In the 1900s, one of the most revolutionary musical styles of all time emerged, so much so that to this day there is still no exact definition that can explain it, or pigeonhole it into a specific genre of music: the Jazz.
As one of its great stars Louis Armstrong once said: “Anyone who tries to know what Jazz is will never know”, making it clear that anyone who loves this music will do so without trying to give it a name or limit it. The genius of Jazz lies in its capacity for constant evolution, its virtuosity makes it unstoppable and addictive, so no one will ever be able to give it a name.
Now, although the deepest roots of this musical style lie in improvisation, throughout these more than 100 years it has developed giving rise to different types of Jazz that make it even richer and more interesting. In this article, we will try to analyze some of the most important types of jazz and we will name the most important artists of each of them.
Below we will explain everything in detail!
The types of Jazz: complete guide to its subgenres and the most outstanding artists of each style
1. Early Jazz
As its name indicates, Early Jazz was the first of the known styles of the genre and had its origin in the bustling city of New Orleans between the years comprising the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
This style also acquired other names with which it is currently known as “Hot Jazz’ or “Dixieland”, being a style very marked by ragtime and in which the rhythms and syncopated notes became extremely popular among the public of the time.
On the other hand, as at that time what prevailed when it came to playing jazz was absolute freedom, the musicians who formed the first Jazz bands always liked to go against the scores and improvise endlessly, something that created much excitement among the public because they never knew what they were going to hear, or stick to the program that had been written.
In the first Jazz, it could be said that everything was as it should be in a style based on improvisation: everything was pure spectacle and creativity.
Bands in this style usually consisted of one or two wind instruments, double bass, drums, trombone, horns, clarinet, trumpets, upright basses and saxophones. Among the many artists who excelled in this style we highlight: Louis Armstrong King Oliver, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Buddy Bolden.
Although all of them were great musicians of the time, it was Louis Armstrong who was the most successful, being the first great trumpet soloist of this style, with mythical recordings such as Hot Five and Hot Seven, which are still considered some of the most important recordings of the 20th century.
2. Swing and Big Band
The first time we started talking about this style of Jazz was between 1914 and 1926. returning with more force in the decade of the 30’s and 40’s and monopolizing the scene of the whole musical panorama of the United States.
What made this new sub-genre of Jazz really different and addictive was that you could dance to it. it was extremely catchy and the bands that played it were very big, usually with 15 or 20 musicians on stage giving a non-stop show.
In the technical aspect, Swing is a style characterized by the forward propulsion of the musicians on each note, which makes each piece become much more danceable and with a more invigorating sound.
The harmonies were clear, simple, with groovy drums and without too many changes throughout the piece, which made them very pleasant for the audience to listen to and follow; something impossible with Early Jazz because of its continuous improvisation and speed.
The other name attributed to this style, the “Big Band”, comes from the fact that it was always played with very large bands, unlike other more minority styles in which with only 5 musicians the pieces could be interpreted and in which normally one instrument always predominated as a soloist.
In Swing the party was big and all musicians were on equal terms, all played at the same pace and that made people enjoy the music and the parties that revolved around these concerts were endless and full of dancing.
This genre left us some of the most important Jazz artists of all times and that today are still taken as references for new followers and students of the genre: Duke Ellington. Benny Goodman. Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Rich.
Although these musicians were the most outstanding of the genre in general, there were also other musicians and conductors of the time who marked a before and after with their work, as is the case of pianist Count Basie, the unforgettable Glenn Miller or Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.
For his part, the tenor saxophone soloist Coleman Hawkins was one of the most important soloists of Swing, as he managed to make this instrument a benchmark within the Jazz genre with his interpretations and personal compositions.
Although at first, it seemed that Bebop was going to be an improved version of its two predecessor styles, during the 1940s it made it clear that it had arrived with the sole objective of standing out and pleasing the musician who loved Jazz. His compositions had nothing to do with the simple and light harmonies of swing, as these were strong, dynamic and with really complex and beautiful instrumentations.
Some say that Bebop did not succeed because it could not make people dance and that made many did not want it and continued opting for more relaxed styles such as Swing, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The success of Bebop was reflected decades later, when it began to be considered as the propellant of pop music that we hear so much today and was completely separated from other genres and was considered as a type of art in itself, both for its complexity at the musical level and for what it contributed artistically to the society that knew how to understand it.
The most prominent musicians of this misunderstood Jazz style were Dizzy Gillespie. Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, among many others. All of them began to improvise very complex phrases with chromatic passing notes, unexpected turns, accentuations and fast rhythms that endlessly threw their listeners off their feet and kept them always on their toes so as not to miss anything.
