The Top 25 Pianists Of The 20th Century
(in alphabetical order)
Ferrante & Teicher
Jerry Lee Lewis
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
Never in piano history has a pianist achieved so much by playing
so little.The perfect example of quality over quantity. During
the swing era the piano was frequently subordinate to the big
band. Masters such as Basie and Duke Ellington used it with grace
and power, but more as an ornament than as an elite instrument.
Bebop pianists like Bud Powell and in a radically different way,
Thelonius Monk reclaimed the piano as a central jazz instrument.
But Count Basie understood economy. His three note signature ending
is the perfect exclamation point to almost any big band arrangement.
Brubeck was always an innovator never content to rest on his laurels.
In the 1960’s he began exploring unusual meters. Contemporary
classical composers had been doing this for some time, but jazz
for all its freedom and innovation was still mostly tied to 4/4
time. “Take Five”, written in 5/4 was a genuinely
popular hit, (Brubeck claimed he was probing the African roots
of jazz) and gave him an entire new following. For all his buoyancy,
he was also considered cerebral. For many listeners in the 50’s
and 60’s Brubeck was the sound of “progressive”
jazz. It became “cool” to listen. It still is.
It took a tall, lanky, twenty three year old Texan to do what
American politicans could not...take Moscow by storm. At the height
of the cold war Van Cliburn enchanted the hearts of Americans
and Russians alike with an unpretentious personality and impeccable
musicanship. After winning the Soviet sponsored Tchaikovsky International
Piano Competition, Van Cliburn was thrust into a meteoric career
that made him a cultural hero tantamount to the Beatles, complete
with a New York ticker tape parade down Broadway. Van Cliburn
now has his own piano competition held every four years in Fort
In the mid 1960’s Chick Corea began to shape a new jazz
sound beginning with electric piano and graduating to more sophisticated
synthesizers. Along with Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, Corea
explored these new electronic horizons to produce some of the
most original, imaginative and complex sounds heard from a keyboard.
A gifted composer, his composition “Spain” has entered
into into general jazz repertoire.
In the 1950’s, County Western music had to “twang.”
Singers could twang, fiddles and guitars did, and the “steel”
guitar was the twangy-est. But the piano? Floyd Cramer and his
“bent” note technique became the defining country
piano sound. This technique was virtually copied by anyone daring
to call themselves a country piano player. Cramer began as a session
pianist and after his solo hit “Last Date “ became
a featured performer and best selling recording artist.
Bill Evans seemed to perform neurosurgery at the piano.The impact
Evans had on American jazz piano is felt as much today as when
it appeared full blown in the late fifties. A whole school of
younger pianists have taken Evans’ contribution of harmonic
substitutions as a point of departure and have expanded, re-evaluated
and developed his subtle and introspective keyboard style. The
Evans approach was not only virtuosic but illuminating, shading
every phrase and fill with his remarkable touch and precision.
The duo piano team of Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher were affectionately
dubbed “the movie theme team”. This was a well earned
nickname indeed. Starting in 1960 with the international success
of their recording “Theme From The Apartment,” F&T
brought instrumental film music and duo piano to new heights of
popularity. Before the end of the decade they had sold over 20
million records. Their phenomenal backlog of recordings has been
packaged and repackaged into an incredible 194 albums. No less
than 30 of their albums charted in Billboard between1961 and 1972-
statistics impressive enough to turn most rock and roll bands
that dominated this era green with envy.
Gershwin loved to play the piano. He played it magnificently -
and at the least provocation. George’s penchant for hogging
the piano all night at every social gathering was well known.
Gershwin friend, pianist Oscar Levant once remarked, “An
Evening with George Gershwin is a George Gershwin evening”
Undoubtedly it is Gershwin’s music which is his legacy,
but anyone who leaves the world “Rhapsody In Blue”,
has influenced piano playing and composition to the max.
Eccentricities were part of The Gould legend. They included the
gloves, scarf and overcoat he wore - even in the heat of summer;
the piano stool he carried with him which enabled him to play
at eye level with the keyboard; his humming and singing along
while he played and his quirky phrasing and unconventional tempos.
But it was his mathmatical, fresh playing of Bach on the modern
piano that made us rethink the possibilities of his music. He
was also extremely protective of his digits. He once begged off
shaking a friends hands by saying, “Oh, excuse me, I’m
not shaking hands this year.”
