What Is Jazz Manouche?

What is Jazz Manouche

Jazz is a highly diverse music genre, featuring a range of subgenres with intriguing sounds and unique features. Jazz manouche is one such subgenre, an approach with a unique combination of instruments and a fascinating acoustic sound. If you’re curious about jazz manouche, here’s a look at its features, history, and more.

What Is Jazz Manouche?

Quintette du Hot Club de France - Django Reinhardt

Jazz manouche is an intriguing sub-genre of jazz with its own conventions but breaks away from some of the traditions found in many other types of jazz. The style blends in folk music elements, relying primarily – if not entirely – on acoustic instruments, with a heavy emphasis on stringed instruments, particularly for solos. This style of jazz was traditionally passed down to younger musicians through family and friends.

Drums are highly uncommon in this jazz subgenre. Generally, a rhythm guitar guides the timing, using the la pompe technique, which typically emphasizes every other beat. Along with a lead guitar and violin, the bands more commonly feature a pair of rhythm guitars and a double bass. However, additions like accordions or clarinets aren’t highly uncommon.

In many cases, Romani jazz musicians that played in jazz manouche ensembles couldn’t read music. As a result, songs often originated from jam sessions. Additionally, for bands that frequently performed in front of crowds, rote memorization was often essential for ensuring the songs were presented correctly, as preserving them in sheet music wouldn’t assist the musicians who couldn’t read them.

What Are the Characteristics of Jazz Manouche?

Maccaferri guitar

Generally, jazz manouche relies on swing-style rhythms and has a fun, expressive feel. Functionally, it’s a combination of American jazz elements and more traditional Romani music, an unexpected mix that ultimately allowed the sub-genre to stand out dramatically.

La pompe rhythm guitar ensures the songs have a bouncy feel, while various soloists add improvised elements. The pace or tempo can be a bit frenetic, though it usually maintains a sense of cohesion.

Generally, jazz manouche doesn’t rely on standard barre chords, relying instead on alternatives like major 6th, major 7th, and 6/9 chords. Any harmonization tends to give the feel of a minor, regardless of whether the key is major.

When it comes to the lead, most consider it a decorated arpeggio. Chromaticism is often part of the equation, and there may be string bends, ghost notes, trills, and other intriguing elements.

What Influenced Jazz Manouche?

Jean "Django" Reinhardt at the Aquarium in New York, NY
Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. November 1946 Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The primary influences of jazz manouche were American jazz and Romani music. The origins of jazz manouche are associated with a particular Romani guitarist inspired by American jazz legends of the time. As a Romani, he was highly familiar with the musical styles associated with the culture and functionally brought the two concepts together to create something new.

Other Names for Jazz Manouche

Jazz manouche – also referred to as “manouche jazz” – also goes by many other names. Some call it “hot jazz” due to its overall tempo. There are also many who refer to it as “hot club jazz” or simply “hot club.”

However, the most widely used alternative names of jazz manouche are controversial today. At its inception, jazz manouche was often called “gypsy jazz,” with the variant “gypsy swing” sometimes used.

“Gypsy” isn’t a term that’s generally used today, as many deem it derogatory or consider it a racial slur. As a result, some now refer to the genre as “Romani jazz” or “Romani swing,” though others simply stick with the other names associated with this jazz variant.

The History of Jazz Manouche

As with most types of jazz, the origins of jazz manouche are intriguing. Jazz manouche arose nearly 100 years ago, introducing a new sound to the broader genre that became incredibly popular. And unlike most other types of jazz, jazz manouche began in Europe, with most associating its beginnings with Paris, France.

Generally, most attribute the start of jazz manouche to Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a Romani guitarist – who generally favored using the uniquely designed Selmer-Maccaferri guitar – and Stéphane Grappelli, a French swing violinist. The pair created the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 and featured a distinctive sound that was highly popular among the Manouche, a Romani population in France.

Reinhardt was a prominent Romani guitarist, creating a unique acoustic guitar sound that’s highly connected to the genre. Among other Romani guitarists of the era, Reinhardt was considered the leader when it came to improvisation, and he’s also deemed a founder of the “hot” sound that ultimately defined jazz manouche guitar.

During his career, Reinhardt’s band toured much of Europe, and Reinhardt also had opportunities to record with various American jazz musicians, including Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.

However, the eruption of World War II disrupted the rise of Quintette du Hot Club. Still, Reinhardt and Grapelli continued working together when possible, though Reinhardt began shifting toward a bebop sound that didn’t work well with a violin. In relatively short order, jazz manouche fell out of style, and it wasn’t particularly prominent until the mid-1970s when it experienced a resurgence.

Many consider Grapelli the “grandfather of jazz violin,” and he ultimately had a strong career both with and without Reinhardt. When Reinhardt shifted away from jazz manouche, Grapelli transitioned to lounge jazz. However, he was integral in the genre’s reemergence in the 1970s and continued with it until his death in the late 1990s. Additionally, he had his own opportunities to record with some music greats, including jazz musician Duke Ellington, rock legends Pink Floyd, and cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma.

Famous Jazz Manouche Artists and Bands

Django Reinhardt

Ultimately, Django Reinhardt is the most famous jazz manouche artist, as he’s classically considered the originator of the genre. His style was equal parts fierce and joyful, adding a lyrical quality that made the music accessible, even if it was intense at times.

Some of the best examples of his music include songs like “Nuages,” “Limehouse Blues,” “Minor Swing,” and “Dinah,” all of which can serve as strong introductions to the genre. Today, the Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival continues to celebrate the genre Reinhardt created, and it’s a popular event among jazz manouche fans and many who love the broader jazz sound.

Stéphane Grappelli

Stéphane Grappelli
Photo by Allan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While Django Reinhardt is largely credited with creating jazz manouche, Stéphane Grappelli was highly involved in the genre’s emergence. He played alongside Reinhardt during the early days of jazz manouche, imbuing the songs with his amazing violin playing. Together they created the group “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” along with Joseph Reinhardt, Roger Chaput and Louis Viola. As a result, his contribution shouldn’t be overlooked.

Stochelo Rosenberg

Stochelo Rosenberg is a Romani guitarist who leads the Rosenberg Trio. Born in 1968, he began playing guitar at the age of 10 and ultimately became a staple of the jazz manouche genre.

Reinhardt highly inspired Rosenberg, though he brought in new sounds to take the music in slightly new directions. Classical and pop sounds often make their way into songs, as well as bossa nova. However, the Romani swing style remains at its core.

Mario Maccaferri

Technically, Mario Maccaferri isn’t a jazz artist but a classical guitarist and luthier. However, his guitar design was preferred by Django Reinhardt, giving him a firm place in the history of the genre.

Pearl Django

band Pearl Django perform at the Bastille Day

A modern jazz manouche ensemble, Pearl Django features a classic collection of instruments, relying mainly on acoustic guitars, violins, and double bass, along with an accordion. The group formed in the mid-1990s when Dudley Hill and David Firman, who had origins in blues and jazz, decided to create the band.

Over time, the members of Pearl Django have changed, but the core style generally remains the same. The band has several albums that can help bring people into the genre, and it also continues to perform today.

George Cole

Another modern jazz manouche musician, George Cole, leads his own band – the George Cole Quintet – and plays guitar for the David Grisman Sextet. While he began his musical journey with electric guitars, he transitioned to acoustic and soon became an integral part of the jazz manouche subgenre. He’s also known for uptown swing.

Tim Kliphuis

Tim Kliphuis is a skilled violinist known for blending jazz manouche, folk, and classical music. He lists Stéphane Grappelli as a major inspiration and has dozens of albums to his name. While his style isn’t purely jazz manouche, his intriguing take makes his work worth a listen.

