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Perhaps more than any other genre, jazz pianists are known for referencing the work of others. So, if you’re a jazz musician, you’ll want a little musical history lesson to get new ideas for your work.
Before you sit down to play some jazz piano, read below to learn more about eight impactful jazz pianists throughout history. While this is far from an exhaustive list of influential jazz pianists, it’s a great place to start. Not only will their work inspire your playing, their stories will inspire you to make an impact with your music.
Famous Jazz Pianists
Hazel Scott was a jazz pianist, singer, and actor who was known for her genius-level musical talent as well as her activism in the entertainment industry.
Born in Trinidad, Scott’s mother was a classically trained piano player and saxophonist. Whether because of genetics or because she was surrounded by music from a young age, Scott was a child prodigy who could play the piano by age three, received a scholarship for private lessons from a teacher at the Juilliard School of Music by age eight, and was playing professionally on the radio and in clubs throughout New York City by her teens.
In her playing, Scott was known for “swinging the classics”—playing classical melodies with skill before weaving in the jazzy riffs of the time.
Scott used her fame to push for a more inclusive industry. She had a stipulation in her contracts that she wouldn’t play for segregated audiences. In her film career, she turned down the stereotypical roles that were standard for Black women at the time (such as the singing maid) and insisted on appearing as herself, also demanding pay equal to her white counterparts. In the 1950s, she was the first black woman to host her own television show: The Hazel Scott Show, a 15-minute musical performance that aired three days a week.
Ultimately, Scott’s activism brought her down—she moved to Paris after being accused of having Communist ties where she found European fame, but by the time she returned to the states, music preferences had moved on to rock n’ roll. But her legacy remained: Even Alicia Keys mimicked her double-piano performance at the 61st Grammy Awards.
Jon Batiste is an award-winning American jazz musician, TV personality, bandleader, producer, and composer who is known for his “genre-busting” style and incredible influence on the modern jazz industry.
His roots are in the heart of jazz in the U.S.: New Orleans. A member of the musical dynasty of the Batiste family—which includes at least 25 musical members—Jon played from a young age. He actually started on the drums, playing percussion in a family band at the age of eight, but switched to piano by age 11, though he continues to play multiple instruments along with being a talented vocalist.
By 17, he was releasing his first studio album and heading off to Julliard, where he would go on to receive his bachelor’s and masters in jazz studies. While Batiste was undoubtedly skilled, he was also a bit transgressive—he had a penchant for running around the halls of Juilliard playing a melodica or having guerilla performances around the streets and subways of NYC with his band of fellow students, Stay Human.
You can see similar playfulness in his jazz piano style, where Batiste is unafraid to blend his various influences, often combining more traditional jazz with soul, funk, or even hip-hop. His talent and energetic performance style quickly caught the world’s attention. In his career so far, he’s released 15+ albums and EPs, performed around the world and with some of the biggest artists of the day, and gained television fame as the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He’s received 20+ major awards and accolades, most recently for his work composing the score for Disney and Pixar’s jazz-inspired film, Soul (learn more on the Spark & Fire podcast). While Batiste is busy making history, he’s also intent on preserving it as the creative director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
He could arguably be the best jazz pianist today, and he’s only in his mid-30s. It’s clear we can still expect much more music from Mr. Batiste.
Toshiko Akiyoshi was a Japanese-American jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader. Born in Manchuria, she started playing piano at age six but wasn’t introduced to jazz until her family later moved back to Japan and a local record collector shared Teddy Wilson’s work with her.
From the moment she heard “Sweet Lorraine,” there was no looking back. She played in a local dance-hall band to have access to a piano while her family suffered financial hardship, and in 1952 was discovered by Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson while he was touring Japan. He convinced producer Norman Granz to record her, and Akiyoshi got her first album in the U.S. and Japan.
Coming off that achievement, Akiyoshi wrote to the Berklee School of Music asking to study there. They ultimately provided a full scholarship and helped her deal with visa issues so that she could become the first Japanese student at Berklee.
