Jazz Musician’s Lifespan – every picture tells a story (updated)

claudewilliamson-havepiano[1]LJC contributor Rodrigo sent me a fascinating chart he had prepared about the lifespan of his favourite jazz  musicians. I took a crack at this myself a while back, but our man is a master of non-standard graphical presentation tools, respect, so I pressed him to make some variations, different rankings to force the data to yield up its story from different angles. I love intelligently organised information, there’s always something new to be learned from it.

My thanks to Rodrigo, and his talking numbers.


Charts have been updated to correct data for Paul Chambers and Kenny Dorham ( on June 7, 2014).  Any further corrections required,  kindly note in the comments.

Always remember: mistakes happen, that’s why they put an eraser on the end of pencils.

 1. Jazz Musician’s Lifespan, within Primary Instrument

Bass players seem to shuffle off this mortal coil  pretty damn quick, or seem to live forever. It’s amazing how much talent was cut short, and how the heavy lifting of the double bass keeps you fit.


2. Jazz Musicians within instrument, by year of birth

For each instrument, from the oldest  guys to the young bloods. Who arrived on the scene first, became early influences on those that followed perhaps?

2. jazz-musicians-by-birth-year-with-lifespan-within-instrument

3. Jazz musicians by year of death within instrument,.

Always interesting to note who is currently still standing. We seem to have lost proportionally more of our brass section. For longer term retirement security , invest now in piano trio futures.

3. jazz-musicians-by-death-within-instrument

4. When they died: jazz musicians lifespan by year of death, all instruments

Nice to see the survivors all in one place at the foot of the chart. Looks to me like Van Gelder is the longest-lived of them all. How ironic that the great jazz band in the sky is still waiting for the engineer to show up and press the record button.

4. jazz-musicians-lifespan-by-year-of-death

5. Jazz musicians lifespan mapped to year of birth and death, and those still living.

This final chart has true to life chronology, all the jazz musicians mapped from year of birth and year of death in real time, ranked from top to bottom by lifespan, shortest lives at the top, longest lives at the bottom until we reach the “still living” cluster. Their departure is delayed, but not indefinitely.

5. jazz-musicians-ranked-by-lifespan

A good place to stop. Rodrigo’s clean and elegant graphics are a delight. All the ink works, nothing decorates.

ljcthinkLJC Thinks: Reading a few biographies of jazz musicians you note lives cut short, the common-place presence of narcotics, run-ins with the law, miles on the road, the money hassles, offset against one of the most satisfying of all  human creative activities: making music, with other people. With improvisation. We should be grateful modern  jazz happened at all, let alone that it has survived as long as it has.

However perhaps most of all, we should be grateful for the long playing record, without which we might not have known that it ever existed at all. And RVG for being there to record it all.


I suspect jazz musicians come out fairly well against other music genres: rock,  heavy metal , punk, and hip-hop all seem to take heavy casualties. The dead rock stars club seems to cover just about everybody, however you have to say with “rock stars” premature death seems part of the lifestyle.

My favourite writing on the subject was the poem by one of the ’60’s Liverpool Poets,  Roger McGough, who for the benefit of posterity I cite here in full:

Let Me Die A Young man’s Death

“Let me die a young man’s death
not a clean and in between
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death


When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an all-night party


Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommy-guns burst in
and give me a short back and insides


Or when I’m 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one


Let me die a young man’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death


Roger McGough


I laud the sentiments, all very ’60’s. “Mind, how you go”.  McGough is still active writing. Personally I think I’d like to hang on a bit longer too, so much more music still to hear, and collect.

Question to you: Which artists early departure left the most unfulfilled promise, and which artists, living or departed, do you think have made the biggest contribution to “modern jazz”? You can nominate as many as you like, up to three or four, OK, twist my arm, five.



Not every jazz musician has been included, the choice has been a personal one by Rodrigo, his charts, his favourites. Thanks again Rodrigo. .


31 thoughts on “Jazz Musician’s Lifespan – every picture tells a story (updated)

  1. There’s one artist I’d like to mention: Don Sleet, trumpeter. Years ago I bought the CD “All Members” mostly for the line up (Wynton Kelly, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb), ’cause I hadn’t really heard of Don Sleet yet. At home I listened to the CD while I read the booklet, finding out how that he died at age 47.

