Born in Philadelphia, he played a number of instruments before his father bought him his first saxophone at the age of 13. In 1943, at the age of 16, he was accepted in Jack Teagarden's band. After playing in various other bands (1944 Stan Kenton; 1945 Jimmy Dorsey; 1945-46 Benny Goodman) he was best known as a soloist in the Woody Herman Band from 1947-49.
In the 1950s, Getz became quite popular playing cool jazz with Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, and many others. In order to escape his drug addiction (for which he had gotten arrested in 1954), he temporarily moved to Denmark in 1958.
After returning to America in 1961, he began his work with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and the singers Joćo and Astrud Gilberto. Their collaboration on "The Girl from Ipanema" (1963), one of today's most well known jazz pieces altogether, made Jobim's style known as bossa nova more popular.
After another drug-induced hiatus in Malaga, Spain, from 1969, Getz toured and recorded heavily in the 1970s and 1980s until his death from cancer at Malibu in 1991. In his later years, he de-emphasized bossa as his style of choice, opting for more challenging, and perhaps less mainstream jazz.