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Jazz is one of the world’s most enduring genres, transcending borders and boundaries, race and culture, age and lifestyle.

While many of us imagine the iconic greats – Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker – whenever the term ‘jazz’ is mentioned, the genre is far, far bigger. It has inspired hundreds of different artists over the years, male and female, black and white, rich and poor.

One constant, though, is that jazz feels distinctly American, despite having a worldwide following.

Many of the most exciting, popular jazz bands and jazz solo artists have emerged from the United States. The best fuse a respect for the traditions of jazz with an innovative sensibility, drawing on their own experience to inform their work with plenty of nods to the past.

Jazz has immense appeal for even those of us who may know only bits and pieces of its history, yet feel compelled whenever we hear the soulful beauty of a saxophone played by a master or an energetic piano solo.

The following list ranks the top 10 American jazz bands and solo artists. We’ve chosen to focus on acts who started their careers after the 1950s, so you’ll find some fascinating performers representing the very best of post-1950s jazz below.

The 10 Best Jazz Bands and Solo Artists of America

Jazz Band / Solo Artist
1 The Hot Sardines The Hot Sardines are an incredibly exciting jazz band, hailing from the ever-musical New York City.

The group was founded in 2007 by Elizabeth Bougerol and Evan Palazzo. Bougerol is a singer and artistic director, while Palazzo is a pianist and actor – both are extremely versatile, drawing on their disparate abilities to create exceptional jazz sounds.

Evan Palazzo started playing piano at the unbelievably young age of three. He went on to study at New York City’s famous Waldorf school before moving on to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where he cultivated his flair for stridejazz piano as a personal preference.

He went on to start working with Elizabeth after the pair answered a Craigslist ad, bonding over their mutual love for Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

They released their first album, Shanghai’d, in July 2011, with a warm response. Their next album, The Hot Sardines, went on to see release in October 2014, combining covers of jazz hits and their own tunes. It managed to enter the Billboard charts in summer 2015, actually reaching number 12.

Their second studio album, French Fries + Champagne, was released in June 2016. The Hot Sardines vary in size, but usually consists of eight members, incorporating saxophone, clarinet, percussion, trombone, bass, violin, banjo, guitar, and more.

Visit the official website of The Hot Sardines
2 Melody Gardot Melody Gardot is a native of Philadelphia, and her influences are as varied as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Judy Garland, and Janis Joplin.

Melody had always loved music and played piano in bars as a sixteen year old. Her act consisted of covers, but it wasn’t until it helped her recover from a traumatic accident that she really started to hone her own songwriting talents.

She was knocked off her bike on a Philadelphia street by an SUV driver who ran a red light, and suffered severe injuries to her head, spine, and pelvis. She was confined to her bed for a year, and experienced memory-related issues.

One physician told her that music may help her brain to recover, and Gardot started to write her own songs. She wrote music that would go on to form her EP Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions.

This was followed by her debut album Worrisome Heart in 2006, My One and Only Thrill in 2009, The Absence in 2012, and Currency of Man in 2015. The Absence landed at the number one spot on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart when it was released, and managed to sell 10,000 copies within its debut week (a powerful achievement for a jazz act).
3 Aaron Diehl Aaron Diehl comes from Columbus, Ohio, and has built himself an impressive career, known as one of the great jazz pianists in America. He started to study music at seven years old, before developing his love of jazz as a child and teenager.

He managed to reach the final stage at the Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington contest in 2002, and received the Outstanding Soloist award. He is a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where he studied with other prominent jazz acts.

His first live album was released in 2009, consisting of a recording of a solo concert. He then released Live at the Players in 2010, performing alongside four other artists as two separate trios – David Wong and Paul Sikivie, and Quincy Davis and Lawrence Leathers. It helped to garner Diehl a fan-base, paving the way for his debut album in 2013, titled The Bespoke Man’s Narrative.

This reached the top spot on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart, and received real acclaim from critics and audiences alike. He has toured with other jazz acts, including Warren Wolf, Matt Wilson, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and Cecile McLorin Savant.

Diehl is a versatile, accomplished jazz pianist, known for exceptional live performances.
4 Ambrose Akinmusire Ambrose Akinmusire is originally from Oakland, California, and plays the trumpet.

Like many other leading jazz acts, he cultivated a love for his genre at a young age. He became a member of a thriving jazz act at his high school, known as the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble. It was to prove a life-changing decision to join the group, as he was lucky (and talented) enough to be noticed by saxophonist Steve Coleman.

Coleman happened to be at the Berkeley High School to deliver a music workshop, but was so impressed by Akinmusire that he gave him a job with his Five Elements band – which would see him embark on their European tour. This was a remarkable breakthrough for such a young jazz musician, as was his time with the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

He went on to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2007, as well as the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. These are both highly-regarded, and winning both is a sure sign of a talent worth watching.

