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Miami's Top Ten Jazz Musicians

Miami's Top Ten Jazz Musicians
Photo by Manny Iriarte

We've been having some fun lately with these "Best of All Time" lists. But today, we will refrain from saying these jazz musicians were/are the best of all time. No, they are jazz musicians of note who made Miami their home. A best-of-all-time list would be way too long, and to explain that, I will quote myself from 11 years ago:

"For those who think that jazz was a phenomenon restricted to Chicago or New York City, here's a heads up. From the late Sixties through the mid-Eighties, South Florida was the kind of place that awoke goggle-eyed from stiff drinks and glorious, honest performances. Miami had it, and for the players, the money was there. A musician could make a living gigging here three to five nights a week. Of course, a few parameters existed that allowed for such circumstances: crowds, venues, and talent."

South Florida used to be a jazz mecca. These musicians helped ensure that distinction.

See also: Miami's 16 Best Latin Rock Bands of All Time

10. Pete Minger

George Allen "Pete" Minger was a trumpeter and flugelhorn player who had the distinction of working with the Count Basie Orchestra during the '70s. He released a pair of solo albums, Minger Paintings and Look to the Sky. Like many on this list, he was a University of Miami graduate and instructor. A featured trumpeter on many occasions, Minger was a frequent live local during the '90s. Sadly, he passed away at only 57 years of age in 2000.

9. Ira Sullivan

Originally from Chicago, Ira Sullivan, now in his early 80s, has been a resident of South Florida since the late 1960s and has been one of the more virtuosic musicians to call Miami home. Equally adept on the trumpet and flugelhorn as the alto, soprano and tenor saxophones, Sullivan brought some of the Chicago hard-bop to Miami Beach's fledgling jazz scene back in the day.

See also: Miami's Five Best Jazz Clubs

 

8. William T. Peeples

Peeples was a powerhouse bebop-styled jazz drummer who backed many musicians after relocating to Miami in the 1960s. Even R&B and rock 'n' roll fans will recognize him as Ray Charles' drummer during the '50s. Among his many achievements, he kept the beat on "I Got a Woman," Charles' first number-one R&B single back in 1954. Peeples passed away in 2004.

7. Don Wilner

Doctor Wilner is one of the few on this list who is both a jazz and classical musician. This noted bassist has performed with a multitude of artists and he was described by jazz critic Doug Ramsey as "an astonishing bass player whether bowing, walking, interacting ... or covering the instrument from top to bottom in his pizzicato solos. His purity of tone and breadth of technique may come from his classical background. They are matched by a time feeling achieved only by musicians with a bone-deep jazz sensibility." Wilner currently teaches in Miami Dade College's music program.

See also: Miami's Ten Best Ska Bands of All Time

 

6. Jesse Jones Jr.

A Miami native, Jesse Jones Jr., along with his brother, Melton Mustafa, is Florida jazz royalty. A true entertainer, he is one of the most engaging musicians on the contemporary jazz scene, partly because of his background with the U.S. Navy's Show Band, with whom he performed as a musician, comedian, and dancer. That experience is still evident in his playing, which is full-bodied and filled with whimsy and mischief. A steady gigger, Jones can be found at clubs and theaters throughout South Florida all year round.

5. Melton Mustafa

One of the most versatile trumpeters in jazz today. Like his brother, the aforementioned Jesse Jones Jr., Melton Mustafa is a king of the scene. He is also an extremely hardworking, which is clearly a family trait. An educator and touring musician, Mustafa is the current director of jazz studies at Florida Memorial University. The school's annual jazz fest (named in his honor) is one of the best local showcases for international and local jazz talent.

See also: Miami's Six Best Latin Clubs

 

Miami's Top Ten Jazz Musicians
Eric Larsen / State Archives of Florida

4. Billy Rolle

Though Billy Rolle might not immediately jump out to you, his impact on South Florida's music and diversity will outlive us all. Along with his wife, the late educator Frankie Rolle who passed earlier this year, Billy was among the key figures in establishing the famous Coconut Grove Goombay Festival. He was an active musician during the '80s with his orchestra, performing at numerous cultural events throughout South Florida. A soulful saxophonist, he was one of the Grove's hidden gems and one of Overtown's hardest-working musicians before the neighborhood was destroyed in the name of I-95. He passed away in 1998.

3. Bob Grabowski

A bassist, writer, photographer, and radio personality, Robert "Be-Bob" Grabowski is also a 20-plus-year veteran of Florida International University's music faculty. For all of Grabowski's accomplishments, though, he might be best known for having been unceremoniously fired by WLRN in 2010 after criticizing the replacement of legendary jazz radio personality Len Pace with an automated feed.

See also: Miami's Ten Best Recording Studios

 

2. Robert Thomas Jr.

Another Miami native, Robert Thomas Jr. rose to fame after joining Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter's jazz fusion outfit Weather Report during the Jaco Pastorius years. Thomas is a drummer and guitarist, but it is his work as a percussionist who vacillates between different jazz styles that made him a perfect fit for the genre-blurring band. He is also widely acknowledged as an innovator of bebop and freestyle hand drumming.

1. Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval was an early member of legendary Cuban jazz band Irakere. After defecting to the U.S. in 1990, Sandoval quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the contemporary scene. And since then, he has called Miami home, bringing back a certain caliber of jazz music and musicians that had waned considerably since South Florida's jazz heyday in the '60s.

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