his own stamp to it. Berry also possessed a flawless technique which he displayed on uptempo numbers that he seemed to be more partial to. Also, he had a great knowledge of harmony just like Coleman Hawkins. This made it possible for him to improvise effortlessly at fast tempos.

Berry had a softer sound than his contemporaries and didn’t use much of the growl sound that Hawkins and Webster utilized. However, Berry did emulate the cello-like vibrato introduced by Hawkins (and that all saxophonists of that era seemed to prefer).

chu berry

Chu made some terrific small group recordings with Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. Here’s a recording that Berry made in 1938 with His Little Jazz Ensemble featuring Roy Eldridge called “Sittin’ In”.

An interesting fact is that Chu Berry recorded “Body and Soul” about six or seven months before Coleman Hawkins recorded that same tune in 1939. Many believe that Hawkins’s version became the more famous rendition because of the improvisational liberties that he took on the piece. Berry remained truer to the melody in his version. This recording highlights Berry’s sound and phrasing: Chu Berry and Roy Eldridge performing “Body and Soul”.

Tragically, Berry died in a car accident at the age of 33 in 1941. Due to his shortened career there aren’t as many recordings available; however, his original approach to the sound have made him one of the most copied players and important figures in the history of jazz.

One final note, Berry received his nickname because he had a habit of biting down on his mouthpiece.

Lester Young

Lester Willie Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres”, was one of the most interesting players of his time. He was born in Mississippi and raised in New Orleans. Pres spent most of his career in the midwest (living in Minneapolis) and played with many of the Kansas City territory bands.


Lester Young is one of the most interesting characters in the world of jazz and he was light years ahead of his contemporaries—he didn’t play like Coleman Hawkins. Lester brought with him a light and airy sound that he developed as a kid.

Young came from a family of musicians that traveled all over the country and played minstrel shows and festivals. He played the C melody sax as part of his family’s band and, it’s important to note that, the C melody sax was more popular than the tenor or alto at that time.

Lester was able to transfer the sound of the C melody sax to the tenor and this helped him create his own inimitable style. His sound was a major influence on the sax players and musicians of the 1940s; e.g., Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon are a few of his disciples.

lester young

Lester’s approach to rhythm was very much like Armstrong; i.e., he swung his eighth notes and played behind the beat. He was a foreshadower of the bebop sound. In fact, Charlie Parker memorized Lester’s solos note for note and was able to imitate Lester’s phrasing and time feel.

Young’s first great session was with Bennie Moten and the Blue Devils. But, he really came into his own playing with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Many of the midwestern musicians hung out in Kansas City and had their own style and approach to playing. This style was called the Kansas City Riff Style and they relied heavily on the blues and improvisation. Lester was major figure in this scene.

The Basie band, which was based out of Kansas City, left in 1936 and made their home in New York City. Here’s Lester with the Basie Band “(Back and Home Again in) Indiana”.

Lester had many wonderful working relationships with the musicians of the 40s and 50s. His most notable relationship was with Billie Holiday and they made some timeless recordings. His approach to slow tunes and ballads display a rhythmic mastery that allows him to really lay back and play behind the beat. Check out Pres and Lady Day performing “Fine and Mellow”.

Lester’s health declined during his final years due to the cumulative effects of alcohol and malnutrition. He died at the age of 49.

Final Thoughts

These four classic tenors came into maturity in the 30s and helped shape the sound of jazz for the years that followed.

  • Hawkins is considered to be the father as he was the first to perform successfully and his sound and harmonic approach became the model for the musicians that followed.
  • Ben Webster provided a greater pallet of colors and his ability to play sensual ballads demonstrated more of the possibilities that the instrument offered.
  • Chu Berry created a beautiful, innocent, soft and smooth approach that is quite appealing making him one of the most copied players to date.
  • Lastly, the most important of the four, Lester Young, contributed rhythmic and tonal options that influenced the future of jazz. Lester set the standard for the bebop players and modern jazz musicians.  

I encourage you to research more recordings of these great players. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their contributions and can repay that debt by simply keeping the music alive.

Thanks for reading!

  1. Where is Coltrane? Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins should be in the first four, but where is Coltrane?

    1. Hey Michael,
      I can’t speak for Ed who wrote the article (haven’t spoken to him in a bit), but these guys are all pre-Coltrane, right? That’s my best guess as to why he wasn’t included.

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