Jazz Pianists: 10 Masters Who Revolutionized the Genre

Learn How They Changed Jazz Piano

Duke Ellington, November 1954
Duke Ellington, November 1954. Public Domain

Nowadays it may seem like jazz pianists are a dime a dozen, but the genre wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for 10 piano masters. 

It's been widely considered that Jazz was born in America as a reflection of the cultural diversity and individualism that existed in the country at the turn of the 20th century — and this list explores how the genre was influenced by certain key musicians that revolutionized Jazz with raw talent and personal expression through improvisation.

Jazz Pianists: Top 10 Influencers to Know

Jazz has always sat at the intersection of popular music and classical, and it has progressed and expanded to where different Jazz styles may sound completely unrelated to one another. But there is no doubt that there were pianists that influenced the genre more than others. Read more below to learn about the lives, inspirations and unique styles that these piano masters brought to Jazz music.

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Art Tatum

Born: October 13, 1909

Died: November 5, 1956

Origin: Toledo, OH

Having musical parents, Art Tatum's future looked promising enough. But add perfect pitch, an ability to tap out simple songs by age 3, and legal blindness, and you have a legendary child prodigy.

As a young adult, he was challenged by an impressive list of competitors in a Harlem “piano cutting contest.” Tatum outshined many, including pianists Fats Waller and Willie Smith.

Influence on Jazz: Tatum was an undeniable inspiration for nearly every jazz artist. He crafted unique improvisations while staying true to the original melody, and his swing-inspired beats led the way for what is now known as bebop.

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Herbie Hancock

Born: April 12, 1940

Origin: Chicago, IL

Herbie Hancock began studying music at age 7 and performed with the Chicago Symphony at age 11. He’s played with Miles Davis, and has since had an eclectic career; he’s covered pop music by The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, Prince, and even the Seattle grunge band Nirvana.

Influence on Jazz: Herbie Hancock's music was influential, and also slightly controversial. He had many critics since he explored elements not typically found in jazz. He’s experimented with rock, soul, funk, and introduced synthesizers and the electric piano into jazz.

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Duke Ellington

Born: April 29, 1899

Died: May 24, 1974

Origin: Washington, DC

Duke Ellington began sporadically taking piano lessons at age 7. He felt he lacked talent in music, but changed his mind after finding inspiration in local performers.

Duke Ellington composed his first piece, “Soda Fountain Rag,” completely by ear, and went on to compose over 2,000 pieces of music over a span of 60 years.

Influence on Jazz: Duke Ellington was an innovator, turning his own voice into a wordless instrument, and composing with his own technique: “Jungle-style.” He constantly rearranged his compositions into unrecognizable layouts.

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Thelonious Monk

Born: October 10, 1917

Died: February 17, 1982

Origin: Rocky Mount, NC

Thelonious Monk was a notable influence on jazz’s evolution. He taught himself piano at age 9​ and settled into jazz after befriending stride pianist James P. Johnson. By 30, he made his first recordings with Coleman Hawkins' quartet, and later recorded with John Coltrane.

Influence on Jazz: Along with pianist Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk is regarded as a father of bebop. Monk is known as one of the most unique improv pianists of all time.

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McCoy Tyner

Born: December 11, 1938

Origin: Philadelphia, PA

McCoy Tyner took up piano at age 13. As a teen, he befriended legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. His reputation continued to grow, and by age 20 he was the first pianist to join Benny Golson's Jazztet. He continues to perform at various clubs and festivals around the world.

Influence on Jazz: McCoy Tyner experimented with jazz variations such as Modal Jazz, Modern Creative, and Afro-Cuban. He introduced African rhythms and unusual scales to his improvisations and revolutionized the jazz world.

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Willie Smith

Born: November 23, 1893

Died: April 18, 1973

Origin: Goshen, NY

Willie "The Lion" Smith discovered music at age 6 after finding a semi-working organ in the basement of his home. At age 14, Smith played ragtime at local bars and clubs. He quickly became a regular at posh nightclubs in Harlem, particularly the famous and fashionable Leroy's.

Influence on Jazz: Willie “The Lion” Smith experimented with ragtime and used it in his unique improvisations. This rhythmic transformation made Smith one of the fathers of the jazz piano style known as stride.

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Fats Waller

Born: May 21, 1904

Died: December 15, 1943

Origin: New York City, NY

Fats Waller played the organ at the age of 6 and performed regularly at his father's church. When he became enamored with jazz music, his father tried to steer him towards classical playing, calling jazz a product of the devil. But young Waller was introduced to stride pianist James P. Johnson, and his musical fate was determined. Waller began performing professionally at age 15.

Influence on Jazz: Fats Waller brought an animated style to his tunes, and was a standout vocalist. Waller is renowned as one of the greatest stride pianists of all time.

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Oscar Peterson

Born: August 15, 1925

Died: December 23, 2007

Origin: Montréal, QC, Canada

Oscar Peterson is regarded as one of the greatest jazz stars known to the world. He began studying classical piano at age 5, but his jazz-rich neighborhood made an impression on the young O.P. He has since recorded over 200 albums.

Influence on Jazz: Oscar Peterson introduced classical piano to jazz, particularly the harmonizations of classical pianist Rachmaninoff. Peterson is also the first Canadian jazz pianist to reach worldwide fame.

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Ahmad Jamal

Born: July 2, 1930

Origin: Pittsburgh, PA

Ahmad Jamal was introduced to the piano at the age of 3. At age 7, his mother arranged for him to study with the respected teacher and founder of the National Negro Opera Company, Mary Caldwell Dawson. Jamal began playing professionally at age 11.

Ahmad Jamal continues to tour and has been performing for over 65 years.

Influence on Jazz: Ahmad Jamal’s sound was clean and trimmed, yet his use of space was complex and profound. Miles Davis considered Jamal one of his favorite pianists, and Jamal has even had influence over the hip-hop world, with over a dozen hip-hop artists sampling his music so far.

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Chick Corea

Born: June 12, 1941

Origin: Chelsea, MA

Chick Corea’s musician father taught him piano at age 4. Corea explored different musical styles and was shown classical music by his teacher, concert pianist Salvatore Sullo.​

In his 20s, Chick Corea worked with Miles Davis, replacing one of his own inspirations, Herbie Hancock, as a pianist in 1968.

Influence on Jazz: Corea’s inspiration includes bebop, rock, classical, and Latin music, and combines elements from each in his music. This style helped fuel a successful career in jazz fusion and landed him in history as a father of electric fusion.