John Jorgenson Quintet

The John Jorgenson Quintet is another modern band featuring a blend of jazz manouche sounds mixed with classical, rock, Greek, and Latin music. The group has had the honor of headlining the Django Reinhardt music festival, a nod to their cumulative talent. The more diverse blending of the music also makes their sound highly accessible while being incredibly unique, making them a group worth exploring.

The Origins of Jazz

the origins and history of jazz

Jazz is a music genre with district roots and an intriguing history, mixing a range of international styles to create a sound unlike what was ever experienced before. If you’re asking questions like, “Who created jazz?” “What are the origins of jazz in America?” and “When did jazz music start?” here’s what you need to know about the history of jazz.

The Origins of Jazz

When Was Jazz Invented?

“When was jazz music created?” is a question many jazz fans and people new to the genre ask. The beginnings of jazz actually date back to the 19th century. New Orleans was home to Congo Square, a space where slaves would gather and play music. That tradition started a bit before 1820, and it brought together people from a wide array of countries, each introducing a bit of their nation’s unique sound to the mix.

Over time, the blending of African music and Caribbean music was joined by marching band instruments. Marching bands were highly prevalent during the Civil War. They introduced many people to various brass instruments, and the united sound eventually formed the genre known as ragtime.

Spiritual music was also popular during the era and made its way into what ultimately became the jazz sound. After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people from throughout the American south brought blues to Louisiana. In time, all of these sounds melded together, leading to the genre that became jazz.

Ultimately, exactly when the genre known as jazz began is a bit debated. Most feel it started in the late 1800s or early 1900s. However, it ultimately rose to fame in the 1920s.

Where Did Jazz Originate and Why?

Jazz is often thought of as being founded on the musical traditions of West Africa (rhythm, “feel”, blues) and Europe (harmonic chords, variety of instruments). Early jazz also incorporated church hymns, slave songs, field chants, and Cuban-style rhythm.

Jazz originated in New Orleans, primarily as it served as a melting pot for the music that ultimately led to the jazz genre. One of the main reasons it formed there was that slaves from a wide variety of nations could come together and play music, something that wasn’t always permitted in other cities or states.

The Louisiana Territory had “Le Code Noir,” a set of rules outlining the treatment of slaves. While many of the requirements were harsh and strict, providing slaves with few rights or freedoms, a few clauses gave slaves some rights. Some of the tenants barred slave owners from making the slaves work on Sundays or Catholic holidays. As a result, slaves had a day of rest during the week, and many near New Orleans used that time to gather at Congo Square.

Essentially, that answers the question, “Why is New Orleans the birthplace of jazz?” it was the required Sundays off that created conditions that weren’t present in many other parts of the American south. Through the weekly gatherings, music was a way to find joy and served as the foundation for what eventually became jazz.

Congo Square Plaque, New Orleans
Congo Square Plaque, New Orleans

Who First Invented Jazz Music?

When it comes to who invented jazz music, most historians consider Buddy Bolden – a cornet player –the first jazz musician. He was an African-American bandleader, and he was even once dubbed the “first man of jazz,” cementing his place in jazz history.

At a minimum, Buddy Bolden was a musician that spearheaded the genre, often playing in Storyville at night. While there aren’t any known recordings of his playing, his sound was said to feature the improvisation traditionally associated with the genre.

However, Buddy Bolden wasn’t the only musician associated with the birth of jazz. Some other early jazz African-American musicians of the time included Mutt Carey, Bunk Johnson, and Joe Oliver. Creole jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, and Sidney Bechet also shaped the genre.

As one would expect, many of those musicians blended various musical traditions, featuring beats from West Africa and the Caribbean, European classical music instruments, and many other sounds and influences.

Buddy Bolden Band
Bolden Band – WikiCommons

How Was Jazz Sound Created?

As mentioned above, jazz music is an amalgamation of several different genres, featuring sounds from a wide array of international music styles. However, its foundations are largely based on three specific types of music. Here’s a closer look at the jazz music origins and the genre’s key characteristics.

What Are the Three Musical Roots of Jazz?

The roots of jazz are primarily ragtime, marching bands, and blues. Ragtime developed naturally in the American south, featuring African-American rhythms and styling combined with more traditional European music. It became a part of minstrel shows, allowing it to spread through many regions within the American south.

Marching bands were a form of support during the Civil War. Primarily, they aimed to keep morale high, but they also accompanied some drills. These sounds became widespread during that era and were viewed as uplifting, even if they were mainly associated with a challenging period in history.

The blues also developed as a genre during the Civil War. Word songs, minstrel shows, and spiritual music influenced that genre. Folk and other popular sounds of the era also made their way into the blues genre, further diversifying the sound stable blues itself.

Generally, jazz is viewed as a blending of those styles, incorporating their musical elements and many of the sounds and emotions present in them. But jazz also brought something new to the table, particularly when it came to improvisation.

new orleans french quarter jazz procession fountain
New Orleans french quarter jazz procession fountain

What Are the Music Characteristics of Jazz?

Jazz has many characteristics, some that it shares with other genres and others that are generally unique to the genre, at least during the origins of jazz. Improvisation is one of the most classically defining traits. However, syncopation, polyrhythms, and irregular rhythms are potential hallmarks, too.

Solos are also a traditional part of the jazz genre. Most early jazz also featured calls and responses, where one musician in a band would offer a phrase, and another would essentially reply to it.

Generally, jazz is a genre that seems to embody musical freedom. While some subgenres do have a distinct sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm, many others include unexpected elements as a form of expression. Often, it’s those unanticipated moments that make the genre highly unique, setting it apart from many other types of music.

How Did Jazz Evolve?

While the origins of jazz date back to the pre-Civil War era, like most types of music, it also changed over time. New sounds were incorporated as musicians began embracing jazz concepts. Additionally, various jazz musicians began honing their unique sounds, some of which led to the creation of new subgenres.

As mentioned above, jazz as a separate, official genre may date back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. However, jazz didn’t come into its own until the 1920s.

Many consider the 1920s the start of the jazz age since that’s when it first became broadly popular in the US and Europe. The “Roaring Twenties,” with prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and music, drove jazz into the mainstream and made overnight success stories of musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.

The age of jazz culminated in the historic 1938 Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall, bringing together musicians from various ethnicities to perform jazz inside this hallowed hall. At this point, the jazz of the 1920s and 30s was already starting to give way to the Big Band era, although jazz musicians such as Ellington and Armstrong would continue to develop jazz until their deaths.

Despite the dominance of jazz ending with the Great Depression, the music has continued to evolve with new styles and sub-genres forming as its influence on pop culture continues to echo through time, along with many new up-and-coming jazz musicians.

Edward "Kid" Ory, creole jazz band
Edward “Kid” Ory and his Creole Band
Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What Are the Origins of the Different Types of Jazz?

Over time, jazz evolved to include a wide array of subgenres, each with its own unique sounds and characteristics. While they all have jazz foundations, their differences cause them to stand apart from one another. Some feature cultural influences from nations that weren’t necessarily part of the foundation of jazz. Others embrace or shirk key traits like improvisation to varying degrees.

Here’s a quick overview of the origins of the different types of jazz.

Modern Jazz

Modern jazz essentially began in the 1940s, and it aimed for more freedom for improvisation. It stepped away from chord progressions, giving solo musicians more space to create unique melodies, using nearly any scale or note they wanted. As a result, it more often features unexpected elements and can be offbeat or challenging to follow.

