Monday, February 20, 2012


The only one for whom an instrument
—the Sousaphone (a tuba)—is named.

Consider the number of unrecorded musicians—like Buddy Petit—and the number of recorded musicians—such as Bunk Johnson—and the number of bandleaders—King Oliver, for example—who were important to Louis Armstrong, a Crescent City native who would become the most exceptional figure, indisputably, in the history of American music. Through cornet and trumpet playing that established his reputation as a soloist (and established the standing of the jazz soloist in general) and his swinging, gravel-sweet voice, Satchmo would eventually influence just about every musician on this list, but calling these men and women important doesn’t mean that they were first to play their instruments or first to hold a microphone close to their mouths. It doesn’t even mean that they were greatest in their genres, or sub-genres, although many of them, posthumously and otherwise, continue to be giants. (Only a few on the list live to play.) No, these musicians excelled at absorbing rich cultural threads and transforming them into performances, recordings, and inventions that attracted the attention of other musicians, or intensive critical acclaim, or the interest of a new and durable audience; or, of course, all three. Many of the artists on this list composed groundbreaking works of their own, but the list, alas, does not contain a host of seminal American composers—Arlen, Barber, Berlin, Bernstein, Brubeck, Cage, Carmichael, Cohan, Copland, Feldman, Gershwin Bros., Glass, Hammerstein, Ives, Q. Jones, S. Joplin, Kern, Porter, Reich, Rodgers, and Strayhorn, among others—who shaped a variety of American idioms, as well as the playing, at times, of these very 25 (+5) (+1) performers. Nor does this list necessarily contain the blogger’s personal favorites, such as the soprano saxophone jazz-man, Steve Lacy, for instance, who may have been a great musician, but whose greatness may have derived from the importance (and greatness) before him, of Thelonious Monk. This gathering of artists ends circa 1970, a point by which every musician contained herein had demonstrated his or her indispensable value to American music, but leaves off, more or less, before other acts—Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, Michael Jackson, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, et al.—would push into, stagger, and re-ramify the vessels of music and musical commerce. The writer Michael Ondaatje fantasized about the psychological undoing of legendary (and unrecorded, hardly celebrated) New Orleans trumpeter, Buddy Bolden, in his novel, Coming Through Slaughter, but Bolden’s contribution may have been to inspire a very young Louis Armstrong, ‘round about nineteen ought seven, who may have been, himself, offering brassy announcements on his cornet, in the same streets, as part of a job riding atop a junk cart. Undoubtedly, there have been numerous other isolations and obscurities in the development of American music—Appalachian banjo pickers, coal mine protest songs, funeral marches, marches, fife and drum corps, and migrant jug bands are just a few that come to mind—but we should offer thanks for the collective energy that has led us toward these 25 (+5) (+1) important musicians, in A, B, C order:

(Top 25)

Louis Armstrong
James Brown
Johnny Cash
Ray Charles
Ornette Coleman
John Coltrane
Bing Crosby
Miles Davis
Fats Domino
Bob Dylan
Duke Ellington
Dizzy Gillespie
Woody Guthrie
Jimi Hendrix
Billie Holiday
Robert Johnson
Thelonious Monk
Muddy Waters
Charlie Parker
Elvis Presley
Frank Sinatra
Bessie Smith
John Philip Sousa
Velvet Underground
Hank Williams


Count Basie
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Coleman Hawkins
Sonny Rollins
Lester Young

(+ 1 Special Mention)

Roy Brown, for “Rockin’ at Midnight.” [For more on Roy Brown, and other musicians like him, please see the Jump Blues post.]