Giants of Jazz

SFJAZZ Center

SFJAZZ celebrates the icons and innovators of America's music

Bassist and SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Christian McBride performing at a Family Matinee. Joining McBride are Ron Blake (tenor sax), Ed Simon (piano), and Quincy Phillips (drums).

America's Classical Music
Louis Armstrong once noted, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” From the blues and spirituals through swing, bebop, cool and free jazz, hundreds of musicians and innovators carved their place in American music history, with an art form that continues to grow and evolve today. SFJAZZ highlights a few of the many jazz greats.

Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901–July 6, 1971), was an American trumpeter, composer, singer, and occasional actor who was one of the most influential figures in jazz. Affectionately known as “Satchmo” - slang for “satchel mouth” - Armstrong’s career spanned five decades and various eras in jazz. An "inventive" trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong shifted the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, Armstrong was also an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also skilled at scat singing.

Arthur "Art" Tatum, Jr. (October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist. Tatum is widely acknowledged as the greatest jazz pianist of all time, and was a major influence on later generations of jazz pianists. He was hailed for the technical proficiency of his performances, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity.

Tribute to Fats Waller
Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller (May 21, 1904—December 15, 1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer. His innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. 

Fats Waller became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in the United States and Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter, and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, including "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose," which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2016, SFJAZZ celebrated Waller's 112th birthday with a Family Matinee featuring bassist/bandleader Marcus Shelby, and comedian and author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).

Marcus Anthony Shelby is a bandleader, composer, arranger, bassist, educator, and activist who currently lives in San Francisco, California. His work has focused on sharing the history, present, and future of African American lives, on social movements in the United States of America, and on early childhood music education. An important part of the SFJAZZ family, Shelby has curated and performed in numerous concerts and education programs, including our tribute to Fats Waller in honor of his 112th birthday (in 2016).

Performing several of Fats’s most memorable tunes, the Marcus Shelby Quintet - featuring vocalist Tiffany Austin - took the audience on a nostalgic voyage of Prohibition-era jazz. Beginning with an intimate trio setting, Shelby, along with pianist Joe Warner and drummer Sly Randolph, perform a stunning rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Comedian Daniel Handler sported his golden slippers as Marcus Shelby and his Quintet got the audience singing along with Waller’s classic, “Oh Dem Golden Slippers.” Tiffany Austin, vocals; Teodross Avery, saxophone; Joe Warner, piano; Marcus Shelby, bass, and Sly Randolph, drums.

Highlighting Fats Waller’s humorous side, the Marcus Shelby Quintet (featuring vocalist Tiffany Austin) performs the classic “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

Born Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899—May 24, 1974), Duke was an American composer, pianist, and bandleader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death in a career spanning over fifty years. Ellington gained a national profile through his orchestra's appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and in the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Though widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase "beyond category" as a liberating principle, and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music.

Some of the musicians who were members of Duke Ellington's orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered to be among the best players in jazz. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz, with some members appearing with the orchestra for several decades. Ellington often composed specifically to feature the style and skills of his individual musicians.

William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington, lasting nearly three decades. His compositions include "Take the 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge," "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," “Upper Manhattan Medical Group (UMMG),” and "Lush Life."

Cabell "Cab" Calloway III (December 25, 1907 – November 18, 1994) was an American jazz singer and bandleader. He was strongly associated with the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City, where he was a regular performer. Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the United States' most popular big bands from the start of the 1930s to the late 1940s. Calloway continued to perform until his death in 1994 at the age of 86.

The Great Jazz Women
Although the contributions of women in jazz as instrumentalists, composers and arrangers are significant, these pioneering women have not received the recognition they deserve. Each year, SFJAZZ Education highlights the legendary icons who stood shoulder to shoulder with their male peers.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, May 8, 1910—May 28, 1981) was an African American jazz pianist, composer, and vocalist. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements, and recorded more than one hundred records. Williams wrote and arranged for such bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. In the latter years of her prolific career, Williams became committed to charitable work and education, and was very spiritually devout. In a 1964 Time Magazine article, she noted, “I am praying through my fingers when I play...I get that good ‘soul sound,’ and I try to touch people's spirits.”

Mary Lou Williams was not only the most prolific jazz woman of any era, she served as mentor and inspiration to many of the celebrated artists in bebop. This William Gottlieb photograph of Mary Lou (with Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, and Jack Teagarden), is one of several in a collection taken at Williams’s NYC apartment in 1947, where she hosted salons and jam sessions. Among her most notable proteges was Thelonious Monk.

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915—July 17, 1959) was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly thirty years. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education. Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice, and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music, made her a superstar of her time. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.

Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) was an American jazz singer often referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella. She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. Her musical collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and The Ink Spots were some of her most notable acts outside of her solo career. These partnerships produced recognizable songs like "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Cheek to Cheek," "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." In 1993, Fitzgerald capped off her sixty-year career with her last public performance.