Free Jazz

Free jazz is an incredibly avant-garde subgenre, providing the highest degree of freedom one typically finds in jazz. It largely originated in the late 1950s, when Ornette Coleman began moving away from traditional notions and limitations associated with jazz, functionally rejecting all conventions. As a result, this type of jazz is one of the most challenging to define, as the lack of constraints is what is typically the basis for the genre.

ornette coleman

Bebop Style

Bebop primarily began in the early 1940s and is incredibly fast-paced and experimental. Many of its roots come from the integration of swing music, and scat singers were commonly part of the songs. Those scat musicians led to the genre’s name; a “bebop” was functionally a nod to the nonsensical syllables that come with scat.

Latin Jazz

Latin jazz is a fusion style that brought Latin sounds into the jazz genre. Usually, it features Cuban and Spanish Caribbean rhythms coupled with traditional jazz instruments and music compositions. Its origins also date back to the 1940s, formed initially by Afro-Cuban musicians in Spanish Harlem that collaborated with African-American jazz musicians.

Cool Jazz

Cool jazz arose during the 1940s as a counterpoint to faster and more chaotic or upbeat forms of jazz like bebop and hard bop. This genre brought in more classical elements, essentially moving away from blues and swing elements present in many other subgenres. Comparatively, it’s more restrained, though that can also make it more accessible to those who find certain types of jazz overwhelming.

Jazz Manouche

Jazz Manouche originated in Paris in the 1930s. Usually, it features smaller bands and favors an acoustic sound. Drums aren’t usually a part of the genre, leaning instead on rhythm guitarists to maintain the beat. Its origins are attributed to Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a Romani guitarist, and Stephane Grappelli, a French violinist. Due to Reinhardt’s background, the genre was once referred to as “gypsy jazz,” though that has since fallen out of favor due to the negative connotations of the term “gypsy.”‘

Jean "Django" Reinhardt at the Aquarium in New York, NY
Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. November 1946
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jazz Fusion

Jazz fusion began developing in the 1960s. During that era, jazz musicians started integrating sounds more widely associated with rock music and R&B. Most who began developing this genre had collaborated with Miles Davis at one point. While Davis mainly rose to fame in the bebop genre, he was highly experimental in his later career, playing a critical role in a variety of subgenres, including jazz fusion.

Smooth Jazz

Smooth jazz began in the 1970s, emerging as a form of crossover jazz designed to have broad commercial appeal. Comparatively speaking, it’s an easy-listening version of jazz, incorporating more predictability and gentleness than you find in many other types of jazz. Essentially, the goal was to reach a wider audience, so the genre added pop-inspired elements and features commonly associated with R&B ballads.

Modal Jazz

Modal jazz emerged in the mid-1950s. It’s named for the fact that it relies on musical modes. Organizationally, it’s more scalar than chordal. As a result, it provides more space for unique improvisations that would otherwise be challenging with more chordal versions of jazz. Both Miles Davis and John Coltrane are credited with popularizing modal jazz, allowing them to step away from the more rigid structures associated with some other approaches to jazz composition.


Swing started in the late 1920s, becoming broadly popular by the mid-1930s and remaining so until the mid-1940s. Most consider the years between 1930 and 1945 as the Swing Era, a time when big bands led by legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie were making waves. The genre has a distinct rhythm, accentuating specific beats to create its unique feel.

Count Basie
Portrait of Count Basie, Aquarium, New York, N.Y
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hard Bop

Hard bob emerged in the mid-1950s, incorporating more features that you usually find in gospel music, R&B, and blues. It favored medium tempos over quicker ones, as it worked to bring soul sounds back into the genre, something some felt was lacking in cool jazz and some other emerging subgenres. It also maintained enough space for free expression but balanced that with a sense of groove, making it more danceable than subgenres like bebop.

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong once said: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”



What Is Free Jazz?

what is free jazz

The world of jazz is incredibly vast, featuring a wide variety of subgenres that each mark a highly unique sound. While all forms of modern jazz may have their fans, few are as inherently controversial as free jazz.

Overall, free jazz isn’t as accessible or broadly appealing as some of its counterparts, but the unconventional style is worth a listen for anyone curious about the world of jazz. Here’s a look at the history of free jazz, free jazz style, how it came to be, what makes it stand out, and more.

jazz pianist

What Is Free Jazz?

Free jazz is a highly avant-garde movement type of jazz that offers extreme amounts of space for solo improvisation by any band member. Every artist can express themselves in free jazz improvisation in practically any manner, even if it means a full disregard for melody, harmony, and structure.

Who Created Free Jazz?

The creation of the free jazz style is credited to Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist who shirked many of the conventional notions about how jazz was played and structured. Many people wonder when did free jazz start. In the late 1950s, Coleman challenged musical convention by embracing a highly controversial sound, forgoing most traditional approaches to jazz structure, melody, and harmony.

ornette coleman

Why Is It Called “Free” Jazz?

Free jazz was given its moniker by Ornette Coleman, likely as a nod to the uninhibited nature of the music. The concept is free of many of the standard ideas about how to approach jazz, giving jazz musicians a free rein to express themselves in nearly any manner.

What Are the Characteristics of Free Jazz?

Essentially, the primary characteristic of free jazz is simply rejecting convention. As a result, it’s classically one of the most challenging types of jazz to define.

There aren’t specific set characteristics when a musician plays free jazz, primarily since nearly anything is permitted. There’s no requirement for maintaining a specific tempo, using particular chords, or even acknowledging what other band members are playing.

As a result, the only thing that defines free jazz is the concept of free expression, and free solo improvisation. Essentially, every member of a band is potentially operating independently, embracing solo improvisation while all others do the same.

Generally, this means moving away from chords, as they create a harmonic framework that musicians need to follow. With chords being less of a factor, it’s far easier to make spontaneous choices while playing.

Atonality is often part of the equation. The end result was often highly unconventional, without fixed roles for various instruments, and by embracing concepts like chromatic intervals, microtones, overtones, multiphonics, and tone clusters.

What Influenced Free Jazz?

Ultimately, free jazz is an evolution of, but in an unexpected way. While the base concept of jazz remains at the center, free jazz moves away from any traditional conventions, focusing more on improvisation and intensity over set structures, harmonies, and melodies.

Free jazz was also influenced by music from all around the globe. Intriguing instruments from Asia or Africa were often brought into the mix, and some free jazz musicians even created their own to give them unique ways of expressing themselves.

talking drum

What Are Some Examples of Free Jazz?

There are many examples of free jazz that are highly defining of the genre. One of the best examples is Free Jazz, an album by Ornette Coleman. Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come is also worth a listen.

However, those aren’t the only standouts that helped define this highly eclectic genre. Coltrane Time by pianist Cecil Taylor, Ascension by John Coltrane, and Space is the Place by Sun Ra demonstrate where free jazz can take a musician. Plus, there is a slew of free jazz musicians and others for those who want to dive further into the unique sounds of free jazz.

How Does Free Jazz Differ from Jazz?

Generally, traditional jazz and free jazz are only part of the same genre based on the instruments played. Traditional – also known as tonal – jazz focuses on chord progressions, set structures, and planned melodies and harmonies. When soloists step forward, they operate within the base framework, providing flourishes that augment instead of disrupt the sound.

Comparatively, often veers toward atonal, and there’s complete freedom to play in any manner the musician chooses. Improvisation is also incredibly broad, as there isn’t an inherent binding due to an existing structure, melody, or harmony. As a result, the sound feels chaotic and disruptive in nature, but that’s part of the core intent.

Who Are Some Famous Free Jazz Musicians?

Ornette Coleman

Generally speaking, Ornette Coleman is considered a – if not the – founder of. He functionally launched the genre when his quartet played at The Five Spot and showcased its unconventional sound, a move that generated a lot of controversy. Additionally, his album Free Jazz not only highlighted the emerging genre but also gave it its name.

