Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced fan, jazz music can be a very difficult genre to understand. There are so many sub-genres that it’s hard to get a clear picture of what jazz is as a whole — let alone any particular sub-genre.
The playlist below helps set the scene, providing some examples and key jazz songs, serving as both an intro to jazz’s many sub-genres and a chronological history of the genre as a whole. Jazz music has a rich history which we’ll also be outlining in order to set the scene.
Early jazz began its life in the early 20th century in the bustling port of New Orleans, a melting pot of cultures where musical traditions from the Caribbean, Europe and Africa all mingled. Music from around the world had been brought to America by immigrants, and this multicultural community shaped a distinctive style of music that incorporated elements of marching band, blues and ragtime.
This mix of influences is visible in the music’s collective ensemble playing style and in its instrumentation, which includes trombones, banjos and clarinets. Collective improvisation was a key part of the music played by musicians in the bars, social clubs and brothels of Storyville. The main bands gained popularity through the New Orleans melting pot and were led by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, among others.
Examples of Early Jazz:
- Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five – St. James Infirmary
- Bix Beiderbecke – Singin’ The Blues
- Jelly Roll Martin – King Porter Stomp
Big Band & Swing Music
Big band / swing music is a jazz genre that emerged in the 1920s and was popular during the 1930s and 1940s. The term “swing” comes from the tendency for notes to be played with a strong, pronounced rhythm, giving them a swinging feel. In the 1930s and 40s big band swing music was by far the most popular style in America. In particular the big band jazz performed by bands with 12 to 20 players was played out at large venues, particularly in New York City and Chicago.
The music had an ensemble element in which everyone would play together, and individual solo parts where a single musician would play alone on stage. It was for dancers, and great for just about every age as it was a common type of music that everyone could dance to. For many of the jazz greats, this was when they became established stars, including Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Example of Big Band/Swing:
- Count Basie – Splanky
- Duke Ellington – Cotton Tail
- Lester Young – These Foolish Things
- Benny Goodman – Stompin’ At The Savoy
- Coleman Hawkins – Body & Soul
The 1940s saw big band swing at the height of its popularity, and the early part of the decade was dominated by big-name singers and bands. Then came a change, with bebop taking center stage in the jazz world: it was faster, more complex, and favored improvisation over playing from sheet music. This jazz genre emerged from the swing scene, where musicians seeking to inject greater rhythmic and harmonic interest into their arrangements helped spur the evolution of an already forceful style into something much more frenetic.
Bebop was noted for its complexity of rhythm, fast tempos, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation based upon the use of scales rather than chord changes. Whereas ragtime and big band styles prominently featured written melodies, bebop tunes tended to mostly contain all four instruments playing in a tongue-in-cheek manner over complex chord progressions at insanely fast tempos that changed far more frequently than in most earlier forms of jazz with many chords being played for a single beat or even half note at a time.
Examples of Bebop:
- Charlie Parker & Miles Davis – A Night In Tunisia
- Charlie Parker – Donna Lee
- Thelonious Monk – Round Midnight
- Bud Powell – Un Poco Loco
In the years leading up to the First World War, Europe was witnessing a growing phenomenon known as gypsy jazz. The evolution of this genre of jazz music gifted us with one of the most gifted artists in the history of jazz: Django Reinhardt. In fact, the term ‘gypsy jazz’ is in reference to Django, who himself was a member of the Romani ethnic group. Gypsy jazz is a form of jazz with its own unique sound, rhythm and language which evolved from folk music. Gypsy jazz, in a way, is almost the antithesis to bebop – the latter being very fast and complex, employing intricate and syncopated rhythms. Gypsy jazz, on the other hand, retains the melodic aspects of swing and early jazz music, but often at a slower tempo.
Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grapelli created the first major gypsy jazz group when they established the Quintette du Hot Club de France in the late 1930s. The Quintette pioneered this style of music which features soloing during performance and has distinctive rhythmic accompaniment with violin providing the rhythm using an arpeggiated picking style.
Examples of Gypsy Jazz:
- Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grapelli – Minor Swing
Cool jazz is a jazz genre that’s slightly more relaxing and mellow than other jazz styles. Developed in the late 1940s, partly a response to the chaotic improvisation of bebop, cool jazz is characterized by a decreased intensity and ‘lighter’ sound of melodic lines. Cool jazz was a form of stripped down jazz that generally relied on smaller organized ensembles, relaxed tempos and lighter tonality. The relaxed playing style was more about subtle sophistication, less about the more hectic bebop that had preceded it. With cool jazz you started to see smaller groups coming through, often led by the talented soloists. Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck all had a big impact in cool jazz while they were creating famous albums that helped define this style.
Examples of Cool Jazz:
- Stan Getz – Serenade In Blue
- Art Pepper – You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Take Five
Hard bop is a genre of jazz music which fuses elements of bebop with the blues, R&B, and gospel styles. Hard bop was developed and popularized in the mid 1950s as a more challenging alternative to the then dominant cool style. Usually played by small groups with 3 or 4 musicians, hard bop created a new type of music that had a symbiotic relationship with the blues and funk sounds like those played by rhythm and blues bands. With hard bop, the sounds of bebop began to be blended with the influence of rhythm and blues, to create a funkier type of music with simpler melodies and stronger blues influences. The developers of hard bop also used blues and gospel elements to open up new vistas for improvisation and harmony.
