Bill Cunliffe’s top 10 jazz pianists of all time

In the spirit of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, I’ve decided, just for fun, to take a crack at the 10 greatest jazz pianists of all time. Greatest can mean most popular, or it can mean the most important in the development of the music. I have considered both in relatively equal measure in coming up with my list. Erroll Garner was one of the most popular and is in my own top 10 of favorites, but he’s not in my top 10 in terms of importance. Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley are certainly contenders for the top 10 in importance, but not in popularity. I have given a slight preference to pianists who are great composers, as what is improvisation but composition on the fly? And I’m limiting this to jazz with a swing perspective. Then I don’t have to deal with Eddie Palmieri (whew) or any of the great Latin jazz artists.

Here’s what I think.

#1 Art Tatum
This shouldn’t be a surprise. He took the legacy of Fats Waller completely to its outer limits and combined it with a virtuoso technique and a harmonic and rhythmic imagination not excelled by any jazz pianist since. And he was almost completely blind, to boot. If I had to pick one desert-island pianist, it would be Tatum.

#2 (tie) Bill Evans
Everyone who plays a ballad plays some Bill Evans, but his influence was so much more than that. He was one of the greatest composers of jazz standards and perhaps the most important interpreter of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. And a multiple reinventer of the piano trio, first with LaFaro and Motian, then with Gomez and Morell, and last with Johnson and La Barbera. Evans took George Russell’s important harmonic theories, part of the structure of Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” and made them jazz piano mainstream, and incredibly beautiful. In addition, he was one of the first jazz pianists to bring the sonorities and aesthetics of classical music to jazz. He pretty much played only trio and solo, and, like Jamal, that was part of his genius, to know himself, what he wanted to do and should do.

#2 (tie) Herbie Hancock
This is also a no-brainer for the top 10, and, in my mind, he is the equal of Evans in influence. He is one of the great composers of jazz, from both popular and artistic perspectives. As a player, he is one of the truly great “compers” and is a true innovator as a soloist, in his ability to synthesize a creative vision out of merging hard bop and European classical music. And probably the greatest quintet pianist ever, in the greatest quintets of jazz: those of Miles Davis. As a leader, he had many triumphs, the early Blue Notes and the jazz/funk experiments of the ’70s probably being the most significant. Hancock is one of the most collaborative artists as well, and brings his sensitivities to many pop artists. Results are sometimes mixed, but that’s what happens when you’re an improviser, and Hancock has always embraced chance-taking. His use of electronics in jazz was pioneering, and often wonderfully innovative and satisfying.

#4 Bud Powell
If not underrated, definitely underappreciated because of his personal struggles and uneven recorded output. Bud Powell created a piano idiom completely parallel with that of the great Charlie Parker, but completely original. We all play the way we play now largely because of Bud, the first piano master of the modern improvised line. And a major composer as well.

#5 Thelonious Monk
Another of the easy ones to pick. Probably in the top five of most performed jazz composers, with an utterly original style grounded in the Harlem piano school but escaping to the outermost regions of logic and structure. He completely exemplified modernism within the bebop school, in an idiom melodically often quite separate from that of his close friend Bud Powell, who showed much of Monk’s influence in his own work. His style echoes in all great pianists today.

#6 Keith Jarrett
One of the most spectacularly accomplished musicians of all time, Jarrett has made fine recordings of Bach, Shostakovich and Lou Harrison, some of the greatest jazz trio records ever, the wonderful European quartet recordings with Jan Garbarek, and the record “Spirits,” on which he overdubs himself on ethnic flutes, voice, soprano saxophone, guitar and percussion instruments. Furthermore, Jarrett invented a new genre of solo piano playing with events like the Köln Concert after he had shown complete mastery and individuality within traditional solo piano jazz and gospel music with the album “Facing You.” And that’s in addition to his contributions to Miles Davis’ groundbreaking ’60s and ’70s music.

#7 Fats Waller
Waller is the complete culmination of the Harlem stride piano school — the most important development of early jazz piano — and a great technical player and creative improviser. Jelly Roll Morton was important both as a composer and as a pianist, but Fats took it to the ultimate place. In my mind, James P. Johnson was a worthy rival and a fine composer as well. But if you have to pick one guy, Fats wins hands down, especially given his tremendous popularity as a bandleader and singer. And you wouldn’t have Tatum without Waller, as Tatum sometimes said. “Fats, that’s where I come from.” Sadly, a way-too-short career.

#8 McCoy Tyner
Technically among the most proficient of the post-bop generation, Tyner developed, largely during his work with John Coltrane, a completely original style of harmony and melody that has affected almost all pianists since. A brilliant sideman with the great John Coltrane, he later led many wonderful groups that kept the flame alive. A compelling composer as well, McCoy would have been known as a major talent just for the first five or six records he recorded as a leader for Impulse.

#9 Chick Corea
Another amazing musician’s musician, Corea has ranged from delicate quasi-classical solo piano and chamber music to some of the greatest jazz trio music of all time (“Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”), to wonderfully free-spirited duo projects with Herbie Hancock, to compelling Brazilian-influenced jazz, to pioneering jazz-rock-fusion. Although some find the latter category uneven in inspiration, it’s hard to argue that Chick isn’t the most dexterous and soulful lead synth player on the planet. Chick has his imitators these days, but far fewer than when I was in music school. Nevertheless, he remains, today, an astoundingly great pianist.

#10 Ahmad Jamal
When I was at Eastman, I was a member of the Sonny Clark school (he would be in my top 20 on this list and in my personal top 10). We would just say his name and ooh and ahh. Same with Ahmad Jamal. Important, absolutely. Miles stole much from Ahmad, especially his use of space and time, and Ahmad’s rejection of traditional hard bop was a revolutionary statement worthy of Monk. His ’70s output of electric jazz is solid and interesting, but not compelling like his acoustic music, and he’s a fine composer, but not on the level of some of the others. Yet if you want to elect a guy with a magnificent technique and an artistic conception, who practically invented the modern piano trio, you have to give Ahmad the vote. And this guy, at 82, still can play 90 minutes of music that an audience has largely never heard before, and at the end they are screaming and standing and applauding rapturously, and it’s not cheap or bombastic or shallow. His use of space, sound and texture are unique. He has always done his own thing and not been much of a collaborator, and that’s perhaps why he’s only #10.

On the edge

Oscar Peterson

I struggled with this one. Certainly one of the most popular. But important? I think so. He was technically the greatest pianist of his time, had a ballad touch and swing feel that were completely his own, and was a major figure in the development of the piano trio. The knock on him has always been the lapse into cliché in the improvising, and I sadly have to agree. Tatum had his stock phrases too, but the breathtaking creativity of it all made it work for me. But it remains that Oscar’s pianism is near flawless in execution and swing, and full of passion. And he has many, many followers. My favorite pianist in my formative years.

Duke Ellington
Probably the most important composer in jazz, Duke was also one of the most important and innovative pianists. He made the transition from Fats Waller-era Harlem piano to avant-garde piano minimalism effortlessly; every big band pianist has to go through him and Bill “Count” Basie. It seems to me you wouldn’t have Monk without Duke, even though Monk rarely cited him as an influence. His few trio records, such as “Money Jungle,” are revelatory. With some misgivings, we place the Duke “on the edge.” But we love him madly.

Brad Mehldau
Brad has captured the imagination of the jazz press, and of the public as well, with his marvelous trio records and strikingly creative solo piano playing. I really enjoy the collaborative records as well, such as those with Pat Metheny. A true innovator harmonically, rhythmically and melodically, Mehldau may crack the top 10 as time passes.