Cecil Taylor

Pianist Cecil Taylor also emerged in the world of free jazz at about the same time as Coleman. A skilled and classically trained pianist, he took an avant-garde approach to the, embracing experimentation even if it was controversial. The album Coltrane Time (Stereo Drive) features an atonal style, which is a striking contrast compared to the remaining band members playing in the recordings, who were much more conservative.

Unit Structures is another noteworthy album, as it was incredibly intense, including two double bassists, atonal dissonance, and more. As a result, it’s not a sound that appeals to all, but it’s undoubtedly a must-listen for those intrigued by the history of free jazz.

cecil taylor

John Coltrane

While John Coltrane isn’t known solely for free jazz, much of his later career embraced the freedom it provided. The renowned tenor saxophonist leaned heavily on, forgoing conventions like coordinated tempos and chord sequences.

Generally, the album Ascension is considered the clearest example of his transition. While there are still traditional elements, the solo sections are largely without any limits. The only requirement was ending with a crescendo, giving them functionally free rein to otherwise approach the music as they saw fit in those moments.

Charles Mingus

A famed upright bassist, Charles Mingus began experimenting as a jazz composer during the mid-1950s when he assembled the Jazz Workshop. The goal was to achieve a sense of poeticism in a post-bop world, embracing new dissonances and aiming for an unconventional amount of freedom. The initial result was Pithecanthropus Erectus, making it a worthwhile listen.

Mingus also had strong feelings about others in the genre. He believed strongly in the need for authenticity during solos and often looked unfavorably at those he deemed faking it.

charles mingus

Evan Parker

Saxophonist Evan Parker is considered a prominent figure in the early days of European free jazz. The soprano and tenor saxophonist collaborated with many, including Cecile Taylor and Anthony Braxton. His personal style was startling and, at times, highly visceral, making him a standout in an already intense genre.

Sun Ra

A unique musician even within the unrestricted world of the free jazz movement, Sun Ra drew inspiration from a wide array of genres, including many jazz subgenres and ragtime. The end result was often otherworldly and, when combined with very theatrical live performances, functionally transported audiences with his sound.

While Sun Ra has a vast catalog, Space is the Place is likely the best starting spot. The title track is mesmerizing, and the rest of the album is a highly unique listen.

sun ra

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler originally began his musical career in the world of R&B but later took his tenor saxophone playing in new directions. His approach was intense, gritty, and odd, often introducing noises people wouldn’t expect from his instrument. The album Spiritual Unity is one of the standouts in his catalog, stepping away from strict tempos and featuring extremes that can catch the listener off guard.

Pharoah Sanders

A saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders worked with John Coltrane early in his career. Sanders favored a spiritual free jazz sound and played on Coltrane albums, including Ascensions and Meditations. While his most famous album is likely Karma, Sanders later began integrating new sounds into his work, particularly African rhythms, all while maintaining a core sound that many musicians aligned with.

pharoah sanders

David Murray

A composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist, David Murray was highly influenced by the likes of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and many others playing free jazz. He combined elements of free jazz with more mainstream styles, causing his sound to evolve and embrace some unconventional features without altogether forgoing many traditions.

Ultimately, David Murray’s vast catalog shows how he grew as an artist. As a result, it’s wise to explore a few albums from different periods, including options like Low Class Conspiracy, Ming, The Hill, and Ballads for Bass Clarinet.

Jazz at the Cinema

jazz at the cinema

The world of movies covers nearly any topic imaginable. When it comes to jazz at the cinema, you can find a range of intriguing documentaries, inspiring fictional tales, and anything in between. In some cases, jazz music takes center stage. In others, jazz is used to set a tone or to help define a character. Regardless of the degree of focus on the music, the end result is often incredibly moving, leading to a fantastic film experience.

Ultimately, there are a surprising number of incredible jazz films, whether you just want to watch a good film or you are a lover of jazz. If you want to explore jazz in the cinema, here are eight examples of jazz at the cinema that serve as excellent starting points.

8 Examples of Jazz at the Cinema

1. Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Easily one of the best jazz films ever, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is a documentary that chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, drawing attention to one of the most intriguing periods in jazz history. Overall, the Newport Jazz Festival is considered iconic, with many live albums recorded during the event.

While the film only captures a small number of the musicians present that year, it does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the event. Concert footage is intermixed with shots of the crowd and the other features of the festival. When it comes to performances, you’ll see segments featuring greats like Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and many others.

One benefit of seeing Jazz on a Summer’s Day today is that a restored version is on the market. As a result, the video and audio quality is top-notch, making it even more enjoyable to watch this critically-acclaimed film.

Louis Armstrong and Willis Conover
Louis Armstrong and Willis Conover, Newport Jazz Festival, 1958 Michael Williams, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Bird

Often considered one of the best jazz movies of all time (winning an Academy Award for Best Sound), Bird is a biopic film released in 1988 that chronicles the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker, a jazz legend. The movie is directed and produced by Clint Eastwood and stars Forest Whitaker, who plays Charlie Parker in the movie. The film features various scenes depicting key moments in Parker’s life, ranging from childhood to his passing at age 34.

The movie isn’t entirely chronological, instead shifting a bit on occasion to show how various events tie together. In Bird, there’s an exploration of Parker’s relationships with others, including his connection to his wife and other jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie.

Whitaker’s performance is nothing short of outstanding, particularly considering some of the harsher realities of Parker’s life depicted in the film. There’s also plenty of incredible music, which most consider vital for any biopic focused on a jazz legend. For his performance, Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor Award at the 1988 Cannes film festival.

charlie parker
Charlie Parker taken by William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3. The Cotton Club

When it comes to jazz in the cinema, no list is complete without mentioning The Cotton Club, an incredible film by Francis Ford Coppola. It focuses on The Cotton Club, a Harlem jazz venue that’s considered a quintessential part of the jazz scene in that area.

Coppola’s film itself is a crime thriller, using the jazz scene in New York as a functional backdrop to the narrative. Starring Richard Gere and Gregory Hines, the rest of the cast is nothing short of outstanding in their roles.

While the story is a work of fiction and not all depictions within it are accurate for the time or are stylized, there are still many authentic aspects of jazz culture. Plus, jazz music does feature prominently in the movie, which adds an enjoyable element to anyone who appreciates the genre.

filming a movie

4. Soul

One of the more modern examples of jazz in the movies and a highly family-friendly film, Soul is an animated feature film that follows a New York jazz pianist who suddenly finds himself stuck between his life on Earth and the afterlife.

The main roles are voiced by acting greats Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, and the supporting cast is exceptional at imbuing emotion and ensuring every character resonates with the audience. The narrative focuses on the concept of finding and following one’s passions in life.

As one would expect, the movie features plenty of jazz music. The songs are used to convey feeling as the story unfolds, allowing it to almost serve as its own character. Overall, it’s joyful, sorrowful, and nearly everything in between at some point in the film, but the ending ensures the emotional journey pays off.

5. Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky is a 1943 film featuring an all-black cast, and it’s considered the most successful film featuring only black actors of its era. Originally a Broadway musical, the film adaptation features plenty of jazz.

While Ethel Waters, one of the stage performers, was also part of the movie, the film recasts many of the others. Eddie Anderson took on the role of “Little Joe,” and Lena Horne played “Georgia Brown.” Louis Armstrong also makes an appearance in a minor role. Duke Ellington is also part of the film and is part of one of the standout musical numbers.

As for the story, Cabin in the Sky is essentially a Faustian-style tale. After Little Joe is killed due to his gambling debts, he has an opportunity to save his soul before it’s condemned. As a result, the film encompasses a range of emotions, from poignant to uplifting, making it an incredible journey.

