Styles of Jazz – A Deep Dive Into All Of The Different Genres And Subgenres

styles of jazzWould you like to learn more about the various styles of jazz?

Guess what: You’re in for a treat as we get you oriented with various subsets of this wonderful musical genre.

While there are a lot of jazz subgenres, we’ll take a look at some of the most historically significant jazz styles.

Let’s get started.

Pre-Jazz Influences

In a nutshell, we can say that jazz developed from primarily West African traditional music coupled with exposure to European classical music theory and other influences.

Here are some of the many contributions of each major musical influence in the mix of jazz:

West African Heritage

It is from West African music that we have obtained the elements of swing and shuffle, the blue note and blues, call and response, percussive elements, and improvisation.

Listen to this great example:

While the transcontinental slave trade was indeed a sad and sensitive reality, it is also the vehicle by which West African music reached North and South America.

However, we do have additional seeds of music that birthed jazz. Here’s the seed from Europe:

European Art Music Influence Exuding From All Jazz Styles

European classical music contributed elements of harmony, the codification of jazz theory from common-practice, impressionist, and 20th-century music theory concepts, and standard notation.

While Claude Debussy may shout “Mierde!” at anyone calling his music “impressionist”, it is without doubt that the impressionist era music (exemplified by Debussy himself, Darius Milhaud, and Maurice Ravel) exerted great influence. Just listen to Bill Evans.

Here we have Claude Debussy’s piano roll recording of his own composition, “Reflets Dans L’Eau” from Images I:

Listen to how Debussy employs extended harmony as we often use in jazz today.

Scott Joplin and Ragtime

Ragtime music is one of the earliest styles that is influential in the development of jazz.

A simple way of defining ragtime is that is is the combination of the European march with West African rhythms and other musical sensibilities.

Scott Joplin’s work exemplifies these characteristics as you can hear from his piano roll recording of his composition, Maple Leaf Rag:

As the many types of jazz continued to develop, we see the introduction of other influences come into play.

No Jazz Music Would Exist Without The Blues

The Blues: The music of the common working folk in early times is an expression of their souls. It was a method of catharsis that expressed everyday woes to alleviate pain.

The Blues is such a very important style and form in the development of jazz so much so that the canon of jazz standards contain plenty of blues tunes.

Here’s one example from Pinetop Perkins:

When it comes to rhythm, the swing and shuffle we get from the blues is supposed to replicate the rhythm of the heart. Here we can listen to normal S1 and S2 sounds we can hear from a stethoscope:

Now listen to how closely a blues standard like “Red House” replicates normal heart sounds:

Irish, Appalachian, and Bluegrass Music

Another fascinating musical tradition comes from Ireland. Listen to this jam from Dolan’s Pub in Limerick, Ireland:

Did you notice that despite this style of music having developed independently of African tradition that it has similar rhythm and swinging feel?

Now, it is said that some Irish immigrants to the States brought with them their music which led to the development of Appalachian music, most notably Bluegrass:

Bluegrass also features syncopation and improvisation around the melodies while other instruments accompany. Hence, it has a similar appeal and stylistic ethos as jazz.

Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban Influences

As West African music came in contact with Spanish and Portuguese musical influences, it gave birth to Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music.

Probably the most important thing that Afro-Brazilian (e.g. Samba and Bossa Nova) and Afro-Cuban (Salsa, etc.) is the clave and accompanying interlocking rhythms (e.g. Montuno, etc.).

Here’s a great example of Salsa music (Afro-Cuban) played in a cafe in Havana:

As for Afro-Brazilian music, Samba is a great example. One can hear these Afro-Brazilian rhythms really well from this street drumming example:

Here is another example of Samba being performed by a very different ensemble yet you can still feel that distinct Afro-Brazilian flavor:

It’s fascinating how all of these influences merge in a melting pot known as the “Land of Opportunity”, the United States of America, forming jazz in the process.

As one can see, these musical styles all come from people and cultures that have yearned for freedom and opportunity.

When one realizes this fact, it’s amazing to see the emphasis in improvisation and freedom of expression in heartfelt grooves across every style of jazz.

George Gershwin’s Contributions

The elevated status of orchestral music among art traditions surely challenged the American music landscape.