He released his first album Prelude … to Cora in 2007 too, before completing When the Heart Emerges Glistening in 2011. His third album, The Imagined Sailor is Far Easier to Paint, hit the market in March 2014. He also released a live album in 2017: A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard.
5 Yellowjackets Any fan of jazz will know of Yellowjackets. This band has been performing since the late 1970s, and emerged from Los Angeles.

This stellar jazz band was formed in 1977, when Robben Ford (guitarist) put together an act including a keyboardist, bass guitarist, and drummer. Together, they went on to be signed by one of the biggest record labels on the planet: Warner Bros. Records.

The Yellowjackets started out as a jazz-fusion band, but evolved over subsequent years to be slightly more experimental, though still clearly embracing the jazz milieu. The line-up changed multiple times, founder Robben Ford leaving, saxophonist Marc Russo leaving to play with iconic The Doobie Brothers, and other comings and goings.

This altering roster has helped to keep Yellowjackets’ sound fresh and distinctive, incorporating diverse influences into their unique jazz sound. They have worn two Grammy Awards, and released more than a dozen albums, beginning with their self-titled one in 1981.

Other albums include Mirage a Trois, Samurai Samba, Shades, Four Corners, Politics, The Spin, Greenhouse, Live Wires, Like a River, Run for Your Life, Collection, Dreamland, Blue Hats, Priceless Jazz, Club Nocturne, Time Squared, and Altered State.

Yellowjackets are an unparalleled jazz band showcasing some of the finest work to come out of the American scene.

Visit the Yellowjackets official website
6 Kenny Garrett Kenny Garrett was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has won multiple Grammy Awards in his career.

He is known as a saxophonist and flautist, attracting massive acclaim for his talents since he started to make a name for himself in the 1970s. He grew up in a family with a musical passion at its heart, with his father playing tenor saxophone in his own time, which informed Kenny’s own attraction to the jazz genre.

Kenny joined his first jazz band in the late 1970s, the Duke Ellington Orchestra (which was fronted by Mercer Ellington, Duke’s own son), before he went on to become part of the Mel Lewis.

Once the 1980s were underway, Kenny Garrett managed to record his own first album as a bandleader. Introducing Kenny Garrett was enough of a success to land him two more albums (with the powerhouse Atlanta Records, no less): Prisoner of Love and African Exchange Student.

Kenny performed alongside many jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Brian Blade, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and more. Other albums of Kenny Garrett’s include Black Hope, Triology, Stars & Stripes Live, Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane, Songbook, Simply Said, Old Folks, and more.
7 Wayne Shorter Quartet Wayne Shorter s known as a jazz saxophonist, born in New Jersey. He always had a love of music, and was inspired to learn the clarinet by his father (parental encouragement can have a profound impact on a young artist’s development).

Shorter has named the likes of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins as his main influences, and he worked with Miles Davis for a number of years. He composed music for Davis on such works as Prince of Darkness and Sanctuary.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet was established in 2000. He secured the talents of John Patitucci (on bass), Danilo Perez (on piano), and Brian Blade (on drums). They created three albums – Footprints Live! In 2002, Beyond the Sound Barrier in 2005, and Without a Net in 2013.

The Quartet has been a big hit with both critics and audiences, paying particular attention to the tenor saxophone work conducted by Shorter. Their album Beyond the Sound Barrier achieved the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2006, while Shorter’s own solo album from 2003, Algeria, was given the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2004.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet are a sophisticated jazz band with lots to recommend them to jazz fans.
8 Gregory Porter The great Gregory Porter is from California’s Sacramento, and has a rich history behind him.

Porter had a varied life before he achieved big success as a jazz musician. He worked as a chef for some time, while he started to perform and establish his own style; he played around the neighbourhood in which he lived in Brooklyn, as well as Harlem-based venues.

This planted the seeds for Porter’s future, before he went on to release two of his own albums in 2010 and 2012, titled Water and Be Good respectively.

His third album Liquid Spirit was a big hit for an LP in the jazz genre, managing to hit the top 10 in the British album charts and becoming certified gold. His fourth album – Take Me to the Alley – saw release in summer 2016, and Porter was invited to play a session at the iconic British music festival, the Glastonbury Festival in 2016. His appearance received great feedback and acclaim.

He released another album, Nat King Cole & Me, in 2017. It was inspired and influenced by the work of Nat King Cole, with some songs actually recorded by Cole during his own career. He has managed to be more mainstream than some other American jazz musicians, especially with his appearances on major BBC shows.
9 Jamison Ross Mr Ross is originally from Jacksonville, Florida. His music career has its roots in his childhood, like so many other great jazz musicians, with him first playing music at his grandfather’s church. Ross played drums and sang there, attracting attention for his natural skill.

The youthful achievements continued to come, when he went to Florida State University to study for a Bachelor of Arts in Jazz Studies. As if that wasn’t enough, Jamison Ross earned a Master of Music qualification from the influential University of New Orleans too.

