Best, Denzil

  • Birth name: Denzil DaCosta Best
  • Born: April 27, 1917 New York City, NY USA
  • Died: May 24, 1965 (Age 48)
  • Genres: Bebop
  • Occupation: Percussionist, composer
  • Instruments: Drums, percussion
  • Labels: RCA, Columbia, Capital, Blue Note
  • Associated Acts: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jackett, Chubby Jackson, George Shearing, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Artie Shaw, Erroll Garner.
  • Influences: 
  • Authored: 
  • On the Web: Denzil Best


Denzil was born into a musical West Indian family originally from Barbados. Trained on piano, trumpet, and bass, he concentrated on the drums starting in 1943. Between 1943 and 1944 he worked with Ben Webster, and subsequently with Coleman Hawkins (1944–45), Illinois Jacquet (1946) and Chubby Jackson. Denzil was known to sit in at Minton’s Playhouse. He took part in a recording with George Shearing in 1948 and was a founding member of his Quartet, staying there until 1952. In 1949 he played on a recording with Lennie Tristano and later with Lee Konitz.

In a 1953 car accident he fractured both legs and was forced into temporary retirement until 1954, when he played with Artie Shaw, and then in a trio with Erroll Garner (1955–57). Denzil later played with Phineas Newborn, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Tyree Glenn, and in 1962 appeared on the first release by Sheila Jordan. He suffered from paralysis after this and was no longer able to play. He died in 1965, at the age of 48, after falling down a staircase in a New York City Subway station.


Denzil composed several well-known bebop tunes, including “Move” (which featured, arranged by John Lewis, on the seminal 1957 Miles Davis album, Birth of the Cool), “Wee”, “Nothing but D. Best”, and “Dee Dee’s Dance”, as well as Thelonious Monk‘s “Bemsha Swing“. Best’s composition “45 Degree Angle” was recorded by Herbie Nichols and Mary Lou Williams.


Unlike many bebop drummers, who loaded the musical space with accents against the prevailing meter to create rhythmic intensity, Denzil resumed the legato development of Jo Jones. He played on the beat and rarely used loud accents. Playing in this way he was not only a model for cool jazz but also influenced countless bar combos. Denzil was also renowned for his brush work: fellow drummer Jake Hanna said that he “might be the best brush player of all drummers”, and Elvin Jones listed him in his top three. Denzil was the drummer on the popular Erroll Garner Concert by the Sea recording, along with bassist Eddie Calhoun.