Since its origins in the early 20th century, jazz music has produced extraordinary pianists who have influenced generations of artists and genres. Very few artists are allowed to be forgotten in jazz music, and all of them are given their due credit for their contributions to the genre. Here are five such unforgettable jazz pianists who left their mark on the world of jazz.
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Thelonious Monk (1917–1982)
Monk is described as an eccentric genius who was a huge influence on the artists who birthed bebop.1 He went from being disregarded as a musician by most establishments due to his slow, unusual playing style to becoming the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine.2 All of his compositions are considered jazz standards. He experimented and explored jazz music with artists such as Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Christian, and Dizzy Gillespie, who were instrumental in the emergence of modern jazz.
Art Tatum (1909–1956)
Known for his superhuman technical piano skills, this piano virtuoso was largely self-taught and had mastered the instrument at a young age. Tatum was so skilled at playing the piano that most people who heard it thought that the music was being played by two piano players.4 His improvisational style was considered extraordinary as he would recompose songs on the spot during his live performances. The term “the Tatum,” which is used in computational music and refers to “the smallest perceptual time unit in music,” was coined by an MIT graduate student in honor of this legendary artist.
Herbie Hancock (b.1940)
At the age of 11, Hancock, a child prodigy,5 had already mastered the piano and performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.6 After making his mark on acoustic and electric jazz-rock, the jazz legend went on to find success in other genres such as R&B, bebop, jazz rock, techno, and dance, to name a few. His passion for electronics led him to major in both electrical engineering and music from Grinnell College in Iowa.7 His fascination with electronics was evident in his use of electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer in his music. He has won 14 Grammys in a career spanning five decades.
Bill Evans (1929–1980)
Evans’ style was influenced by his classical music background. It gave his jazz and bebop music a unique and deliberate style. He is best known for his work in Miles Davis’ historic jazz album Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz record of all time.8 His fusion of classical music with bebop was influenced by Bud Powell,9 and his style stood out for its slow and harmonic pace, which added an introspective feel to his music.10
Oscar Peterson (1925–2007)
This Canadian jazz pianist, born in 1925, was strongly influenced by iconic jazz musicians Art Tatum and Nat King Cole,11 but was known for his own unique style of playing the piano and was most admired for his solo techniques. His best work was produced working in trios with artists such as Ray Brown, Sam Jones, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Ed Thigpen, Louis Hayes, Joe Pass, and Herb Ellis. He has won eight Grammy Awards for his recordings and received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for music in 1999.12
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1. The Best Jazz Pianists of All Time. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://jazzfuel.com/best-jazz-pianists/
2. Throwback Thursday: Thelonious Monk’s Time Magazine Cover | North Carolina Arts Council. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.ncarts.org/comehearnc/365-days-music/throwback-thursday-thelonious-monks-time-magazine-cover
3. The demons and obsessions of jazz genius Thelonious Monk | Jazz | The Guardian. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2017/nov/06/get-inside-the-music-the-ineffable-genius-of-thelonious-monk
4. Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated : NPR. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2006/11/05/6434701/art-tatum-a-talent-never-to-be-duplicated
5. 10 Most Influential Jazz Pianists You Should Listen to | Liberty Park Music. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/best-jazz-pianists/
6. Herbie Hancock • Red Light Management. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.redlightmanagement.com/artists/herbie-hancock/
7. Herbie Hancock | National Endowment for the Arts. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.arts.gov/honors/jazz/herbie-hancock
8. Bill Evans | American musician | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bill-Evans
9. Bill Evans – The Legendary Jazz Pianist. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://jazzfuel.com/bill-evans-piano-albums/
10. Biography – Bill Evans – Jazz Pianist. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.billevans.nl/bio/
11. 18 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Piano Players. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://hellomusictheory.com/learn/famous-jazz-piano-players/
12. Oscar Peterson | Canadian musician | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oscar-Peterson