Cabin in the Sky, 1943
Cabin in the Sky, 1943

6. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is a documentary film about one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. The movie features a mix of live performances and interviews with family members and friends, making it intriguing both musically and when it comes to learning about Monk as a person and artist.

One part of the film that generally stands out is the uniqueness of the footage. While there are wider shots of Monk and his band, you also see closeups of his hands on the piano. That makes it easier to appreciate his unconventional positioning and technique.

Additionally, Monk was known for being relatively reserved. The film, however, is a fairly intimate portrait, shining a brighter light on who he was as a person and artist.

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk, Minton’s Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947 (William P. Gottlieb)

7. Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool

A more recent documentary chronicling the life of one of the most influential and widely recognized jazz musicians throughout the genre’s history, Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool was released in 2019 to much critical acclaim. Along with photographs and film clips of Miles Davis, the movie includes interviews with a variety of people who knew him, as well as scholars who’ve studied him as an artist and a person.

Ultimately, the film is an excellent introduction to the artist for anyone interested in learning more about the jazz genre’s greats. There is also archival footage that wasn’t included in anything prior to the movie’s release, as well as studio outtakes and not-widely-viewed photographs.


8. Passing Through

Another fictional film that focuses on a jazz musician, Passing Through features a compelling narrative, strong performances by the cast, and, of course, excellent music. The story focuses on the main character – Eddie Warmack, played by Nathaniel Taylor – attempting to regain his footing as a jazz performer after incarceration and focuses heavily on finding ways to avoid predatory practices in the music industry.

While the movie is outstanding, finding opportunities to see it is difficult. Filmmaker Larry Clark never intended for the film to have a home release, instead feeling that it should only be viewed in a movie theater. As a result, it doesn’t typically make its way to streaming services or cable channels, and you won’t see legitimate physical disks available on the market. However, special showings of the film do still occur.

vintage theater

What Is Cool Jazz

what is cool jazz

The world of jazz is far wider and more differentiated than many people expect. While those who aren’t familiar with the genre typically focus on the more erratic, high-energy versions, cool jazz is a counterpoint that is often far more accessible to those new to the genre. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a favorite of jazz music aficionados, as its smooth, relaxed feel is broadly appealing.

The origins of cool jazz are intriguing, and modern artists continue to embrace the style. If you’re asking questions like, “What is cool jazz?”, “When was cool jazz invented?” and “Who was the first cool jazz artist?” here’s what you need to know about cool jazz history, its characteristics, and more.

What Is Cool Jazz?

Cool jazz music is an offshoot of jazz that began emerging in the late 1940s after the end of World War II. In many ways, the cool jazz sound is a counterpoint to comparatively “hot” variants.

So, how is cool jazz defined? Ultimately, the term “cool” jazz took hold due to journalists reporting on the newly emerging relaxed jazz style. Journalists described the music as “cool” since it’s more understated and subdued when compared to bebop bands, hard bop, and other upbeat jazz styles of the era.

Some refer to cool jazz as “college jazz,” as many who embraced and created the foundational music in the genre were university-educated formal musicians. Often, they imbued the music with classical elements, shifting away from the swing and blues influences usually found in higher-energy forms of jazz.

Comparatively speaking, you also saw far more white artists in the cool jazz genre after it developed than in the evolutions of others. However, its origins are associated with two prominent African American jazz musicians. As time passed, artists from all walks of life were part of the progression of cool jazz, each having their own take on the genre.

What Are Some Characteristics of Cool Jazz?

John Coltrane
Dave Brinkman / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

At its core, cool jazz is restrained, but it’s still incredibly emotional. Cool jazz simply captures different feelings than those you find in many other versions of jazz, often imbuing a soft, romantic, restful, or even melancholy quality.

The cool jazz characteristics begin with a lower energy level and slower tempo. The cool aesthetic favors low and mid-registers, with far less vibrator than you find in many higher-energy jazz variants.

Additionally, cool jazz has smooth, melodic qualities. Compared to other forms of jazz, the music feels lyrical. Plus, cool jazz isn’t afraid of silence or softness.

Cool jazz also has more classical influences. There’s less improvisation and more formal composition. However, cool jazz does take advantage of odd time signatures, while many other jazz variants stick with a classic 4/4 time signature.

What Influenced Cool Jazz?

the french horn

Generally, the core influences of cool jazz were bebop, hard bop, and classical music. While cool jazz intentionally differs from bebop and hard bop, the desire to move away from that often frenetic sound paved the way for cool jazz. As a result, both of those genres serve as a significant influence.

Classical music was the other primary influence that impacted the evolution of cool jazz. The goal was to create structure and formal arrangements, and the cool genre embraced what classical music offered. The result was a unique softness and higher intentionality, as well as leading to the introduction of new instruments into jazz, including flutes, oboes, French horns, and more.

What Does Cool Jazz Emphasize?

Since cool jazz is highly influenced by classical music, it emphasizes formal compositions and arrangements over improvisation. Additionally, solos aren’t as common in cool jazz, instead favoring a more orchestral-style approach to the music.

Tonally, cool jazz is deeper and softer. Even drums are played with a degree of lightness, preventing them from overwhelming the listener. Cool jazz has fewer shrill or overly bright moments, as the goal is to maintain a relaxed, restrained vibe.

Who Created the Cool Jazz Sound?

Saxophonist Lester Young
Photograph by Ojon Mili. Time Inc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The creation of the cool jazz sound is primarily attributed to two jazz legends. First, Lester Young – a tenor saxophonist and part of the Count Basie band – is broadly considered the inspiration for the cool jazz movement. He’s also credited with spurring the association between the term “cool” and the merging relaxed feel. He used “cool” to describe a calm state or reduced intensity, and his perspective led others to explore that style of playing.

In turn, trumpeter Miles Davis became what many consider to be the founder of cool jazz. He created softer variants of bebop movement, including the many examples found on his album Birth of the Cool.

The Miles Davis Nonet – which included greats like saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Gil Evans – pursued the sound, though it was incidental. They were aiming for more deliberate tracks over the energetic fervor that came with many other jazz subgenres.

What Are Some Examples of Cool Jazz?

Dave Brubeck Quartet
Associated Booking Corporation (management), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a slew of cool jazz groups and artists. Plus, many jazz musicians who don’t traditionally stick within the cool jazz genre have dabbled at times, creating a wide array of suitable examples of cool jazz for listeners to enjoy.

Birth of the Cool is potentially the quintessential example of the genre’s emergence, making it an exceptional starting point for those exploring cool jazz for the first time. The track “So What” is a worthy introduction to the cool jazz movement, though any song on the album is worth hearing.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet features the stylings of composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, who was at the forefront of cool jazz. One of his most noteworthy marks on the genre was his use of odd time signatures, giving his music unique qualities. Time Out is one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time and features an array of incredible tracks. For many, “Take Five” is considered a leading example of the unique time signatures he ushered in, but don’t overlook “Pick Up Sticks” or “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”

The Modern Jazz Quartet – the band of pianist John Lewis – features elegant arrangements that combine jazz and classical music to create a complex yet accessible listening experience. It’s also one of the first jazz bands to focus more on playing concert halls over jazz clubs, a mark of its popularity with the masses. Django is an excellent album to start with.

The Modern Jazz Quartet
Philips Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gerry Mulligan Quartet Volume 1 is another exceptional example with some unique flavor. Unlike many other albums, you don’t find pianos or guitars providing chordal harmonies. While there are more improvisational moments than you may hear elsewhere, it’s still very representative.

How Does Cool Jazz Differ from Bebop and Hard Bop?

Bebop jazz and hard bop are far more energetic than cool jazz. Bebop and hard bop are inherently loud, fast, crisp, and musically dense. There’s a sense of fervor and excitement, and the music often leaves the listener guessing where a track may go as it develops and unfolds.

