The history of the jazz piano starts in roughly 1899.
By my count, 20 pianists influenced the direction of jazz over the course of 75 years between 1900 and 1975.
Here are 20 sample tracks of those pianists in chronological order. Listen for how the piano evolves over time — the right hand, the left hand, the feel and the bounce. These tracks will give newer listeners a starting point to explore each artist.
Here’s Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Registered in 1899 as the Original Rag, Joplin’s playing was preserved on a player-piano roll. With the popularity of “The March King” John Philip Sousa in the late 1800s, piano rags emulated the 2/4 tempo of marching bands, with the left hand assuming the role of the sousaphone.
Jelly Roll Morton
Here’s Jelly Roll Morton’s Jelly Roll Blues. It was published in 1915 and is considered the first published jazz composition. With this song, the piano began to emulate the jazz orchestra.
James P. Johnson
Here’s James P. Johnson playing his Harlem Strut in 1921, which illustrates the New York stride sound. With the rise of dance at the start of the Roaring Twenties, the left hand began jumping around prominently in the bass clef with a swagger or stride.
Here’s Fats Waller’s masterful stride piano in 1922 on Birmingham Blues. The bass notes here don’t jump nearly as far as Johnson’s, but instead operate almost like an upright bass.
Here’s Clarence “Pinetop” Smith’s Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie in 1928, which popularized a more syncopated, train-like left hand that first developed in East Texas in the 1920s. The boogie-woogie would become the basis of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Here’s the spectacular Art Tatum, a blind solo pianist who treated the keyboard almost like a harp, loading in as many notes and conversational elements as possible. This is Tiger Rag in 1932.
Here’s Teddy Wilson, who was the first to start playing the piano with a modern flair. Rather than deploying a rigid stride or stride-influenced left hand, his right hand did much of the work with the left hand functioning in single notes and chords, almost like a bass player. This is Somebody Loves Me in 1934.
Here’s Count Basie in 1936 playing Oh, Lady Be Good! with his sextet, which included tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Basie was the master of keyboard minimalism and the king of Kansas City swing. With the advent of the swing era, the piano began to play a more prominent role in keeping dancers on the floor.
Here’s Earl “Fatha” Hines in 1939. Hines’s style was loaded with modern harmony and complex voicings of chords and their notes. The dexterity of his fingers is simply extraordinary. Even today, he is considered one of jazz’s most influential players. This is The Father’s Getaway.
Here’s Thelonious Monk playing April in Paris in 1947. Monk’s fractured approach to the keyboard combined Cubist abstraction and bebop. With the dance era over, Monk set the pace for modernism, approaching the piano almost as a guitar, plucking and strumming the keyboard and leaving gaps of space while dropping in sly references to earlier piano styles.
Here’s Bud Powell in 1949 playing his composition Celia. Powell was the godfather of bop piano, and his impeccable time, spirited improvisational runs and flourishes resulted in a style that was a huge influence on virtually every jazz pianist who followed.
Here’s Horace Silver in 1952 playing his composition Horace-Scope. Silver was influenced by Powell, but he brought a new, jaunty funk to his playing while his compositions, like this one, were distinctly fresh and original, and influenced by gospel.
Here’s Ahmad Jamal in 1952 playing A Gal in Calico. Jamal’s spare bass lines and twinkling right hand in the upper register were enormously engaging and easy on the ear. Most importantly, he was a huge influence in the 1950s on Miles Davis’s minimalism. Davis urged his pianist Red Garland to play like Jamal. Though Davis was well aware of how exceptional Jamal was, the pianist was largely overlooked because critics found him too light. It’s a rare instance in jazz history when virtually all of the jazz writers were wrong.
Here’s Sonny Clark playing Tadd Dameron’s Tadd’s Delight in 1957. Clark’s classic trio sound and rich sensitivity in his attack — not to mention his conversational approach with bass players and drummers — had a profound influence on Bill Evans.
Here’s Bobby Timmons in 1960 playing his composition Dat Dere. Timmons’s church-infused approach all but launched soul jazz.
Here’s Bill Evans in 1961 live at the Village Vanguard playing his own Waltz for Debby with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Evans’s hyper-sensitivity and arranger’s mindset when choosing and improvising on songs revolutionized the piano’s role. Not only did the piano, bass and drums interact as equals, but Evans also combined swing and bop with classical elements to create a poetic melancholy that resulted in chord voicings that still resonate with fans.
Here’s McCoy Tyner in 1962 playing his own Inception. Best known as John Colrane’s pianist, Tyner brought a muscular storminess to the piano through the use of modal chords and scales. Tyner’s roiling approach makes you feel as if you’re in a canoe being rocked front to back.
Here’s Cecil Taylor in 1966 playing Conquistador. Taylor influenced a generation of players by exploring abstraction and free jazz. Though his approach takes some getting used to, once you hear what he’s doing and how he’s building his songs, it all clicks into place.
As beautiful as Herbie Hancock was with an acoustic piano as a leader, sideman and composer in the 1960s, it wasn’t until his electric albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s that he became a major force with a new, younger generation of players. Here’s Sly in 1973, with Hancock on multiple keyboards.
And here’s Chick Corea in 1975 on No Mystery. Corea’s playing on electronic keyboards could be bombastic and delicate, and the result often translated into curtains of sonic expression. His playing in his band, Return to Forever, helped launch psychedelic jazz fusion in the 1970s.