Welcome to our rough guide to some of the main types of jazz; the styles and sub-genres within the music.
The term ‘jazz’ covers a very broad selection of music, and two recordings or musicians labelled as such may, at least superficially, appear to have very little in common with each other.
The first jazz recording was made in 1917 (by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) and in the century or so since then the music has seen some radical innovations and upheavals.
In comparison, within Western classical music the Baroque period lasted for around 150 years (c. 1600-1750) and the Romantic period lasted approximately 110 years (c. 1800-1910).
Whereas in jazz we’ve had all of the following styles – and more – in the space of only 100 or so years, with most types enjoying a period of dominance for only a decade or so.
As always, things are more complex than this…
People didn’t suddenly stop playing swing music when bebop appeared, and some musicians will have performed and recorded with a range of different styles. Others don’t fit neatly into categories.
Many of these labels were pushed by the media or record companies, and the musicians themselves may not have identified themselves along these lines.
With internet access in the 21st Century it is easier than ever to hear almost the entire history of jazz at the touch of a button, and there are now present-day musicians who play in all of these styles.
1920s jazz/Trad jazz/New Orleans jazz/Early jazz
Early jazz developed in the 1910s in the ‘melting pot’ of New Orleans, as players combined influences including ragtime, blues and marching band music to create a jazz of jazz that was heavy on collective, polyphonic improvisation.
Trumpeter Louis Armstrong was jazz’s first major soloist, and his recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven are some of the most important of the 20th Century. Bix Beiderbecke played in a lighter, ‘sweeter’ way than the more operatic Armstrong, with Bix’s trumpet often accompanied by the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.
Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton was another key innovator of 1920s jazz.
Key recordings: Louis Armstrong – Complete Hot Five & Seven Recordings; Bix Beiderbecke – Riverboat Shuffle (1924-1929); Jelly Roll Morton – Complete Recorded Work, 1926-1930
Swing music & big bands
From the early 1930s until the late 1940s big band swing was the most popular style of music in the USA, and many of the most important bandleaders were huge mainstream stars.
Bands usually containing between 11 and 20 musicians would play music that combined ensemble passages, often riff-based, with solo sections to entertain large audiences of dancers.
Duke Ellington, considered by many to be the greatest composer in jazz, was a key bandleader, as were virtuoso clarinettist Benny Goodman, pianist Count Basie, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, the ever-popular Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.
The era also saw the emergence of a number of soloists, with Coleman Hawkins notably establishing the tenor saxophone as an important jazz instrument.
Lester Young, who like Hawkins first found fame with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, was also highly influential, as were alto saxophonists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, pianists Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, and trumpeters Roy Eldgridge and Rex Stewart. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday also first appeared singing with big bands during this period.
A number of factors contributed to the decline of the big band era, as it became harder for bandleaders to keep such large ensembles consistently employed. Although many of the groups disbanded, a few – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton in particular – were able to keep producing important records well beyond the 1940s.
Key recordings: Count Basie – the Original American Decca Recordings; Duke Ellington – The Blanton-Webster Band; Lester Young – The Lester Young Story; Benny Goodman – the Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert; Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul
The swing era largely focused upon music for dancing and entertainment. As a reaction against this came bebop, a style that was fiercely intellectual and very much meant for serious listening.
From the mid-1940s alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell all improvised complex linear phrases full of surprising accents and chromatic passing notes, often at very fast tempos.
Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem was a key breeding ground, with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian exploring the new sounds at all-night jam sessions.
Players would often write intricate new melodies over the chord progressions of existing jazz standards, in part so they could claim the composition royalties themselves. Examples include ‘Ornithology’ (based upon ‘How High The Moon’), ‘Donna Lee’ (based upon ‘Indiana’) and ‘Anthropology’ (based upon ‘I Got Rhythm’).
Key recordings: Charlie Parker – The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings; Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie – Jazz at Massey Hall; Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1; Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell (Volume 1)
Guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grapelli created the first major European jazz group when they established the Quintette du Hot Club de France in the late 1930s.
With an instrumentation that only featured string instruments, without drums (Reinhardt, Grapelli, two rhythm guitarists and double bass), the Quintette’s softer sound allowed the pair’s virtuosic soloing to be heard clearly.
Gypsy jazz remains popular as a subgenre that is influenced by the American jazz tradition but is very much a unique style, with its own language and repertoire, much of which is composed by Reinhardt.
This type of jazz has been continued by more recent musicians including Biréli Lagrène and the Rosenberg Trio.
Key recording: Django Reinhardt – The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order
In the late 1940s and through the 1950s a softer, more relaxed style of playing was marketed as an alternative to the ‘hotter’, more frantic bebop that was dominant at the time.
Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, with impressionistic arrangements by Gil Evans, is a key sound, as are Gerry Mulligan’s chordless quartet and the cerebral work of pianist-teacher Lennie Tristano and his disciples.
Many players, including Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims and Mulligan, were highly influenced by the swing era saxophonist Lester Young. Artists such as Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet utilised complex arrangements that were influenced by classical music.
