The woodwind family includes everything from the snazzy saxophone to the delightfully captivating clarinet, and even the charming bagpipes of Scotland. Such a diverse and robust assortment of instruments only naturally leads to a diverse and extraordinary assortment of musicians from all over the world. Did you know Steven Spielberg was an ace on the clarinet; and Halle Berry rocked the flute in high school?
Whether you’re a long-time dedicated reed player, trying to choose which instrument to pick up for yourself, or simply love listening to the crisp and joyful sounds of woodwinds, we can all appreciate and learn a little something from the best of the best. Check out some of the most renowned woodwind masters, and the marks they’ve made on the music world.
1. John Coltrane – Saxophone
Next to former President Bill Clinton, Coltrane is the most recognizable saxophone player of all time. This saxophone master made a huge impact on the world of brass during the 1960s as part of a musical quartet. While Coltrane is most associated with his jazz ensemble work, he was no less impressive on his own — even in his later years he performed solo concerts with shocking stamina. Some of his later work is considered pretty complicated, even for well-versed musicians, but it serves as an inspiration of how truly magical the saxophone can sound, with talent and dedication behind it.
2. Martin Fröst – Clarinet
Martin Fröst is one of the world’s most well-known clarinet players, and he’s said to be among the most unconventional alive today. From Sweden, Fröst performs as a solo clarinet player with prominent orchestras like the Austrian Camerata Salzburg, the Hamburg Symphony, and the German Chamber Philharmonic Breman. His unique style is characterized by unusual compositions incorporating dance and acting alongside modern music, making for an intriguing performance for all ages. The Times says, “Until you’ve heard Martin Fröst, you haven’t heard the clarinet.” Fono Forum calls him “one of the most interesting, virtuosic and daring musicians of our time.”
3. Jeane-Pierre Rampal – Flute
Jeane-Pierre Rampal passed away in 2000, but remains to be one of the most popular flute players in modern history. Rampal is best known for bringing the flute back into vogue after its popularity began to decline in the 18th century. He rose to fame in the 1960s and through the 1980s, and became no stranger to highly acclaimed venues like Carnegie Hall. He played in areas like the U.S. and Japan, performing around 200 shows per year.
Throughout his career, Rampal performed with every major orchestra and recorded many songs, several of which have won the Grand Prix du Disques. Though Rampal is one of the most recorded classical musicians, he wasn’t afraid to broaden his horizons by playing in recordings of American ragtime, European jazz, English folk songs, and even a song with Miss Piggy of the Muppets.
4. George Phillip Telemann – Oboe
The oboe isn’t typically a first-choice instrument for new learners, but musicians advanced as George Phillip Telemann truly know how to make this instrument sound fantastic. Born in Germany in the 17th century, Telemann was a self-taught Baroque composer — he originally studied law, but later decided to pursue a career in music and composing, against his family’s wishes.
In 1721, Telemann settled in Hamburg, where he worked with the city’s five main churches as the musical director. Though he was well known for his musical compositions, Telemann also performed proficiently after teaching himself oboe, flute, recorder, violin, and more. With no formal training outside of his own dedication to music, he became one of the most well-known oboe players in history.
5. Lindsay Cooper – Oboe and Bassoon
Lindsay Cooper was an English musician who lived from 1951 to 2013. She began learning piano at the age of 11, but throughout her time performing, she became specialized in double reed woodwind instruments — namely the oboe and the bassoon.
Cooper collaborated with many musicians, including Sally Potter and Chris Cutler. She was a member of News from Babel, David Thomas and the Pedestrians, and Comus; and she even helped found the Feminist Improvising Group. She went on to write music for television and film, and even recorded several solo albums.
Cooper was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but didn’t let the condition stop her — in fact, much of her career took place after her diagnosis, and she continued for nearly 20 years until she could no longer perform live. She was a living example of how much you can accomplish, despite failing physical health, with plenty of passion and motivation.