In many cases, cool jazz stands in opposition to the bebop movement. There’s a soft, light quality to cool jazz, and it’s tonally lower. Plus, it has a somber or relaxed quality and doesn’t aim to fill every moment with sound, instead embracing sparseness to accent the notes played.

Are Cool Jazz and Modal Jazz the Same?

the oboe

Technically, cool jazz and modal jazz aren’t precisely the same. Instead, modal jazz is closer to a subgenre within the cool jazz genre of music. However, some key differences separate modal jazz from more traditional cool jazz.

While modal jazz also features a relaxed feel and is less erratic, it creates more space for improvisation. Plus, it relies more heavily on modes over chords. However, since it maintains a lyrical and melodic feel and a slower tempo, it aligns more closely with cool jazz.

With modal harmonies, there’s less pairing of tension and resolution. Instead, there’s more of a tendency to let everything float or suspend, giving it uniqueness. There also isn’t the need to avoid specific notes along the way, which provides a greater sense of freedom while still working well with the base structure.

In many cases, the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue exemplifies both cool and modal jazz in different ways. At times, it’s that album that creates such a strong connection between the jazz styles, as they both have common qualities while remaining different enough to deserve separate recognition.

Women of Jazz

the women of jazz

The women of jazz played a significant role in the development of the genre since the early days of its emergence. However, many female contributors to jazz are incidentally overlooked, even though their influence on jazz was significant.

Without women in jazz, the genre may have taken a different shape, leaving us without some of the sounds we appreciate today. Here’s a look at the women of jazz, including some of the most influential contributors, and how women reshaped the jazz world during its earliest days.

The Women of Jazz

While some of the women of jazz are broadly considered household names, other major contributors aren’t well known by the public at large. However, their contributions and influence on jazz are incredibly noteworthy and deserving of far more recognition than they potentially receive.

Here’s a look at some of the most influential female instrumentalists, singers, and composers during the evolution of the jazz scene, including some household names and some lesser-known musicians.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald in September 1947
Ella Fitzgerald, September 1947
William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Among female jazz singers, Ella Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest of all time. With 13 Grammies to her name and over 40 million album sales, she was one of the most popular female jazz artists in history by a significant margin.

Ella Fitzgerald was an exceptional vocal talent with a timeless quality that broadened her appeal. Along with a sultry tone, she could mimic orchestral instruments, giving her a unique creative edge. In time, she also mastered scat, ultimately taking it to new places.

As her career unfolded, Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t limited to the stage. She made appearances on popular television variety shows, becoming a favorite guest of Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, and more.

During her career, Ella Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums. Ultimately, jazz wouldn’t be the same without her, and she’ll likely be considered one of the greats until the end of time.

Mary Lou Williams

Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Milt Orent, Dixie Bailey, and Jack Teagarden, Mary Lou Williams' apartment, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947 (William P. Gottlieb 09281)
Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Milt Orent, Dixie Bailey, and Jack Teagarden, Mary Lou Williams’ apartment, New York, N.Y.
William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams is widely viewed as one of the first women to have success as a jazz musician. Her career began when she was just 12 in 1922, and she played with Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians at the age of 15. By 1925, she joined a band led by John Williams, a saxophonist, who she later married.

Along with writing hundreds of arrangements, Mary Lou Williams recorded over 100 records. She worked with the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, both big influencers of the genre during the early years. Plus, she earned the nickname “The First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard,” a nod to her unique skill and incredible sound.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947 (William P. Gottlieb 04251
Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947
William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Billie Holiday is largely considered a jazz singer of great renown and one of the most influential jazz singers to ever emerge within the genre. Also known as Lady Day, she began performing in clubs during the 1930s, ultimately getting discovered by producer John Hammond when she was just 18. He paved the road for her career, connecting her with Benny Goodman.

Billie Holiday had a highly expressive and melancholy-tinged vocal quality, along with distinct phrasing. She sang on tracks featuring music from many greats, including Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington, during her career.

In time, Billie Holiday struck out on her own, creating songs like “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” both of which are considered some of her most iconic works. She also frequently sang songs about troubled relationships, many of which resonated with the masses.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten
Bessie Smith in 1936
Carl Van Vechten, restored by Adam Cuerden Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A blues and jazz vocalist Bessie Smith was a powerhouse with a soulful quality, leading many to consider her the “Empress of the Blues.” “Downhearted Blues,” a highly popular track she recorded with Columbia Records, sold approximately 800,000 copies, which put her in the spotlight.

While much of her music falls in the blues genre, she often explored other sounds, including jazz and swing. Bessie Smith collaborated with Louis Armstrong on multiple tracks, including “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” and “Cold in Hand Blues.”

As the 1920s came to a close, Bessie Smith was the top-earning black performer of the day. Her unique sound continues to captivate even now, easily qualifying her as a legend.

Lil Hardin Armstrong

Louis and Lil Armstrong visit to Israel, April 1959
Lil and Louis Armstrong visit to Israel, April 1959
Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, CC BY 4.0

Lil Hardin Armstrong –also known as Hot Miss Lil – was a jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader. During the early days of jazz, she was easily one of the most prominent female forces. Along with propelling her own career forward, she had a significant impact on the career of her husband, famed musician Louis Armstrong.

Along with writing songs and performing with her husband, Lil Hardin Armstrong was also his manager. Additionally, she played on many early jazz recordings, giving tracks her unique flare.

Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae, jazz vocalist, and accomplished pianist

One of the most influential jazz vocalists during the early days of the genre, Carmen McRae had a tender and warm quality that deepened the meaning behind any lyrics she sang. Also an accomplished pianist, Carmen McRae often accompanied herself during the early part of her career. She sang alongside renowned performers and bands like Count Basie, Benny Carter, and Mercer Ellington.

One of her most notable recordings included her work with Louis Armstrong on The Real Ambassadors. Carmen McRae also made many television and film appearances, including a performance in Roots: The Next Generation.

Blanche Calloway

composing music

A vocalist, composer, and bandleader, Blanche Calloway made her mark on the jazz genre. Additionally, she’s broadly recognized as the first black female leader of a successful, otherwise all-male jazz orchestra that operated under her own name.

Along with her Joy Boys, Blanche Calloway had a strong career during the 1930s, and her fame only continued to grow. In 1931, a reviewer of her work considered her one of the most progressive performers in the music space. While her orchestra disbanded in 1938, the mark she made was undeniable. She also spent time in an all-female band for a short period during World War II before retiring from performing in 1944.

FAQs About the Women of Jazz

Who Is the Most Famous Female Jazz Singer?

President Ronald Reagan and Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald with President Ronald Reagan After Performing for King Juan Carlos I of Spain in The East Room
Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989 Collection: White House

Generally speaking, Ella Fitzgerald is potentially the most famous female jazz singer of all time. She’s often referred to as the “Queen of Jazz” and the “First Lady of Song,” both nods to her exceptional talent and overall appeal as a singer.

After the emergence of the Verve record label, which was created specifically to showcase her, Ella Fitzgerald experienced success far beyond her earlier days. It gave her the room to genuinely share her talent with less restriction, allowing Ella Fitzgerald to truly emerge as a great.

However, it’s critical not to overlook other exceptional names in the genre. Billie Holiday had a soulful quality and unique way of communicating through music that allowed her to stand out dramatically. There was also an autobiographical tinge to her music, which let others easily connect to her songs, giving her a unique place in jazz history.

Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard St Philadelphia PA
Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard St Philadelphia PA

What Was It Like for Women in Jazz?

Many women in jazz faced a wide array of challenges, particularly during the genre’s early years. Sexism and discrimination were an issue, and many women who were poised to make their mark on jazz saw their careers grind to a halt as a result.