Near misses

Nat “King” Cole
Easily the greatest of the transitional pianists from the swing to the bebop era, and perhaps the inventor of the modern piano trio (with guitar and bass). Because Cole left serious instrumental jazz in the ’50s, we leave him off the list, with a reluctant sigh.

Teddy Wilson
Along with Count Basie, perhaps the most important pianist in the swing era, inspiring a whole raft of imitators and innovators such as Jess Stacy, Joe Bushkin and Mel Powell. To me, not a major innovator on the level of the top 10, although I’d accept some arguments on this issue. His touch and style were unique and unsurpassed.

Tommy Flanagan
The most lyrical and personal of the post-Powell generation, he spent much of his career as accompanist for the great Ella Fitzgerald. But his presence on the scene was always felt as an important sideman and as a leader of one of the greatest trios in jazz for about 30 years.

Hank Jones
Often mentioned in the same breath as Tommy, Jones was an astoundingly great solo and trio pianist, with a distinctive sound, and is regarded as an important transitional figure from swing to bebop. He dabbled in modernism, with an arranger’s touch, and is more consistently good, in my opinion, than any pianist, dead or alive. Manny Albam once said, “There’s no jam that Henry can’t get himself out of.” And do it with style.

Erroll Garner
During his lifetime, the most popular jazz pianist alive, a great composer (“Misty”) and a completely distinctive sound as a solo and trio pianist, with unrivaled octave technique and a unique “four-on-the-floor” left hand and time feel. After his passing, it seems that no one mentioned his name, at least not in music schools. But remnants of his wonderfully fun and enjoyable style remained, in pianists such as George Shearing. Definitely in my top 10 “most enjoyable” pianists to listen to. And people still love him.

Sonny Clark
Hampered by a lifestyle that triggered a premature demise, Clark fell into obscurity in the ‘70s, but his reputation has been refurbished by the reissuing of all of his Blue Note output, which is amazingly good and consistent. Equally great as a trio and a quartet/quintet pianist, he was an inspired soloist and a great comper. Frank Morgan told me he kept both Carl Perkins and Clark in his band, because he loved Perkins’ comping and Clark’s soloing. When Clark complained about the bread being low, Morgan told him, man, get your comping together. And he did!

Wynton Kelly
Another of Clark’s generation, Kelly turned in marvelously swinging trio, quartet and quintet records and was a major contributor to Miles Davis’ late-’50s ensembles. Wish he had lived longer too.

Dave Brubeck
A fine pianist and bandleader, Brubeck has also been a true innovator as a composer. I was slow to warm to Brubeck’s greatness as a pianist, but when you listen to Dave the way you might listen to Monk, it all makes marvelous sense. He brought out the best in his sidemen, particularly the underrated (these days) Paul Desmond, and has been a great advocate of swinging yet innovative jazz.


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155 responses to “Bill Cunliffe’s top 10 jazz pianists of all time

  1. Dave

    I’m a Jimmy Rowles man but using your criteria I do understand.

  2. Jon Wheatley

    You mentioned Powell as one whose productivity was hampered. That brings to mind other ones who might have been more noticed if they’d recorded more: Phineas Newborn, Dodo Marmarosa, Dick Twardzik, Elmo Hope. (Hard to pick only ten or twenty.) Great comments.

  3. How’d Dick Hyman get lost in all this? Certainly he has complete mastery of the instrument and all genres (correct term?) of jazz piano.

    • T Lo

      Dick Hyman? Are you sh*tting me?

    • Rob Boyter

      Dick Hyman is a wonderful archivist of styles, but not an extraordinary originator. It is very good to have him and others who preserve the styles of Stride and various long gone artists, but it doesn’t put them into this list.

  4. Steve Galton

    CongratuIations on your new blog! Your article about the 10 best jazz pianists is very thoughtful. I would add one
    more name: Phineas Newborn. His technique rivaled Art Tatum’s.

  5. Jim

    McCoy Tyner changed the SOUND of jazz piano in a way only 2 or 3 people on an instrument ever do – move him up a couple notches!

    • Steven F

      I agree. Another “sound-changing” contributor would have to be Horace Silver. I also would have liked to see some mention of Cedar Walton (huge contributions to The Jazz Messengers as well his own groups), Red Garland, and Don Pullen (a lot of Mingus would not have been Mingus without him.)

  6. Hmm, where would you put Earl Hines and James P? Lennie?

    • P T Blue

      IMO put Fatha at the top, alongside Art Tatum. Hines was the inventor of improvised jazz piano (known as “horn style”) and with Louis Armstrong and a handful of others a co-inventor of jazz as we know it. And in the 1960s when I heard him one of the best, and most delightful, pianists ever.

      • John

        Thanks PT, I was waiting for someone to mention Fatha. Brad Meldau ahead of Fatha, you gotta be kidding!

      • kr

        Hines = 1 as a bridge. I think those are the most interesting. Check out Don Bays as well. Hines had good tenancies in his playing. Check out his version of “I left my heart in san fransisco”

  7. Ikaika

    Nice post! There are so many awesome pianists (past/present) and we’re so fortunate that their music is much more accessible today than at any other point in time. If I may add to the list – here are some new pianists that I think are really changing the game for pianism (I put an asterisk for the ones that have exceptionally blown my mind):

    Aaron Goldberg
    Aaron Parks – Invisible Cinema; James Farm (w/ Redman)
    Baptiste Trotignon – Suite
    Christian Jacob – Live in Japan
    *Enrico Pieranunzi – Permutation
    *Esbjorn Svensson – new album “301” (posthumously)
    Giovanni Mirabassi – Prima o Poi
    Gonzalo Rubalcaba
    *Helge Lien
    *Hiromi Uehara – earlier trio work is much better (with Tony Grey, Victor)
    Jacky Terrasson
    Jason Lindner
    *Jason Moran –
    *Jef Neve – Soul in a Picture; imaginary road
    *Jo-Yu Chen
    Kenny Werner
    Marc Perrenoud
    *Martin Bejerano
    *Neil Cowley – Displaced; Radio Silence (some amazing new ideas here, new album – with strings – not as convincing, but fresh)
    *Taylor Eigsti
    *Tigran Hamasyan
    Tord Gustavsen
    *Vijay Iyer – Accelerando
    *Yaron Herman – Follow the White Rabbit; Muse

  8. Amos Humiston

    Great list! Going out on a limb, but… Phineas Newborn could play circles around all of these guys and they’d probably admit it. But of course he never had the influence or consistency.

  9. Jasper C H

    You never have space for them all… But how can you forget Michel Camilo…? Really, how? And Oscar P should be in top 5 at least imo

  10. I think the most egregious mistake was not mentioning John Lewis from MJQ. The most underrated of all times is Phineas Newborn who would be in my top ten.

  11. Trebor12

    er, what about the man himself – George Gershwin. Contrary to what people think, he started as a Jazz Pianist and then crossed over into being a classical music pianist (and composer to boot!).

    If there is any pianist who has ever sucessfully bridged the divide being being both a great Jazz pianist, AND a great classical pianist, then look no further than Gershwin. Virtually no one, and I mean NO ONE else has managed to do this, or rather, managed it with the ease that Gershwin did.

    There were (and still are) many great classical pianists who just could not/ can’t play Jazz convincingly, likewise put Ellington, Waller or Bud Powell in front of a Mozart piano concerto, and tell them to play it and you may aswell ask them to play something on the violin.