This inspired composers like George Gershwin to merge European orchestral music with distinct American characteristics.

This led to something like this:

Rhapsody in Blue is a landmark composition in what can be called “orchestral” jazz that is equally at home in more “erudite” settings like music conservatories.

Additionally, George Gershwin contributed plenty to the jazz standards canon with tunes like “Embraceable You” and “Someone To Watch Over Me”.

Now that we understand jazz precursors, let’s continue our discussion of the styles of jazz by checking out New Orleans.

Dixieland: The Prototype For Various Jazz Genres

When New Orleans or Dixieland pops up, we tend to think of Dixieland or Traditional Jazz.

It was around the start of the 20th century that bands took European marches and decided to add swing, a great deal of improvisation, and a bunch of various musical influences described earlier.

What is very notable about this style of jazz (aside from the general groove and vibe of it) is how improvisation takes place.

The arrangements typically are not written note for note, and so much of the parts that every musician plays are improvised.

These improvised parts, especially by the wind and brass players, create that unique texture of traditional jazz.

Here’s a typical example of a Dixieland-style performance of “When The Saints Go Marching In”  in a New Orleans marching band setting:

Check out this next example of “When the Saints Go Marching In” where the trombone’s improvised lines create that contrapuntal contrast with the clarinet:

Even when playing ballads, we still hear that unique traditional jazz texture. Check out this clip featuring Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong:

Because of these improvised lines in a typically big ensemble, performances of standards sound really unique each time.

As time progressed, bigger jazz orchestras became the next big thing. This required a more organized kind of jazz that’s suitable for dance halls and the stage.

We now enter the Big Band Era of the 1930s.

Dancing Along Big Band Swing

If you’re all about that huge and danceable sound , then it’s Big Band or Swing Ear music that floats your boat.

After all (as Duke Ellington once said), “It ain’t no thing if it ain’t got swing.”

Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman are some of the household names from the Swing Era.

The Swing Era appears to have formulated the standard big band a.k.a. the jazz orchestra.

The typical jazz orchestra typically contains a saxophone section, a brass section, a couple of extra woodwinds (clarinets, flutes, etc.), and a rhythm section of a drum kit, upright bass, piano, and guitar.

Unlike Dixieland, Swing Era music sounds a lot massive and a lot more orchestrated.

Given the size of big bands (about 25 to 30 musicians), carefully written out orchestrations of various parts had to be arranged. This limits the chaos of having more than 20 musicians improvising their parts.

However, improvisation was still important in the form of rhythm section comping and in improv sections for select soloists.

Here’s an example of big band era music as exemplified in “Corner Pocket” performed by the Count Basie Orchestra:

At the height of its popularity, swing was the pop or commercial music of its time.

Now, the next style we’re going to talk about is a reaction to big band jazz music.

It’s also where that stretch to technical heights that jazz is known for became more apparent.

Django And His Hot Jazz Quintet From France

Jazz also began to gain popularity outside of America and into Europe.

This sparked the development of a European jazz movement in France with the likes of Django Reinhardt (gypsy jazz) and Stephane Grappelli at the helm.

Their group, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, was known for playing a style known nowadays as “Manouche Jazz”.

Manouche jazz (named after Romani people from France a.k.a. Manouche) or “Hot Club Jazz” was characterized by the use of a guitar and a violin as lead instruments and were typically accompanied by other guitar players and a bassist.

Alongside jazz and blues vocabulary, Manouche jazz soloing vocabulary also contained influences from European folk and classical music, which stemmed from Romani heritage.

This led to a style of jazz that sounded unique.

Here is an example of a recorded performance of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and the rest of the Quintette du Hot Club de France:

The One Catalyst That Birthed Modern Jazz

Bebop is the response of some serious jazz musicians in the 1940s to the commercialized swing music of the day.

The first bebop jazz musicians felt jazz lost its soul with swing and big band music. Hence, while most bebop jazz is stripped down to smaller ensembles (3- to 5-piece bands), it’s an attempt to get jazz to technical and artistic heights comparable to “classical” music.

While swing music was meant for dancing, bebop distanced itself from it.