One prime example of what women encountered, as discussed by KQED, was a 1938 editorial that appeared in Downbeat magazine. The piece was titled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior,” and referred to women as the “weaker sex” and suggested they weren’t “born capable” of producing great music.

Of course, that’s just a single example of what female jazz singers, instrumentalists, and composers battled against. There was a notion that women in jazz didn’t measure up. While some exceptions were seemingly made for singers and pianists, players of other instruments and composers faced extreme challenges when it came to making their way into bands and securing other opportunities.

Ultimately, saying the road was difficult is a massive understatement, and a slew of talented female musicians likely never got the shot they deserved. While the landscape has since changed, this essentially means the genre isn’t precisely what it could have been if women didn’t face the challenges they did when jazz emerged, making it a critical point to ponder.

Who Was the First Female Jazz Pianist?

mary lou williams
Mary Lou WIlliams
William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006), photographer – Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, it’s challenging to determine precisely who the first female jazz pianist was, as not all of the women who contributed to the genre during the early days received the recognition they deserved. However, Mary Lou Williams is broadly considered one of the first, particularly when it came to achieving success as a musician in jazz. She began working professionally in 1922 and was only 12 at the time. Over the course of her career, she collaborated with many other greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Teagarden, and many more.

Additionally, Mary Lou Williams was one of just three women that appeared in A Great Day in Harlem, an iconic photograph taken by Art Kane. The other two women in the photo were Marian McPartland and Maxine Sullivan, a pianist and a vocalist, respectively.

What Is Latin Jazz?

what is jazz music

Jazz comes in a variety of flavors, each with unique characteristics and its own passionate fan base. Latin jazz is a vibrant part of the jazz community, a lively variant with what Jelly Roll Morton described as a “Spanish tinge.”

All forms of jazz come with an intriguing history and sound, and Latin jazz is no exception. If you’d like to learn more about Latin jazz, here’s a look at the Latin jazz definition, influences, rhythms, history, and more.

cuban musicians

What Is Latin Jazz?

Latin jazz is a fusion of jazz and Cuban and Spanish Caribbean music. At times, it’s even referred to as Afro-Cuban jazz due to these early influences, though some consider it a subgenre within the broader Latin jazz.

Within the jazz community, Latin jazz is viewed as one of the most vibrant and lively jazz subgenres. Latin beats are highly danceable and classically upbeat, giving them a sense of life and fun. However, the sound is also surprisingly diverse, employing a range of rhythms that were popular in Latin and South America, as well as the Caribbean, during the time of Latin jazz’s formation.

What Defines Latin Jazz?

In general, what defines Latin jazz is the use of Cuban and Spanish Caribbean rhythms alongside traditional American jazz instruments and musical approaches. There isn’t a single rhythm required for a song to qualify as Latin jazz. Instead, any base rhythm that’s traditionally a part of Latin music – including some with African inspirations – is considered part of the overall genre.

Aside from the various rhythms, one of the key Latin jazz characteristics is a greater emphasis on percussion. While drums were always a part of jazz, their significance is stronger in Latin and Caribbean music. Additionally, a wider array of percussion instruments are present in Latin jazz than you find in traditional variants.


What Influenced Latin Jazz?

Generally speaking, Latin jazz music is a fusion of American jazz and Latin American and Caribbean rhythms. It rose to prominence in two port cities thriving during the early 20th century: New York City and New Orleans. Many early Latin jazz artists also incorporated African rhythmic patterns, leading to the subgenre Afro-Cuban jazz.

New York City is generally considered the city where Latin jazz originated, as it was a popular destination for newly arriving Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Latin Americans. However, Latin rhythms also made their way into the New Orleans jazz sound.

What Rhythm Is Latin Jazz Based On?

While there isn’t a single Latin jazz rhythm that all musicians within the genre follow, certain ones are incredibly common. One rhythm du jour during the early 20th century was Cuban habanera rhythm, which features a syncopated four-beat pattern.

While Latin jazz was originally influenced primarily by Cuban and Spanish Caribbean rhythms, other sounds began making their way into the genre as interest in this type of music spread. For example, bossa nova – a blend between jazz and samba – is another popular rhythm. It’s highly influenced by musical stylings originating from Brazil, featuring Brazilian rhythms mixed with jazz harmonies.

Since Latin America and the Caribbean consist of more than 30 countries, the rhythms you can find in Latin jazz vary. Bolero, cha-cha-cha, mambo, rumba, samba, and many more sounds are present within the broader landscape.

What’s the Difference Between Jazz and Latin Jazz?


The primary difference between traditional American jazz and Latin jazz is that Latin jazz styles feature Cuban, Caribbean, and Latin American music. The resulting sound is highly energetic, typically having a more dance-friendly feel.

In many cases, the pitch in Latin jazz also has a higher register when compared to more traditional versions. However, that isn’t necessarily a requirement in Latin jazz, so the registers can also be similar.

You’ll also find instruments in Latin jazz that aren’t used in traditional jazz. While drum kits, basses, saxophones, and trumpets are practically universal in jazz, Latin jazz music can also include timbales, claves, congas, bongos, and other instruments popular in Cuba, Latin America, and Africa.

What Are the Types of Latin Jazz?

As with jazz as a whole, there are multiple Latin jazz subgenres. While Latin jazz is at times referred to as Afro-Cuban jazz, some treat Afro-Cuban jazz as its own subgenre. Cuban rhythmic patterns are considered clave-based and include rhythms like the cha-cha-cha, mambo, rumba, and songo.

Afro-Brazilian jazz is another category within the broader Latin jazz landscape. You’ll find baiao, bossa nova, partido alto, and samba here. With Caribbean jazz, you’ll see calypso and merengue rhythms. There’s also Afro-Puerto Rican jazz music, which has bomba and plena influences.

However, those aren’t the only versions. Another example is Afro-Peruvian jazz, which stemmed from Africans brought to Peru by Spanish colonists. It blends in West African influences with local sounds, including instruments like the Peruvian Cajon and Quijada de burro.

What Are the Main Instruments in Latin Jazz?

afro cuban percussion

Latin jazz instruments primarily include those you’d find in more traditional forms of American jazz. Trumpets, saxophones, drum kits, basses, and similar classics are often present. However, you’ll also find instruments that reflect the Latin influences in the genre, particularly percussion instruments.

Since Latin jazz comes in various types, the instruments present vary. Congas and bongos are occasionally used, as well as claves, guiros, and timbales. You might hear cowbells or cajons, as well as maracas.

The History of Latin Jazz

As with any music genre, the history of Latin jazz is intriguing. Here’s a look at the origins of Latin jazz, how it evolved, and who’s considered the founder of Latin jazz.

Where Did Latin Jazz Originate?

mario bauzá
By Enrique Cervera – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Latin jazz is a fusion genre that developed as various cultures integrated into the United States during the early 20th century. Some say that the journey began during the big band era, as large bands began using Afro-Cuban rhythms like congas and rumbas in their music. However, those songs were solely a foundation, serving as a broad introduction to the sounds of Cuba and the Spanish Caribbean for many.

Similarly, Latin American musical influences were present in New Orleans early in the 20th century, leading to the adoption of the syncopated rhythm that’s classically part of the city’s early jazz sound. During that time, Jelly Roll Morton – a renowned composer and pianist of the era – described the influences as a “Spanish tinge.” Rhythms like Cuban habanera were increasingly present, though the Latin sounds were mostly viewed as influences instead of full fusion.

