15 Different Types of Jazz Music

Louis Armstrong once famously quoted, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” And for the most part, it is true. Throughout its history, Jazz has had a flaky definition, mostly referred to as a genre of soul and feeling. It’s one of the reasons why it became so huge in the 1900s.

Jazz in itself is a vast genre with many different styles. Its roots lay in improv, which naturally fueled its continuous evolution throughout its magnificent history. Let’s explore 15 sub-genres of Jazz and the sounds and artists that define them.

1. Early Jazz

Early Jazz, also sometimes called Hot Jazz and Dixieland, originated from the bustling city of New Orleans in the early 20th century. Its sound was heavily influenced by ragtime and used trumpets, trombones, drums, saxophones, clarinets, banjos, upright bass, and later on, the tuba. 

Given the free nature of the era, the genre also focused on band improvisation as opposed to sheet music. Some of the defining Early Jazz artists were Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Buddy Bolden

Louis Armstrong

2. Swing & Big Band

Boasting written arrangements, rhythmic innovations, and an ensemble of up to 20 musicians, Swing and Big Band jazz dominated the American music scene in the 1930s and 40s. The genre gets its name from its groove-driven nature and the danceable style of bandleaders. 

The smoothness of the music was one of the reasons behind Swing’s success. The harmony was clear, the melody simple, and the drums, groovy. The overall genre made for a pleasant listen.

The swing era featured some of the greatest jazz musicians to have ever lived. These included Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Buddy Rich.

Buddy Rich

3. Bebop

Bebop took its influences from swing, but its sound was anything but. It was loud, fast, and exciting to play and listen to. The genre takes its origin in the early 1940s when musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker were considered young turks. This further paved the way for the likes of Miles Davis and Art Blakely.

Bebop was considered an artisan genre, created to appease a jazz musician. Fast tempo, complex compositions, incredible instrumentalizations, all resulted in poor acceptance from the public. Particularly since swing was much easily digestible by the common folk.

Even though Bebop never gained the recognition it deserved, it certainly made a mark in jazz and music history.

4. Cool Jazz

The 1940s and 50s were a time when there weren’t a lot of genres floating around. People had few choices to listen to, including Bebop. Cool jazz served as the alternative to the frantic style of Bebop. 

Cool jazz had a mellow vibe to it. The tempos were slow and the harmonies melodious. The music was reflective of the laid-back attitude of California, which is where the sound originated. Incorporating formal arrangements, Cool jazz also took some inspiration from classical music.

Prominent figures of Cool jazz included Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, and Stan Getz.

Chet Baker

5. Hard Bop

Hard Bop could be considered an extension of Bebop. While the latter consisted of fast tempos, Hard bop had a slower tempo and a more blues and gospel layer to it. 

The 1950s and 60s genre grew on the East Coast of the USA. Songs featured unusual and original compositions since its artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Art Blakely felt that jazz was becoming too European.

Miles Davis

6. Modal Jazz

A genre that cites Miles Davis and John Coltrane as its pioneers, Modal jazz incorporated heavy mode modulation and seldom chord changes. It pushed jazz boundaries, particularly, bebop.

As opposed to quick chord progressions and complex instrumentation, Modal jazz focused on one tonal center to create a more melodic piece. 

Other Modal jazz artists include Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock.

Herbie Hancock

7. Free Jazz

Free jazz takes its roots in early 1960s New York. At a time when jazz needed a wave of freshness. As the name suggests, Free jazz broke free from any rules jazz had ever known. Musicians weren’t bound to any parameters and pretty much anything went. 

The genre knew no conventional structures, tempos, tones, and chord changes. Heavy modulation and improvisation were employed, with many songs incorporating world and ethnic music. Because of this, Free jazz was often subjected to negative criticism. 

The Free Jazz movement featured musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Tony Williams. 

8. Latin Jazz

The sounds of Latin Jazz can be broken down into two categories, namely Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian. While Afro-Cuban was more dance-based, Afro-Brazilian was subtle in samba and bossa nova. 

Both genres employed ostinatos for a steady rhythm and instead of a backbeat, claves were used. The arrangements were percussion-heavy and melodies used woodwind instruments. 

Influential names in Latin Jazz include Candido Camero, Joao Gilberto, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Corea. 

9. Post Bop

Post Bop has always been considered a vague term for a genre that is an amalgamation of bebop, hard bop, free jazz, and modal jazz. The genre was at its peak in the 1960s, around the time of Miles Davis’s second quintet, which consisted of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. 

While it was still free in many aspects, it was constrained in others. Post Bop features odd rhythms, abstract structures, and longer solos. 

10. Gypsy Jazz

Hot Club Quintet members Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli took Paris by storm in the 1930s with a form of jazz called Gypsy Jazz. The reason behind its name is because it was mostly played by the Romani folk at the time. 

Gypsy Jazz predominantly featured guitars, violins, and a stand-up bass. It also eliminated the need for drums as guitarists used the La Pompe technique. It is basically strumming the backbeats hard enough to create a thud. 

The genre emulated a swing feel. The melodies were often singable and the overall music was smooth, simplistic, but intricate. 

11. Smooth Jazz

Smooth Jazz was a more radio or commercially-oriented form of jazz that flourished in the 1980s and 90s. It is sometimes described as a mix of jazz, pop, and lo-fi R&B due to its easy-listening qualities.

Smooth jazz involved good use of saxophones, synthesizers, electric bass, and drums. The sound was more focused on melodic rhythms and grooves as opposed to the free-ish, improv nature of jazz fusion.

Some major artists of Smooth jazz include Grover Washington jr., Kenny G, and George Benson.

12. Jazz Fusion

During the 1960s, Jazz artists in the US started incorporating electronic instruments, heavy elements of rock, funk, and R&B into traditional jazz. Thus, Jazz Fusion or Progressive Jazz was born. 

Despite rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity at the time, Jazz fusion took the world by storm with artists like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock leading the charge. 

Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz fusion had too wide of a sonic range to be defined under one banner. Some songs featured a simple arrangement of a single chord with repeated melody, others included elaborate chord progression, odd time signatures, and heavy improvisation.

13. Acid Jazz

Originated in the 1980s London clubs, Acid jazz borrowed from jazz, hip-hop, funk, and disco. The genre isn’t exactly named after psychedelics but the acid house genre. 

Acid jazz was one of the rare jazz subgenres people could dance to. Music was percussion-heavy, focusing on grooves. And, the music was mostly made for and played in clubs. 

Acid jazz artists include Jamiroquai, James Taylor Quartet, and Gilles Peterson. 

14. Freebop

Freebop fused free jazz and the two bops, hard and be. It was a very niche genre where not too many artists explored it. Miles Davis’s second quintet was one of the few who dabbled in the genre. 

The music mainly used improv and modal chord changes, leaving behind conventional chord progression. 

15. Avant-Garde Jazz

Avant-Garde Jazz is another genre that strives to push the boundaries of jazz. Gaining prominence in the 1950s, it featured radical harmonies, improvisation, and atonality. What really set this jazz form apart from its contemporary free jazz was the former’s clear inspiration from western classical music. 

The rise of Avant-garde jazz is credited to the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders.

Louis Armstrong Image by: Herbert Behrens / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Buddy Rich Image by: William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Chet Baker Image by: Michiel Hendryckx, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Miles Davis Image by: Peter Buitelaar, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Herbie Hancock Image by: Kotoviski photograph by Henryk Kotowski, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mahavishnu Orchestra Image by: By http://www.janhammer.com/fr_gallery.cfm, Fair use, Link

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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