Listening to the History of Jazz: Unsung Tenors

By KMHD Radio’s Mark Montesano

The history of jazz is full of great musicians that inspired and led the way for future generations. Their names are well known even to people who don’t know much about jazz: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane are household names. For every one of these popular figures there many more wonderful players who, for one reason or another, never gained much popularity or name recognition during or even after their lifetime. Nonetheless, their recordings reveal a unique voice, intense creativity, and they deserve a place in the history of this music. This piece is the first in a series of blogs about musicians who are relatively ‘unsung’ and that I believe deserve greater recognition and praise. This particular piece is about the unsung tenor jazz saxophonists. 


Don Byas (1912-1972): Byas was so highly thought of that he took Lester Young’s place in Count Basie’s band when Young left the band. Because of his advanced use of harmony and rhythm he was able to it in with and play with early bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie. In spite of his sophistication he continued to be categorized as a ‘swing’ musicians. Byas once said, “I don’t have a style, I just try to play like Art Tatum.” Notice his speed, beautiful tone, and complex ideas on “Riffin’ and Jivin’” ( and on his signature song, “Laura(


Lucky Thompson (1924-2005): Thompson was one of the first tenor players to incorporate bebop into his playing. He played on some of Charlie Parker’s early recordings in the late 1940’s and later with Miles Davis. Searching for a way to continue to make a living in music, Thompson lived for a time in Europe. While there he picked up the soprano sax; one of the first to play that horn in modern jazz. Disillusioned with the business of jazz, he quit music completely in the early 1970’s. Lived as a hermit for a while in Seattle and died indigent in an assisted living home at 81 years old. Check out Thompson’s solo on “Walkin’” beginning at the 6:14 mark in a session led by Miles Davis (, and on “Invitation” from Thompson’s album Lucky Strikes. (


Booker Ervin (1930-1970): Ervin began playing trombone. He later taught himself to play tenor while in the army. As a featured soloist on many of Charles Mingus’ greatest recordings, he was admired for his unique style: harmonically advanced with a hard-edged sound and a swinging sense of rhythm. Because Ervin played with such focused intensity when he soloed, Mingus said Ervin went into “The Trance”. Some great examples of Ervin’s soloing prowess can be heard on “Theme for Lester Young (Goodbye, Porkpie Hat)” from Mingus, Mingus, Mingus… ( and “Speak Low” from Ervin’s album That’s It! (


George Coleman (1935–): Coleman was from Memphis where he learned to play jazz with other extraordinary musicians like Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern, Hank Crawford, and Frank Strozier. He was briefly Miles Davis’ tenor player, just before Wayne Shorter joined the group. Some in Davis’ band didn’t think Coleman’s style was ‘far out’ enough for the direction they wanted to pursue, so he was let go. Yet Miles, who was notoriously stingy with praise, said of Coleman: “He’s a hell of musician… almost perfect.” Notice his clean execution and his smooth and beautiful tone. His tone is perhaps best exemplified at the 7:00 mark on the title track of Miles’ live album My Funny Valentine ( and on “Eye of a Hurricane” from Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage album beginning at 1:58 (


Next month look for some other unsung musicians playing another instrument.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.