We Asked the Experts: What Are the Different Types of Jazz Music?

Jazz ! What is Jazz? So many people use that  title to describe this great American indigenous art form.  But jazz is multifaceted. Many “flavors” and feels and influences encompass this genre of music. Did you know that there are many different subcategories of jazz? In this blog, we’ll go over several of the different styles of jazz as well as a bit of their history. And in case you’d like to have a listen for yourself, you’ll find musician suggestions and song suggestions to check out as well!

Early Jazz

Early jazz got its start in the New Orleans’ African American community in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As with lots of musical styles, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when jazz became its own distinct musical genre, but it truly took off in the roaring twenties. It incorporated the pace of ragtime music along with some of the flavor of blues, and it was based on the principle of freestyle play rather than playing from a set musical arrangement of notes.

Notable early jazz musicians include, of course, the great Louis Armstrong,  Mary Lou Williams- the first well known female jazz pianist , as well as Scott Joplin and Nick LaRocca. 


In the late twenties, the swing style of jazz showed up on the scene. By the mid-1930s, swing became the dominant form of music, so much so that the period of time between 1936 to 1945 became known as the Swing Era. Swing jazz is named as such because of the rhythmic “swinging” of the notes. Swing bands also stand out due to their larger size, with multiple players of instruments- like the trombone and trumpet. 

Notable swing artists include Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing”), Frank Sinatra, Anita O’Day, the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, who wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” 


Moving right along, we enter the 1940s, and that ushered in bebop. The newer, younger generations of jazz musicians were shaking things up. While swing was perfect for dancing, bebop went the other way with a quick tempo that wasn’t conducive to dancing. It was more about listening to the piece and appreciating the music itself. This ushered in a new era in jazz characterized by riffs and improvisation at a level not seen before. 

Notable bebop artists of the time include Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis, an influential jazz artist who spans several offshoots of jazz and played in many styles, got his start in bebop as well.

Hard Bop

Arguably the most popular form of jazz in the fifties, hard bop was sort of an offshoot of bebop. It was influenced by some of the elements of rhythm, blues, and gospel. Hard bop was liked by many for bringing back the ability to dance to the music while still holding on to the largely improvisational nature of bebop.

Miles Davis dabbled in hard bop, as did Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane and Horace Silver were big names in hard bop too. 

Cool Jazz

With a little influence of classical music, cool jazz, as its name suggests, is a lot more smooth and relaxed in tempo. Cool jazz does incorporate some formal arrangements. Cool jazz came about in the late 1940s and was a lot more subdued than its predecessors.

If you’d like to hear some cool jazz, look up Gerry Mulligan,  Modern jazz Quartet  with Lenny Tristano. Prominent vocalists of the Cool Jazz era (also known as West Coast Jazz) are Peggy Lee, Julie London,  June Christy,  Bobby Troup, Chet Baker (trumpet and vocals)… just to name a few.


Post-bop emerged in the late 1950s through the early 1960s. It was characterized by features like a slower melody more in line with cool jazz than bebop and being free-form. Fun fact: In the 1980s, it experienced a revival in the form of “neo-bop.”

Miles Davis is credited with starting post-bop. Other famous names include Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans.

Free Jazz

While jazz in and of itself is open to lots of improvisation, free jazz takes that to the next level. Born in the 1960s, free jazz was all about breaking the rules. Free jazz was about letting emotion come through in the piece. Performers have even been known to throw unconventional instruments into their free jazz numbers.

Ornette Coleman is credited with starting the offshoot in New York City. Check out his 1960 album Free Jazz.

Jazz Fusion 

As the world entered the 1960s and rock became ever more popular, jazz began to branch out. As the name suggests, jazz fusion is all about combining jazz with other musical genres. Another catalyst may have been the death of John Coltrane, a huge name in jazz, which may have felt like it signaled the end of an era. Ever the adaptive one, jazz evolved and incorporated several other genres including rock, R&B, hip hop, and funk, among others, leading to sub-genres such as jazz rock, smooth jazz, and even jazz metal. 

Miles Davis played some jazz fusion, such as in his album Miles in the Sky. Larry Coryell was another influential name in jazz fusion. This genre and the influences of jazz can be found in the works of many artists from Carlos Santana to Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin. 

Latin Jazz

Featuring instruments like maracas, bongos, and claves, Latin jazz is another offshoot of jazz that was formed around the 1940s and 50s. Latin jazz is upbeat and easy to dance to, owing in part to its fast rhythms and heavy use of percussion instruments. It is sometimes further broken down into Afro-Cuban jazz and Afro-Brazilian jazz.

Want to listen to some Latin jazz? Check out “Manteca” by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. 

Contemporary Jazz

Contemporary jazz refers to jazz from the late twentieth century through the present. It has two main subcategories: smooth jazz and modern jazz. Smooth jazz is a calm version of jazz blended with Soul and R&B; think easy-listening type music. Modern jazz is a mix of many different styles and similar to fusion jazz in a way, with a lot of crossover between jazz, R&B and other musical genres.For smooth jazz, Kenny G and Chris Botti are good ones to check out. If you’re looking to hear some modern jazz, check out the work of Esperanza Spalding.

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