From his days as a sideman with leaders like Cal Tjader and Woody
Herman to his cross over “pops” breakthrough in 1962
with “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” and the “Charlie
Brown” television specials, Vince Guaraldi’s pop based
lyricism created a entire new generation of jazz fans. His playing
did not shoot off fireworks in a tecno-wiz way, but its not as
simplified as the casual listener may think. His piano solos sometimes
dipped into a lush and even dense harmonic sense that marks the
Bill Evans / Herbie Hancock school of jazz keyboardist. Charlie
Brown’s piano playing friend Schroeder has similar qualities.
The impact of Horowitz on the American piano scene was nuclear.
He mesmerized audiences and fellow pianists with a technique so
astounding that he is considered to be perhaps the greatest pianist
of the century if not in pianistic history. Fellow pianists listened
closely with a I-hear-it-but-I-don’t-beleive-it look on
their face. As a technician he was demonic; blinding scales, thunderous
chords, dazzling finger work and machine gun octaves. No matter
how difficult the piece, Horowitz seemed to barely work up a sweat.
His own transcription of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes
Forever “ would leave an audience stunned and his smoking
Steinway begging for mercy. His well known eccentricities add
to a portrait of a man who became one of the most controversial,
extraordinarily popular and towering musicians of this or any
OK, we know that this P.T. Barnum of the keyboard is not a pianist
per se, but during the eighties and nineties, few have been able
to raise the visibility and popularity of the piano with younger
people more than Elton John. This talented Britisher, who’s
real name is Reg Dwight, displays extravagant stage antics and
costumes worthy of Liberace. His name, face, and music is inextricably
connected with the piano. Elton John an influential pianist,?
OK, maybe not. But as a goodwill ambassador extraordinaire for
our beloved instrument, this Captain Fantastic of the ivories
is a superstar!
In 1979, Marvin Hamlisch, and the Academy Award winning film “The
Sting”, brought back the music of an early pioneer of ragtime
and jazz. Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” became
one of the most popular piano hit’s of the 70’s, and
gave us a closer look at this extraordinary composer / pianists
brief but bright career. Joplin’s rags continue to delight,
(is their anyone who doesn’t smile while listening to Maple
Leaf Rag?) and his influence was felt and acknowledged by Jelly
Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and George Gershwin.
A man not associated with subtly, Jerry Lee Lewis has been quoted
thus : “I can play more piano with my d - - k, (rhymes with
hick) than most piano players can play with all ten fingers.”
This remarkable feat notwithstanding, Jerry Lee Lewis was the
first to bring Rock n’ Roll piano to millions beginning
in the 1950’s. He didn’t so much play the piano as
attack, mug, beat, and otherwise thrash the poor beast to death.
This technique of “smash mouth” piano did not go unnoticed
later by Keith Emmerson and the band The Who.
Where to begin. The candelabra, outrageous costumes, a piano shaped swimming pool, his mother, his brother, the smile, the voice, all belonging exclusively to “Mr. Showmanship”, Walter Valentino Liberace. No doubt the only pianist in history to arrive on stage in a Rhinestone studded Rolls Royce and make his exit while flying (ala Mary Martin.) This legendary superstar never failed to delight, with his unique style of piano playing, not classical, not jazz, but a hybrid ornamental style all his own. He entertained countless millions of devoted fans through his own television show, recordings, live concerts and even the movies. Ignoring the jibes of his many critics, he laughingly replied, “I’m crying all the way to the bank.” He eventually bought the bank.
Hail the conquering Nero! The ultimate pops pianist, Brooklyn
born Peter Nero has established an impressive forty year career
as a virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger and conductor. At fourteen,
then Bernie Nierow, was attending New York's High School of Music
and Arts and won a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music.
In his early twenties, his early recordings for RCA established
the “Nero style”, which frequently combines contemporary
hits with classical masterworks and brilliant jazz improvisation.
His recordings of “Mountain Greenery” and “I
Got Rhythm” are studies in virtuosic pop piano playing.
Nero’s career has produced two grammy awards, ten grammy
nominations, a million selling gold album, "Summer Of ‘42",
a movie score and over 66 albums selling into the millions.
A great explosion of hair, his romantic and courtly presence combined
with magnetism, glamour, and a dose of world politics, (he was
Prime Minister of Poland), Ignacy Jan Paderewski was pianism personified
to an adoring public. But was he the greatest pianist of his time?
Probably not. His very early recordings, circa 1911, confirm this.
