Styles & Types of Jazz | Evolution of the Genre

Since its inception as a distinct musical genre in its own right, jazz has had many “styles” attributed to it.
While such labels were useful to give an indication of what the listener could expect to hear, the reality was (and is) somewhat different.

Jazz by its very nature is a rapidly evolving music and each new style quickly attracted a “sub-style” as an offshoot.
As the music continued to evolve at a rapid pace, with a new and exciting branch of the jazz tree emerging roughly every ten years from the 1920’s through to the 1970’s.

After this period of discovery over six decades, it is arguable that the evolution of the music did not stop or stall.
It rather took stock of the rapid development over a comparatively short time span, seeking to re-evaluate lessons learned and bring elements of each of the proceeding decades to create new ways of making music that continue to reflect the time and place in which it is brought to fruition.

With all that in mind, let’s run through the main types of jazz that are out there…

Early Jazz

Many over the course of its history have asked the question “what is jazz?.”

Almost impossible to answer it is a music that is, and always been, a hybrid.

A music that is for the people, by the people, and a melting pot of cultures from around the globe that produced some of the most colourful and vibrant music of the 20th century.

The home and birthplace of jazz is widely recorded as New Orleans and the first “jass” recordings were cut by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.

Although their sound was a little stiff, and still dependent on rag time rhythms for forward impetus there was the sense of a new music in the air.

By the early 1920’s the music was looser and more rhythmically flexible. King Oliver’s Jazz Band were among the forerunners of the development of the music, and boasted among their ranks the young Louis Armstrong.

From 1925 to the end of the decade, Armstrong would almost single-handedly revolutionize jazz by elevating the role of the soloist within the ensemble.

Following Armstrong’s rise to prominence as the eminent and innovative improviser in the music with cornet, and later trumpet, solos that were rhythmically and lyrically audacious, and unparalleled in jazz.

Hot on the trumpeter’s heels was clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet who brought influences from Dixieland, Creole from the French influence in the city and the blues.

Such was the Bechet’s influence on the soprano saxophone that there not be another major stylist on the instrument until Steve lacy in the 1950’s followed by John Coltrane and his recording of ‘My Favorite Things’ in 1960.

The other notable stylist and improviser was the antithesis of both Armstrong and Bechet was Bix Beiderbecke.

Beiderbecke developed a quieter and more subtle way of approaching his solos with a cool trumpet sound, fewer notes and lyricism that swung to a different pulse that seemed to smooth out the music bringing a different sensibility to jazz.

This different approach to the basic ingredients of early jazz could also be heard in the work of composer, arranger and pianist

Jelly Roll Morton, who also had the audacity to claim that he invented jazz.

As incredulous as the claim may sound, he did play an important part in the development of the ensemble in jazz with his Red

Hot Peppers that times would feature trombonist Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Omer Simeon on clarinet and Baby Dodds on drums.

Recommended Early Jazz Listening

Louis Armstrong – Complete Hot Five & Seven Recordings
Sidney Bechet – Shake ‘Em Up
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band – The Complete Set
Jelly Roll Morton – Vols 1-5
Bix Beiderbecke – Bix And Tram

Big Band & Swing

By the end of the twenties jazz was the popular music of the day in the US, and while it had not quite run its course the interest in Dixieland was waning as the roaring twenties saw in the sophistication of the 1930’s.

Towards the end of the preceding decade bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman were looking to expand not just the size of their bands but also the scope and sound of their music.

By the use of expanded brass and woodwind sections within the band it was possible to produce harmonized riffs that would generate considerable excitement and were ideal for dancing to, as well as listening.

The roar of the big band swinging hard was a challenging environment for the soloist, but gradually the improvisational flare of

Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet was brought to the fore by a new breed of musician in Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Harry James.

The thirties were an exciting time for jazz as the dance bands flourished and the musicians looked for new ways to bring the music to life.

The arrangers were also to the forefront of this surge in interest in the big bands as the larger ensemble permitted a wider tonal palette for them to work with.

The variety to be found within the music as the bandleaders sought to find their own sound and identity ensured that there was much for the serious listener as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman among others personalized their bands and often loaded them with star soloists.

Basie’s band would boast both Lester Young and Herschel Evans on tenor saxophone, while Duke had Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance and Harry Carney in his Orchestra.

Recommended Big Band Listening

Count Basie – Jumpin’ At The Woodside
Benny Godman – At Carnegie Hall 1938
Duke Ellington – Reminiscing In Tempo
Artie Shaw – Early Artie Shaw
Woody Herman – At The Woodchoppers’ Ball


While swing and the big bands were a big hit for entertainment and dancing, many of the young musicians that were playing in the bands were becoming disillusioned with the formulaic nature of the music they were asked to perform night after night.