    Gershwin was so crucial to both genres during the early part of the 20th century that we forget this now, nearly 80 years on. What he did and achieved in his short life was nothing short of monumental.

    • Cubop 54

      Thank You!! Wow I thought I was the only person alive to feel this way about George Gershwin! He was crucial and so essential in bridging classical music and the jazz of his time. His sense of rhythm was truly unique, his melodies timeless and as profound, lyrical and poetic as anyone’s, including Chopin. Perhaps more importantly, his application of classical french harmony and his own harmonic imagination was remarkably ahead of his time and deeply intriguing. He gave America a voice in the Opera House while basically de-segregating it! He really should have lived longer. At least a couple carried his influence into jazz further. (Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington) Not to mention his outstanding piano playing…

    • Tom

      Bud Powell was classically trained from a young age…. Where do you think the technique comes from?

  12. Martin

    thanks, really useful. Tatum first beyond a doubt, his album with ben webster is one of my favourite jazz albums and of his, tho his solo version of begin the beguine is also a big favourite. the useful bit is that I have never really listened much to Bud Powell or Ahmad Jamal, now thanks to you and spotify I have made up for that. the related artists feature on spotify is good, and not surprisingly most of your top 10 appear on each others.

  13. Lutz Bacher

    You neglect the avant garde (not unusual these days): Cecil Taylor, Andre Hill, Paul Bley, etc.

    • Cubop 54

      Avante Garde pianists are usually neglected for a pretty solid and understandable reason; their playing sounds like melted deli sandwiches oozing into a giant factory machine made of flatted 5ths against 4ths, sharp 8ths and chaotic phrasing and dissonance capable of throwing the Duke or The Count into a bewildered state of mental unbalance and even perplexing those like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and probably even Bud Powell. I’m not too sure about Andre Hill but Cecil Taylor, in my opinion, may be classically trained in the likes of Scriabin or something but WOW what madness. The relentlessly dense and frenzied atonality is nonsense to me. Cecil Taylor would fit nicely with Albert Ayler, Lester Bowie or maybe Eric Dolphy.

  14. Half note

    Like the analyse and the sensitivity.
    Jazz piano is not a matter of technique only reminds me of jazz rock virtuose In the 70s and 80s.
    The Duke used to say , if i am not wrong, aint got that thing if you ain’t got that swing.
    So Wynton Kelly is the man (especially with Mr PC and Cobb or Philly ..), kenny Drew, Duke Pearson, ..
    And let us not Forget Phinas Newborn une grosse claque ! The gould of jazz …
    But it is my taste and respect other and buy the way i play guitar …

  15. Phillip Wilson

    You don’t see Taylor Eigisti on lists like this one very often, but Ikaika is right to note him on a list of “rising stars.” He’s a remarkable pianist and musician!

  16. Martin Sandberg

    Hi! Interesting post. Of the newer pianist the first one to mention is the fabolous pole Leszek Mozdzer who have reinvited solo piano. Listen to his “Piano” or “Solo concert in Ukraine”. Impeccable. As a swede I do of course miss Esbjörn Svensson who in impact (next to Mehldau maybe) is by far the most important of recent pianist. The norweigian scene is still very vivid. Tord Gustavsen of course, but also Helge Lien. Of the classics – Paul Bleys solo recordings such as “Open, to love” and “Hommage to Carla” is indispensable. Happy Holidays! /Martin, Gothenburg – Sweden.

  17. Mudbone

    A few of my favorites that haven’t been mentioned:

    Roland Hanna, Hampton Hawes, Dave McKenna.

    Among the current crop of pianists:

    Geoff Keezer, Mulgrew Miller, Jessica Williams

    • John

      Dave McKenna was almost the house pianist for Concord Records, and they had any number of famous pianists playing for them. His Dancing in the Dark CD as well as his Live at Maybeck Hall are indispensable in any Jazz collection I saw Dave live once the Cornerstone in Metuchen NJ and he called himself just a saloon pianist. One of the most enjoyable evenings I ever had. BTW, it is now called Novita’s, a very good Italian restaurant. Piano Jazz continues there with the fabulous NYC pianist Champian Fulton holding court!

    • I cannot understand the blatant omission of George Shearing, my favorite jazz pianist, arranger and musicologist for over 60 years. No pianist has achieved the brilliant command of harmony as did Sir George. As both a soloist and lead musician of the Shearing Quintet, I have always been awed by his artistry. So why is he left out in so many lists of great jazz pianists of all time? Ray Kestenbaum

  18. Wanaks

    Kenny Barron !!!
    Eliane Elias !!!

  19. Peter James

    No mention of Monty Alexander ?
    He’s a first class pianist and composer I would like to think

    • I really appreciate all the responses to my blog post. I love all the pianists you mentioned. However, the dilemma I face is: What pianists should be moved OFF the list to put any of these guys on?

      To be honest, though, I’ve been listening to so much Oscar lately that I wouldn’t mind bumping him up, but, again, whom do I take off my list? Again, listening to a lot of Brubeck lately, but… what can I do?

      Thanks, everybody.

  20. Earl Artis

    Oscar Peterson not in the top 10? Ridiculous! He was a member of the best trios in jazz history,rivaled only by the trios of Nat Cole and Ahmad Jamal. No need to discuss Oscar’s technical proficiency, which the writer acknowledges. Peterson could comp with the best pianists at any tempo. McCoy Tyner over Peterson? Never. Tatum is creative and Peterson was not? Rubbish.

  21. First of all, I NEVER said Peterson wasn’t creative. And, Oscar is certainly in MY personal top ten. But is he greater than McCoy? Totally a matter of opinion.

  22. AJ

    I agree with much of your list with a few placement changes. I might add Ramsey Lewis (one of my personal favorites under near misses if not top ten), and I like Esparanza’s pianist Leo Genovese. I think he has a bright future talent wise and I look forward to hearing him broaden his expressiveness and creativity in his playing as his career unfolds.

  23. Bill

    I agree almost entirely with these choices as a mixture of importance and creativity. I don’t listen to much Waller, Tatum and the like but it isn’t for lack of respect! Of course we all like Peterson, but I agree with the author and the critics on the occasional lapse into cliche to my ear. A couple I’d’ve found room for are Kenny Barron and the woefully under-recognized and supremely imaginative Herbie Nichols.

    • Earl Artis

      I read the original comments again, and I guess we’ll simply have to agree to disagree. For me, I cannot imagine any list of top 10 jazz pianists that does not include Oscar Peterson. His technique is equal to or greater than any pianist on the list. His trios were as tight as anyone ever created. Other than Tatum, I cannot imagine any of the others jousting victoriously with Peterson head to head, cliches and all. Every virtuoso lapses into cliche on occasion. And finally, I’m not sure there should be any criticism of popularity. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk all enjoyed their day in the sun. I must say this continues to be a fascinating discussion, and I am taking every comment I receive very seriously.

  24. French piano lover

    Impossible to make a good short list! What about the above missing Willie the Lion Smith, Luckey Roberts, Count Basie, Mel Powell, Jacquie Byard, Earl Hines, Donald Lambert, Benny Green, Bill Charlap, Gonlazo Rubalcaba, Stefano Bollani, Gerald Clayton….and many more, we are not at the olympics, all the above listed are great!