Among the many Jazz songs of this style that are remembered, “Donna Lee” based on “Indiana” or “Ornithology” based on “How to High The Moon’ stand out. among many others of equal success.
4. Hard Bop
As its name indicates. Hard Bop was considered as an extension of Bebop with the clear difference that its rhythms were not fast and complicated, but much slower and with a style very similar to Gospel or Blues, reason why this style is also known as Soul Jazz.
It appeared in the mid-1950s. when the chaotic rhythms of Bebop began to mix with the slow and soft rhythms of Gospel and Blues and the melodies began to be simpler, funkier and with certain airs of music from central Africa.
In the 50’s and 60’s it did not stop growing and became very popular on the east coast of the USA, giving rise to some renowned artists such as John Coltrane. Miles Davis and Art Blakely who said they wanted to return Jazz to its original American sounds because it was starting to sound too much like European music.
5. Modal Jazz
Modal Jazz appeared in the 60’s by the hand of musicians already established in the genre, such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
They managed to elevate Jazz to a subgenre never seen before and completely distance it from the rest of the styles that had been appearing in the last 20 years, creating a style full of harmony and with a stable tonal center with related chords and cadences; there were no big surprises, no endless phrases, everything was much more linked and that translated into a pleasant and predictable sound that critics liked a lot.
As a novelty, this style incorporated a strong modulation and rarely changed chords. Did this mean that there would be no more improvisations? No. because it was still jazz and that was the basis of the style, but now they would do it in a much more controlled and meaningful way.
Among the many famous artists that this new genre of jazz left us. the trumpeter Lee Morgan. Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock, the American composer and pianist Horace Silver and Andrew Hill also stood out.
6. Cool Jazz
At the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s the musical offer was quite limited as far as Jazz was concerned, Bebop and Hard Bop monopolized the American night scene with their fast rhythms and endless melodies. However, as a counterpoint to these two styles and as an alternative for those looking for a calmer jazz, a new style appeared: Cool Jazz.
As its name indicates, Cool Jazz was born with the purpose of representing the atmosphere and spirit of California in the 50’s: beaches full of people dancing or having a drink while enjoying a beautiful sunset.
Expert Tip: It was a soft and relaxed style of music, with simple melodies full of harmony, perfect to spend an evening with friends in a bar near the beach while listening to it.
It was the calm solution to the most ”Hot” and daring Bebop, it was the Californian jazz that had arrived to demonstrate that improvisation could also reflect calm.
The main source of inspiration for this style of jazz was classical music, which is why its rhythms were calmer and its sounds evoked peace. The main musicians who stood out in this genre and who led it to success above the rest were Stan Getz. Miles Davis. Gerry Mulligan, and the splendid pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano and all his disciples who made really impressive arrangements that are still heard almost a century later.
Among the most famous hits of Cool Jazz, we can highlight “Birth of the Cool” by the great Miles Davis. “Time Our by Dave Brubeck or “Summertime” by Stan Getz from his mythical album “West Coast Jazz” that perfectly reflected the soul of this musical style.
7. Free Jazz
Free Jazz was born in the 60’s and was one of the most criticized styles by the critics up to that time. This new style reflected the deepest need that American musicians had to free themselves from all the rules and customs pre-established in the last 20 years by other Jazz styles, allowing musicians to do whatever they wanted on stage and transform each piece in a surprising way.
Expert Tip: There were no limits, which is why many did not like it and others loved it: it perfectly reflected the liberal roots of Jazz that had gradually been blurred by so many different styles.
The musicians were not bound by any musical parameters and there were no known rules regarding pitch, key, tempos or more conventional chord changes. In addition, apart from the improvisation and modulation that this style incorporated, the other great novelty was that it also dared to introduce ethnic sounds and sounds from other lesser known cultures, making it a symbol of integration and artistic liberation at all levels.
This genre left us a wide variety of important artists, among them the innovative quartet of Ornette Coleman who played a mixture of blues and swing mixed with complex melodies and harmonies that made all his pieces memorable and worthy of praise. John Coltrane with his unforgettable “Ascension”. Pharoah Sanders and Tony Williams also stood out in this new avant-garde Jazz.
Undoubtedly. Free Jazz gave the starting signal for improvised music to begin to be considered as a musical genre of respect both in the U.S. and throughout Europe during the entire decade of the 60’s onwards.
