The 12 greats of tenor sax

1-Ben Webster Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) (+66 years)

Nicknamed “the Brute” or “Frog,” was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Webster learned to play piano and violin at an early age, before learning to play the saxophone, although he did return to the piano from time to time, even recording on the instrument occasionally. Budd Johnson showed him some basics on the saxophone but stylistically Webster was indebted to alto star Johnny Hodges (his musical alter ego) who, he said, taught him to play his instrument.Webster began to play that instrument in the Young Family Band (which at the time included Lester Young). Kansas City at this point was a melting pot from which emerged some of the biggest names in 1930s jazz, and Webster spent time with quite a few orchestras in the 1930s such as Andy Kirk band and Bennie Moten‘s legendary band that in 1932 included Count BasieOran “Hot Lips” Page and Walter Page. Then joined to the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1934, and after that he joined to Benny CarterWillie BryantCab Calloway, and the short-lived Teddy Wilson big band. He played with Duke Ellington‘s orchestra for the first time in 1935by 1940 Ben Webster had become its first major tenor soloist.During the next three years he was on many famous recordings, including “Cotton Tail” and “All Too Soon“; his contribution (together with that of bassist Jimmy Blanton) was so important thatEllington’s orchestra during that period is known as the Blanton–Webster band. Webster left the band in 1943 after an angry altercation, during which he allegedly (presuntamente) cut up one of Ellington’s suits. In 1948 he returned briefly to the Ellington orchestra for a few months. In 1964 he moved permanently to join other American jazz musicians in Europe, where he played when he pleased during his last decade. He lived in London for one year, followed by four years in Amsterdam and made his last home in Copenhagen in 1969. Webster appeared as a sax player in a low-rent cabaret club in the 1970 Danish blue film titled Quiet Days in Clichy. In 1971 Webster reunited with Duke Ellington and his big band for a couple of shows at the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. Profile as musician: was considered one of the three most important “swing tenors” along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Known affectionately as “The Brute”, he had a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with his own distinctive growls), yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment. Main contribution / Legato / Disciples:   Although not all that flexible or modern, remaining rooted in the blues and swing-era ballads, Webster could swing with the best and his tone was a later influence on such diverse players as Archie SheppLew TabackinScott HamiltonDavid Murray, and Bennie Wallace. After Webster’s death, Billy Moore Jr. created The Ben Webster Foundation, together with the trustee of Webster’s estate. Since Webster’s only legal heir, Harley Robinson in Los Angeles, gladly assigned his rights to the foundation, The Ben Webster Foundation was confirmed by The Queen of Denmark‘s Seal in 1976. In the Foundation’s trust deed, one of the initial paragraphs reads: “to support the dissemination of jazz in Denmark”. Memorable /recording sessions: Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster with fellow tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was recorded on December 16, 1957 along with Peterson, Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Alvin Stoller (drums). The Hawkins and Webster recording is a jazz classic, the coming together of two giants of the tenor saxophone, who had first met back in Kansas City. Webster suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Amsterdam, North Holland in September 1973, following a performance at the Twee Spieghels in Leiden, and died on the 20th. His body was cremated in Copenhagen and his ashes were buried in the Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro section of the city.

2- “Budd” Johnson (1910-1984), multi-instrumentalist and Lester Young disciple with his own style.

Albert “Budd” Johnson was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist who worked extensively with, among others, Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and, specially, Earl Hines. He was brother of jazz trombonist Keg Johnson.  Johnson initially played drums and piano before switching to tenor saxophone and clarinet. Johnson started off playing in the late ’20s in Midwest states such as Texas and Missouri (in Kansas City), working with the bands of Terrence Holder, Jesse Stone, and George E. Lee. He made his recording debut while with Louis Armstrong‘s big band (1932-1933), and gained attention for his work as tenor soloist and arranger during three stints (jobs) with the Earl Hines Orchestra (1932-1942). It is contended that he and Billy Eckstine, Hines’ long-term collaborator, led Hines to hire “modernists” in the birth of bebop which came largely out of the Hines band. Johnson had brief stints (jobs) with Gus Arnheim (1937) and the bands of Fletcher and Horace Henderson (1938) between his periods with Hines. Budd Johnson was a talented and valuable jazz musician for many decades, a behind-the-scenes player and writer who uplifted a countless number of sessions from the 1930s into the ’80s.  Budd was one of the first tenor saxophonists to be influenced by Lester Young, although by the 1940s he had a distinctive tone of his own. He contributed arrangements to several big bands, including those of Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Boyd Raeburn, and Billy Eckstine, and was partly responsible for Hines hiring young modernists during 1942-1943. He recorded withColeman Hawkins on the first bebop session (1944), worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Sy Oliver (1947), and in the 1950s led his own groups, in addition to touring with Snub Mosley (1952) and Benny Goodman (1957). Johnson was with the big bands of Quincy Jones (1960) and Count Basie (1961-1962) before renewing ties with Earl Hines, who he played with on and off again starting in 1964. He formed the JPJ Quartet, which worked on an occasional basis, during 1969-1975; held his own at the 1971 Newport in New York jam sessions; became a jazz educator; and recorded an excellent album with Phil Woods eight months before his death. Budd Johnson led some obscure sessions during 1947-1956, in addition to notable albums for Felsted (1958), Riverside, Swingville, Argo, Black & Blue, Master Jazz, Dragon, and Uptown.During the period 1934-1939, while saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins was playing in Europe,Budd Johnson was one of several younger tenor saxophonists, such as Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Lester Young who vied (competían) for supremacy on their instrument. Johnson was also an early figure in the bebop era doing sessions with Coleman Hawkins in 1944. In the 1950s he led his own group and did session work for Atlantic Records – he is the featured tenor saxophone soloist on Ruth Brown‘s hit, “Teardrops from My Eyes“. In the mid-1960s he began working and recording again with Hines. In 1975 he began working with the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993. His grandson, Albert Johnson (aka Prodigy), is a member of the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep.

