10 of the most influential jazz musicians

It’s International Jazz Day this weekend! Whether you love the genre or know nothing about it, why not take a moment to learn about the genre and the genius artists that inspired millions?

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 28th Apr 2023

Did you know it’s almost International Jazz Day? And that the whole of April is Jazz Appreciation Month? To celebrate this wonderful genre and the artists that shaped and guided it, we took a look at just ten of the very many inspirational jazz legends.

Whether you’re a jazz fanatic or know nothing about the genre, now’s the perfect time to check out some jazz tunes and appreciate all the fantastic musicians that inspired countless artists and even some genres outside of jazz. Read about some of the genre's prominent artists and their achievements, and listen to their music below. 

But before we do that, let’s have a look at International Jazz Day.


When is International Jazz Day? 


Photo: Miti / Unsplash.com 

International Jazz Day is right around the corner! It goes down every year on the 30th of April. So it’s on this coming Sunday this year!


What is International Jazz Day?


Photo: Aarón Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash.com

Nice and simple, International Jazz Day is the time when we celebrate the wonderful genre of jazz! Declared the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011, the day is used to highlight its role in uniting people all over the world.

Jazz music also originates from black communities in America, and had a vital role in the Civil Rights movement and black history as a whole. Much of the music comes from the work songs of enslaved black people in America. 

Now let's look at some of the greatest in the genre...



Miles Davis

Probably the most famous trumpet player of all time, Miles Davis was known as an innovator, using his trumpet to mimic the sound of a voice, creating a smoother, emotional sound. Over his almost four-decade-long career, he constantly sought evolution in his music. He's influenced many artists across genres including Lana Del Rey, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Mos Def, Madlib, John Mayer, and so many more. 



Ella Fitzgerald

Adele, Lady Gaga, and Lana Del Rey are among the many artists influenced by this genuine legend. Fitzgerald is known for creating some of the most influential jazz records, her vocal range, and impressive scat singing. She won 13 Grammys and became the first African-American woman to win one in 1958. She later received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 



Louis Armstrong

What a voice. Louis’ instantly recognizable pipes weren’t a natural gift though. He first developed his raspy, gravelly tone after a cold. He then had surgeries to repair his vocal cords, which actually just made them “worse”. But really, better. At least in our opinion. Known for this timeless, heavenly track above, his trumpet playing, his smile, voice and kindness, Louis will never be forgotten. 



Billie Holiday 

The first African American woman to work with a white band and the lady who wrote what many consider to be one of the first protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement (listen above), Billie Holiday’s voice is instantly recognisable and inspired countless artists including Etta James, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and many more. 

We chose Strange Fruit for its eeriness and heartbreakingly dark lyrics about the lynching of black people in America. Racism is just a fragment of the hell Billie Holiday endured as a black woman in the 40s, along with sexism. Still, she rose to prominence as one of the most vital voices in jazz and music altogether.



Nat King Cole

Having never received vocal training, it truly is a wonder how Nat King Cole’s perfect baritone came to be. Learning piano at age four eventually led to him dropping out of school at 15 to lead bands. It wasn't long before he formed The King Cole Trio, which inspired other jazz musicians. 

Cole’s talent and skill transcended many racial barriers at the time. But still, he was harassed, attacked, and even almost murdered by white supremacists as he tried to please everyone he could as an entertainer. Cole’s untimely death struck when he was just 45 from aggressive lung cancer. But he and his music won’t be forgotten. 



Frank Sinatra 

Of course Sinatra was influential in jazz, but he was also influential in pop culture in general as a member of The Rat Pack, a movie star (he even won an Oscar), and the creator of the first popular concept album, Songs for Young Lovers. Friend of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, equality was important to Sinatra, who refused to perform and stay in whites-only venues and insisted on equal pay and treatment for his musicians. 

In super simple terms for those unfamiliar, Sinatra was kind of like the Harry Styles or Beyoncé of those times, only much more crucial to music and pop culture. He invented the path many popular artists now follow. 



Nina Simone 

Proving that this legend's music isn’t going anywhere, some modern music videos were recently uploaded to YouTube to accompany her music. Uploaded in 2021, the video for her cover of Feeling Good, released in 1965, has 17 million views. But we included her cover of I Put A Spell On You as it’s a little jazzier. 

Simone blended genres, dipping into jazz, R&B, soul, blues, pop, and more over her career. She was outspoken about Civil Rights and inspired countless artists with her voice including Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, and Usher. Every piece of music she released is drenched in raw, unmatched emotion. 

Learn more about her and her music with What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix.



Chet Baker 

Known for fragile singing and trumpet playing, Chet Baker had an incredibly chaotic life but is remembered as one of the biggest names in West Coast Jazz. Almost whispering with both the trumpet and his voice when performing, he put his soul into both instruments when he played, a pretty rare and remarkable achievement. His live performances are often considered some of his best work which is why we included that specific clip above. Baker regularly topped “best trumpet player” polls. 



Charles Mingus 

Bass player, pianist, band leader, and composer, Charles Mingus is often regarded as one of the best jazz composers. Alongside creating music, he founded his own publishing and recording companies, and a jazz workshop for young composers to have their work performed live and on recordings. 

Mingus played a vital role in proving the bass was a versatile instrument, demonstrating the instrument’s range and capabilities. Bonus: definitely listen to his track Moanin’, you’ll most definitely recognise it!



Duke Ellington

Duke composed over 3,000 songs in his life and released over 50 hits. There’s not too much that needs to be said here. His music was a colossal influence on popular music in the late 20th century.

Fun fact: Duke claimed to have a form of synaesthesia, which caused him to see notes played by one musician as one colour while the same notes played by another would be a different colour. He also claimed notes had textures.



Obviously there are so many more influential jazz musicians - the genre dates back to the late 19th century. But these are some of the biggest names to come out of the genre, inspiring millions. Most still have their records played on the radio today. Checking out these artists will definitely make it easier for those new to the genre to jump in!

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