    Don Sleet’s brother wrote a great story on Jazzwax in response to this, also great, article 😉

  2. doc-ignorance: Vagif Mustafazade, how many of us did know this man?
    and the poem suggested me with:
    Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
    Thus unlamented let me die;
    Steal from the world, and not a stone
    Tell where I lie.
    we are lucky enough to be able to preserve the art of many disappeared heroes on vinyl, not stone.
    damn! Fat girl+Clifford+Booker: where could have gone trumpet?

  3. Please add Ray Brown and Reggie Workman, two most incredible jazz bassist to your list.
    Brown’s life span . . .October 13, 1926 – July 2, 2002, and Reggie born June 26, 1937, and still kicking at only 76 years young.

  4. The one and probably most obvious chart missing is “Cause Of Death” Car Crash (C Brown), Overdose (C Baker), Shot (L Morgan), Diabetic Complications (Cannonball, E Dolphy) etc.

  5. Bix left us way too soon. I would have loved to hear him evolve. Also who couldn’t use more Dolphy? 🙂

  6. I think one of the mot astonishing achievements within his short lifetime was that of Paul Chambers. Wikipedia says he lived until he was 33 not 28, but even so, it’s incredible just how many of the classic 50s and 60s sessions, many highly collectible, on which he appears. Was there a link between these prolific recording appearances and ill-health? When you consider the sheer number of Blue Note hard-bop blowing dates, it makes you wonder whether the sessions were a way of life for drug addicted players who always needed to pick up a cheque, and quickly.
    It goes without saying that being a jazz musician was hardly a lucrative profession. And now it strikes me as almost cruelly ironic that collectors are paying thousands for records by musicians who lived very modest if not impoverished lives.
    As far as unrealised potential goes, the cruelest deaths must be the trumpeters Booker Little, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, all of whom left a quite sparse recording legacy.

  7. Very cool charts! Some great discussions could be and will be started with these observations. I know Rodrigo picked his favorites and nobody can include everybody, but I would perhaps add a few more for future reference (Grant Greene, Thad Jones, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown, Jackie McLean, Kenny Burrell, Duke Jordan, Jaco Pastorius, Sonny Terry, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Phil Woods, Count Basie, Elmo Hope, Ike Quebec, Sun Ra, Paul Quinichette, Oscar Peterson…) I know, anybody can point out somebody that isn’t listed, but these are the ones that stood out to me.
    Thanks, LJC & Rodrigo. Great work!

  8. A very interesting series of charts and if their author can be persuaded to add extra names they would be even better (not to mention the addition of a few of our dear friends, the flautists and Hammond organists).

    With regard to lost talents, I’m sure we would all like to know what direction John Coltrane would have gone in next? An ensemble sharing lead roles with Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix perhaps?

    Being a bit cheeky here, but it was a shame Jutta Hipp retired when she did.

  9. coltrane was at his apex when he died, if you ask me. albert ayler would have probably had some interesting things to say had he lived on. charlie parker of course. eric dolphy. there you go.

    • I would have named the same 4 musicians, all of them heavyweight champions. at the moment of their death Trane was following a new path only (see Expression). Ayler was trying a rockish way I don’t like, Bird and Eric into their own, well established, which I do like.

  10. The obvious in my way of thinking . . . .Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.

    There are three trumpet players in my list. If I could name more, John Coltrane would round out my list.

    • I should add, in my opinion this list of artist made the greatest contribution to modern jazz.

      I need a hold new list for the ones who’s early departure left the most unfulfilled promise. Again, trumpet players like Lee, Kenny Dorham, and Clifford Brown would make my list.

      Sorry, your question was in two parts.

      • Lee died fairly young and certainly very tragically, but I disagree on the “unfulfilled promise”. He made more than a handful of stellar records (30-ish as band leader) and, in my opinion, the earlier the better. I think he was on a gradual decline creatively for some years. Although his biggest success was with The Sidewinder (was actually used in a Chrysler ad at the time), to me, his stand out work was in ’56-57. I’m not convinced he was building up to anything that was left missing – but who’s to say? Still a great loss.

        • Hi Arick

          According to Lee’s estranged wife of mistress (whoever she was), he hated Sidewinder. Go figure, his greatest recording in the eyes of the public, and he disliked it.

          I disagree that he was on a decline. With his recording “Lee Morgan Live at the Lighthouse,” he was charting a new direction in his music I believe. It would have been nice to see how he developed, assuming he stayed off the stuff, and away from all the other destructive behavior he was so famous for, blah, blah, blah.

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