Essentially, bebop was designed for the serious jazz aficionado, ones who would listen to jazz rather than dance to it.

Among the styles of jazz at this point, bebop was “cerebral” jazz.

In bebop, improvised and highly technical chromatic soloing going over changes took precedence over ensemble playing.

As such, technical virtuosity became a requirement to play bebop.

Harmony became more complex. Various chord changes along with reharmonization and extended harmony were part of the palette.

Bebop is the sort of music that is not for the faint of heart. Tempos at breakneck speed while keeping that jazz swing feel was the order of the day.

Some of the significant names in bebop are Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke.

Here’s a live performance of “Hot House” featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on alto sax and trumpet respectively:

Other great examples of bebop playing can be heard from the Thelonious Monk quartet in this performance:

Bebop can sort of take things down to a more mellow direction. For example, Bill Evans playing “Emily” is in a bebop configuration although the harmonies are approaching the direction of cool jazz:

Speaking of Thelonious Monk et al, here’s one way for you to learn jazz articulation and improvise solos with a lot of conviction.

Bebop Shows You How To Groove

The term “bebop” is actually an onomatopoeia.

“Bebop” is the sound of two eighth notes in the space of a beat.

Here’s what you can do:

Recite the term “bebop” repeatedly. While the syllable “be” falls naturally on the beat, it’s natural that the accent is on “bop”. The accent falls just right before the next beat!

Now, try this next exercise:

Here’s the famous excerpt from Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” which has a great swinging feel:

Listen to that particular “chorus” theme and then try to sing each note with the “bebop” syllables.

Next, you can try the same exercise with Chet Baker’s Autumn Leaves trumpet solo:

Once you are able to approximate the solo by singing “be-bop” over it, try it on your instrument. Here’s one of my practice sessions where I work out the first half of Chet Baker’s solo:

This version of Autumn Leaves sounds cool, kinda like a transition from bebop towards the next style we’re going to talk about:

Cool Jazz

If we have to name one person that traversed almost all eras of jazz, it has to be Miles Davis.

Having made a significant impact in the Bebop scene, Miles Davis was one who would look for something new outside of the styles of jazz he has played in the past.

With Bebop sometimes feeling like jazz on crack, Miles Davis (at this point in time) wanted to kind of slow things down and be chill.

This is where Miles released his album, “The Birth of Cool”, the seminal cool jazz album.

Cool Jazz takes some bebop sensibilities such as the soloing and harmonic language but at a more laidback tempo. It also incorporates French impressionist music influences in that it tends to be more atmospheric and “moody”.

Oftentimes, cool jazz also tends to be more modal rather than tonal in approach. It doesn’t necessarily go from one key to the next in a more proper tonal like sense (such as what you find in something like “I’ve Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin and other standards). Rather, it can abruptly shift from one key to the next and emphasize soloing over chords from one mode to the next based on the chords.

Miles Davis’s tune, “So What” is one of the best examples of what I’m talking about:

Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” is another great example. Here’s a version that also features Ravi Coltrane, Randy Brecker, James Jenus, and Zakir Hussain in an International Jazz Day live performance:


Bossa Nova

Central and South America contributed to the rhythmic language of jazz courtesy of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influences.

To start, Bossa Nova can be described as an amalgamation of Afro-Brazilian rhythms with the harmonic language of jazz, reflecting the laidback atmosphere of Rio. The style appears to have developed originally as an attempt at a Brazilian expression of jazz.

The composers and songwriters that formed the initial Bossa Nova movement of Brazil (such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Carlos Vega, etc.) wanted a singable and mostly soothing kind of jazz, free of any abrasive or political leanings.

The music intended to reflect a relaxed way of life that one could expect along the beaches of Rio. The Bossa Nova movement took samba rhythms, slowed it down, made use of jazz harmonies and reharmonization, and applied a kind of singing within a comfortable range.

To understand Bossa Nova in general, it’s best to listen to the prototypical tune. “Bim Bom” is considered the first ever Bossa Nova tune in history. Check out Nova’s performance of Joao Gilberto’s “Bim Bom”:

In this live version of “On Green Dolphin Street” by Jacqueline Tabor, we hear the band use Bossa Nova rhythms in certain section then switch to swing:


Free Jazz: A Big Challenge

Some jazz aficionados want to take jazz to avant garde extremes.