Examples of Hard Bop:
- John Coltrane – Blue Train
- Horace Silver – Song For My Father
- Hank Mobley – Remember
- Sonny Rollins – St. Thomas
The modal jazz genre of jazz is often talked about in abstract terms. In layman’s terms, modal jazz is a style that contains scales, chords and melody lines that are outside the conventions of Western harmony. The modal jazz genre itself can be considered unique in its own right within the jazz context, being based almost exclusively on the use of modes (a category of scales of music derived from the modes used in medieval music) to create beautiful and sophisticated melodies. The genre is typified by a warm, spacious feel, often achieved through use of open intervals. Modal jazz offers a distinct approach to harmony where musicians improvise within a scale of music for extended periods. Modal jazz has a lyrical, atmospheric sound and often features extended improvisations. It’s also associated with the lyrical, improvisatory and expressive harmonic style, characteristic of the free jazz period where modality emphasized microtonal movements.
Examples of Modal Jazz:
- Miles Davis – So What
- John Coltrane – A Love Supreme, Pt. 1
- Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
- Wayne Shorter – Infant Eyes
Latin jazz is a broad term used to describe jazz music which blends jazz harmony and improvisation with Latin American rhythms. Latin jazz encompasses a diverse range of styles and genres. It often fuses rhythmic elements from the central African/Caribbean region with melodies from Latin American countries. This creates a vibrant and energetic sound which is great for dancing.
In the 1940’s Dizzy Gillespie and his big band pioneered Afro-Cuban jazz, melding the traditional Spanish-tinged rhythms of New Orleans jazz with African percussion and dance music from Cuba. In the following decade, bossa nova, a flavorful fusion of samba and American big band instrumentation, became one of the most popular genres on the planet. Originally developed in Brazil during the 1950’s, Bossa nova was brought to America by Brazilian instrumentalist Antonio Carlos Jobim. In 1964, Brazilian singer/guitarist João Gilberto recorded an album with Stan Getz. The album featured the hit song “The Girl From Ipanema,” quickly became a best-seller and brought Latin jazz to the masses.
Examples of Latin Jazz:
- Stan Getz and João Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema
- Dizzy Gillespie – Con Alma
- Kenny Dorham – Afrodisia
Free Jazz is an exciting, awe-inspiring and even controversial genre of music, the origins of which lie in America during the 1950s and 60s. It was characterized by a break down of traditional harmonic and rhythmic conventions. Free jazz is a highly individualistic and energetic form of jazz, where the players are encouraged to create music by themselves, and not rely on a pre-written melody or harmony. It is often less structured than other forms of jazz.
Free Jazz was at one time seen as the rebellion of jazz musicians against the restrictions placed on creative expression by the jazz establishment. It is now recognized as a turning point which encouraged a greater outpouring of creative energy.
Examples of Free Jazz:
- Ornette Coleman – Lonely Woman
- Eric Dolphy – Hat And Beard
Jazz Fusion is a sub-genre of jazz that emerged in the late 1960s and fuses elements of rock, funk, and R&B with jazz. Fusion is sometimes used to refer to a sub-genre that combines jazz harmony and improvisation with a style (or styles) usually associated with rock music, such as electric guitar, and electric bass (which are the two most common instruments used in “fusion” performances). The jazz fusion genre often mixes together the more technical and complex forms of jazz with more simplistic and easy styles.
A good example of fusion is a piece like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, which combines elements of rock, funk, and hard bop, though with more conventional melodic themes. Other musicians like Herbie Hancock worked in a similar vein but with funkier melodies, like “Chameleon,” off his album Headhunters.
Examples of Jazz Fusion:
- Weather Report – Birdland
- Herbie Hancock – Watermelon Man
- Miles Davis – John McLaughlin
In the 1960s, the jazz sub-genre of spiritual jazz emerged. Spiritual jazz saw many musicians straying beyond the boundaries of jazz and experimenting with different sounds. The movement was an outgrowth of the counterculture musical movements and visual arts that occurred during the decade. Given the counter-cultural spirit and spiritual yearnings sweeping that decade, it’s not surprising that jazz artists of this period began exploring this foundational genre—and their own music—with renewed vigor.
Spiritual Jazz artists were determined to actively pursue greatness by working with different instruments, themes, and melodies—all while retaining their own particular identity as artists. John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are among the pioneers of this style, which defied and went beyond the parameters set by conventional jazz in hopes of breaking down social barriers and focusing more on spiritual transcendence.
Examples of Spiritual Jazz:
- Pharoah Sanders – Astral Traveling
- Alice and John Coltrane – Journey In Satchidananda
When taken as a whole, the sub-genre of “modern jazz” is open to a pretty broad interpretation. This is because modern jazz can vary wildly in sound and style depending on the band or artist. Most people categorize modern jazz as a range of styles that emerged in the 1990s onwards. Following a period of experimentation and development, modern jazz emerged during the 90s as the latest incarnation of a string of jazz styles. Today, you can find modern jazz groups playing music that features rock and pop elements as well as experimenting with different sounds and distribution of notes. At its best, modern jazz is a sub-genre with a particularly idiosyncratic and experimental approach to composition and improvisation.
Related Reads: Modern Jazz Artists You Should Listen To
Examples of Modern Jazz:
- Makaya McCraven – The Fours
- Black Monument Ensemble – Keep Your Mind Free
- Work Money Death – Dawn