  25. Jeff G.

    Man everyone is mentioning some brilliant names here! So glad to see Mulgrew mentioned! Can’t argue with anyone on your list Bill. Very well thought out IMO. Benny Green should be included in this discussion too. One of the truly great and yet seriously under-recognized pianists out there right now is Jon Cowherd. Just go see the Fellowship Band play and you’ll understand. Not only will you get to hear Jon, but Brian Blade is at the drums, which starts the top of a whole other list for many. Robert Glasper plays some very serious and deeply soulful piano too. I can’t for the life of me understand why Danilo Perez hasn’t been brought up! He has to be in the top 10 LIVING jazz pianists! Gonzalo Rubalcaba deserves another shout out and Geri Allen is wonderful too. Bill, you really hit the nail on the head for me with your description of Oscar. Top 5 for me, but I completely agree regarding his stylistic limitations. I have to conclude this post by thanking so many for highlighting Phinas…A true master who’s musical life was far too brief.

  26. Dana

    Chucho Valdes and Michel Camilo are wonderful virtuosos with a wealth of repertoire behind their sound. Just giving them a shout out.

  27. Lutho

    I too think Oscar should have made the list, and honorary mention Duke and Dollar Brand

  28. Richard

    Nobody has mentioned Tete Montilou, a brilliant pianist that is even more ignored than Phineas (who I also love).

  29. As a student of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson took Art’s playing to the next level. OP should be in the top 5 (he’s #1 in my heart).
    Ahmad Jamal is better than Oscar ? Really??

  30. Robert DuPre

    They used to say of Stevie Ray Vaughn that he used to beat that poor Stratocaster to within an inch of it’s life, but that raw energy was what set him apart. They say too that no pianist ever wanted to do a gig with Dave Brubeck if Dave was going to play the house piano first, because by the time he was done, the poor instrument was beaten out of tune by his frenetic energy and if you then had to play it, well you get the idea! I agree with your honorable mention of him here but don’t see him in the same iconic way that many of us see Oscar Peterson.
    Being a native Rochestarian, I would love to vault Ahmad Jamal up as high as possible on this list, but honestly, Ella used to ask for Oscar! I’d shuffle the deck a bit here.

  31. I saw Petrson twice in the early 1970’s and loved his playing, but not even Oscar had the technique of Tatum. His records still leave me breathless after all this time. There will never be another.

  32. ADB

    It’s a fun parlor game, and every fan will bring to bear on this question a unique listening experience, sense of jazz history, and taste. I like the list, and it’s hard to argue with Tatum at #1, although even that’s not completely inevitable. I agree with putting Evans and Powell in the top five, as both were crucial influences on the development of jazz piano and among the very greatest and most creative player-composers. Hancock I’d rank lower because his style is more synthetic and less groundbreaking, and he has also gone through periods in which he drifted away from both the acoustic piano and even jazz. But when he’s doing it, he’s definitely among the best. Monk is a tough case, in that he was a unique stylist and a great composer but far more limited in terms of technique and touch than other great jazz pianists. Personally, I wouldn’t have either Hancock or Monk in my top ten, although I know many would disagree. I’d retain Tyner and Jamal in the top ten and would promote Peterson to the top five and Garner to the top ten.

    A number of people mention Phineas Newborn. In terms of technique he’s way up there, but in terms of influence and recorded legacy, he’s pretty minor. I agree with the list and wouldn’t put him in the top twenty. (A somewhat similar and even less well-known case is the great French pianist Bernard Peiffer, whose playing floored even Peterson.)

    The one big miss, for me, on this list is Earl Hines, who was known as “Fatha” for good reasons. His influence is incalculable, and his acrobatic technique was among the most jaw-dropping ever. He was also one of the most creative of all improvisers and could vary his touch from feather-light beauty (just listen to his contributions to the immortal “West End Blues”) to more densely percussive than Bartok, Prokofiev, and Monk put together. And his sense of time and the way he suspended it remain unique. He’s instantly recognizable also, and his recorded legacy is astonishing, including his late “comeback” period, which produced so many great solo albums. For me, he rounds out the top five along with (in chronological order) Tatum, Powell, Peterson, and Evans.

    I also agree with the person who mentioned John Lewis, a great minimalist stylist and one of the most logical and consistently satisfying of improvisers, in part because he thought like the superb composer he was. That’s nine for a top ten, and I’ll round my own list off with one of the most underrated and beautiful players of them all, Hank Jones. Lewis and Jones, like Evans, epitomize both taste and beauty.

    I agree, too, that Brubeck is often underrated. His “vertical” approach, with dense chords and complex rhythms and use of polytonality, derived from his teacher Milhaud, were unique, and like Hines, his attack varied greatly and employed the full expressive resources of the instrument, from the lyrical to the percussive. Like Garner and Monk, he really stands outside the main developments as a great individualist.

    Oh, and one other great jazz pianist who often gets forgotten in these discussions, in part because he was equally great as a classical pianist and conductor and left jazz behind for about two decades but eventually returned to the fold: Andre Previn. He possesses immense technique and taste and has a swing-bop style all his own. His jazz discography, early and late, is a good bit larger than many imagine and is very rewarding to explore, including even the wonderful recordings he made when he was about 16!

    I agree that Mehldau is the one to keep your eye on now, but Fred Hersch and Frank Kimbrough shouldn’t be underestimated, and others will make cases for the more conservative Bill Charlap and the more radical Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer, not to mention others.

  33. allandburns

    Here’s another list of the top 30 from radio station WAER, just for purposes of comparison:

    It has OP at #1.

  34. J.Will

    I would put Bud at the top of my list, speaking as a somewhat novice (10 years) listener. The combination of innovation, speed, unearthed influence and legacy, storied ability to outplay anyone, even Art, even the other players in his set all add up to him being the best. IMHO.

    • J.Will

      Let me not forget…Personality 😉

    • John

      Here’s something about Art and Bud from Wiki.

      Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum’s “left hand was the equal of his right.” [43] When Powell was opening for Tatum at Birdland around 1950, the end of an era when musicians engaged in overt competition and so-called cutting sessions,[44] Powell reportedly said to Tatum, “Man, I’m going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you’re ready.” Tatum laughed and replied, “Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I’ll do with my left.” Powell never took up the challenge.[

  35. Emery Yawn

    About relative importance: I remember that Ramsey Lewis was the first jazz pianist whose name I even knew and whose albums I purchased. He was, as far as I know, the first pianist to change the jazz idiom profoundly. Back in the late 60s, I was listening to mostly R’n’B. Ramsey, for whatever reason, decided to change from swing music to explore a fusion of jazz with music that younger persons were listening to and purchasing. I remember reading that many critics and jazz artists were furious at him for doing this. But I think that jazz would have little relevance in the modern world if it was not for him and others like Hancock. His influence was revolutionary. Once exposed to Jazz, I began to listen to everybody. I feel that volumes of new listeners were pulled in to listen to Jazz by this popular artist and others who began to fuse all sorts of music with Jazz. In tribute to and Ramsey and Herbie, I named my Pandora station “RamCock” radio.

    • Gary manning

      Excellent point about Ramsey, hugely influential to bring nondiscordant jazz to the masses , especially when he teamed up with Earth Wind & Fire. Thanks for saying it better than I ever could. Very similar to Ramsey these days, but with a little more blues influence is Gene Harris – subtle and powerful, just plays so tastefully – like the latter Jay McShann.