3- “Chu” Berry (1908  -1941) (+ 33 years)

Leon Brown Chu (sometimes written as Choo, Chew) (he chewed on his mouthpiece) was a great saxophonist with a extremely short career (brevity of life like Jimmy Blanton and Charlie Christian) / his recording spans a mere decade). In opinion of Dan Morgenstern director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University,  Berry was a tenor sax at the same level of  Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young,  During the period 1934-1939, while saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins was playing in Europe, Chu Berry was one of several younger tenor saxophonists, such as Budd JohnsonBen Webster and Lester Young who vied for supremacy on their instrument. Year of the initiation to music: Berry graduated from Lincoln High School, in Wheeling, then attended West Virginia State College, near Charleston, for three years. His sister Ann played piano and Chu became interested in music at an early age, playing alto saxophone at first with local bands. He was inspired to take up the tenor sax after listening to Coleman Hawkins on tour. Again the student surpassed his teacher and in opinion of Hawkins “‘Chu’ was the best”. Most of Chu Berry’s career was spent in the sax sections of major swing bands except for Ellington and Count Basie. He worked with Sammy Stewart, 1929–1930, Benny Carter, 1932–1933, Teddy Hill, 1933–1935, Fletcher Henderson, 1935–1937,  Cab Calloway, his best-known affiliation, from 1937 to 1941″.  Moreover Chu Berry was very demanded as a sideman (músico de acompañamiento)  for recording sessions  of artists such as: Spike HughesBessie SmithThe Chocolate DandiesMildred BaileyTeddy Wilson Billie HolidayWingy Manone and Lionel Hampton. Memorable /recording sessions: Berry was author of “Christopher Columbus”, which Berry composed with lyrics by Andy Razaf, a hit recording of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra in 1936 and one of the most popular riff tunes from the swing era.  Berry was one of leaders of Pre-bebop period: Berry’s mastery of advanced harmony and his smoothly-flowing solos on uptempo tunes influenced to young innovators as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The latter named his first son Leon in Chu’s honor. Chu Berry was one of the jazz musicians who took part in jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City which led to the development of bebop. On October 27, 1941, Berry was travelling by car between gigs in Brookfield, Ohio and Toronto. Visibility was poor due to heavy fog. The car crashed into the end of a steel bridge. He was taken to Brown Memorial Hospital in Conneaut, where he died on October 30, 1941 aged 33 years. Pay attention: “Chu Berry” is the unofficial name of a series of saxophones produced by the C.G. Conn company during the 1920s, though it is more accurate to refer to them as the Conn ‘New Wonder’ Series II. Scam in eBay: Some saxophone owners (particularly on eBay) use the term “Chu Berry” in reference to any Conn saxophone made between 1910 and the mid-1930s, including soprano, alto, baritone and C melody saxophones, none of which Berry played.


4-Coleman Hawkins,  Coleman Randolph Hawkins,  (1904 –1969), the king of tenor sax.