They were looking for ways to express their own musical ideas.

In the after hours clubs around 52nd Street in New York, a small coterie of musicians were flexing their muscles and exploring new ways of playing, improvising over the chord changes as opposed to variations on the melody often at breakneck tempos.

Spearheaded by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, along with pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell the music we now call bebop was forged at Minton’s Playhouse.

This new music was often met with hostility, with it’s broken rhythms, and complex harmonic improvisations this was a serious music designed for listening to, and as such this underground movement was slow to gain acceptance.

Now recognized as the beginning of modern jazz, and the foundation of the music as a serious art form, the innovations of Parker, Gillespie and their associates are still being assimilated, dissected and studied by musicians today.

However, it should not be forgotten that such innovation does not suddenly appear overnight.

It is often a logical and natural progression of the styles that have preceded it, and the seeds of bebop and chordal improvisation stem from the great swing tenorist, Coleman Hawkins and his 1939 recording of ‘Body And Soul.’

In it, the melody was not stated, and Hawkins’ improvisation was based purely on the underlying chords of the composition.

Recommended Bebop Listening

Charlie Parker – The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings
Charlie Parker – The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall
Thelonious Monk – Genius Of Modern Music: Volume 1
Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell: Volumes 1 & 2
Dizzy Gillespie – The Complete RCA Recordings

Hard Bop

The evolution of bebop saw developments in jazz accelerate at an alarming rate.

The young and upcoming musicians were all too ready to pay their dues, but were also unafraid to then take what they had learned and apply to their own artistic vision.

As the complexities of bebop became accepted and part of the tradition it was also apparent that the style had limitations and was becoming formulaic.

With the new harmonic language firmly established it was the turn of the pianist’s and the rhythm section to ease in a new style of jazz known as hard bop.

This would often look to incorporate a funkier rhythmic stance, a solid foundation for the soloists where the pulse was not continuously disturbed and the melodic content would draw from the blues and gospel music.

The hard bop movement brought back audiences for the music that had found bebop too intricate, and reintroduced the concept of a simper melody, steady groove and readily identifiable beat.

The improvisations were still harmonically advanced but the simpler more direct approach made the music more appealing and less difficult to many.

With a renewed emphasis on strong compositions many of the small combos established their own identifiable group sound leading to the success the bands led by Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Max Roach/Clifford Brown.

Recommended Hard Bop Listening

Hank Mobley – Soul Station
Horace Silver -Blowin’ The Blues Away
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
John Coltrane – Blue Train
Clifford Brown/Max Roach – At Basin Street

Cool Jazz

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and this also applies to jazz.

Only a few short years after the innovations of Charlie Parker and bebop, some of its practitioners were already looking for an alternative to the fast tempos and virtuoso pyrotechnics that seemed to be leading the idiom down a musical cul-de-sac.

Miles Davis, who had tracked Parker down in New York in order to study his methods and to perform with his idol.

He was one of the first to feel restricted by the format and along with the arranger Gil Evans, and pianist John Lewis and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan set about creating a new sound for their music.

The results were recorded by Capitol Records becoming known as the Birth Of The Cool, with the nine piece band assembled and arranged for by Evans, Lewis and Mulligan were free flowing and contemplative, with a smooth ensemble sound.

The setting was perfect to display the sound and improvisation prowess of Mulligan’s baritone saxophonist, and that of the twenty year old alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.

His light tone and lithe lines were the antithesis of the all prevailing influence of Charlie Parker.

The music of Miles and the nonet, although commercially unsuccessful at the time, showed that there was an alternative and from the impetus created by the Birth of the Cool.

Gerry Mulligan went on to form his piano less quartet with Chet Baker, and Lee Konitz was to epitomize cool developing a style of playing that combined a subtle emotional depth with an intellectualism that paradoxically was stimulating and complex yet seemingly relaxed and intimate.

If bebop and hard bop appeared to dominate the east coast of the America, then cool jazz found its home on the west coast with musicians, such as Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers, Zoot Sims and Bud Shank leading fine small groups.

Clarinetist and saxophonist, Jimmy Giuffre would also lead an innovative trio that would blend folk elements with sophisticated improvisations and interplay with his group the Jimmy Giuffre Three.

