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As with any genre of music, there are various styles and types of jazz when you start studying it and listening more deeply.

Whilst not everything fits into neat ‘boxes’ it is helpful to have a good grasp of these key varieties when learning more about it – and that’s exactly what we’re going to help you with in this article! 

Surprisingly, jazz music has only been around for about 100 years with each type taking its turn in the spotlight.

Whilst much music (and indeed musicians) may not fit squarely into any one category, for the purpose of historical referencing and telling the story of this music, we can trace its history into different a styles or genres of jazz.

So stay tuned as we take a trip through the 11 main types of jazz, starting at the turn of the 20th Century…

Early Jazz

The first recognised Dixieland recording which arguably marks ‘the birth of jazz’ came about in 1917 and was developed in the ‘melting pot’ of Louisiana’s famous city of New Orleans.

Contrapuntal sounds were produced from a blend of marching band style and ragtime blues.

The iconic Louis Armstrong paved the way for soloists whilst Bix Beiderbecke created a unique, lyrical trumpet sound, often alongside Frankie Trumbauer on saxophone.

Pianist Jelly Roll Morton – another game-changing jazz musician of this era – pioneered the ability of maintaining characteristics of improvisation through notation.

Swing Music

Gaining popularity throughout the 1930’s and 40’s in the USA, jazz saw the emergence of swing with big band bandleaders beginning to gain celebrity status as this genre hit the mainstream.

Swing bands were big news throughout dance halls with up to twenty musicians mixing riff-based sounds and solo sections to produce ensembles.

One key bandleader was Duke Ellington (cited by many as the greatest jazz composer) along with clarinettist Benny Goodman, pianist Count Basie and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.

Few people could claim to have never heard of the great Glenn Miller with his major contribution to swing and keen jazz fans would also have been familiar with the names Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.

Suddenly, soloists were thrown into the spotlight.

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in particular, brought the tenor saxophone to prominence, whilst  Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges found fame with their alto sax solos.

Roy Eldridge and Rex Stewart championed the trumpet whilst gifted pianists Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson provided sophistication and a style unseen before.

Swing music also highlighted solo vocalists with greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday beginning their prolific singing careers with big bands during this period.

The difficulty in keeping such large numbers of musicians employed would certainly have factored in the decline of the big band era.

The end of the 1940’s saw many ensembles disbanded although the likes of Basie, Ellington, Herman and Kenton went on to produce many more recordings.


In contrast to swing dance music, bebop was designed for listeners of jazz and was greater in complexity.

By the mid-40’s, saxophone, trumpet and piano sounds were lifted to new levels thanks to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell.

With their speedy tempos, they crafted complex phrases high on tension with details that only a discerning ear would appreciate in full glory.

Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse mixed together the likes of Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian who developed bebop music through all-night sessions.

Musicians played complicated new melodies over chord progressions and contrafacts of well-known jazz standards which, artistic concept aside, allowed the musicians to gain royalties for the compositions themselves.

A prime example of this is the bebop song ‘Ornithology’ written by Charlie Parker and based on the chord changes from Morgan Lewis’ ‘How high the Moon’.

Gypsy jazz 

Influenced by the established American jazz scene, a new unique genre emerged in the late 30’s.

Originating in Paris, it consisted of small ensembles of string instrumentation.

Guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli brought about the first European group with the unmistakeable gypsy jazz sound.

With just two rhythm guitarists and a double bass, the soloists were thrown into the spotlight with this softer background sound.

With no drums in the band, rhythm guitarists were crucial in creating the style’s distinctive swing.  Strumming chords on every beat with precise emphasis on the second and fourth quarter notes of each bar, encouraged a subtle forward motion. Some refer to this genre as Gypsy swing because of this.

Gypsy jazz is still much admired as a jazz genre with its own repertoire and language, much of which is attributed to Django Reinhardt, who is considered one of the most influential guitarists of all time.

Reinhardt notably achieved success despite the absence of two fingers on his left hand following an accident when he was a teenager.  He and Grappelli formed the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France.

Artists such as Bireli Lagrene and the Rosenberg Trio continue to keep this style of music alive today especially as they were able to build upon Django’s music with the emergence of ‘amplified sound’.

Cool jazz

By contrast, the busy ‘hot’ sounds of bebop which dominated the 1940’s, soon gave way to a softer ‘cool’ style of jazz in the latter years of that era.

By incorporating earlier swing sounds from the influential saxophonist Lester Young, trailblazers such as Stan Getz and Lee Konitz, along with Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan, created a ‘cooler’ resonance.

Legendary trumpeter Miles Davis was certainly around for the birth of this genre, with his seminal album “Birth Of The Cool” arrangemed by Gil Evans offering his own distinctive sound.

Gerry Mulligan’s cordless quartet and Lennie Tristano’s intricate, intense impressions on piano greatly highlights the sound of cool jazz. Dave Brubeck also took complex arrangements from classical music to create his Modern Jazz Quartet.