Inspired by an interview with Duke Ellington where he talked about bringing his heritage into his music, Akiyoshi started to look for ways to integrate her Japanese culture into her jazz piano style. She also had a love for big-band music, and was the leader of a jazz orchestra in Los Angeles and New York City, which she also composed much of the music for.
She received 14 Grammy nominations throughout her life and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2007. Her album Road Time was included in The Essential Jazz Records Volume 2: Modernism to Postmodernism, where the reviewer said her music has “a level of compositional and orchestral ingenuity that made her one of perhaps two or three composer-arrangers in jazz whose name could seriously be mentioned in the company of Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, and Gil Evans.” Clearly, if you don’t already know Akiyoshi’s work, it’s time you do.
Mary Lou Williams was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger known as the “first lady of the jazz keyboard.”
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams started teaching herself piano at the age of three. While growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she had to hone her skills for unfortunate reasons: Williams found that if she gave her white neighbors private concerts, they would stop harassing her family, and she eventually realized she could help support her large family by playing at parties.
By 15 she was a professional musician, playing in major theaters and alongside major names like Duke Ellington. She eventually landed in Andy Kirk’s band Twelve Clouds of Joy alongside her then-husband, saxophonist John Overton Williams.
Although she was an incredibly talented pianist in her own right—and recorded over 100 records in her life to prove as much—her biggest influence is the hundreds of compositions and arrangements she wrote for others including the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. There’s a good chance a standard you love was written by Williams.
Music took a toll on her, and she took a hiatus to focus on her newfound Catholic faith and her philanthropy (she started a halfway house for the poor and for musicians struggling with addiction). When she returned to playing, her career continued to flourish, and she eventually landed at Duke University as an artist-in-residence teaching the History of Jazz and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. Along the way, she was also a mentor and teacher to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.
And this just barely covers all the Williams did during her career. It’s clear that her influence on jazz piano can’t be measured.
Marian McPartland was a British-American jazz pianist, composer, and educator who is perhaps best known for bringing jazz into the homes of millions of Americans during her 40-year stint as the host of an NPR radio show.
Born in Slough, England, McPartland became interested in piano from a young age after hearing her mother play. Because her mother refused to find her a piano teacher until she was 16 years old, McPartland taught herself to learn songs by ear. To help address her lack of formal technique, she attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as a teenager, but left before finishing her degree to join her first band—a four-piano vaudeville act to help hone her love for American jazz.
When World War II rolled around, McPartland joined the United Service Organizations (USO)—which entertained soldiers—and ended up falling in love with American brass player Jimmy McPartland. They moved to the U.S., starting in Chicago where McPartland joined her husband’s band before settling in NYC where she would start her own trio of piano, bass, and drums and record her first albums.
Although she was known for her complex, improvisational playing that could easily adapt to evolving music styles, she struggled to connect with the avant-garde style of the 60s and shifted her attention away from performance. She began to teach more, focusing on jazz education for youth. She co-founded a label—Halcyon Records—which aimed to promote underrated or underrepresented jazz artists. She reviewed albums for DownBeat and started dabbling in radio. She also became a public advocate for women in jazz, headlining the first Women’s Jazz Festival and helping several notable female musicians get their start.
But perhaps McPartland’s biggest impact on the industry didn’t start until she was 60 years old, when NPR launched the program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, which featured McPartland interviewing and performing with guest musicians. She would go on to host the show forover 30 years, and, according to NPR, “she interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-WWII era.”
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Dave Brubeck was an American jazz pianist and composer who influenced the genre by experimenting with new styles and writing plenty of jazz standards over the course of his six-decade career.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, his mother played and taught piano, which led to his early lessons, but he spent much of his life planning to work with his father on the cattle ranch. It wasn’t until he was in college studying veterinary science—while paying his way by playing in local nightclubs—that a professor urged him to go all in with music.