8. Latin Jazz
Some people always thought that Jazz had a clear “Spanish tinge’ given its origins in New Orleans from the melting pot music of the early 20th century. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that Latin Jazz became famous, giving rise to two very different styles: Afro-Brazilian with samba-like rhythms and Bossa Nova.
In both genres there was a clear tendency for steady rhythms, using claves instead of counter-rhythms, which made them fast and very danceable. Unsurprisingly, these styles of Jazz, which combined African and Brazilian sounds, were characterized by large percussion and wind bands that brought rhythm, color and freshness to a musical genre that had hitherto been characterized as somewhat gray and lacking in joy.
The greatest success of this style, which can still be heard all over the world today, was “The Girl from Ipanema”. which was composed, like most Bossa Nova songs by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim. This genre left a great list of successful artists whose works are still taken as inspiration to make new Latin music: Candido Camero. Joao Gilberto. Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Corea.
9. Gypsy Jazz
At the end of the 1930s in Paris a new subgenre of Jazz was born that swept and managed to break many ’racial” and social class stigmas, since it was a music played mostly by the gypsy population of the time: Gypsy Jazz.
The members of the Hot Club Quintet. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli were the precursors of a style of Jazz in which violins, bass and guitars predominated, eliminating the need for a drum kit by introducing the La Pompe guitar technique.
This style of music broke with what was understood up to that moment by Jazz, since there was no percussion, nor any solo wind instrument that stood out they were rhythms typical of the gypsy people but with a clear air of soft Swing that made it very pleasant to listen to. The melodies were simple and sometimes even had lyrics that allowed singing them, something that had not been done so far with any other subgenre of Jazz.
10. Jazz Fusion
At the end of the 60’s a new style of Jazz appeared, more innovative and that left behind the classic sounds that had predominated in the rest of the previous Jazz styles, the Jazz Fusion.
This new genre dared to mix electric instruments typical of the funk and rock music of the time with elements of soul and disco music, resulting in a fresh and full of character music that sometimes could be very hard and other times could be extremely tender and deep.
The Jazz Fusion sound was so broad that it is impossible to categorize it into a single category. Its pieces could be very simplistic and deep, playing with a repetitive melody around a single chord or extremely complicated, full of melodic changes, strange twists and improvisations on the fly.
It was a style that broke with the molds and that made Jazz not only be seen as a quiet dance music of the bars, it could also be pure spectacle and overshadow any rock song of the moment.
One of the most important groups of this genre was Larry Coryell’s Free Spirits, which always played in front of large crowds and made psychedelic rock of the time known.
11. Acid Jazz
Originating in the nightclubs of 1980’s London. Acid Jazz was one of the few sub-genres that young people could dance to and enjoy. The music was influenced by disco, acid house, jazz, hip-hop and funk, resulting in a music full of percussive rhythms and grooves.
In addition, as a particularity this style of Jazz was created and played in an improvised way in the clubs, which made every night a different party full of rhythm and originality by the musicians. Among the artists of acid jazz are Jamiroquai and James Taylor Quartet, among many others.
As its name suggests, this new style of Jazz mixed elements of the Jazz bop styles: Hard and Be. However, this new style of jazz bop did not have many followers and there were few artists who bet on it except for celebrities like Miles Davis who explored it through his quintet.
The music of this style was characterized by the use of improvisation and modal chords, leaving behind the more conventional chord progression and returning to the roots of the most unstable and creative jazz.
13. Avant-Garde Jazz
The 1950s saw the appearance of one of the Jazz genres that made the greatest effort to revolutionize the style and surpass all the limits that had been established up to that time.
Avant-garde jazz was characterized by large amounts of improvisation, radical harmonies and atonality, although what made this style stand out and distanced it from its predecessor, free jazz, were its clear influences from Western classical music. Some of the most important figures of this jazz subgenre were Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or John Coltrane, among many others.
In conclusion, we can say that Jazz has been and will continue to be one of the most complete and varied musical styles that exist, making it practically impossible to define or pigeonhole it into a category.
Through this simple analysis of the 13 most outstanding subgenres of Jazz we have not only been able to see the evolution that this musical style has undergone since its beginnings, but also the great social and cultural role it has played in a racist and classist society full of prejudices.
Jazz means freedom, but not only on stage but also for the people who listen to it and compose it. The goal of this musical style has always been unity, fun and the ability to overcome the limits imposed by society, something that has undoubtedly managed to convey to all his faithful followers and that make it an incredibly beautiful musical genre from beginning to end.
We hope you have enjoyed as much as we have enjoyed this article about Jazz and that you now have a much broader idea of what this musical genre and its history means. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us, we will be happy to assist you and chat with you!