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Jazz Artist of the Century: Artist’s Poll

Louis Armstrong
Charlie Parker
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Dizzy Gillespie

Yes, we know. No one likes a poll save for the pollsters. But virtually everyone has an opinion to express these days, in and out of the arts, and some of the comments make for interesting reading. A few are even illuminating and carry considerable clout. How many jazz fans, after all,wouldn’t be interested in hearing what Steve Lacy, Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Horace Silver, Geri Allen, Dave Douglas, Terence Blanchard and other notable artists have to say on the subject of true greatness? Or, in some cases, discover what they’ve chosen not to say? So while we don’t harbor any illusions that our poll to pick the jazz artist of the century will please everyone-or that the results are conclusive-we do think the responses say a lot about how

contemporary musicians view the past.

We invited more than 300 jazz musicians to participate in this jazz poll. Each was provided a ballot that listed five candidates-Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane-who were selected from a preliminary phone poll. A blank space was also reserved for any and all write-in candidates. All the respondents were free to vote for whomever they pleased. Over 100 ballots were returned, including some from musicians who chose not to participate in the poll but wished to state their reasons why.

The results? Duke Ellington was chosen by most of the respondents, receiving 24 votes. Louis Armstrong received 21 votes. Miles Davis, 21 votes. Charlie Parker, 6 votes. John Coltrane, 6 votes. Other artists chosen in the poll, cited here in alphabetical order, were Don Byas, Charlie Christian, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young.

“Duke Ellington’s career traces the entire history of jazz. The repertoire associated with him contains the most important elements in the music and provides concrete examples of some of the best ways to present the music in the widest variety of settings-radio, TV, recordings, movies, concert halls, festivals, solo, small ensemble, big band, symphony orchestra, opera, Broadway shows…. You name it, he did it!”

-Dr. Billy Taylor

“Duke Ellington is my choice for many reasons. Nobody has written so many great pieces of music, which are everlasting, and he has made them available to the world through his orchestrations of his work in a unique way. Lastly, he was himself a fine pianist. He covers the entire musical spectrum with his genius.”

-Marian McPartland

“Simply the best! Great music, extremely entertaining.”

-Joe Zawinul

“Duke Ellington’s music ranks among the greatest achievements of the 20th century in any field. In many ways, it personifies the 20th century. Roll over Beethoven…Tell J. S., George Frederic, Wolfgang and all of them cats that at 100, Duke is finally mature enough to receive that Pulitzer they forgot to give him.”

-Jay Hoggard

“Tough choice! But Duke’s wide talent wins!”

-Ed Shaughnessy

“Undoubtedly the greatest creative musician of the century.”

-Frank Wess

“Ellington, at times, took exception to the use and meaning of the word jazz. How do you think he would feel about this?”

-Mark Helias

“When you consider the enormous scope of his work: compositions, arrangements, suites, sacred works, film scores, dance scores, etc. plus the magnitude of his legacy which included some of the greatest improvisers in jazz history, Duke Ellington is not only the ‘Jazz Artist of the Century,’ but ‘Artist of the Century.'”

-Talib Kibwe (T.K. Blue)

“The father of every aspect of modern jazz.”

-Matthew Shipp

“My reason for choosing maestro Ellington is based on one of his own quotes! Whenever he was asked his opinion about a thing he’d reply ‘I’m the easiest person in the world to please…just give me the best.”

-Clark Terry

Louis Armstrong

“Louis started it all!”

-Fred Hersch

“It was a hard choice between Louis and Duke, but I’m going to have to choose Louis. Without his lead none of us would be. Thank you Satch for leading the way. We all love you, and you’re still an inspiration to us. I derive much inspiration from Duke and Satch. They are at the top of my mentor list.”

-Horace Silver

“Louis Armstrong was the primary contributor to jazz music in the 20th century. His improvisational skills served as the principal model for all who came after him, regardless of one’s chosen instrument.”

-Ellis Marsalis

“I simply cannot imagine jazz at all without Louis Armstrong. He was the first great soloist, the first great jazz virtuoso, the first great jazz singer, a great bandleader, one of the music’s first composers. But most importantly, his phrasing and sense of swing has influenced everyone, whether they know it or not.”

