I have been asked by Anthony, my friend and regular subscriber to mylifeinjazz to devote a chapter to decoding some of the ways that jazz is described. In a future blog I plan to delve into some of the mysteries of the jazz lexicon.

By its very nature is hard to break jazz down into distinct genres.  Hard going on impossible. Jazz is a music of and in the moment. It defies categorization and continues to influence a variety of other musical genres-Afro-beat, rap, contemporary classical, rock. In his master work, The Swing Era Gunther Schuller concludes his chapter on Duke Ellington as follows,

“Ellington always remained a modernist, especially harmonically, but he did so within his own unique concept, not the basically different directions of bop and modern jazz. This despite the fact that on occasion Ellington could still out-modernize, out harmonize, out-compose, out-swing any of his younger colleagues. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music he may one day be recognised as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time”

I will return I am sure to Duke Ellington many times in future episodes but before I embark on a brief tour of jazz styles, I want to start by proclaiming that jazz is not bound by categories or subcategories, most of which were invented by jazz critics not by jazz musicians. The jazz greats like Duke, Louis Armstrong, Bird, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Bill Evans, Wynton Marsalis, Maria Schneider and Miles Davis have no need of categorization and continue to defy categorization. To quote one of the pre-eminent, genre-defying jazz greats, Coleman Hawkins,

There’s no such thing as bop music, but there’s such a thing as progress”

So having established early on that attempting to categorize jazz is, by its very nature, unrewarding, it is important to recognize that since its earliest days  jazz has continued to develop sometimes in baby steps, occasionally as with bebop and Coltrane in revolutionary leaps. Each generation of jazz performers right across the world draw some of their inspiration and language from their predecessors. I have read numerous interviews with contemporary jazz musicians who proudly claim that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants”, namely earlier generations of jazz musicians going back to King Oliver and, of course, Louis Armstrong.

So, here’s a very brief introduction to jazz genres from its early 20th century New Orleans roots up to the present day. I am indebted to Michael Verity for the sections on early jazz.

Early Jazz often referred to as “Hot Jazz,” and sometimes “Dixieland music.” It incorporated the fast and spirited nature of ragtime, and the use of trumpets, trombones, drums, saxophones, clarinets, banjos, and either a bass or a tuba. Also, contrasting with classical music and ragtime, there was an emphasis on improvisation as opposed to written arrangements. Some sections of pieces involved collective improvisation, and others featured soloists, who strove for virtuosity.

Early Jazz Musicians

Louis Armstrong; Quickly rising to fame because of his unique melodic approach and technical skill, Armstrong was a hot jazz trumpeter and singer in New Orleans who was instrumental in spreading the music’s popularity across the country.

Bix Beiderbecke; Heavily influenced by Armstrong, Beiderbecke was a cornet player whose cleanly improvised melodies had an influence lasting into the swing era and beyond.

Fats Waller; an exuberant performer and composer who was a master of stride piano. He composed “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.”

Kid Ory; a trombonist and bandleader, Kid Ory is credited with developing the tailgate style of playing, which is when the trombonist improvises a simple rhythmic line underneath the melody in early jazz ensembles. Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Sidney Bechet played in Ory’s band in New Orleans.

Sidney Bechet; The first saxophone player to display great technical and improvisational skill, Bechet was an early jazz musician whose influence stretched into later periods of jazz. His influence on John Coltrane’s decision to take up the soprano sax is striking.

Louis Armstrong – Under the Stars

Stride Piano

Directly influenced by ragtime, the stridepiano style became popular in New York during World War I. Stride pieces are characterized by a bass line with a half-note pulse played in the left hand while the melody and chords are played in the right hand. The term “stride” comes from the action of the left hand as it strikes a bass note and then moves swiftly up the keyboard to strike chord tones on every other beat. Stride pianists also incorporated improvisation and blues melodies and were keen on technical prowess.

Swing Era

The swing era which ran from the late 1920’s through to the late 1940’s was the period when jazz became the mass, popular music., particularly in the U.S. The most popular big bands were the equivalent of today’s rock stars, although they travelled in far less comfort. Large jazz ensembles comprising up to 20 musicians criss-crossed the USA and Europe playing to huge audiences and generated massive record sales. Swing music, however sophisticated was primarily presented and consumed as dance music and was mainly delivered through live performances and radio broadcasts by big bands  each with their core repertoire of hits,  headed up by a star band leader, with a featured  singer or singers as part of the package.  Four beats to the bar, danceable music, with memorable tunes lay at the core of swing music. The bands increasingly provided a platform for emerging star soloists and singers who often developed spin off careers recording with smaller ensembles often in a style that was subsequently described as “Mainstream” For most of this period big bands were strictly racialized, black bands and white bands. Benny Goodman broke the mould hiring Lionel Hampton , Teddy Wilson and Billie Holliday in the late 30’s. Pre-eminent black bands included orchestras led by Ellington, Basie, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson & Cab Calloway.  Top white bands included Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman & Glenn Miller. To my ears ,the band that swung hardest and which honed its unique swing style in prohibition era Kansas City was the Count Basie orchestra.

Benny Goodman


Mainstream jazz is basically pre-bebop swing era jazz recalibrated for small groups. Historically, the mainstream tag was associated with such top line American trumpeters as Roy Eldridge and Buck Clayton. The most prominent contemporary mainstream player is probably American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Mainstream jazz is where you can go to find standard interpretations of jazz standards.