Rather than sounding suave, they want to go the other way.

There are those that want to go more “cerebral” or release themselves from the restraint of common-practice harmony and jazz conventions.

Some want more freedom in their improvisation.

This gave birth to free jazz, a style of jazz that attempts to discard conventions and restraints and forms in favor of more experimental freedom.

Pure bliss to some yet utter chaos to others, you’ll be the judge of that yourself as you listen to the Ornette Coleman Sextet playing some free jazz:

Hard Bop

Another reaction to bebop is Hard Bop.

If free jazz meant to disrupt any sort of formulaic structure, hard bop is defined by more structure.

If you listen closely to Hard Bop, the rhythms and grooves are a bit more similar to something like Texas Blues and Rock.

Hard Bop still keeps the improvisatory elements of jazz with extended improvised solos. However, Hard Bop now leans a bit more on song structure. The reason for this is that Hard Bop leans on influences from Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, as well as the Blues.

To get a better idea of what Hard Bop is all about, here’s Art Blakey & The Messengers performing “Moanin'”:


The Spark of Electric Jazz: Jazz-Rock Fusion

The advent of electric and electronic instrumentation such as electric guitars, electric and electronic keyboards and synthesizers, electric bass, and amplification gave the power and loudness associated with rock music.

Some jazz musicians took notice of this and wanted to incorporate that aspect into their own palette.

Jazz-Rock fusion is (obviously) that merger between jazz and rock into a new sound.

Again, Miles Davis comes into the picture here with his release of “Bitches Brew”:

Interestingly enough, it was Miles Davis alumni like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John Mclaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Jarrett that have continued on with the jazz-rock tradition.

Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, featured in Bitches Brew, formed the band Weather Report. Here’s an example of their live performance of “Birdland” with Jaco Pastorius on Bass and Peter Erskine on drums:

Another prime example of jazz-rock heroes is Allan Holdsworth.

Allan Holdsworth once described jazz-rock fusion in a 1980s interview saying, “The problem we have is that, some people call it ‘too rock’ to play on a jazz station, and it’s ‘too jazz’ to play on a rock station. So it’s difficult. It’s difficult to make it playing this kind of music.”

Here’s the Allan Holdsworth Quartet from 1986 playing “Devil Take The Hindmost”:

Lastly, we can’t even speak about jazz-rock fusion without mentioning another Miles Davis alumnus, Chick Corea.

With avant-garde and some progressive rock leanings, here’s Chick Corea along with fellow Miles Davis alumnus Lenny White on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Al DiMeola on guitar performing their classic Return To Forever masterpiece, “Duel of the Jester & the Tyrant”:

How To Improvise Over Modern Styles

As a final example, here’s David Garfield with Alex Ligertwood at the Java Jazz Festival performing “Hold On”:

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With potential for commercial appeal, jazz-rock fusion also birthed that contentious and sometimes hotly debated style called smooth jazz:

That Slightly Uncomfortable Topic Called Smooth Jazz

If there’s one style of jazz that has conquered the “adult contemporary” market, it’s smooth jazz.

Smooth jazz takes influences from from jazz-rock, pop music, R&B, and bossa nova.

One can say that this is the easy kind of jazz to listen to. This is the sort of jazz music you would hear from elevators (Muzak anyone?), some restaurants, shopping malls, and groceries.

This is the sort of jazz that taps into the psychology of people to calm themselves down and relax in coffee shops and think of all sorts of easy things.

Examples of artists associated with this style include David Benoit, Grover Washington Jr., and Spyro Gyra.

Here’s David Benoit with David Pack performing “The Key To You” live:

While it can be divisive to have any mention of Kenny G here (and consequently incite the ire of Pat Metheny), some of his work too may qualify as smooth jazz (despite Kenny G and his bandmates calling their music “instrumental pop”):

Lastly, David Garfield released a song called “My Heart Wants To Know”, a ballad that fits well in any smooth jazz radio format:


Acid Jazz: Blending Hip Hop

What you get when you mix funk, soul, and hip hop with jazz? It’s what people call Acid Jazz.