-Jim McNeely

“Louis was there from the start. He was a master musician who shared his creative genius with people throughout the world and helped to build a jazz audience for generations to come.”

-Milt Hinton

“Armstrong, via his life and music, is the embodiment of the first principle in jazz-freedom of expression. His various bands became a model for democracy, demanding a balanced contribution from each member.”

-Malachi Thompson

“Jazz was never noticed before Louis Armstrong hit the high C’s like no one before him. His creation of melodic lines in music made him the originator of trumpet style. His influence on the world from his playing style and personality made him the most popular musician of this century, causing all musicians to copy his style.”

-Al Grey

“Whenever the conversation turns to religion, I waste no time in informing anyone within earshot that I am a firm disciple of Louis Armstrong, who did more to bring joy and love to the people of the world than any religious or political leader. Amen, Satchmo!”

-Loren Schoenberg

“Louis led the way. All others followed. None have caught up or surpassed him on any instrument in this century. He is the most important figure in American music. Period.”

-Kenny Davern

“I love all the (composers) jazz artists listed. But Armstrong’s technique developed to the point that he began to improve (scat-he created) more creatively-bringing new ideas in syncopation and rhythm in the blues/jazz music-which still influences musicians today.”

-Amina Claudine Myers

“Louis Armstrong is the ‘Alpha’ of jazz musicians. His influence on jazz instrumentalists and vocalists in improvising and interpreting popular songs can still be heard to this day. Thanks Pops!”

-Lewis Nash

“Duke, Bird, Miles, Trane are close. But for sheer emotion, Louis is still my man, to this day.”

-Toots Thielemans

Charlie Parker

“For me it was Bird. He turned me on to all jazz. I went back and forward after hearing Bird, my musical guru.”

-Sheila Jordan

“Bird was the greatest bohemian outsider genius artist of the 20th century. He created the opportunity for all kinds of people in the western world to get together and use their creativity to open up society.”

-Joe Morris

[Charlie Parker, with mention of Dizzy Gillespie] “I had to agonize over my selection since our music is so rich and all the above plus many others have contributed.”

-Jimmy Heath

“My vote is definitely for Charlie Parker. I’ve worked with all the great names you mentioned, but Charlie Parker was the originator and innovator of the century!”

-Buddy DeFranco

[Charlie Parker] “The only reason Duke Ellington was not my choice (in this instance) is the volume of attention being given his centennial. The only reason Louis Armstrong was not my choice as well as Miles Davis, is that they had the misfortune of being trumpeters (us reedmen gotta’ stick together).”

-Frank Foster

“Charlie Parker lifted jazz music off the dance floor and into the stratosphere!”

-Joe Lovano

“All these artists are great, but Charlie Parker’s genius needs no explanation. Pure and simple, Bird Lives!”

-Harold Mabern

Miles Davis

[Miles Davis] “Had a mean right hook!”

-Bob Belden

“Miles changed the face of music so many times in this century.”

-Claudio Roditi

“Across the board, everyone has been touched by the genius of Miles Davis.”

-Yoron Israel

“The ‘five favorites’ are all part of that essential constellation of jazz music; Miles seems to be connected to every crossroads, however! For sheer force of personality, icon status, and musical innovation, Miles gets my vote.”

-Peter Erskine

[Miles Davis] “He had the best bands, changed always, ’til the end deemed great. I feel privileged to have known him.”

-Leni Stern

“I couldn’t possibly name just one! Many, many musicians have been important-for just as many different reasons. Besides, I see music not as a contest, but as a cooperative affair-a family.”

-Jim Hall

“Celebrate them all. How do you justify leaving one out? Please include each one! Ella, Sarah, Betty, Billie should also be added!”

-Geri Allen

“You probably won’t dig this, but I think all of them were great.”

-Chico Hamilton

“How can you compare and decide who’s the ‘Jazz Artist of the Century?’ It is silly. This displays a complete lack of forethought and good sense.”

-Vincent Herring

“Impossible to pick one!. Without any one of these great contributors, the state of jazz would be poorer immeasurably. Myself and my fellow musicians reflect the importance of all of these greats, almost every time we play!”