His career started to take off when he met Carmen Lundy, a Grammy-winning performer, at the Washington D.C. Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency at the Kennedy Center. Lundy asked Ross to join her band, which he did for some time.

Jamison Ross was named winner of the 2012 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition for his flair on the drums. His is a hugely-impressive accolade for an upcoming jazz musician, and paved the way for him to record his debut album. Not only did he display the stellar drumming skills for which he was known, he also revealed himself to be a consummate singer.

His solo albums include Jamison and All for One (2015 and 2018 respectively), while he has appeared on others by Barry Stephenson, Glen David Andrews, and Dr. John.
10 Kendrick Scott Kendrick Scott is a drummer and composer out of Houston, Texas. He is known for both his musical skills and his achievement founding World Culture Music, a respected record label.

Like Gregory Porter, Kendrick Scott started to play the drums at church. His parents and brother were all keen participants in the church’s musical activities, and this helped to reveal enough of his talent to see him accepted into the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.

During his time at this institution, Kendrick was awarded the Clifford Brown / Stan Getz Fellowship accolade from the International Association for Jazz Education and The National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. He has played with such diverse artists as Kenny Garrett, Dianne Reeves, Terence Blanchard, Jazz Crusaders, and more.

He is also known for playing with the well-known Charles Lloyd Quartet, consisting of multiple accomplished musicians with strong followings in the American jazz scene.

As a leader of his jazz band, Kendrick Scott has worked on multiple albums, including The Source, Reverence, Conviction, and We Are the Drum (two of which through his own World Culture Music label).

Visit the Kendrick Scott official website


Exploring the World of Jazz

Jazz may be one of the most enduring of all music genres, with decades of evolution and growth, but it’s still one of the least understood by mainstream audiences.

Genres like rock, hip-hop, and pop often have global appeal, though jazz influences run far and wide throughout. One reason for its smaller audience may be that it appears less accessible to novices than those other genres, with what seem to be more complicated instrumentals and song-structures far different to those most people may be used to.

Films like The Great Gatsby take place in the Jazz Age, though the authenticity of their reflection of that era has been disputed. Those communities that helped to bring jazz to the instrumental beauty it is known for are incredibly passionate about what constitutes jazz, quite rightly, though experimentation has been common. This enables jazz musicians to keep their sounds feeling fresh whilst still embracing tried-and-true tropes.

The Beginnings of Jazz Bands

Jazz has as rich, fascinating, and important a story as any other type of music. It began in New Orleans, in predominantly African-American communities at the closing years of the 19th century and the early ones of the 20th It was a natural evolution of the ragtime and blues traditions, both of which remained powerful influences on the jazz genre afterwards.

It has been described as the United States’ own classical music, as valuable to the country as the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and more are to their respective countries (and Europe as a whole). It’s an American art form, communicating the sensibilities and talents of the country’s creatives, not unlike comic-books, another art form considered distinctly American.

The black experience is regarded as a key component of the early jazz days, and is a vital part of its appeal. The term ‘jazz’ itself derives from the word ‘jasm’ – a colloquial favourite from the 1860s, referring to a sense of energy or ‘pep’. When you think about it, this really is an apt way to describe the combination of vibrant sounds and dynamic vocals inherent in the best of jazz.

It wasn’t until an article in the Los Angeles Times, from 1912, that the term ‘jazz’ was written in a public forum: the story related to a baseball game, in which the pitcher described his throw as being a ‘jazz ball’ due to its wobbly trajectory.

While we all have our own ideas of what constitutes jazz, it’s not so easy to nail down due to the sheer diversity that has shaped it. It’s generally accepted that it’s any music incorporating improvisation, swing, establishing a unique tone of voice, and being willing to experiment with varied musical styles.

The Power of Improvisation in Jazz

The idea of improvisation is, of course, critical in jazz, as some of the greats are able to keep playing for long sessions without sticking to a song sheet.

This can give rise to some outstanding melodies, and allows them to simply cut loose and explore their own creativity. Not many other musical genres allow for such freedom and flexibility, particularly pop songs which cling to rigid structures and sounds. After all, much of pop hinges on marketing and selling a very straightforward musical product to a defined demographic.

This streak for improvisation comes from those genres that influenced jazz, such as the blues and folk. This, again, has roots in the black experience of Americans during specific eras, and is a powerful part of the genre’s tradition.

Jazz brings its own tropes and expectations, but it offers both the musicians and the listeners a lot of space in which to explore. That’s core to its enduring success and lasting appeal.

Another aspect of the jazz genre which is vital to its power is the role which female performers have played. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, and Betty Carter have all made real progress, though they are known to have received less recognition than their male counterparts. As mentioned earlier, jazz transcends many boundaries, and gender is one of them.

While jazz artists emerge from countries all over the world, with many in Britain (including the likes of Jools Holland and Jamie Cullum), American top jazz bands will always be seen as the most important to the genre. It’s a fascinating part of the United States’ cultural tapestry, and offers a huge range of exciting acts to discover.