After graduating, he enlisted in the army, where he created and led one of the U.S. armed forces’ first racially integrated bands. When he was discharged, he decided to get his graduate degree under French composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged him to focus his career on jazz. With that, Brubeck formed his first jazz octet with some fellow students, which would eventually evolve into his most famous group, The Dave Brubeck Quartet.
The Brubeck Quartet was prolific, and would go on to record dozens of albums (at their height, they were releasing as many as four per year), tour around the world, and write and record plenty of songs that would become standards. Their album Time Out became the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. While it’s hard to say who the most sought-after jazz pianist of the 1960s was, Brubeck would certainly be up there.
Astoundingly, Brubeck was never strong at reading sheet music. Instead, he was skilled at improvising and thinking outside of the box, often combining elements of classic and jazz music, playing with contrasting rhythms and tonalities, and using odd time signatures in his compositions.
He was perhaps “one of Jazz’s first pop stars,” per The Los Angeles Times—and received plenty of acclaim and awards to prove as much. You’ve almost certainly heard a Brubeck song in your time of listening to jazz music, but if you haven’t, you’re surely in for a treat.
Diana Krall is a Canadian jazz pianist, singer, arranger, and songwriter who is known just as much for her incredible keyboard work as for her sultry vocals.
Born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Krall’s parents both enjoyed playing and singing music as hobbies, leading Krall to start studying piano at age four. In high school, she joined a student jazz group and started playing at local restaurants before getting a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
From there, Krall went on to Los Angeles to study with Alan Broadbent and Jimmy Rowles. From playing around LA, Krall was starting to get some attention, but didn’t record her first album until she was 28. Her first two albums did well, but it was her third album—All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio—that skyrocketed Krall’s career and cemented her reputation as a master of the jazz cover, with a special ability to put her own spin on the beloved work of others.
Since then, Krall has recorded a total of 16 studio albums, won three Grammys and eight Juno Awards, and sold millions of records worldwide, making her arguably one of the best smooth jazz pianists of our time. Her easy style helped her cross over into more mainstream success—her album When I Look in Your Eyes was the first to be nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys in 25 years. After marrying singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, Krall started composing some of her own songs for her album as well, but continues to perform plenty of standards and unique twists on covers in her work.
She’s already made a ton of music, received plenty of acclaim, and left her mark on how the industry thinks about modern takes on jazz standards—and Krall is only in her 50s, so we likely still have plenty of years of incredible music to come.
Vince Guaraldi was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger perhaps best known for creating the music for all the early Peanuts animated films.
Born in San Francisco, Guaraldi’s early musical interest came from his uncles, who both headed jazz big bands. He never attended any fancy music schools and didn’t even graduate college, instead setting out to learn music by making it.
He made his first recording in his early 20s as part of Cal Tjader’s Mambo Trio, and within a few years he had formed his own group, The Vince Guaraldi Trio. The group saw minor success, but eventually Guaraldi decided to leave to pursue his own projects full time. He released a bossa nova album primarily composed of arrangements of the music from the French/Brazilian film Black Orpheus, but one of his own compositions on the album had surprise success. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” spent 19 weeks on the Top 100, won Guaraldi his first and only Grammy, and sent his career to new heights.
It was thanks to this single that Guaraldi got the gig composing for the Peanuts animated television specials—producer Lee Mendelson heard it on the radio and reached out asking Guaraldi to create music for a Peanuts documentary he was making. While the documentary ultimately fell through, Charles Schultz and Mendelson asked Guaraldi to stay on for their next project, and the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas was born.
While Guaraldi would go on to create some other music separate from the Peanuts franchise—experimenting with Latin jazz and even writing a “jazz mass” for a Eucharist chorus—the rest of his sadly short career was defined by this work. He had just completed the score for his 15th Peanuts special—It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown—when he passed suddenly from a heart attack.
Still, his incredible musical talent is infused in our culture years later. “I love his melodies and his chord progressions. He has a really personal way of doing voicings,” said pianist George Winston, who was influenced by Guaraldi’s work. “His music is part of our culture and we know it even if we don’t know Vince,” he added of his legacy.
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