Nicknamed Hawk (halcón), Coleman Hawkins was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. City of birth:Hawkins was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1904. Main city of work in USA: New York. Europe:In late 1934, Hawkins accepted an invitation to play with Jack Hylton‘s orchestra in London, and toured Europe as a soloist until 1939, performing and recording with Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter in Paris in 1937. After 1948 Hawkins divided his time between New York and Europe, making numerous freelance recordings. Year of the initiation to music: while still attending high school he studied harmony and composition for two years at Washburn College in Topeka. With 5 years he studied piano and he was switched to cello at age seven. He started playing saxophone at the age of nine; by the age of fourteen he was playing around eastern Kansas. Influences: None, he was the first great tenor saxophonist.  At a time when the saxophone was considered a novelty instrument, used in vaudeville and as a poor substitute for the trombone in marching bands, Hawkins sought to develop his own sound. Initiation: Hawkins’s first major gig was with Mamie Smith‘s Jazz Hounds in 1921 (with 17 years) but he was a professional performer from 12 years. Hawkins was with the blues singer until June 1923, making many records in a background role and he was occasionally heard on instrumentals. After leaving Smith, he freelanced around New York, played briefly with Wilbur Sweatman, and in August 1923 made his first recordings with Fletcher Henderson. Work with Leaders: Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson‘s Orchestra in 1924, where he remained until 1934, sometimes doubling on clarinet and bass saxophone. After Louis Armstrong joined Henderson later in the year, Hawkins learned from the cornetist’s relaxed legato style and advanced quickly. In addition to his solos with Henderson, Hawkins backed some blues singers, recorded with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and, with Red McKenzie in 1929, he cut his first classic ballad statement on “One Hour.” He was also featured on a Benny Goodman session on February 2, 1934 for Columbia, which also featured Mildred Bailey as guest vocalist. Main contribution / Legato / Disciples:  his staccato runs and use of slap-tonguing sound quite dated today. 

In its exploration of harmonic structureit is considered by many to be the next evolutionary step in jazz recording after Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” in 1928.Memorable /recording sessions: In his first period, his most famous recording was a 1937 date with Benny Carter, Alix Combille, Andre Ekyan, Django Reinhardt, and Stephane Grappelli that resulted in classic renditions of “Crazy Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”  At the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival and recorded Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster with fellow tenor saxophonist Ben Webster along with Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown(bass), and Alvin Stoller (drums). Additionally he recorded an album for the Impulse! label with the very same, unique and best Jazz composer all of time,  Duke Ellington. He appeared on the Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Jazzland/Riverside) record. In 1960 he recorded on Roach’s We Insist! suite. Movements: is strongly associated with the swing music and big band era, he had a role in the development of bebop in the 1940s. He was the leader on what is generally considered to have been the first ever bebop recording session in 1944 with Dizzy Gillespie and Roach. Hawkins directly influenced many bebop performers, and later in his career, recorded or performed with such adventurous musicians as Sonny Rollins, who considered him as his main influence, and John Coltrane. Among his records of his last period did in 1962 a bossa nova album titled “ Desafinado,  Coleman Hawkins Plays Bossa Nova & Jazz Samba”. Award / knowledgment:   None but in opinion of John Chilton, british jazz historian and author of Hawkin´s biography titlled “The Song of the Hawk” in 1990 “Hawkins’s career is  clearly one of the most significant jazz career of the 20th century”. Events / setback (contratiempos): In the 1960s, he appeared regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Hawkins had began to drink heavily and his recording output began to wane. Died from Hawkins succumbed to pneumonia in 1969 and is buried in the Yew Plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Testimonial /Tribute:Miles Davis once said: “When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads. Lester Young, known as “Pres”, commented in a 1959 interview with The Jazz Review: ” I think Coleman Hawkins was the President first, right? As far as myself, I think I’m the second one.” Eddie Jefferson said in his vocal version of “Body and Soul,” “Hawkins was the king of the saxophone.”




5-Dexter Gordon Dexter Keith Gordon (1923-1990), the first sax tenor in bebop period and the first and only jazz musician to ever receive an Oscar nomination.

