Thursday, June 28, 2018


Anna Mae Winburn (R) led the integrated, all-women International Sweethearts
of Rhythm—and other incarnations of the same band—for nearly twenty years.  

Son House fretted his guitar with metal. He played “Death Letter Blues” between the frequencies of urgency and painfulness, an alarming sorrow that hadn’t yet been communicated. He thumped the earth with a perfect percussive heel. His prophetic approach would influence others on this list, notably Robert Johnson. We classify Son House as a Prophet and Robert Johnson as a Technician but we don’t establish the importance of Prophets above the importance of Technicians. That distinction, Dear Reader, we leave up to you.

The classical impulses of Dave Brubeck may inform some of our decision-making when choosing him to appear within this framework, yet his ability to conquer intricate time signatures, the “ebonies and ivories” of 5/4 time, for example, ultimately places him among the Technicians. We suppose that Technicians can sound prophetic, perhaps owing to the great relationships they had with their instruments, the nonpareil mastery. “Ella Fitzgerald,” you may remark, “a Technician?” Oh yes. The voice.

The addition of Bill Evans helped soften the sound of the Miles Davis sextet, and   
steer the group towards Kind of Blue, one of the greatest albums in music history.

Imagine Billie Holiday standing in the spotlight, singing the prayerful “Strange Fruit” while every other sound vanished, or Lester (“Prez”) Young first equating “bread” with money and “ivey divey” with cool, all the while cocking his “baby doll” (his saxophone) to the side, underneath his porkpie hat. The Poets forged new language, true, and in truth, they wobbled audiences with their beauty and outrage, with the emotional content of their assertions and their mannerisms. Bud Powell, searching for balance, perishing from tuberculosis. . . .

If you care, and you will, the Poet Bill Evans and the Prophet John Coltrane, early in their careers, joined Miles Davis (plus others) to create Kind of Blue, one of the greatest achievements (of any kind) in world history. Who presides over personnel, and the many intervals of creativity, and the virtuosity of their own abilities but the Emperors or Empresses? Ellington hiring Strayhorn, Ellington hiring Hodges, Ellington playing with Louis, Ellington playing with Trane, Ellington in Europe, Ellington at Newport; Duke Ellington led an Empire for 50 years.

Emperors & Empresses 

Owing to his virtuosity as a trumpeter, band-leading, and gravel-sweet singing, 
nobody has had a greater influence on American music than Louis Armstrong. 

1. Louis Armstrong
2. Duke Ellington
3. Miles Davis
4. Bessie Smith
5. Anna Mae Winburn
            6. Sun Ra


Known for his bent horn, raspy singing, and puffy cheeks, Dizzy Gillespie helped to  
pioneer bebop and toured the world as a Jazz Ambassador for the State Department. 

1. John Coltrane
2. Charlie Parker
3. Thelonious Monk
4. Son House
5. Charley Patton
6. Dizzy Gillespie
7. Art Tatum
8. Sidney Bechet
9. Ornette Coleman
            10. Rev. Gary Davis

Art Pepper’s 1979 appearances at the Village Vanguard presented the ultimate tone-poems    
that informed his life as a heroin addict, San Quentin prisoner, and magnificent saxophonist. 

1. Nina Simone
2. Billie Holiday
3. Lester Young
4. Bill Evans
5. Mississippi John Hurt
6. Jelly Roll Morton
7. Lead Belly
8. Bud Powell
9. Art Pepper
            10. Buddy Bolden* (*See comments, below)


Lightnin’ Hopkins bangs away at “Had a Gal Called Sal” (1954).

1. Count Basie
2. Coleman Hawkins
3. Sonny Rollins
4. Lightnin’ Hopkins
5. Eric Dolphy
6. Clifford Brown
7. Ella Fitzgerald
8. Robert Johnson
9. Charles Mingus
            10. Dave Brubeck 

Also considered: Art Blakey (E), Benny Goodman (E), Lionel Hampton (E), King Oliver (E), Albert Ayler (Pr), Anthony Braxton (Pr), James Reese Europe (Pr), Steve Lacy (Pr), Max Roach (Pr), Pharoah Sanders (Pr), Wayne Shorter (Pr), Cecil Taylor (Pr), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Po), Ma Rainey (Po), Paul Desmond (T), John Lee Hooker (T), Wes Montgomery (T). 




*Re: Buddy Bolden, while he was rumored to have recorded on cylinder, no surviving recordings have ever been found, and yet, we include him here owing to his powerful legend, his undeniable influence, and his tragic decline.


Ted Zook said...

A fascinating read! Some may quibble with the rankings or the categories to which each of these ascending/ascended masters are assigned -- but it would be hard to quibble convincingly about Louis Armstrong's status as Emperor!

mark wallace said...

A fun game to while away the hours while we lurch towards the final showdown.


Hey Ted,

I'm sure there will be quibbling and disagreements, and that I'll learn from them, which is one reason why I propose these kinds of categories in the first place.

Some musicians deserve to be in every list, and some may be mis-classified. In the end, I tried to choose the primary category for each musician. And of course, some people -- like Eric Dolphy -- were very difficult to place.

Thanks for taking a look!



Thanks, Mark. The final showdown isn't too far off, so we might as well play some tunes, and find the biggest glasses of stouts around, and charge (*pell-mell or other form of charging) toward the far horizon! Thanks for taking a look. ---BA