  36. It’s difficult to pick ten pianists from such a large number of great players. As a pianist myself, one criteria I clearly would NOT use is popularity and amount of record/CD sales. After all, most great artists died broke (e.g. Van Gogh) or in scandal (Debussey). I think the Maybeck series in the 90s was a great venue for hearing great pianists “unplugged.” In any event, my three favorite for creative brilliance who are not on this list are Richie Beirach, Uri Caine, and John Taylor. Each is a great composer, accompanist, and inspirational player, and each is totally unique. Taylor is probably one of the best European jazz pianists with the exception of Michel Petrucianni.

    • Brubeck and Basie were generally regarded as having limited technique Peterson techically brilliant but a Tatum imitator. I would base a list on those combining technical brilliance with a unique style and, most important, play with passion so that Garner, Petrucciani and Jarrett would head my list.
      with passion

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  38. R. A. Sano

    Of course Art Tatum is and likely will always be number one! After Tatum my list would include Bernard Peiffer, George Shearing, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Peter Nero, Bill Evans and Fats Waller.

  39. JazzLunatique

    The Bayou Maharajah, the Black Chopin, The Black Liberace, Lil Booker himself – James Booker!!! He could play circles, squares, trapezoids, and 4th dimensional space around any of these fine piano players.

  40. jim Valko

    Great Top ten list.I agree with every one.

  41. Ron Wilson

    Go see Fred Hersch — Oscar was my favorite growing up, but listen to him for a few hours and you hear those same licks over and over…. Bill Evans is the clear master of all in bop — no one could manage the inner voices until….
    Fred Hersch — amazing — listen to his solo piano last night at the Vanguard and then the trio there. First I have heard that took Evans to the next level.
    Agree on Tatum though — dazzling technique and where does he repeat himself. Side note, what if Garner had formal training, study transcriptions of his and you see where he was trying to go, just didn’t have the technique.
    And lastly, Dick Hyman, his solo work is astounding, he is a mimic, but the best mimic ever.

    • Cubop 54

      Bill…Evans…the clear master of ALL in BOP?? How can this conclusion be possible? I’m not sure about Fred Hersch yet but Bud Powell could easily own Bill Evans in terms of technique and just about anything except maybe harmony. I’m not even a Powell fan but Evans rarely recorded in bebop settings anyway (particularly at fast tempos). Oscar is the master of just about all bop because he is like a modernized Art Tatum but more versatile, yes a bit less whimsical yet more of a team player. By the way, as someone said earlier, any master has their bag of stock tricks-all the way from James P to at least McCoy T. I very much agree with you regarding Garner and Hyman though.

  42. Steven Brown

    George Shearing

  43. Cubop 54

    Bud could outplay Art?? I have a gut feeling that Art could outplay anybody jazz or classical. The insightful and informative feedback here is remarkable by the way. I feel compelled to give my top ten! Art Tatum ……….. , Oscar Peterson, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines. (Just outside: Erroll Garner, Billy Taylor, Donald Lambert) (Close behind: Monty Alexander, Duke Ellington, Hank Jones, Dick Hyman, Duke Jordan)

  44. John Tapscott

    Interesting list and reading (and I enjoy your playing too, Bill) .
    I agree with those who say Oscar Peterson should be in the top ten.
    Though not the most consistent player, I think Bud Powell at his peak was the greatest pianist jazz has ever known.

    • John, I am pretty much in agreement with you. Oscar over time has become so influential for his blues playing, trio concept, and sheer excellence. I hearby make it a top 11 and put him in there tied with Ahmad!!!

  45. hiromi is the best pianist on the planet. let’s redo the list with her #1 🙂

  46. The everlasting beauty and artistry was manifest in playing and compositions of George Shearing, especially in the George Shearing Quintet featuring Shearing at the piano, Marjorie Hyams on the vibraharp, guitarist Chuck Wayne, drummer Denzil D. Best and base fiddle player John O. Levy. Dig it forever man!


    Thanks for this list. IMHO McCoy Tyner, influential as a sideman as he is should be pulled from the top 10 and Brad Melhdau should be put in OR Jelly Roll Morton. What solo did MT do, to light the world on fire… (it’s the trane making you ears pop). Compare to how many BM solos/pieces are memorable or listen to the Library of Congress Jelly Roll recordings. seesh.

  48. Amendment: For sheer enjoyment of jazz piano, Oscar Peterson is tops and must be in the top ten. Perhaps not the best virtuoso, perhaps not the best innovator, but the best, by far, for popularizing jazz piano and jazz as a whole!

  49. John

    Look up Bobby Enriquez… He will change your outlook on what it is to play the piano

  50. Fairly pointless trying to create an order of merit based on “greatness”
    when there are hundreds of wonderful jazz pianists and commercial success is often influenced by good luck and being in the right place at the right time. What we each regard as greatness is an entirely subjective judgment influenced by personal taste rather than a professional critical view of the musician’s technical skills and passionate input.
    e.g. I would rather listen to Eliane Elias play “My Foolish Heart” than
    Bill Evans but would never propose she is the “greater” or a “less great” pianist.

  51. Carrie Webb

    Can someone tell me why Art Tatum is so revered when he constantly interrupts himself with those blasted arpeggios? Granted, he was a wizard, but just when he’d get a nice groove going and the listener is really enjoying the melody, bam! Here comes another dazzling run up and down the scale! It’s so distracting!! It seems to me that he was more interested in showing off than actually playing something beautiful or swinging. Also, as for Oscar Peterson playing clichés, I’ve noticed more of that from Monk than Oscar. True, Monk was quoting himself, but he was still repetitive. All of these guys were wonderful pianists, though — I’m just pointing these things out.

    • Cubop 54

      Haha I love your explanatory reaction to Tatum because I thought the same thing upon first hearing him play Gershwin’s ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’. I had been used to only hearing George’s own melodically-reserved recording of the tune so when I listened to Art for the first time I thought it was abstract, dissonant and crazy. I had the exact feelings you described. The interesting part is that over time, after developing musically and getting more into Jazz chronologically, I grew to appreciate Art Tatum’s style and then by the time I got into bebop, I grew to understand his style. Now, after a comprehensive knowledge of Jazz Piano evolution, I love him above all others and realize he is not that abstract at all. (Cecil Taylor is….yeah) Art took stride piano to the furthest possibilities imaginable after astoundingly-dethroning James P. Johnson in 1933. So to the average listener, Art Tatum will most likely come across overwhelmingly.

  52. Jazz is a protean, ever-evolving genre. That’s what makes it great–it’s a living conversation. There are many kinds of jazz greatness. Greatness is greatness, and you know what it is the instant you hear it.

  53. John

    I commend you for taking a stab at forming this list. You can’t please everyone. No doubt your list hits dead center based on the parameters you started with. My lone exception has been mentioned by many. OP not being in the top ten is hard for me to compute. Support for this would be how many of the “next generation” of players who mention him as a dominant influence in their playing. I counted six names on your top ten that I’d bump out to put OP in without any reservation at all.
    Take my comments as support, not criticism. Isn’t it great that we all don’t see eye to eye on this? What fun and variety would it be if there weren’t different tastes and opinions?
    press on.

    • Cubop 54

      Well said. From my encounters, Bill Evans seems to be everyone’s favorite or most revered but its nice to hear that Oscar’s influence endures.

  54. Guilherme

    What about Count Basie ?

  55. hard choice

    Wynton Kelly, Kenny Barron pure classic

  56. Taylor

    Listen to Isfar Sarabski. He is 24 years old.

  57. Jack

    Shouldn’t Dave McKenna be listed?

  58. Ezekiel Okorie

    I love your rating. Bravo! But do you think Art Tartum was better than Earl Hines in terms of technicality. Pls reply me. Thanks.