Recommended Cool Jazz Listening

Miles Davis – The Birth Of The Cool
Jimmy Giuffre – The Jimmy Giuffre 3
Shorty Rogers – The Sweetheart Of Sigmund Freud
Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker – The Original Quartet
Lee Konitz – Konitz Meets Mulligan

Modal Jazz

Again, looking to free themselves of the restrictions of chordal improvisation the idea of improvising over scales or modes became an increasingly interesting concept for many.

Unlike free jazz that sort to not only jettison chords completely along with harmonic restrictions of any kind, modal jazz offered an alternative to rapidly moving chord sequences by employing modes as a creating a framework, albeit looser and less subject to change.

Modal improvising would also appear to offer the musicians a greater choice of notes to work with, but also require that a more lucid and conceptualized solo be constructed.

It would be more difficult to simply fall back in licks or patterns, and yet create greater opportunity for lyrical flowing lines.

The greatest and best known modal jazz album is Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, although the trumpeter had dipped his toe in the water of modal playing on his sextet album, Milestones on a composition originally titled ‘Miles’ (later known as ‘Milestones’).

Also, on ‘Summertime’ from the album Porgy & Bess where arranger Gil Evans had given Davis two scales on which to buid his improvisation.

Kind Of Blue takes the concept further containing five superbly structured compositions that bring forth some of the most inspired small group jazz ever committed to tape, with arguably three of the finest improvisers in John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Miles himself.

However, it is the overall sound of the album, and contributions of all that make this such a special recording.

The album was to spark a trend in modal improvising, although many bands would incorporate this method of working within their existing group concept.

It is somewhat ironic that the best modal jazz albums have been recorded by the musicians that played on Kind Of Blue, or those associated closely with them.

Close inspection reveals that pianist Bill Evans was laying down much of the groundwork that can be heard on Kind Of Blue in his album Everybody Digs Bill Evans some three months earlier as evidenced on his composition ‘Peace Piece’.

Saxophonist John Coltrane made the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune ‘My Favourite Things’ his own with an incredible thirteen minute long version that takes off from McCoy Tyner’s repeated vamp and the leader’s modal solo on soprano saxophone.

Coltrane would expand this concept further on the classic A Love Supreme on which modal jazz tussles with free music in an exhausting and declamatory record.

Recommended Modal Jazz Listening

Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
Bill Evans – Everybody Digs Bill Evans
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
McCoy Tyner – The Real McCoy

Latin Jazz

A vibrant music like jazz was always susceptible to new rhythmic challenges, and as originally music for entertainment and dancing was inevitably drawn to the more complex rhythmic intricacies of Latin American music.

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had always demonstrated a liking for the music employing the Cuban drum maestro Chano Pozo in his band as early as 1947.

However, it would not be until the 1960’s that the taste for Latin Jazz really made its mark.

Popularized by tenor saxophonist, Stan Getz whose cool sound floated above rather than merely blending in with his surroundings yet when paired with vocalist Astrud Gilberto the playing and interplay is sublime.

After the surge of popularity with Stan Getz’s brush with Latin music the public’s interest may have declined but the music was never far away from the mainstream of the music, and would continue to have a considerable influence in the developments in jazz that followed.

In 1972, Chick Corea recorded his Return To Forever album released on ECM.

Fresh from his stint in the melting pot that was the Miles Davis band, Corea was playing electric piano and with the addition of Flora Purim on vocals and drummer Airto Moreira produced a fusion album that is immaculate in conception and execution.

Other notable albums were also forthcoming from saxophonist, Wayne Shorter and Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal.

Recommended Latin Jazz Listening

Stan Getz – Getz/Gilberto
Dizzy Gillespie – Cuban Be, Cubana Bop
Chick Corea – Return To Forever
Tito Puente – In Puerto Rico
Hermeto Pascoal – Slaves Mass

Free Jazz

The 1960’s saw a cornucopia of musical styles blossom and flourish, even if many appeared to be not only the direct opposite of, but also be in opposition to other, the other emerging idioms.

The rise of rock music was sweeping America and the rest of the Western world and taking the audience for jazz with it. Within the jazz world itself, Latin Jazz was enjoying a surge in interest, while hard bop as issued by labels such as Blue Note retained a moderate degree of success.

However, since the end of the previous decade another branch of the music had been developing and vying for its place in the forefront of the new sounds of the sixties in the shape of free jazz.

Quite what this was could often be as puzzling to musicians as it was to the audiences, and the new music was frequently met with hostility from both sides.

The benefit of hindsight shows that the development was inevitable and yet a logical extension of the tradition of the music, even if it did push at the limits of what was perceived as ‘musical sounds’, but there was no doubt that free jazz still maintained with the blues, gospel and folk music; and even exploring the world of contemporary classical music.