This led to an added sub-genere known as West Coast jazz resonating with sun-drenched, Californian beaches in the form of Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Bud Shank amongst others.

Hard Bop

By the mid-1950’s the still much-admired bebop sound was present but more obviously blended with rhythm & blues, gospel and Soul music to form a funkier sound with simple melodies and a ‘bluesy’ feel.

In comparison to Cool Jazz, which didn’t place such an emphasis on the blues, the emergence of this hard bop response, signalled a move back towards an Afrocentric jazz sound.

Pioneers of the Hard Bop genre were Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (with Horace Silver on piano initially), Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd to name a few. These key musicians’ writings were released by the renowned Blue Note Records, which typified the ‘sound’ of the style.

Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet emerged at this time, as did trumpeter Clifford Brown’s group with Max Roach, setting the bar high for hard-edged, relenting groove.

Alongside this style of jazz, an even more gospel-tinged variety emerged, often featuring the Hammond organ, and is sometimes labeled as a similar but distinct sub-genre called Soul Jazz.

Modal jazz

In comparison to the traditional construction of harmony and melody seen in earlier forms of jazz and Western Harmony, Modal harmony is based around slow moving key centres where the improvisor uses a corresponding scale (or mode) for long periods of time.

Composing jazz in this way was inspired by George Russell who worked on this theory in the late 1950’s.

Tracks from ‘Milestones’ and ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis are important and distinguished early examples as improvising for extended periods within a mode became an art form for players like John Coltrane.

This utilisation of non-functional harmony (moving between chords and scales in unconventional ways), provided a new platform for writers such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson.

Suddenly, the functional harmony that dominated jazz up until this time was being challenged.

Latin Jazz and Bossa Nova

When Jelly Roll Morton referred to jazz’s ‘Spanish tinge’ he clearly understood the melting pot of New Orleans.

By the 1940’s Dizzy Gillespie and his band spearheaded the Afro-Cuban jazz movement, collaborating with composer and percussionist Chano Pozo, composer of now-standard Latin Jazz tunes such as ‘Manteca’ and ‘Tin Tin Deo’.

The iconic mix of Brazilian samba and jazz harmony entered the music scene by way of American saxophonist Stan Getz.

This Bossa Nova sound won the great tenor player a Grammy Award with his collaboration with dextrous guitarist Joao Gilberto and remains one of the key jazz albums of all time.

Free Jazz and Avant garde

Some musicians in the late 1950’s and early 60’s started to reject the seemingly restrictive harmonies and chord changes of their earlier counterparts in search of new forms of expression.

Released from this harmonic and structural rigidity, and in the social context of civil rights, a genre now known as Free Jazz developed.

Avant garde jazz (often referred to interchangeably with free jazz), gained the influences of contemporary classical music and therefore using more written material.

The European variety of this improvised music emerged later in the decade and is often distinctly different to its American free jazz counterpart.

Jazz fusion

Moving into the late 60’s, jazz musicians began to incorporate electric instruments into their groups, having been influenced by the rock and funk music which was popular at that time.

The Charles Lloyd Quartet and Larry Coryell Band (Free Spirits) appeared before larger and larger audiences, in much the way swing bands had many years before.

This fusion of jazz sounds, past and present, intermingled with psychedelic rock scene popular in the 60’s.

Some jazz purists disliked this curious sound, with controversy hanging over Miles Davis’s own loose, improvised soundscapes on albums such as of Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, both released at the end of the decade and now considered two of the most important recordings in history.

A more funky type of jazz fusion appeared in the 1970’s, led by Herbie Hancock, which incorporated elements of disco and soul.

Alternatively, Wayne Shorter successfully used intricate forms and chord sequences in his solo projects at the time, as well as with the band Weather Report.

Once established in the 1980’s, jazz fusion blurred the edges and mixed with more commercial styles, earning it the name of smooth jazz and (with the help of names like George Benson and Quincy Jones) took on another mainstream persona.

Modern/contemporary jazz

Of course, linguistically speaking, the term ‘modern jazz’ refers to pretty much the era in which it exists.

Clearly, the bebop style of the 1940’s would have been modern by comparison its predecessor, big band swing.

Today, however, modern jazz refers to a style of music that appeared from the 1990’s onwards, incorporating a whole range of styles which had come before.

Often jazz will be talked about in a particular genre but of course, there will be grey areas as a piece of music may just cover an element of all styles.

Today’s modern jazz can be troublesome from an artist’s point of view.

With the use of non-functional harmonies, intricate melodies and odd time signatures modern jazz can sometimes prove challenging for even the most discerning jazz fan.

However, a huge number of musicians have managed to create accessible and highly melodic work from complex sources and this should be celebrated and explored.

Thanks for reading!

If you’re looking to discover more about the different styles of music, head over to the Musicolla homepage.