The legendary Dexter Gordon known as “Long Tall Dexter” and “Sophisticated Giant” for his 6’6” height (19.8 cm), was born and grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients.  Dexter not only worked in USA but also in Europe: He  lived, performed and recorded in Europe for 15 years (1962-1976), in Paris and  Copenhagen. At that time he played regularly with fellow expatriate, or visiting players, such as Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Horace Parlan and Billy Higgins.  Year of the initiation to music: He played clarinet from the age of 13, before switching to saxophone (initially alto, then tenor) at 15. His career began at age 17 when he left his home in Los Angeles (born in 1923) to join the Lionel Hampton band and then went on to work with Louis Armstrong and the famous Billy Eckstine Orchestra (with Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, and Gene Ammons). Influences:  His only one influence was Lester Young. Both had a sound ‘large’ and spacious with tendency to play behind the beat. Work with Leaders: Between 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Lionel Hampton‘s band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal. During 1943-44 he featured in the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson bands, before joining Billy Eckstine. By 1945, Gordon had left the Eckstine band and was resident in New York, where he was performing and recording with Charlie Parker, as well as recording under his own name. Gordon was particularly known for his saxophone duels with fellow tenor man Wardell Gray that were a popular live attraction which were documented in recordings made between 1947 and 1952.Main contribution / Legato / Disciples:  Legate /disciples: Dexter is widely remembered for his style and sophistication, and his broad legendary sound on the saxophone. Dexter, by and far, personifies the meaning of such classic vernacular terms as “cool”, “hip”, “slick” and “sharp”. Early followers of Gordon’s classic sound and style include such legendary musicians as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. Memorable /recording sessions: August 1962, just before Gordon left for his extended stay in Europe, with a rhythm section that featured Blue Note regulars Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. His legendary return to the United States in 1976 is documented on his recordings for Columbia Records (CBS Sony), marked by his featured album debut, entitled Homecoming. Movement: Gordon is also historically considered the first musician to translate Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s innovative musical language of Bebop to the tenor saxophone. Award / knowledgment:   He was voted musician of the year by Down Beat magazine in 1978 and 1980, and in the latter year was inducted into Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame. He was the first and only jazz musician to ever receive an Oscar nomination. In 1986, Dexter was nominated as Best Leading Actor (along with Paul Newman and Bob Hoskins) for his role in the film Round Midnight (directed by Bertrand Tavernier, produced by Irwin Winkler, Warner Bros.).   Dexter Gordon was named a member and officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1986 by the Ministry of Culture in France. Died from Gordon died of kidney failure in Philadelphia, PA, on April 25, 1990, at the age of 67. 

6- “Don” Carlos Wesley Byas (Don Byas) (1912-1972) (+ 59 years), the Europe & fados lover.

The musician years after nicknamed “Don”, Carlos Wesley Byas was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma and both parents were musicians. His mother played the piano, and his father, the clarinet. Firstly Byas started his classical music training in violin and clarinet. Shortly after he learned to play alto saxophone, instrument that he played until the end of the 1920s.  At the age of 17, he started playing in local orchestras with Bennie Moten (pianist)Terrence Holder (trumpeter) and Walter Page (double-bass player). At 19 years he founded and led his own college band, “Don Carlos and His Collegiate Ramblers“, during 1931-32, at Langston College, Oklahoma.  Main influences: Benny Carter, who played many instruments, was his idol at this time.   He love Europe and he lived in Europe for the last 26 years of his life. But many years before of it, Byas switched to the tenor saxophone after he moved to the West Coast and played with several Los Angeles bands. In 1933, he took part in a West coast tour of Bert Johnson’s Sharps and Flats. He worked in Lionel Hampton’s band at the Paradise Club in 1935.  .In 1937, Byas moved to New York to work with the Eddie Mallory band, accompanying Mallory’s wife, the singer Ethel Waters, on tour, and at the Cotton Club. He recorded his first solo record in May 1939, aged 27, in “Is This to Be My Souvenir” with Timme Rosenkrantz and his Barrelhouse Barons for Victor. Work with Leaders: Firstly he played with  Andy KirkEdgar Hayes and Benny Carter, his idol at younger years.  After that he work with Art Blakey, Count Basie (who chose him to succeed the post of Lester Young in his big band), Dizzy Gillespie and  Lucky Millinder. Moreover he participated in sessions with the pianist Pete Johnson, trumpeter Hot Lips Page, and singer Big Joe Turner. In 1941 at Minton’s Playhouse he played with Charlie ChristianThelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke in after hours sessions, in the beginning of Bebop.In September 1946 Byas went to Europe to tour with Don Redman‘s big band in Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. They were the first civilian jazz big band to tour the old continent after the war. After playing in Belgium and Spain, he finally settled in Paris. In December 1946 he recorded for the first time in France, with Redman, Tyree Glenn and Peanuts HollandIn 1947 and 1948 Byas lived in Barcelona The pianist Tete Montoliu sneaked (colaba) into the Copacabana Club in Barcelona to hear the great saxophone player. From 1948 onwards, Byas got back to France and became a familiar figure not only around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, but also on the Saint-Tropez Byas relocated to the Netherlands in the early 1950s. He worked extensively in Europe, often with such touring American musicians as Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Duke Ellington, Gillespie, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Bud Powell, and Ben WebsterHe had a open mind and also recorded with fado singer Amália Rodrigues during his time in Europe. Byas did not return to the U.S. until 1970, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.  “Don” Carlos Wesley Byas died in Amsterdam in 1972 from lung cancer, aged 59.

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