Acid jazz emphasizes groove and incorporates some pop music and R&B in the mix as well.

Characteristic jazz harmonies still abound but there is less emphasis on long improvised solos. Like smooth jazz, acid jazz focuses on songs rather than individual player’s skill.

Some of the well-known examples from the acid jazz movement include Jamiroquai, The Brand New Heavies, and Incognito.

Here’s a live version of Incognito’s “Still A Friend Of Mine” as an exemplary kind of acid jazz tune:

Exploration Of Different Realms In The Third Stream

The idea of amalgamating elements with “classical” as well as some “world” music influences started around the late 1950s and 1960s with Gunther Schuller. This is what people call “Third Stream”, which can be considered one of the most fascinating types.

However, there are some that would argue it’s something else beyond jazz.

Here’s a great example with Ralph Towner and the rest of Oregon performing “Witchi-Tai-To”:

Nowadays, practitioners of this style consider it as extending the palette for improvisation. In a lot of ways, it’s incorporating a lot of non-idiomatic improvisation vocabulary.

Here’s a great example of a Gunther Schuller composition called “Criss Cross” that exemplifies the third stream spirit:

Prior to Gunter Schuller, George Gershwin might be the closest composer to a third-stream artist given universal recognition of his work as canonical in both jazz and classical circles.

Here again is the outstanding example of Gershwin crossing both jazz and classical worlds in “Rhapsody Blue”:

As a side note (in my humble opinion), an authentic performance of Rhapsody In Blue should still encapsulate the spirit of jazz by learning it from the Gershwin’s original scores for Paul Whiteman where there are blank sections.

These blank sections are for improvisations or extemporaneous passages, much like the original cadenza in classical music. It is only when the pianist nods his head at the orchestra conductor that they should start playing again.

Anyway, another effective representation of third stream as well as jazz-rock fusion influences can be heard in this live performance of Iwan Hasan’s “Transcultural Echoes” by the Iwan Hasan Progressive Jazz Ensemble:

Lastly, Pat Metheny exemplifies this third-stream vibe as well. Listen to “The Way Up” in this live performance:

The Grittiest And Heaviest Among All Styles Of Jazz

Jazz-rock’s influence goes as far as reaching heavy metal musicians, creating one of the types of jazz that crosses musical subcultures.

When you combine metal with some progressive rock influence and a heavy dose of jazz, you get jazz metal.

While jazz metal isn’t clearly defined in the early days (with some rock journalists calling thrash meta band Megadeth a “jazz metal” band), anywhere you merge heavy metal with jazz harmony and improvisation, you’ll get a form of jazz metal.

For example, one primary example is the German band, Panzerballet:

Another more metal example is the band called Cynic. Self-described “jazzheads” from the Florida death metal scene of the 90s created their own brand of jazz metal that incorporates jazz harmonies, soloing, and complex rhythms with technical metal.

Here’s an example of a live performance of “True Hallucination Speak” from 2015:

Nu Jazz

The jazz of today’s generation (well, as of this time of writing) can be called “Nu Jazz”. Nu jazz incorporates modern music influence i.e. contemporary music production, hip hop, electronica, pop, etc. along with more traditional jazz harmony, improvisation, rhythms.

This created a style of that sounds very contemporary and vastly different from all the jazz styles discussed so far.

Nu jazz borrows heavily from Neo Soul (the musicians themselves are influenced by jazz e.g. D’Angelo, J. Dilla, The Roots, Erykah Badu, etc.).

You can easily hear how much complex jazz harmony and chord progressions are used in the tunes but with rhythms that pay homage to J. Dilla.

One outstanding example is the tune “Velours” by Canadian pianist and producer, Anomalie:

Final Thoughts On The Styles Of Jazz

Wow! That was sort of deep dive into some of the major styles of jazz.

However, this is only just scratching the surface. Each subgenre of jazz deserves its own in-depth discussion.

I hope you enjoyed this piece on the various jazz styles by Free Jazz Lessons!

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for the next lesson or topic, feel free to leave a note below.

For the meantime, I hope this inspires you to explore in your practice time various jazz subgenres. Check out our post to get started learning jazz piano.

Happy practicing!

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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.