Alto saxophonist, Ornette Coleman was one of the first to launch an assault on the unsuspected senses of listeners with his uncompromising yet swinging music that he called ‘harmelodics’.

His quartet played without a chordal instrument which immediately freed up the harmony. His themes were often catchy and blues based but the solos followed no obvious structure.

There was no chord structure and the soloist would find his own melodic path while bass and drums would use their ears to provide support.

This intuitive way of making music stripped the music back to basics, although Coleman’s music had many detractors and he was branded a fake who had no real musical talent or theoretical grounding for his music.

If Ornette’s music had a fondness for the blues, fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler was rooted to spiritual and folk music in his playing.

As a tenor player he looked to push the sound of the horn to its limits. As extreme as his playing must once have seemed, his musical roots were clear to hear, and his impassioned saxophone playing is often very passionate and full of emotion.

Elsewhere, pianist Cecil Taylor was bringing a virtuosic approach to the piano. His playin was so intense with ideas unfolding at a dazzling speed it was difficult to keep up with his exhaustive solos.

Taylor was drawing on modern classical music and techniques to communicate his complex musical ideas, but was unable to escape completely his admiration for the Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk which also served to keep his music grounded.

Never one to stand and listen on the side line, saxophonist John Coltrane would also step forward into the spotlight of the ‘new thing’ as it was becoming known, and would dedicate the remaining few years of his life to exploring new sounds and methods of communicating on a different plane.

With A Love Supreme, perhaps the saxophonist had taken chordal and modal improvisation as far he felt able, and free jazz allowed him to expand the concept of his music and spirituality further.

Free music has been as influential in the development of the music as it has been divisive.

But as with many of the other styles of jazz it has filtered into the mainstream of the jazz idiom, and elements of free playing and techniques can often be heard in a variety of different settings.

Recommended Free Jazz Listening

Ornette Coleman – The Shape Of Jazz To Come
John Coltrane – Ascension
Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity
Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch
Cecil Taylor Quartet – Looking Ahead

Jazz Fusion

For a music that has been dubbed as “the sound of surprise”, the hostility with which many of the new developments have been greeted is somewhat contradictory.

As the sixties came to a close it was now impossible to ignore the impact of rock music,.

And just as jazz had embraced ragtime and the blues into its vocabulary fifty years earlier there were moves afoot to investigate just how the energy and drive of rock could be incorporated with jazz improvisation.

And who should be right there ready to lead the way into uncharted territory but Miles Davis.

By the 1965, Miles and his quintet had taken small group improvisation as far as they could.

Employing an improvisation method known as ‘time, no changes’ the group had taken the playing of standards to a peak of performance that, like free jazz, jettisoned chords but importantly retained the basic pulse (although it was constantly creatively disturbed).

By the beginning of 1966, Davis was rethinking his musical approach and looking to establish a more fixed pulse and explicit meter in his music, along with the use of the new electric piano.

These experiments would develop further with the gradual introduction of the bass guitar to replace double bass and the use of recording techniques to splice together different takes and sections of music to create a new composition in the studio.

The first of these experiments to thrust Miles as in the spotlight as the forerunner in this new fusion music was In A Silent Way that used heavy studio editing to make an entire album superbly spliced together from excerpts of music by producer Teo Macero.

The music had a quiet contemplative feel, similar in fashion to Kind Of Blue a decade earlier yet would be a fleeting moment in time before Davis threw himself headlong into creating some of the most turbulent music of his career.

Utilizing multiple keyboard players, bassists and drummers Davis would go into the studio and record gigantic slabs of music, often with minimal direction for the musicians that would be heavily edited in post production, and this is how the iconic double album Bitches Brew came to released upon an unsuspecting jazz world.

Again, the jazz fraternity was divided but from within the group of musicians that had worked on the album the impact was so profound and inspirational that they would go onto form their own groups that would go onto define the genre and make powerful and innovative music.

From within the ranks of Bitches Brew keyboard players Chick Corea and Josef Zawinul would form the influential bands Return To Forever and Weather Report respectively and guitarist John McLaughlin formed his Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Lifetime from drummer Tony Williams.

Often the term fusion has been used as a derogatory term to describe music that has elements perceived as the domain of ‘commercial’ music and the musicians accused of selling out.

The reality is that the music, at its best, has contributed an important chapter in the evolution of the music and is a vital element that has bee assimilated in the contemporary sounds of the 21st century.

Recommended Jazz Fusion Listening

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Herbie Hancock – Head Hutners
Weather Report – Mysterious Traveller
Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame
Tony Williams Lifetime – Emergency

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