Sarah Lois Vaughan (March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990) was an American jazz singer, described as having "one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century." Nicknamed "Sassy" and "The Divine One,” Sarah Vaughan was a four-time Grammy Award winner, including a "Lifetime Achievement Award.” The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed upon her the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1989.

The Marcus Shelby Quintet pays tribute to one of the great jazz vocalists, Betty Carter, performing the lesser-known Jazz standard by Gigi Gryce (with lyrics by Jon Hendricks) entitled “Social Call,” recorded by Carter in the mid-1950s. Joining Shelby for this intimate performance at the SFJAZZ Center are vocalist Tiffany Austin, guitarist Ila Cantor, pianist Joe Warner, and drummer Geechi Taylor.

Bebop and Beyond
The adventurous and boundary defying sound of bebop evolved during the early and mid-1940s out of the swing era of the previous decade. With its concentration on small-group dynamics and solo virtuosity, bebop could be seen as a reaction to the rigidity of form and structure of swing, which was the popular dance music of the time. Among the noted pioneers of bebop were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk (pictured here on the left), and Charles Mingus. Throughout the 1940s, photographer William Gottlieb captured many of these celebrated giants on stage and behind the scenes.

Born Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917—February 17, 1982), Monk was an American jazz pianist and composer. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, and is the second most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington. His compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations.

Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947.

John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993), along with Charlie Parker, ushered in the era of bebop in the American Jazz tradition. Most noted for his trademark "swollen cheeks,” Gillespie admitted to copying the style of trumpeter Roy Eldridge early in his career. He began experimenting and creating his own style, which would eventually come to the attention of Mario Bauzá, the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz, who was then a member of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. Gillespie endured as one of the founding fathers of the Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz tradition.

Charles “Charlie” Parker Jr (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), also known as “Yardbird” and “Bird,” was an American jazz saxophonist and composer, and one of the chief architects of the bebop movement along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. One of the most influential Jazz soloists of all time, Parker was a blazingly fast virtuoso who introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas. Several of his compositions were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Miles Ahead
For our 5th season, SFJAZZ paid tribute to the iconic Miles Davis with a series of spotlight concerts, education programs, and a year-long tribute by our resident ensemble, the SFJAZZ Collective.

Born Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926—September 28, 1991), Davis was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He is among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music. With his ever-changing directions in music, Davis was at the forefront of a number of major stylistic developments in jazz over his five-decade career. The life and music of Miles Davis has never left the popular consciousness, and certainly some part of Davis’s massive influence and pioneering spirit informs the music of every jazz artist who has followed him.

The SFJAZZ Collective is an all-star, award-winning ensemble comprising eight of the finest performers and composers at work in jazz today. Launched in 2004, the SFJAZZ Collective has become one of the most exciting and acclaimed groups on the jazz scene, and the critically-acclaimed SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco is the Collective’s home base. In this live performance, Collective trumpeter Sean Jones tackles one of Miles Davis’ most iconic compositions, “So What.” Jones’s approach was to “flip the roles” of the signature bass line melody with the ensemble response, and create a new spin on the dialog wherein each line gradually interrupts the other in a fight for our attention. The stunning live performance at the SFJAZZ Center Miner Auditorium was one of the highlights of the Collective’s residency during our 2016-17 season, and features solos by trombonist Robin Eubanks and pianist Edward Simon. The current line-up includes Miguel Zenón (alto sax), David Sánchez (tenor sax), Warren Wolf (vibes), Matt Penman (bass), and Obed Calvaire (drums).

SFJAZZ Education’s flagship jazz appreciation series - Discover Jazz - celebrated the music of Miles Davis by highlighting four of his most enduring albums: Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles, and Bitches Brew. Each week in this four-part series, special guest artists performed and discussed the inner-workings of these classic Davis recordings, and shared their insights on the musical genius and his many contributions to jazz. In this photograph, SFJAZZ Collective member and trumpeter Sean Jones performed selected compositions from Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool recording alongside several SFJAZZ High School All-Stars.

SFJAZZ Collective member and trumpeter Sean Jones shares his thoughts on the importance of Miles Davis’s approach to jazz, and to his conviction that it should always move forward. Jones highlights Davis’s characteristic leadership style, one that emphatically demanded that his sidemen be themselves, and touches on his own personal journey as a bandleader charged with paying tribute to one of jazz music’s most indelible icons.

Members of the SFJAZZ Collective performing the music of Miles Davis and original compositions as part of the SFJAZZ 5th season. Picture here are David Sánchez (tenor sax), Obed Calvaire (drums), and Miguel Zenón (alto sax).

