There have been so many incredible instrumentalists over many genres of music, so to try to name my five favorite has been a difficult task for me. I am perhaps biased, but I believe that jazz is the most innovative music form, and so I tend to favor artists who can begin with a structure, a theme, and innovate, creating something completely new each time they begin a song. I have listed my favorites below, individuals who I believe exhibit the true genius of music, which is unsurpassing.
#1) A Night in Tunisia by Miles Davis and Charlie Parker
Written by legendary jazz/be-bop trumpeter Dizzie Gillispe (arguably the best jazz trumpeter of all time), A Night in Tunisia is a jazz standard (written circa 1942). Dizzie, who along with saxophonist Charlie Parker were the fathers of be-bop, influenced a generation of musicians, including Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Arturo Sandoval and Johnny Hartman.
A Night in Tunisia below, is interpreted by Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. I have included it because I appreciate Charlie Parker’s take on the composition and his clean and penetrating sax solos. There will never be another like him.
#2) Three Little Words by Art Tatum
As a child, Art Tatum suffered from cataracts, which left him blind in one eye, while he couldn’t see out of the other, yet he had perfect pitch. He built on the stride piano style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, though he was influenced by the jazz style of Earl Hines. According to some accounts, he learned to play piano based on a piano roll in which two separate pianists were playing, and he took on both parts and learned the blended composition. Notwithstanding, he was a virtuosic musician, streaming scales, arpeggio after arpeggio, mesmerizing audiences and inspiring the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans and Chick Corea.
“Three Little Words” is was published in 1930 by Harry Ruby, with lyrics by Bert Kalmar. It was performed by Duke Ellington in the Amos ‘n’ Andy film, Check and Double Check. However, Art Tatum redefined the work, as you will see below.
#3) Hot House by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker
In my humble opinion, the most virtuosic trumpet player of all time was John Birks Gillespie, aka “Dizzy.” He certainly was an indomitable personality and earned the nickname through his unique brand, which included scat singing, horn-rimmed glasses, a beret, poofed-out cheeks, dancing and on-the-spot innovation and antics. It was all too much for Cab Calloway, with whom he had a physical altercation (when Calloway punched him, he defended himself with a switchblade, cutting the bandleader’s hand). After being fired, he composed for Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Ella Fitzgerald. Along with Charlie Parker, he brought bebop to popularity, though he insisted “it had been there all along.”
Hot House was written by pianist Tadd Dameron in 1945 and has become a jazz standard, covered by Chaka Khan, James Moody and many other musicians, though the version below, by Dizzy and Charlie, is the quintessential interpretation.
#4) Jin-Go-Lo-Ba by Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos Santana was the son of a Mariachi musician, learning violin at five years old and beginning with the guitar at eight. During the late sixties, Santana, his newly-formed band, debuted as a favorite at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969. His big hits include Oye Como Va and Black Magic Woman. Carlos has won ten Grammys and three Latin Grammys.
Eric Clapton is considered one of the most important and influential guitarists of all time. Born in Surrey, England he honed his skills as a rock and blues musician (influenced by Buddy Guy, Freddie King and B.B. King), eventually forming the group, Cream, in 1966. The only three-time inductee into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has been a major influence to a long list of famous guitarists ranging back over four decades.
Jin-G0-Ba-La was written by Nigerian percussionist, Babatunde Olatunji, and was featured on Santana‘s first album, as well as his own in 1960. The first song to popularize African music in the West, it has sold over five million copies.
#5) Stagger Lee by Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt was one of my grandfather Homer’s best friends, though not from the beginning. In the tiny Avalon community in the Mississippi delta, both were courting my grandmother, and though bested, John became a close friend of the family, often entertaining groups at the house on Saturday nights. My grandfather recalled from one afternoon in 1963 when “two white men came lookin for John, and John took off,” fearing for his life. It turned out that the men were from a recording company that had rediscovered his music from an album he recorded in 1928.
The men convinced him to move to Washington D.C., which he did, accompanied by my aunt, Jessie Pearl. Though he passed while we were in Madrid, my mother’s side considered him as “family.” His songs have been covered by Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Bill Morrissey, Hugh Laurie (TV’s Dr. Gregory House), Beck, the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal and many other musicians.
Stagger Lee is a song about a black pimp from St Louis who shot and killed a man for taking his Stetson hat on Christmas Day 1895. “That bad man… ol cruel Stagger Lee.” The song was first published in 1911 and has been recorded by Lloyd Price, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway,Pat Boone, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett and others. John was a talented acoustic guitarist and a great storyteller, as you will see below.