Jazz is deeply rooted in drum kit history, as it was in jazz when players started to play on full-sized drum kits in the 1920s. As jazz drummers evolved, so did drum sets, and there are dozens of drumming legends that came from the jazz era.
In this list, we’re going to show you ten drummers that shaped music as we know it. Most of them are from the early 30s, 40s, and 50s, but a few of them are modern jazz drummers who are still pushing the boundaries of music.
We’ve also added clips of each drummer to check out so that you can see exactly what they can do behind the kit.
There aren’t many drummers with a bigger reputation than Buddy Rich has. He’s commonly referred to as the best drummer that has ever lived. While people may debate that, you can’t argue with how popular he was when he was alive and playing around the world.
The thing that made Buddy Rich so famous was his incredible ability to play blazing-fast patterns around the drums. He was a phenomenal player, and he was playing all those things at a time when not many people had seen them before.
While he was a tremendous solo player, he also led several jazz bands throughout his career.
Buddy Rich was one of the first drum heroes in the world. He was one of the first popular drummers that shaped how drums are played.
Gene Krupa was the other incredibly popular drummer on the scene at the same time as Buddy Rich. While Buddy Rich was a skillful player who always shone at the forefront of every band, Gene Krupa was more of a showman who always had fun while playing.
He was in dozens of movies, giving drum sets more spotlight than they’d ever had before. While Gene Krupa may not have been as technically brilliant as Buddy, he also played a major role in shaping the instrument.
Gene Krupa was the first drummer to use toms on his kit. He had them specially made for him, and he later established the “Gene-Krupa style” way of playing solos on floor toms.
If Gene Krupa was never around, the drum kit as we know it would probably be very different from how it is now.
Art Blakey first rose to fame in the jazz scene in the 1940s. He started out by playing for the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. However, he gained most of his fame when he formed his band, The Jazz Messengers.
The Jazz Messengers were the most popular jazz group for decades, as countless prominent jazz musicians came and played with them at different stages.
Art Blakey was one of the founding drummers of the bebop movement. Conventional jazz was a bit too square for him, so he played with a highly aggressive swing style, and improvisation was a much bigger aspect for all the musicians that played with The Jazz Messengers.
There are so many monumental jazz musicians that were popular in the 20th century, and Art Blakey played drums with just about all of them at one stage or another.
Elvin Jones was one of the most popular drummers on the scene in the post-bop era. His main achievement was playing drums for John Coltrane, who to this day is one of the most famous jazz musicians to ever live. After playing with Coltrane, he led a few of his own projects with other musicians.
Like most of the drummers on this list, Elvin Jones pushed the boundaries of what was known to be possible on the drum set. He was very well-known for playing polyrhythms, which are clashing rhythms played between two time signatures.
He was also known to be a major influence on other drummers who went on to become extremely popular around the world. This includes names like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Bill Bruford.
Max Roach was another key drummer who pioneered the bebop movement in the 1940s. He’s also arguably the most influential drummer on this list. There was a key moment in time when he released an album with Kenny Clarke and the way he played drums in that completely changed how drums were played in jazz settings.
He was the key drummer who revolutionized the concept of drums being played as a melodic instrument. Before him, the drums were just used as a timekeeping tool. Max Roach played as if he was another soloist in the band.
He was able to string phrases together around the kit that sounded like he was playing themes and melodies.
The biggest thing that he did was establish the way of jazz drummers keeping time on the ride while filling in rhythmic accents with the rest of the kit.
Joe Morello was Dave Brubeck’s drummer, and the thing that most people know him for is his drum part in the tune, Take Five. However, his playing is a lot more than that, and he had an incredibly long and successful drumming career.
One of his key strengths was his ability to comfortably play the drums in different time signatures, which is why Take Five was such a big hit.
Because of Joe Morello’s strong time-keeping abilities, a lot of Dave Brubeck’s tracks were in unusual time signatures. With everyone so accustomed to listening to music that was in 4/4, it was a breath of fresh air for many listeners.
Peter Erskine is a living jazz drumming legend. When modern drummers think of a jazz drummer who is still playing in the scene, most people think of Erskine. He’s most well-known for playing with Steps Ahead and Weather Report, but he’s played with countless jazz legends throughout his career.
One of the best things about Peter Erskine is that he’s also an amazing educator. Most of the jazz drummers on this list weren’t able to elaborately break down most of what they could play, but Peter Erskine has also had an amazing career as a teacher.
He has amazing insights into the jazz drumming world, and he’s always been a big influence on young drummers wanting to learn the style.
While Peter Erskine plays a lot of laidback jazz, you’d be amazed at the crazy stuff he played in his early years.
Tony Williams was one of the first drummers to play jazz fusion music, but he gained major popularity when playing drums for Miles Davis before that.
Williams started to love the sounds of rock music that were developing in the 60s and 70s, so he incorporated a lot of those rock drummer ideas into his own drumming in jazz groups. That’s when he started developing the jazz fusion style along with other musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.
One of the most unique things about Tony Williams was that he often played straight when playing conventional swing grooves. While other jazz drummers at the time would play hard swing rhythms, Tony’s strokes were far flatter, and that made his playing stand out.
Brian Blade is another living jazz drumming legend. He rose to fame in the 90s, and he’s played with every big jazz musician in the world since then. He has an amazing improvisational style, and he always plays the most creative things on the kit.
His main act is with The Fellowship Band, a group that he formed as the band leader. However, he often plays with other huge names in the industry.
Brian Blade is one of those drummers that aren’t as well-known to non-jazz musicians who mostly know the big names like Max Roach and Art Blakey. However, he’s a drummer that every jazz musician knows and admires.
Dave Weckl is yet another drummer on this list that has often been regarded as the best player in the world. He’s mostly a fusion jazz drummer, but he’s done his fair share of straight-ahead jazz gigs in the past.
Dave Weckl gained most of his fame in the 90s, and he was playing things on the drums that were pushing boundaries of what people thought was possible, which is along the same lines as what all the other drummers on this list have achieved.
Like Peter Erskine, Dave Weckl is also an amazing educator. He’s able to perfectly break down everything he plays on the drums, and he’s very good at explaining how other drummers can get to his level. Not that many people can!
Final Thoughts on the Best Jazz Drummers of All Time
While many people think that jazz drummers play the same kinds of things, you’ll be amazed at how different all these drummers are from each other. They all have something about their playing that sets them apart from other drummers, and that’s why they’re considered the greats.
The best way to listen to how good each drummer is would be listening to full-length albums that they tracked the drums for. That will allow you to see their musicality come out and flow from song to song. It will give you heavy admiration for how creative they are behind the drums, and it will make you want to sit at your own kit and start swinging.