    • I feel Art was technically the most dazzling pianist in the history of jazz. But Earl is underrated, and really an important innovator. Certainly he would get in my top 20.

      • ADB

        Hines himself once said of Tatum, “I never did try to have a jam session with him, because I knew exactly what this man could do. There are many who are sorry that they did.”

        Technically, Tatum may have been in a league of his own, but Hines was one of the very few who wasn’t far behind and was also, I’d think, the single most influential pianist in the history of jazz. Everyone who follows after Hines was either influenced directly or indirectly (through Tatum, Wilson, Cole, Billy Kyle, etc., all of whom were directly influenced by Hines) by him. In my mind, the greatest single recording Hines made was the aptly named “Tour de Force” LP for Black Lion in November 1972: essential listening.

  59. m2smoe

    Disappointing to not see Phineas Newborn Jr in the list, he really deserves to be in there. I have to agree otherwise, this is very close to my personal list as well. Art Tatum as #1 is a given, nobody could or can touch him, Powell included. I suggest buying the 2 CD album “20th Century Piano Genius” if you doubt this, which are private recordings of Tatum where he lets his creativity run free. Nothing compares.

  60. Agree with most except Oscar should be in there, but for No 1 it has to be Bill Evans – technique, sensitivity, nuance – listen to him as accompanist and he is up there with classical accompanists of the order of Gerald Moore and Benjamin Britten.

  61. Earl “Fatha” Hines? He need to be in top 10. He was one of the few to really shape the jazz.

    • ADB

      Some quotes on Earl Hines:

      “He’s still my Number One Jazz Pianist!”–Teddy Wilson

      “When you talk about greatness, you talk about Art Tatum and Earl Hines.”–Erroll Garner

      “He changed the style of the piano. You can find the roots of Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, all the guys who came after that. If it hadn’t been for Earl Hines blazing the path for the next generation to come, it’s no telling where or how they would be playing now. There were individual variations but the style of … the modern piano came from Earl Hines.”–Dizzy Gillespie

      “One of the two supreme pianists of our time.”–Gunther Schuller

      “That’s some piano player.”–Maurice Ravel

  62. John simpson

    Definitely a great and accurate list. There are also many not so famous but still great pianists out there that are worth mentioning and many have been in these posts. My 2 cents’ worth would be Chris Anderson (mentor to Herbie) and another Chris Anderson protege, Billy Wallace. In the current crop, a personal favorite is Ray Brown’s last pianist, Larry Fuller (with John Pizzarelli until recently). Not many have had a full-page article written about them in the NY Times.

  63. Its a nice collection thanks for sharing this a top 10 jazz pianists but not all time..
    Nice blog.

  64. Erwin Stuckey

    Great list Bill. You Still continue to inspire me ever since your indirect mentoring/artistic encouragement during the Greenwich Tavern days in the late 80’s in Cincy. Keep up the great work! Erwin

  65. You have made some decent points there. I looked on the net for more info about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.

  66. Ricardo da Mata

    Try again, this list makes no sense…

  67. bob butta

    bill I agree with much ofthis..of course..i did a piano duo with one pianist that doesNOT deserve special mention….(he’s ok)…but doesNOT belong on this list bill….but ok…I wont say here..but when I see u..ill tell you about ur mistake…but 90 plus % ur on target my brother…

  68. John C. Bee

    Not only was Teddy Wilson a great pianist,he made a great social contribution in that during the Jim Crow days, he was the first Black musician to play with a top white orchestra, Benny Goodman.

    John C. Bee

  69. To not have Oscar Peterson in the top 10 confuses me and makes me scratch my head. Another fellow that Keith Jarret claims is the best jazz Piano player and I agree is John Coats jr,

    • Mike, I think Oscar could be in my top ten… as I said, I struggled leaving him out. I think time has showed his endurance and staying power.
      I’m a big fan of John Coates, Jr, but not in my top 10. Did Keith say he was “the best jazz piano player”? Hmm.

  70. bazz

    Erroll garner tops my list

  71. I love jazz piano esp trio and Nat Cole is somewhat forgotten as practically the one who pioneered the trio. I recently downloaded some of his group sans vocal and he blew me away. This, I know is blasphemy but Tatum overpowered virtually all technique wise. However, sometimes I heard Oscar not surpass but equal him when playing “above his head” Maybe it was adrenaline. The thing that Oscar did better than Tatum was swing like a mother. Tatum didn’t swing albeit he was so fast that any rhythm section would be lost. There is one I’m shocked no one has mentioned because he has prodigious technique and is harmonically brilliant. Never seems to fall back on stock phrases. Martial Solal. He belongs with the list. As far as that inexplicable “jazz feel” whoever mentioned Hampton Hawes was spot on. I’m reading a biography of Paul Desmond and he insists the critics always had it backwards giving him much credit. He said until his dying day that no one, no exceptions was so inspirational as Brubeck. He couldd play very gently and with great sensitivity. And talk about far out. Cecil Taylor beat the hell outta the piano and got praise, Brubeck never banged as hard as Taylor and got pit down. Also played things that were shocking before Taylor did. Play Jazz at Oberlin and listen to Brubeck on These Foolish things. Also check out the Jazz Goes to Junior College. There’s a bonus track of Brubeck recorded before that album, I’ve Got a New Baby, and there is no pounding but fleet fingered linear technique. You can’t believe it’s him. Brubeck was once asked about the pounding he took from critics about his bombastic style and he said, “if I sound bombastic it’s because I want to sound bombastic.” I know I’m going out of my way to defend him yet I’m over 70 and if you’ll do some research, he was chosen best pianist in both Metronome and Down Beat critics poll early on. He starting taking a real beating when he hit the cover of Time magazine and then started making money because he went from Fantasy to Columbia and about his 4th album for them was Time Out (not in my top five of even Brubeck). By the way, Charlie Parker admired him and that’s a fair compliment. The critics beat up on Jamal all the time also. Neither J nor B could help it if they were popular. Phineas, I listen to a lot. He can play cliches and he so brilliant I don’t care. Thanks to Mudbone for mentioning Jessica Williams. There are so many. I can’t do better than a top 50 so job well done. Tyner not a big fav of mine but deserves high rating. Oh, besides G. Shearing, another Brit that at least deserves mention is Marian McPartland(Brubeck’s favorite living pianist while both living. Junko Onishi, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Cedar, Freddie Redd, Barry Harris, Russ Freeman, Denny Zeitlin, Clare Fischer, Roger Kellaway and 100 more could be included if honorable mention expanded. It’s a matter of taste. Someone mentioned Jelly Roll. What a character. Listen to the entire Library of Congress recordings. They are educational and even shocking. You will learn as much about life in his time as music. Sorry about long post but it’s my first. I just discovered the site. One last thing about Newborn. He died so broke and that’s heartbreaking. Check out Sometime’s I’m Happy on Look Out! Phineas is Back. Medium tempo but virtuall entire solos consists of octave unison lines. Don’t know if any of you remember Oscar quit doing that after Phineas arrived on the scene apparently because he didn’t want their styles confused. I think maybe Oscar was a bit intimidated. I read for years about vague health problems Phineas had but could find no specifics on it. I think alcoholism and possibly bipolar disorder.

    • ADB

      Glad you mentioned Martial Solal and Barry Harris, two fantastic but generally underrated players. (Looks like no one had mentioned them previously.)