West Coast jazz – bringing to mind images of sun-soaked 1950s Los Angeles, and musicians like Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Bud Shank – is another subgenre which has some crossover with Cool jazz.
Key cool jazz recordings: Check out our list of best Cool Jazz Albums of all time
Hard Bop & Soul Jazz
In the mid-1950s the sounds of bebop began to be blended with the influence of rhythm and blues and gospel music, to create a funkier type of music with simpler melodies and a more overt blues influence.
Some view this as a conscious move towards a more Afrocentric sound as a reaction against Cool jazz, which placed relatively little emphasis upon the blues.
Blue Note Records released many of the artists pioneering this new sound: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (initially with Horace Silver on piano – Silver’s church-influenced ‘The Preacher’ is a good example of the style), Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd and others.
Trumpeter Clifford Brown’s group with Max Roach was also extremely important, as was Miles Davis’s First Great Quintet.
An extension of hard bop is soul jazz, which places more importance upon the influence of gospel music and rhythm and blues. It became popular in the mid/late 1960s, often featuring the sound of the Hammond organ.
Key hard bop albums & recordings: Check out our list of the best hard bop albums in jazz history
Western harmony traditionally relies upon a tonal key centre with related chords and cadences. Modal harmony, however, takes a chord and corresponding scale (or mode), where it may remain for some time or move to another, possibly unrelated mode.
Musicians began to experiment with composing in this way in the late 1950s, inspired by theoretical work of George Russell. Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ (from the album of the same name) and ‘So What’ (from Kind of Blue) are key early examples, where players improvise within a mode for extended periods; John Coltrane would intensify this approach with his classic 1960s quartet.
During the mid-1960s composers like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson further utilised ‘non-functional harmony’, writing music that moved more quickly between chords and corresponding scales in sometimes surprising ways.
Key recordings: Miles Davis – Kind of Blue; John Coltrane – A Love Supreme; Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage; Joe Henderson – Inner Urge; Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil; McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy; Miles Davis – E.S.P.
Bossa nova and Latin jazz
Jazz has always included what Jelly Roll Morton referred to as a ‘Spanish tinge’, dating back to the music’s origins in the melting pot of New Orleans in the early 20th Century.
In the late 1940s Dizzy Gillespie pioneered Afro-Cuban jazz with his big band, and in collaboration with the composer and percussionist Chano Pozo, who wrote the Latin jazz standards ‘Manteca’ and ‘Tin Tin Deo’.
In the mid-1960s Bossa nova, a fusion of Brazilian samba and jazz harmony, became incredibly popular, with American saxophonist Stan Getz recording a Grammy-winning collaboration with Brazilian guitarist/singer Joao Gilberto.
The album’s biggest hit was ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, which like many of the most famous Bossa novas was composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Numerous jazz musicians have since taken inspiration from various types of Latin music.
Key latin jazz recordings: Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto; Dizzy Gillespie – Afro; Kenny Dorham – Afro-Cuban; Antônio Carlos Jobim – Wave; Elis Regina and Antônio Carlos Jobim – Elis and Tom; The New Stan Getz Quartet featuring Astrud Gilberto – Getz Au Go-Go
Free jazz/Avant garde
Free jazz developed in America during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as musicians sought to break down and reject conventions within bebop and hard bop that they found restrictive, including harmony and chord changes, regular tempos, and compositional forms.
Ornette Coleman’s ground-breaking quartet played music that was swinging, bluesy and based upon memorable melodies, but with solo sections that dispensed with rigid form and harmony.
American free jazz in the 1960s was often proudly Afrocentric, with links to the civil rights movement.
The term Avant garde jazz is often used interchangeably with free jazz, but it may also use more written material, often taking influence from contemporary classical music.
European ‘improvised music’ began to develop later in the 1960. It tends to be less connected to the jazz tradition than earlier American free jazz, and often doesn’t contain any prepared material at all.
Key free jazz recordings: Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come; Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch; John Coltrane – Ascension; Alice Coltrane – Universal Consciousness; Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures; Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity; Peter Brötzmann – Nipples
In the late 1960s jazz musicians began to use electric instruments and take on the influence of the rock music and funk that were popular at the time. Larry Coryell’s Free Spirits was an important band early in the new music’s development, as was Charles Lloyd’s quartet, which played to large audiences and was associated with the psychedelic rock scene of the day.
Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way in 1969, both of which were controversial with jazz purists, with long tunes and loose, improvised forms.
Herbie Hancock’s funky brand of fusion in the 1970s also incorporated elements of disco and soul, while others, like Weather Report and some of Wayne Shorter’s solo work utilised intricate forms and chord sequences.
Key recordings: Miles Davis – In a Silent Way; Miles Davis – Bitches Brew; the Mahavishnu Orchestra – Mahavishnu; Herbie Hancock – Headhunters; Weather Report – Heavy Weather; Wayne Shorter – Atlantis
Of course, there are many more sub-genres and niches of jazz – as well as all sorts of twists and turns inside each of these – but we hope this article has given you a broad, chronological overview of some of the most famous or important types of jazz in its relatively short history.
If you’d like to suggest others that we should include, feel free to use the comments section.