-Mario Pavone

John Coltrane

“John Coltrane, the awesome traveler, inflamed hearts and minds with a love supreme!”

-Kamau Daáood

“John had his own window looking into the future. No one walked with him; they merely followed…if they could, or watched him go.”

-Benny Golson

“As much as I think John Coltrane belongs on the list, I think without Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, both of whom defined improvising on the tenor sax, there would not have been the evolution of the craft by

John Coltrane.”

-Herbie Mann

Ahmad [Jamal] has had as much influence on jazz as Louis, Duke, Bird, Coltrane and Miles. Sure, Miles gave him the nod from time to time but Ahmad’s major contributions have yet to be universally recognized”

-Hal Galper

“Charles Mingus epitomized the quintessential jazz musician. He was a composer, virtuoso instrumentalist and business man. He controlled his own destiny by creating his own record label and was instrumental in breaking down the political barriers existing in the TV and recording industry.”

-Vinny Golia

“Polls, polls, polls-Are we politicians here? Picasso better than Monet? Rembrandtover Van Gogh or DaVinci? The object is to be yourself.”

-Ray Anderson

“‘Jazz Artist of the Century’ would have to be a distinctive soloist and ensemble player, a composer, an arranger, a bandleader, and a driver; would have to span all the genres and periods of jazz; would have to have run her own label; [would] possess a deep spirituality, with grace and a sense of humor; and would have to have succeeded against all odds. Who else? Mary Lou Williams.”

-Dave Douglas

“Oscar [Peterson] is and has been the greatest jazz pianist ever! As he has throughout his career, he still continues to astound, inspire, entertain, and teach his millions of fans around the world”

-Herb Ellis

“My vote is for Art Tatum, the greatest piano player of them all. He not only redefined solo piano, he redefined the harmonies of all the songs he played, giving all the players who were smart enough to listen to his left hand, a new set of changes to work from. He was truly an innovator in every way!”

-John Pizzarelli

“My short answer would be that there is no greatest jazz musician of the century. Jazz, like any valid art form, finds its greatness in its expression of the human spirit, and, to me, this can’t be reduced to a contest.”

-Bennie Wallace

Dizzy Gillespie

“Besides his major contribution as a performer, Mr.Gillespie gave his time as a great teacher. His teaching counsel was greatly responsible for the musical contributions of Miles, Trane, and Bird as well as myself.”

-Charli Persip

“Dizzy, Duke and Charlie Parker were the greatest jazz legends of all time.”

-Milt Jackson

[Dizzy Gillespie] “He was not only the best trumpeter ever, but also the creator of the most profound style of jazz bebop. Dizzy was a mentor to many and was a creative genius. His imagination and innovations in the jazz field have never been exceeded by any other jazz musician.”

-Arturo Sandoval

“How could you leave out Dizzy and have Bird there without him? It was Diz & Bird that turned music around called bebop.

-Terry Gibbs

[Thelonious Monk] “Who else but the man coming on the Hudson could be deserving of such a title as ‘jazz artist of the century?’ If you ask me now and again “Five Stars” I would say repeatedly rhythm-a-ning into THEE eternity.”

-John Tchicai

“It is undoubtedly more difficult to choose a ‘Jazz Artist of the Century’ than an ‘Athlete of the Century’ because we lack statistics to further substantiate our claims. One might say that Duke Ellington composed over 2,000 pieces of music, whereas Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker less than 100. But the weight of thought and understanding contained in one Armstrong or Parker solo withstands the force of a few hundred compositions. While Miles and Coltrane are probably more popular with current musicians because of their modern sounds, each one represents the continuation of a great tradition. The most significant consideration, however, is the social condition of America at the time of each artist’s existence. Armstrong and Ellington had a more difficult task than the others because they had to both entertain and enlighten simultaneously. Parker spearheaded the movement towards “perceived seriousness.” This idea was not possible in Negro music before World War II. Miles was in the middle of more great groups of different types and always socially conscious. As well, he presented an unparalleled concept of communication in modern music. This said, each of these artists deserves recognition. I would include Thelonious Monk along with Coltrane because of their unwavering commitment to excellence and to America.”

-Delfeayo Marsalis

Originally Published