    • Cubop 54

      Listen to Art Tatum Group Masterpieces under Norman Granz. There are 8 volumes. My humble yet informed and honest recommendation would be to start with volume 7. Listen to Art play with, yes, Buddy DeFranco backed by Red Callender on Bass and Bill Douglas on Drums. Fantastic album. This should settle the issue on Art playing in group settings.

      • Those are great recordings, and like you, I’d recommend the Buddy DeFranco album first. I’m also quite partial to some of the Benny Carter recordings. Tatum was obviously an extremely intimidating presence in a small group, and not many could keep up with (or work around) him effectively, but those recordings show that some of the very greatest players in jazz history could do it well. (DeFranco should get a lot more credit than he does, but the clarinet had fallen out of favor!)

      • ADB

        Quick addendum: DeFranco passed away on 24 December 2014. The great clarinetist also made important recordings with some other major jazz pianists, including Oscar Peterson, Kenny Drew, and Sonny Clark.

      • John

        Buddy made a duet CD with Dave McKenna. One of their best.

    • Cubop 54

      True, allandburns, Art was certainly an intimidating accompanist to play with but here’s what I want to know: Why did Norman Granz never get Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Charlie Parker, Sonny Criss, Sonny Stitt, Don Byas, you know, other brilliant boppin improvisers who could shred to record with Art?? If Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge could keep up with him then surely these younger virtuosos could!

      • The group sessions were recorded between ’54 and ’56. Parker died in ’55 and was in generally bad shape during those final years. I can’t speak offhand for the rest, but let’s give Granz full credit both for recording so much of Tatum in his final years and for later bringing Peterson together with so many giants, including a spectacular ’74 session with Gillespie for Pablo.

    • Cubop 54

      Yeah I don’t mean to criticize Norman because he undoubtedly opened many doors and made so much possible for many of the most talented musicians in Jazz for decades as well as protected them from much harsh prejudice. And you’re right about his extensive projects with Tatum and Parker’s early death which is why I suggested age-appropriate successors like Sonny Criss and Sonny Stitt (A young Cannonball Adderley could have been a possibility as well). By the way, those 5 Oscar Peterson duo albums with great trumpeters are so sweet! The one with Dizzy is of course marvelous, the one with Clark is incredible and so rewarding, the one with Faddis is awesome. I’m not too sure about the one with Harry Sweets yet but the album with Roy is my favorite because it showcases Roy’s wonderful style and speed (he was like 64 and could still tear it up and pound out those vibrato high notes) over some tasteful organ playing from Oscar!

      • John

        The Jazz world owes Norman Granz an enormous debt. The JATP is but one. Art Tatum’s solo series toward the end of his life with 7 CD’s of his repertoire. It is not just the facility that he was still able to play, but his memory and encyclopedic repertoire! WE are talking about 8 HOURS of music! How many musicians can you think of that have over 150 songs/pieces at their fingertips? Lastly what his great set featuring Fred Astaire and members of the JATP? I have the old LP set and it is superb! BTW, the old LP set sounds better than the re-mastered CD set. What the younger set forgets is that Fred first sang more sheer numbers of the Great American Songbook than any singer in stage history, besides creating most of those roles! As an aside how about keeping up with Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon when he was in his mid-50’s!

    • Cubop 54

      Yes, you’re also right about the clarinet’s decline, and yeah, DeFranco should get WAY more credit in general. One of my fantasy albums would be a quintet of Tatum with Clark Terry, DeFranco, Red Callender, and Louis Bellson playing some Latin-tinged material as well as bopping swing!

  72. I truly appreciate this blog.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

  73. ADB

    Just for fun, you might want to vote for the greatest jazz pianists on You can vote each player up or down, according to your tastes and perceptions. It looks like some 30 or so people have contributed opinions so far. As of now, the top 20 looks like this:

    01 Oscar Peterson
    02 Art Tatum
    03 Bill Evans
    04 Duke Ellington
    05 Thelonious Monk
    06 Bud Powell
    07 Dave Brubeck
    08 Count Basie
    09 Chick Corea
    10 Herbie Hancock
    11 Fats Waller
    12 McCoy Tyner
    13 Earl Hines
    14 Keith Jarrett
    15 Ahmad Jamal
    16 Erroll Garner
    17 Wynton Kelly
    18 George Shearing
    19 Horace Silver
    20 Tommy Flanagan

    There are a total of 60 pianists listed so far, and you can add more if you like.

    Not a bad list … but my feeling is it could be improved in some respects. Vote away.

  74. martinawild

    Bill, I am glad I signed up, as the debate you have fostered by the criteria you set for your top 10 has been very informative for me. I knew most of the top 10 to a greater or lesser extent. But comments have made me go back and listen again to those lesser known artists and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. The other benefit has been the suggestions that would never get into the top 10 but have merits, and many of which I have not heard of, so enjoyed checking them out such as Phineas Newborn (listening to Rocket 88 as I write then its World of Piano on the playlist)

    And is there any point in a top ten most popular/favourite pianists? there are plenty of such lists out there, but what is there to debate?

    10 best classical pianists that have played jazz might be a better debate! In no order:

    Friedrich Gulda
    Jacques Loussier
    Dan Tepfer
    David Rees Williams
    Keith Jarrett
    Andre Previn
    Steven Mayer (that man Tatum again!)
    Rudy and Alperin
    L v Beethoven (the evidence is all there in his written music that he would have been the greatest jazz pianist of all time)
    JS Bach (the end of Contrapunctus 14 of the Art of the Fugue illustrates what a musical mind he had, it cuts off in mid flow, so he was dictating all the voices at the same time to the scribe)

    Keep on stirring up debate please!


  75. Cubop 54

    How is James P. Johnson not in the top 10? He was the original piano virtuoso in Jazz (until being dethroned by Art Tatum cir. ’33), a huge contributing pioneer, and his sophisticated style matured wonderfully by the early 40’s. Many of these “modern” cats you have here can play more advanced stuff with their right hands but their left hands are probably only half as capable (Bud Powell). In this regard, Oscar Peterson should obviously be in there as well but many have already brought him up and rightfully so. Your list is thoughtful and I of course agree on Tatum but what about the O.G. James P??

  76. John

    For any of the younger set, I think this quote about Art says it all, especially coming from a master of Jazz Piano like Fats Waller.
    Numerous stories exist about other musicians’ respect for Tatum. Perhaps the most famous is the story about the time Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, and Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.”[57] Fats Waller’s son confirmed the statement.[58]

    I don’t think that any more needs to be said.

  77. martinawild

    Comment awaiting moderation!!!!!???? Wow, I did not realise that my comment that LvB would have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, (if he had lived in jazz times) would be so contentious! Are we about to see a revision when you have done a bit of listening outside the box? Listen to the Appassionata for a bit of decent left and right hand playing, composition, melody, full on variation (called improvisation today) that any jazz pianist that can reset their mindset to the late 18th early 19th century would die for.

    As for my list of the top 10 classical jazzers, yes I admit I deliberately left off Joe Zawinul, freidrich Gulda’s classical protege and latterly jazz companion (not forgetting Gulda’s other companion, Chick Corea).

    As for the decline of the clarinet, listen to Klaus Gesing (sop sax and bass clarinet) on Norma Winstone’s (with Glauco Venier piano) and Anouar Brahem’s albums.

    I love the debate but honestly, musically, some of you need to get out a bit more.

