Genres Of Jazz

“Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

– Louis Armstrong, (On how one can define jazz music)

Jazz is far from a singular, homogenous musical style. From the ragtime beats of the early Afro-American pioneers, to John Coltrane’s immortal bebop tones, the genre encompasses almost a hundred years of stylistic evolution and reform. Given that one can find as just as much overlap as distinction, recognizing the subtle tonal changes and instrumental variation that allow us to pigeonhole each sub genre is no easy feat, but a fair amount of historical insight goes a long way.

Dixieland / Trad Jazz (1900-1220)

Louis Armstrong is a name most will put beside Traditional Jazz. This style, perhaps the earliest form of jazz music, is the lovechild of early Ragtime and New Orleans styles. Rather than focussing on the jaunty, syncopated rhythms that characterized its parent genres, tradjazz put greater emphasis on the offbeats. Bands played banjo and tuba in the rhythm sections in a 2-to-the-bar rhythmic style. Many of the musicians of this era weren’t particularly adept at reading music, and often improvised songs entirely along the way.

Big Band / Swing (1930s)

As jazz began to enjoy increasing mainstream popularity in the late 1920’s, big band jazz infiltrated into dance halls. Often featuring large ensembles comprising 10 or more players, the major emphasis was generally placed on an improvising soloist against a background of previously notated music. New York City, Chicago and Kansas City were the three major developmental centres of this form pioneered by the likes Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

Bebop (1940’s)

Noticeably smaller in scale compared to its predecessor, with a typical piece consisting of 4-6 members, bebop emerged almost as an underground reaction to the earlier ‘safe’ styles of jazz compositions. Originating from the ruins of a world bonded in the thralls of organized warfare and military discipline, bebop sought to break the rules. In addition to faster tempos, asymmetrical phrasing, intricate melodies, and striking rhythm sections, the style was also famous for its parallel association with scat singing; a phenomenon which can perhaps best be described as the vocalisation of nonsense syllables overlaid upon an improvised melody.

Often considered the pinnacle of all jazz music, it took a while before bebop heard popular applause. In part, because the musicians themselves realized that with its fast beats, it could easily turn overwhelming for any audience. As a way to get around this issue, the style was simplified and certain elements of the song were emphasized more strongly than others. This paved the way for the dissolution of bebop into two further distinct styles. The first was cool jazz, a simpler, slower and more easy-going class typical of the some of the early works of legendary trumpeter, Miles Davis. The other, Hard Jazz sought to retain the ‘hot’ characteristic of bebop, supplemented for the first time with the use of electronic instruments. The works of Art Blakey or early Herbie Hancock are representative of this subtype, and are easily digestible for the novice listener.

Free Jazz (1960’s)

Further experimentation and boundary nudging led to the development of free jazz in the early 1960’s. Conventional dictates on fixed chord changes and tempos were disregarded, and taking a cue from the avant-garde styles of day, the intent was to allow the musician to explore their range and potential within a flexible, fluid framework. Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, two heavyweights of this class brought jazz music to a whole new audience, even if this particular style struggled to capture enormous mainstream popularity.

Jazz Fusion (Late 1960’s)

Fusion is, as its name might suggest, a crossbreeding of musical genres to create that perfect musical hybrid. As pure jazz fell out of favour in the early 60’s, usurped by the charm of The Beatles, Hendrix and Zeppelin, more and more jazz musicians began to incorporate elements of rock, electronics and funk into their own work. The result was a style that achieved massive mainstream popularity in the late 1970’s. Fusion is more aptly described as an approach rather than a style, since it potentially comprises a great deal of instrumental combinations that are vastly distinct from each other

Top Albums

Dixieland / Trad Jazz

“I Double Dare You”

Big Band / Swing




Free Jazz

John Coltrane

Jazz Fusion.

Bitches Brew or 500 Miles High

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

scroll to top