Musical Space: The Jazz Tenor Sax March Madness, Part 1.

Mar 14, 2017



We’re hearing an example of a tenor battle--two jazz tenor sax players going head to head, taking turns trying to one-up the other. This one is John Coltrane challenging Sonny Rollins on a tune whose name sums up the spirit of the competition: Tenor Madness.

Music: Sonny Rollins Quartet with John Coltrane, “Tenor Madness,” Tenor Madness, (1956)


Battles like these were a mainstay of jazz clubs in the 1950s; virtuosity had become a key part of the style. This is especially true for the tenor saxophone, the jazz instrument which most closely matches the sound and range of the male human voice.

Since it’s now championship season, I hereby propose the ultimate tenor battle: sixty-four of the best tenor sax players of jazz history duking it out to see who’s champ. Here's the official bracket with all 64 players listed, along with representative tracks. Click on a name to bring up a YouTube link, cued up to the beginning of the solo.

Some words about the rules of the game. Jazz is the only qualifying style; Kenny G, Boots Randolf and the Sexy Sax Man are not eligible. Most importantly, the championship is only open to Tenor sax players - that’s why Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman have been sidelined. The game is open to men and women but, reflecting the sexism of the industry, it’s been dominated by men. Here’s hoping we get women competitors soon.

Players get a three-point bonus for writing their own tunes. Finally, this competition is totally unfair, subjective, unscientific and specious. I’m the only judge and my opinions are the final word.

There were some fierce match-ups in the first round. Ben Webster prevailed in a fierce matchup with fellow early pioneer Budd Johnson. Rahsaan Roland Kirk advanced over Eddie Harris but not without controversy, as he showed up playing three saxes at the same time. Jazz/rock fusion giants Michael Brecker and Joe Farrell had to face each other in the first round; Brecker prevailed with technical display aided by a wah-wah pedal. Newcomer Branford Marsalis upset veteran Hank Mobley with some slick rhythmic moves. The play of the week, though, goes to Johnny Griffin, who scorched the competition with some fast and clean variations on “I Got Rhythm.”

Stay tuned for next time, as we follow the road to the championship game.


•Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul,” (1939)


•Ben Webster: Duke Ellington, “Cotton Tail,” 1940

Also from Kansas City, big, raspy tone.


•Sonny Stitt, “All God’s Chillun got Rhythm,”

Sonny Stitt with Bud Powell Trio - The 1949 Prestige Quartet Session


•Benny Golson: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “Moanin’,”

Moanin’, 1958


•Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Blues for Alice,”

We Free Kings (1961)

Three different saxes at once.


•Chris Potter, ‘Vertigo,”

Vertigo 1998

Love how he and the band go in and out of grooves.