This impromptu arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” was premiered during the launch of the SFJAZZ 5th season, illuminating the musical solidarity and playful quality of the Collective as an ensemble, not to mention exquisite solo performances by David Sánchez (tenor sax), Robin Eubanks (trombone), and trumpeter Sean Jones.

Blue Trane
As his career progressed, John Coltrane and his music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. Coltrane influenced innumerable musicians, and remains one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. In his own words, "There are always new sounds to imagine: new feelings to get at. And always, there is a need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we...can give to those who listen, the essence—the best of what we are."

John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926—July 17, 1967), also known as "Trane," was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz, and was later at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions during his career, and appeared as a sideman on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.

In its second year as an ensemble (in 2005), the SFJAZZ Collective recorded several John Coltrane compositions, expertly arranged by Gil Goldstein. The line-up of the band included veteran vibraphonist / marimba player and Bay Area legend Bobby Hutcherson, along with Joshua Redman (tenor saxophone), Miguel Zenón (alto sax, flute), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Isaac Smith (trombone), Renee Rosnes (piano), Matt Penman (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). Here is the Collective's exquisite interpretation of "Crescent."

The most accomplished vibraphonist and composer to emerge in the latter half of the 20th Century, Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016) redefined the role of the instrument in modern jazz, bringing new levels of technical mastery and harmonic sophistication. He enjoyed an unprecedented 24-year association with the Blue Note Records label, making indelible contributions to over 250 albums during his Blue Note tenure and leading 23 recordings that introduced the world to the standards “Little B’s Poem,” “Bouquet,” “Components,” “Montara,” and others.

A great friend and artist with a long history performing on SFJAZZ stages, beginning with a performance at the very first Jazz in the City Festival in 1983, Bobby was a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective – composing, arranging, and performing with the band from its inception in 2004 through 2007. Bobby passed from complications related to emphysema on August 15, 2016 at age 75.

In its second year as an ensemble, the SFJAZZ Collective recorded several John Coltrane compositions, expertly arranged by Gil Goldstein. The line-up of the band included veteran vibraphonist, marimba player and Bay Area legend Bobby Hutcherson, along with Joshua Redman (tenor saxophone), Miguel Zenón (alto sax, flute), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Isaac Smith (trombone), Renee Rosnes (piano), Matt Penman (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). Pictured here is legendary vibraphonist and founding SFJAZZ Collective member, the late Bobby Hutcherson. Here is the band's gorgeous rendition of Coltrane's "Naima."

Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of the legendary John Coltrane, performed a series of remarkable tribute concerts to one of his late father’s most enduring jazz recordings, A Love Supreme. Ravi is seen here performing with the award-winning SFJAZZ High School All-Stars Big Band, under the direction of Mr. Paul Contos. This high-level training program cultivates the next generation of jazz ambassadors, and provides students with opportunities to perform and record with living legends of the music.

Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane performs with the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars as part of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of "A Love Supreme."

Into the Future
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, jazz is "triumphant music." In honoring the past and celebrating those who carve their own unique voice, we await the marvelous surprise of what comes next.

Bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza Spalding is the most alluring ambassador in jazz, a spellbinding talent who has brought her sleek and soulful sound to a vast international audience. Through network television appearances and command performances at the White House, she has captured a new generation’s imagination while maintaining the highest standards as an improviser.

Herbie Hancock is one of the great innovators and icons of modern music. A 14-time Grammy Winner, UNESCO Good Will Ambassador and a recipient of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors, Hancock has blazed a trail for contemporary culture at every turn in his career. From his tenure with Miles Davis, to creating standards like “Canteloupe Island,” innovative albums like Head Hunters, and the chart-topping “Rockit” – the first Billboard hit to use turntable scratching – Hancock is a true musical legend. SFJAZZ presented Hancock with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Herbie Hancock has always been on the forefront of music technology throughout his career. Here he straps on a "keytar" for a blazing solo duel with guitarist Lionel Loueke as part of his 4-night run at the SFJAZZ Center in May of 2014.

Herbie Hanock with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Marcus Miller, defining the essence of the term "power trio" during his performance in the SFJAZZ Center's Miner Auditorium.

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015) was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s, a term he invented with the name of a 1961 album. Perhaps no artist better exemplified the "wild card" than the great avant-garde jazz pioneer, photographed here during one of SFJAZZ's most memorable and historic performances, Coleman's 1994 premiere of “Tone Dialing” at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. The multimedia work combined the debut of his acoustic quartet featuring Geri Allen, with spoken word, video effects, and a live, onstage demonstration of body piercing by Fakir Musafar. Coleman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Ornette Coleman - "The Master Maverick" at Masonic Center in 2007 as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to KQED Public Television, the William Gottlieb Photo Archive, Getty Images, Marcus Shelby, Linda Tillery & The Cultural Heritage Choir, The SFJAZZ Collective, and the SFJAZZ Education Department.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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