He frequently took the easy way out, simplifying difficult passages,
and when the going got tough simply slowing down. Yet few pianists
could have thrilled a public for so long without having had something
that few artists in history could equal; a projection of personality
and style that was awesome. What with his private railroad car,
his personal chef, aides, his wife and her aides, butler, masseur,
physician and tuner, his tours were more like regal processions.
He was an unparalleled showman who used his fallable pianistic
gifts to hew for himself a fantastic career. So while his critics
were counting his wrong notes, he was counting his dollars.
The heir apparent to Art Tatum’s keyboard sorcery is Oscar
Peterson. This Canadian born pianist has an encyclopedic mastery
of jazz piano and has probably recorded more music than any other
jazz pianist in history. Many believe Oscar combines the best
elements of a jazz piano using stride, swing, as well as bop,
producing a big band sound without the band. Peterson’s
athletic left hand combine with his fluid, nonstop, melodic right
hand makes for a case study in the man who can do it all.
The lank, dour, unsmiling figure of Sergi Rachmaninoff, with his
cast iron face and shaved head, could easily be mistaken for an
escaped convict. At the piano he displayed one of the most colossal
techniques in pianistic history. If Sergi had never played a note
his abilities as a composer would have landed him in the piano
hall of fame. His Second Piano Concerto is one of the top five
performed and recorded and his familiar Prelude in C sharp minor,
(which he grew to loath), is standard repertiore. His musical
ideas were as big as hands. He could play a left hand chord of
C, E-flat, G,C, and G, (If you are a pianist, run to your keyboard
and try it), and would account for the murderous figurations in
his own music. Rachmaninoff became a professional pianist late
in life through economic necessity. Up to then he had used the
piano primarily to introduce his own music. But his polish and
unflawed perfection at the keyboard, doomed him to a life on the
concert stage. What a pity.
As the man, so his music. Rubinstein loved people, loved life
and loved to play the piano. He was a polished,witty, and highly
intelligent man, all reflected in his playing. Great sentiment
without sentimentality, brilliance without unnecessary virtuosity.
He was always considered to be the ultimate romantic pianist.
Mozart and Bach played a relatively small part of his repertoire.
His Chopin playing - and he was considered to be the greatest
of all Chopin-ist - unfolds with poetry and aristocrity. A natural
pianist with well designed hands (broad palms, spatulate fingers,
a little finger almost as long as his middle one and a healthy
stretch that could take in a twelfth: C to G), Rubinstein found
he memorized instantly and had to practice hardly at all. (now,
isn’t that just too bad) Even in his nineties his playing
remained that of a young man in love with wine, women and song.
In 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote : “They urged him to get up
and play. He did. He played innumerable choruses with amazing
chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed
all over the piano, and everybody listened in awe and fright.
They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his
dark corner, old god Shearing, and the boys said, “there
ain’t nothin’ left after that.” When George
Shearing unveiled his innovative quintet sound in 1949, it seemed
to straddle the worlds of chamber music and bebop combos. The
Shearing “sound” while undeniably jazz, shows a restraint
and attention to development that could set standards for any
Born with cataracts, blind in one eye and diminishing vision in
the other, Art Tatum had a reputation for pianistic dexterity
that astounded even Vladimir Horowitz. His dazzling improvisations
are studies in melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sophistication.
Listening to his recording of “Willow Weep For Me”
, most jazz pianists weep for their inadequacies. Fats Waller
was once giving a concert when he spotted Art Tatum in the audience
and made a comment that could have become Tatums epithet: “I
play the piano, but God is in the house.”
Piano great James P. Johnson, once said, “Some little people
have music in them, but Fats, he was all music, and you know how
big he was.” (For the record he was 5 feet 101/2 inches
tall and weighed 285 pounds.) The success of Fats Waller’s
piano playing, songs, records, movies and radio appearances made
him one of the first jazz piano superstars. Fats raised the art
of stride piano to its highest level and in doing so became one
of the originators of swing music. Listening to the joy and laughter
of “Ain’t Misbehavin,” we can revel in his genius
and say right along with him, “One never knows, do one?”
Probably the only pianist to ever have worked as a lumberjack
to pay for his musical studies, Roger Williams, named as Billboard
magazine’s “America’s #1 selling popular pianist
in history”, qualifies for the title “Mr. Piano.”
His first single, “Autumn Leaves,” sold more than
three million copies and led to a string of piano hits. He has
over 100 albums to his credit including seventeen gold albums.
Williams, originally Louis Weertz, attended the Julliard School
of Music and studied with jazz great Teddy Wilson.