5 Jazz Greats Everyone Should Know

Whether you’re a die-hard jazz fanatic or a casual lounge listener, here are five jazz greats to get you in the groove.

Duke Ellington

(April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974 )

Duke Ellington is considered to be one of the most iconic jazz composers of all time. He wrote over 2,000 songs in his lifetime many of which have become the jazz standards we still love and enjoy today. Songs like It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), In A Sentimental Mood, and Sophisticated Lady.

Duke Ellington was one of the originators of big band jazz, a type of jazz that features a large group of musicians rather than a smaller jazz ensemble. Duke Ellington maintained a consistent performance schedule, from his first big gig in 1923 through to his death in 1974, sharing a contagious love for jazz, mentoring and encouraging young musicians, and inspiring the next generation of jazz greats.

A Very Brief History

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, Duke Ellington grew up in Washington D.C. His parents were both musicians and his mother, Daisy, began teaching him the piano when he was just seven years old. She also taught him manners and dressed him in smart clothes which earned him the lifelong nickname ‘Duke’. By the time he was 17, he was playing piano professionally around D.C., making a name for himself as a talented musician. In 1927 he moved to New York City and began playing in nightclubs, like the iconic Cotton Club, leading a swinging sextet at first. As Ellington’s popularity grew so too did his band. Soon he was leading his very own Big Band, which he fronted for the rest of his life.

This 1973 concert filmed in Brussels’ Marni was one of the last filmed concerts of Duke Ellington and his band.


Louis Armstrong

(August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971)

No list of jazz greats would be complete without a mention of Louis Armstrong. His unique gravely voice and stellar trumpet and cornet skills have serenaded generations. Nicknamed “Satchmo” or “Satch”, many credit Louis Armstrong with bringing jazz to the popular market, transforming it from a novelty into an enduring and widely appreciated genre. His trumpet playing influenced nearly every horn player that followed him, and his unique vocal style influenced other jazz greats like Bing Crosby and Billie Holliday.

A Very Brief History

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisianna, and grew up in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. He left school early to work and raised enough money to buy his first cornet, a smaller, warmer-sounding sibling the trumpet. When he was 11 years old Louis was arrested and sent to Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, a correctional boarding school. It was here that his trumpet skills took off, he became the leader of the home’s Brass Band, and when he was released in 1914 his heart was fully set on becoming a professional musician. By 1922 Louis was the most in-demand cornetist in town. After playing with other bands around Chigaco for a few years Armstrong pursued a solo career, a decision that would change his life and the history of jazz forever.

In this 1964 concert, Louis Armstrong performs with his band live on an Australian TV show.


Ella Fitzgerald

(25 April 1917 – 15 June 1996)

Nicknamed “The First Lady of Song,” few voices are as legendary as Ella Fitzgerald’s. Not only was she the most popular female jazz singer for over six decades, but she was the first popularly successful female jazz singer, the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award, and an all-around trailblazer for women in jazz. She was known for her three-octave vocal range, her clear vocal tone, her lightning-fast improvisation skills, and of course her unmistakable scat singing. Her impressive 200 albums and nearly 2,000 songs continue to inspire and influence jazz musicians and singers everywhere.

A Very Brief History

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, moving to Yonkers, New York a few years later. Life wasn’t easy for Ella, her mother passed away when Ella was just 15 years old, and as a result, she moved to Harlem with her aunt. As the Great Depression hit New York, Ella took to the streets of Harlem, singing and dancing to make ends meet.  In 1935, She entered a dance and singing competition where she won the opportunity to perform with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at the Harlem Opera House. There she met the band’s leader Chick Webb who offered her an opportunity to sing with his band, and the rest is history. By 1938 she had recorded her first songs, which topped the pop charts for a consecutive seventeen weeks. It’s no wonder she won a total of 13 Grammys in her lifetime.

In this 1965 performance, Ella shows off her iconic glamour and sensational voice.


Thelonious Monk

(October 10, 1917- February 17, 1982)

Thelonious Sphere Monk was a jazz pianist and composer. He was eccentric, he was bold, and above all else, he was dripping with talent. Known for his angular, percussive, piano playing Thelonious Monk developed a unique sound that went on to inspire the creation of the bebop style, a style of jazz that features fast tempo changes and rapidly changing chord progressions. Monk performed with jazz greats and toured with small groups, like The Thelonious Monk Quartet which featured Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, John Ore on the double bass, and Frankie Dunlop on Drums. He composed over 70 original songs, many of which have gone on to become iconic jazz standards like Ruby My Dear and Rhythm-a-Ning. His song Round Midnight has even become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time. His greatest legacy though was his willingness to experiment and innovate.

A Very Brief History

Thelonious was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and later moved to New York. He began taking piano lessons at the age of six and by his late teens he was touring professionally, playing the organ for a traveling evangelist. He left the evangelist to pursue his passion for jazz, becoming the house pianist in Manhattan’s famous nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse. There, he honed his unique style, paying little attention to the traditional rules and regulations of jazz music, playing quick and percussive notes and jumping melodies with a heavy swing. He reached the height of his career in the 1960s, releasing his most famous album Monk’s Dream in 1963. In the following year, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Then, in 1973, Monk suddenly retired, many suspect due to difficulties with mental illness. He lived the rest of his life out in seclusion, leaving behind an impactful and mysterious legacy.

This 1963 concert, performed live at Brussel’s Palais des Beaux-Arts, shows Thelonious Monk at the peak of his career.


Sarah Vaughan

(March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990)

Sarah ‘’Sassy’’ Vaughan was a jazz singer known for her deep contralto voice, wide vocal range, passionate performances, and unique interpretation of jazz standards. She is considered one of the greatest jazz vocalists along with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.

In her six-decade career, Vaughan recorded with countless jazz icons like Count Basie, Benny Carter, Frank Foster, and Quincy Jones. She won two Grammy Awards and was nominated for a total of nine. In 1989, she received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the following year she was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame for her contributions to the genre.

A Very Brief History

Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey to amateur musicians. She started singing in church choirs at the age of seven, learning the piano and the organ at the same time. As a teenager, Vaughan would sneak out to Newark’s nightclubs illegally to perform as a pianist and singer. In 1942 when she was just 18 years old, Sarah entered the famed amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, taking home first prize. Later that year she opened for Ella Fitzgerald and performed a week’s worth of engagements at the Apollo Theater, where she was introduced to the band leader Earl Hines. Hines offered Vaughan a job on the spot. In 1943 she replaced his band’s singer and from there, her fame skyrocketed. In 1945 she started a solo career, recording over 100 albums, EPs, and Box sets and performing to sold-out audiences until 1989.

This 1974 concert is a superb example of Sarah Vaughan’s undeniable charm and stage presence.


Whether you love the clear vocals of Ella Fitzgerald, the bebop style of Thelonious Monk, or the big band glamour of Duke Ellington, you can find a classic jazz performance you’ll love on Marquee TV.

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