Bebop which emerged in New York in the mid-40’s was in many ways the cornerstone of everything that was to follow in modern jazz The key players were a core group of supremely talented black jazz musicians, pre-eminently Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke & Max Roach. The music was designed for small ensembles, was fast, harmonically complex, demanding, deliberately hard to play  and  definitely not aimed at the dance market. In his book The Birth of Bebop, Scott DeVaux provides an illuminating cultural definition of bebop.

“Bebop is the music of revolt, revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley- against commercialised music in general. It reasserts the individuality of the jazz musician as a creative artist, playing spontaneous and melodic music within the framework of jazz, but with new tools, sounds and concepts”

Charlie Parker

Hard Bop/Soul Jazz

A “post bebop” style most strongly associated with Art Blakey, Horace Silver and the Max Roach/Clifford Brown bands and with much of the recorded output of the legendary Blue Note label in the 50s and 60s. Much of this material echoed bluesy and gospel influences. Jimmy Smith’s successful introduction of the Hammond organ added a further dimension to the hard-driving, hard bop sub-genre. Blue Note issued tracks aimed at radio and duke box plays featuring such artists as Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Horace Silver and Stanley Turrentine that regularly broke into the mainstream charts. Herbie Hancock’s first album for Blue Note contained the multimillion-selling Watermelon Man.

Cool Jazz

Miles Davis who made his name playing with Charlie Parker in his late teens entered the studio in 1949 with a group of musicians he had been workshopping with for some weeks in New York to produce a startling album called Birth of the Cool. The band played only a handful of gigs and the album took many years to break through It is now regarded as a classic. Gil Evans played an uncredited influence on the arrangements and the line-up included such jazz luminaries as Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz (the epitome of cool jazz) and bebop master Max Roach.

In the 50’s west coast jazz developed a distinctive brand of cool jazz.  While clearly rooted in bebop, west coast jazz eschewed barnstorming approaches, favouring lighter styles, sophisticated arrangements often involving unusual instrumentation. Leading players of that era included Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne., Bud Shank, Harold Land, Art Pepper, Serge Chaloff & Chico Hamilton.

Modal Jazz

Modal jazz represented a move away from the complex chordal underpinnings of bebop towards a looser structure based on the seven modes within western music. George Russell devoted much of his life to working in and proselytizing for the Lydian mode from the mid-50s onwards. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue represents the standout example of modal jazz, and it is significant that Miles recruited Bill Evans to play piano on this session. Kind of Blue remains the biggest-selling jazz album of all time.

Jazz fusion (also known as progressive jazz) is a musical genre that developed in the late 1960s when musicians combined jazz harmony improvisation with rock, funk and rhythm and blues.  Electric guitars, amplifiers, and keyboards that were popular in rock started to be used by jazz musicians. 

Jazz fusion arrangements vary in complexity. Some employ groove-based vamps fixed to a single key or a single chord with a simple, repeated melody. Others use elaborate chord progressions, unconventional time signatures, or melodies with countermelodies. These arrangements, whether simple or complex, typically include improvised sections that can vary in length, much like in other forms of jazz.

Some would argue that fusion offered a necessary and highly commercial opportunity for jazz musicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s when competition from soul and rock threatened briefly to wipe out the jazz ecosystem in the U.S. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Weather Report all exemplify in their different ways this jazz style. Interestingly, Herbie Hancock’s set at Glastonbury in June 2022 showcased his own jazz-fusion credentials.

Herbie Hancock

Free Jazz/The New Thing

Free jazz represented a further reaction to the strictures and orthodoxies of modern jazz. From the late 1950’s some musicians from a core jazz tradition began to feel felt restricted by traditional melodies, harmonies and chord changes and wanted to place improvisation at the front and centre. Free jazz had a briefer currency in the U.S. than in Europe where it still retains some influence.  Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Rashid Ali, Coltrane’s last drummer and the Art Ensemble of Chicago experimented intensively with free jazz. 

In the early 60’s young players such as Archie Shepp, Rosewell Rudd, Sonny Murray & Reggie Workman were badged by the Impulse record label as New Thing pioneers, playing much freer jazz often with a specifically political edge. In The U.K. the late Derek Bailey, John Stephens and the titanic saxophonist Evan Parker are or were stars of the free jazz firmament. I have a lot of respect for free jazz musicians who will always inhabit a tiny corner of the jazz world.

Third Stream

In 1961, the composer and writer Gunther Schuller defined third stream as “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music». He noted that while critics on both sides of third stream objected to tainting their favourite music with the other, more strenuous objections were typically made by jazz musicians who felt such efforts were “an assault on their traditions”.

Critics have argued that third stream—by drawing on two very different styles—dilutes the power of each in combining them. Others reject such notions and consider third stream an interesting musical development. In 1981, Schuller offered a list of “What Third Stream Is Not”:

It is not jazz with strings.

It is not jazz played on “classical” instruments.

It is not classical music played by jazz players.

It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between bebop changes—nor the reverse.

It is not jazz in fugal form.

It is not a fugue played by jazz players.

It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.

Given its cross-boundary nature third stream could claim musicians as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, Darius Milhaud (a big influence on Charlie Parker) George Russell, Jaki Byard and of course Schuller himself- a noted composer and mean French horn player.

The Playlist

The playlist takes me somewhat out of my own comfort zone as I have little knowledge of or interest in early jazz, and am, shamefully, still struggling to properly appreciate Louis Armstrong. It aims to give you a brief introduction to each of the jazz styles covered in this piece.