  78. Cubop 54

    I feel like a top-ten list for jazz pianists, or any instrument, should be based in two elements: influence/innovative importance and relative technical proficiency. Not popularity. Critical acclaim, notoriety, and especially record sales have a strong sway on the public’s perception or opinion of a given artist, but often do not accurately portray the artist’s talent or abilities. A few legends in jazz encompassed each of these elements such as Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald, but any top-ten list representative of quality and greatness should not be based in popularity. It’s unfair to the “unpopular” and more overlooked giants like Don Byas, Roy Eldridge, or in this case, Earl Hines or James P Johnson.

  79. Simon Buck

    As an amateur Pianist who can play some blues and fake some Oscar Peterson type improvisations, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the comments above. A great list Bill – thanks, and I certainly won’t criticise it or anybody elses view and/or opinions. All the musicians being discussed here are great. I will mention a few Jazz Pianists that have influenced my own playing (limited that it is), and these have mainly been the ones that I love listening to on CD and am still buying to this day.
    1. Oscar Peterson – for his drive and “will to swing”, technique and at heart his virtuoso blues playing. “The Trio” with Joe Pass and NHOP is probably my favorite recording. Saw him live twice.
    2. Keith Jarrett – despite his prickly and somewhat pretentious nature (which I witnessed first hand at a RFH London in a solo concert) his playing of Jazz Piano Trio, solo improvised, classical recordings etc etc is without comparison. Saw him play solo and trio.
    3. Michel Petrucianni – perhaps the greatest European Jazz Pianist ever, though somebody else mentioned Tete Montelou, who I also rate very highly. A friend of mine gave me a copy of the Piano/Organ duet album he made and I’ve been buying his recordings ever since. At one point about 10 years ago I was rehearsing with a Vibes and bass player and found myself playing in his style. I’d listened to so much of his stuff in the previous few months that it was just coming out through my fingers – quite badly I’m sure. Sadly I never saw him live.

    Other choices:
    I certainly concur with Bill’s choice of Bill Evans, and of late I’ve been buying a lot of Chick Corea. Duke Ellington is vastly underrated in my opinion. My Dad loved Count Basie and Errol Garner and I’d nominate them for sentimental reasons.

    Long may the posts continue!

  80. Ralph West

    This kind of list inevitably has some subjectivity. I agree with Tatum as the Sistine Chapel of jazz piano. Just a tiny bit below him, I’d place Peterson. Oscar was amazingly protean and could range from incredible solos (“Just a Gigolo”) to some of the best trio work you could ever hope to hear. Tatum was so absorbed in his own prowess that he never really worked in a functioning trio; rather, he is inevitably “talking over” all his other players. Off to the side, I’d place the great Fats Waller — no funky chords, no free runs as in Tatum but very tight stride playing and capable of a lilt and swing like none other. Down just a tad, I’d place Teddy Wilson and Tommy Flanagan — both graceful and lovely. Hank Jones was also very good and regularly overlooked. Erroll Garner on almost the same level as Wilson and Flanagan. David McKenna was quite interesting, though his touch tended to be that of a stevedore. Jarrett, Corea, Powell, Hancock, Brubeck, Jamall — no, not in the same league.

  81. Tom Murphy

    Saw a keyboardist (organ) at the Pioneer Square location in Seattle of Jazz Alley. I was trying to remember his name. Black dude, not overweight, monster player. Was talking to him backstage telling him I was a founding member of the Robert Cray Band (drummer).I played for years with Albert Collins, now working with Moby Grape’s guitarist Jerry Miller, blah, blah. He took the wind out of my sails by telling me he wasn’t interested in who I’ve worked with, where I’ve been, ect. He just wanted to know me as a friend right now and here. I didn’t know what to say after that! Got any ideas who I was talking to?

  82. Dr.Opinion

    Hey Bill, I haven’t given much thought to this, and although one could argue this one or that one should be in, your top ten list seems to be spot on!

  83. Doug

    What about John Costa? He was certainly one of the greats, but not even on your radar? For those of you not familiar with John Costa, he was the musical director and pianist for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. A monster of a player!

  84. Simon Buck

    I posted an opinion of my favourite Jazz Pianists here on 25th May 2015, and it has been removed, maybe not purposely, but its certainly no longer present. Perhaps this great blog has come to an end, which would be a shame.

    Any ideas Bill?



  85. Randy Weston to me is one of the all-time greats. And not only as a pianist. He composed many wonderful songs too.
    I wrote about Thelonious Monk recently in my blog. Here’s the link:

    • You all have given me a lot to think about. In particular, Earl Hines needs to be dealt with… an amazing talent. Phineas, of course, Dave McKenna, Randy Weston, Kenny Barron, James P, Michel Petrucianni, so many others. No top ten list will do the trick. Let me see what I can come up with to inspire further discussion. I’ve really enjoyed reading all your posts.
      Happy Holidays to all of you!

  86. Simon Buck

    Thanks Bill – its back now!

  87. Herb K the DJ

    Erroll Garner had the most distinctive sound. Nobody else sounded like him.He could improvise but still stay with the melody plus throw in bits of other songs.

  88. Lawrence Brazier

    Red Garland? Try YouTube: Ahmad Jamal Darn that Dream

  89. Lawrence Brazier

    YouTube Martial Solal Trio – The Last Time I Saw Paris / Body & Soul / Begin the Beguine
    I KNEW there was one missing. They even called him the Tatum of France.
    Somebody mentioned Stefano Bollani – right on!

  90. Paul Mc

    What about Red Garland? Lovely melodic and harmonic touch. Surprised no one has mentioned him.

  91. Ade

    As I do not have nearly as much knowledge as you on this subject, gotta ask about thoughts on Lennie Tristano? He’s only in 1 comment too so far….

  92. JFSC33

    Great list. WK is top ten for me. But the big name often overlooked is Sonny Clark – unmatched feel. Sonny is a “musician’s musician” – he would rank higher if this were polled from a sample only consisting of jazz pianists.

  93. Paul

    Lots of early jazz pianists here but of modern pianists love Kenny Barron and Mulgrew (albeit old school)Bobo Stenson Giovanni
    Guidi andEnrico Piereanunzi

  94. Carolann Nicolace Silva

    Why isn’t Alfred Nicolace on your list? He joined Charlie Spivak and the band at 17 and was regarded as the best in New England. When he went to Las Vegas in the sixties,greats like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra called him the best thing they had ever heard.He was auditioning for Nat King’s band the weekend Nat died.

  95. Better than the majority of pianists on your list: Johnny Costa, who makes some of your top-10 pianists sound like amateurs. And there is Gene Harris. I remember the night long ago when you were playing superbly at Otter Crest. Gene tapped you on the shoulder, you exited the stage, and Harris played “Cute” with a trio–one of the greatest live performances I have ever seen.

    • Simon Buck

      “makes some of your top-10 pianists sound like amateurs”.
      I think that’s unfair Hugh. Johnny Costa was a great player, blessed with fabulous technique, but technique isn’t everything. Bill’s list takes into account the influence of the player and their overall contribution to Jazz Piano (not to mention their writing skills).

  96. Paul N Alsing

    I have viewed several dozen “best jazz pianist” lists and have never seen Dorothy Donegan mentioned even once. This was an amazing musician who could play anything and emulate the style of any other pianist you might care to name. Do yourself a favor and check her out on YouTube.

    • I don’t agree with your first sentence, but will give Johnny Costa another listen. At times, I have heard Gene Harris and said, there’s nothing better. But I have thought that about many other pianists, including Monty Alexander.

    • Dorothy is great, but I don’t rank her in the top 10. Opinion, and emotional connections get in the way here. I’d have to rank Shirley Horn above Dorothy for many reasons….economy, style, etc

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