When it comes to the earliest incarnations of genre-defining Latin jazz, most feel it emerged in New York City in 1940. Machito and the Afro-Cubans – under the direction of Mario Bauzá, a Cuban-born trumpet player – the band distinctly blended jazz with Latin beats. Many feel that “Tangá,” one of the band’s first hits, was the first song released that aligns with the genre, essentially making it the original example of old Latin jazz.

In short order, other jazz musicians began fusing jazz with various Latin-inspired beats. Dizzy Gillespie commonly used Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, leading to the development of bebop in time. Chano Pozo similarly played a role in developing what was soon dubbed Afro-Cuban jazz or Cubop. In fact, their collaboration – “Manteca” – quickly became a standard during the era.

How Did Latin Jazz Evolve?

The development of the genre continued into the 1950s. However, public sentiment began to shift, leading to the end of the once-popular big band era. At that time, Afro-Cuban jazz gained a new name, Latin jazz, with smaller bands adopting the sound. Both Cal Tjader and George Shearing were considered leaders of this new trend, particularly on the west coast.

The music continued to shift as more musicians embraced it. For decades, Conga and bongo drum players became a big part of the genre, while Tito Puente introduced many listeners to timbales and the vibraphone.

Interest in Latin jazz also spread south. One of the first distinct forms of South American jazz was bossa nova, which developed in Brazil during the 1960s and made its way to North America.

Latin jazz maintained its popularity well beyond that, with Irakere being a leader in the 1970s and Thelonious Monk and the Fort Apache Band in the 1980s. Ultimately, the genre maintains momentum even today, allowing this form of fusion to continue evolving.

Who Was the Founder of Latin Jazz?

Admittedly, there’s some debate regarding the founder of Latin jazz. Most, understandably, give that credit to Mario Bauzá, as “Tangá” is typically viewed as the emergence of the then-new sound.

However, others played a critical role during the early development of Latin Jazz. For example, Candido Camero – a Cuban percussionist – is also considered a father of Latin Jazz. He played a significant part in the genre’s emergence in New York, collaborating with greats like Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, and Tito Puente.

Additionally, most credit Dizzy Gillespie for introducing Afro-Cuban jazz to the masses. His work with Chano Pozo and Candido Camero attracted mainstream attention, allowing the genre to reach a new audience.

Famous Latin Jazz Artists

tito puente exhibit
By Marine 69-71 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Many Latin jazz artists are recognized for their contributions to music, not just the genre. Many consider Mario Bauzá the founder of Latin jazz, as he was largely responsible for the first genre-defining song, which Machito and the Afro-Cubans performed.

Dizzy Gillespie’s work with Chano Pozo and Candido Camero is considered genre-defining and brought Latin jazz to a broader audience. Essentially, Dizzy Gillespie is recognized for popularizing the sound, allowing it to gain better traction across the United States and other countries.

Kenny Dorham was part of the evolving Cubop scene, adding nuance and details that other artists didn’t previously explore. Israel “Cachao” Lopez was a strong influencer during the 1950s, embracing sophisticated and vibrant Cuban influences.

Band leader Cal Tjader brought in some west coast flair, creating a unique and striking sound. Luiz Bonfa brought in a more Brazilian sound after becoming enamored with bossa nova. During the 1970s, Irakere maintained influences from its Cuban roots while adding unique flavors, including some bordering on psychedelic rock.

Of course, you can’t overlook Tito Puente. For many, he was considered the face of Latin Music in America, and some call him the godfather of Latin jazz and salsa.

However, these are just some of the famous Latin jazz artists. Plus, many modern musicians continue to explore and expand the genre, keeping the world of Latin jazz alive and thriving.


9 Gifts for the Jazz Lover

9 gifts for the jazz lover

The holiday season is upon us, causing many people to start building their gift lists for the upcoming season. If you have a jazz fan in your life, jazz-themed gifts are an excellent option.

Along with showing how well you know the person, there are plenty of incredible – and even some unconventional – gifts for jazz enthusiasts available. If you aren’t sure where to begin, here are nine gifts for the jazz lover to add to your list.

9 Gifts for the Jazz Lover

1. Vinyl Record Collector Logbook

Many jazz lovers prefer vinyl when they play music. A Vinyl Record Collector Logbook is an ideal gift if you have a family member or friend with a growing vinyl collection, especially once they’ve already acquired the best jazz albums!

This is one of the best gifts for jazz fans because it lets them track their album collection. They can easily list the genre, artist, title, release year, and date of purchase. Plus, they can add a personal review, allowing them to note their favorites or discuss the general vibe of the record.

Another benefit is this gift helps your jazz music lover avoid accidentally buying a duplicate. It’s a quick and easy tracking option with an analog feel that seems appropriate for vinyl collectors.

2. Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz

Historic Photos of New Orleans Jazz is another one of the fantastic gifts for jazz music lovers. It includes a collection of rare photographs features in the Jazz Collection at the Louisiana State Museum, serving as a visual record of jazz in New Orleans.

Along with stunning images, there’s information about the history of jazz music in the region. Plus, it discusses the various artists, making this a solid choice for long-standing jazz fans or those who are just starting to explore the genre. Featuring 200 pages of images and text, this book is sure to contain pictures and facts that are new to the reader, allowing them to discover more about the music they adore regardless of their existing knowledge.

3. Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club Eau De Toilette

One of the great gifts for jazz lovers who also enjoy unique scents is the Maison Martin Margiela Replica Jazz Club eau de toilette. The various scent notes are designed to align with aromas classically associated with the Brooklyn jazz clubs of yore. You’ll pick up the scents of vanilla and musk, coupled with tobacco aromas reminiscent of cigars. There are also hints of cocktails and leather.

This is a potent eau de toilette, so a little goes a long way. Plus, the scent lingers after application, so there’s little need to reapply during the day. While the scent profile leans masculine, it can also be appropriate for women who enjoy the scent profile.

4. The Jazz Experience Coloring Book for Adults

Coloring is often a meditative, relaxing experience, which led to the rise in coloring books designed for adults. If you’re looking for gift ideas for jazz lovers, Jazz Experience Coloring Book for Adults is a must. It features a variety of images, including some focused on instruments and others featuring performers.

One nice feature of this coloring book is that the back of each coloring page is black, reducing the odds of ink bleeding if the recipient uses markers or pens. There are 20 images to color, and depending on the result, pages could be removed and framed to create art for their home. Couple the book with a nice set of colored pencils or markers, giving the recipient everything they need to enjoy the gift.

5. Louis Armstrong Poster

One of the best jazz-related gifts for a family member or friend who enjoys displaying jazz-oriented art is the Louis Armstrong poster. This concert poster reflects the era’s style, but since it’s a fresh print, it doesn’t show signs of age. The 8×10-inch size also means it’s easy to fit into small spaces or could work as part of a photo collage wall.

While the color palette is striking, thanks to the large amount of reddish-orange, it isn’t overwhelming either. The rest of the poster is black and cream, adding enough neutral elements to create balance. Put the print in a classic black frame, and you have an outstanding gift.

6. Vintage Jazz Musician Photo Set

Another one of the best gifts for jazz lovers looking for wall décor is this Vintage Jazz Musician photo set. It includes four separate images featuring Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, each printed in black and white.

The photos are 11×14 inches, so it’s easy to find suitably sized frames. Since the images are black and white, you can choose classic black frames or opt for more color. Matting is also an option to draw more attention to the photographs.

Since two of the photos are landscape and two are portrait, it’s easy to hang the photos to make them form a square. However, they can also be integrated into a photo collage wall, making them versatile.

7. Victrola 8-in-1 Bluetooth Record Player & Multimedia Center

One of the more unique gifts for jazz lovers that combines current technology and vintage vibes is the Victrola 8-in-1 Bluetooth Record Player & Multimedia Center. It allows the jazz fan in your life to listen to their favorite music in nearly every format. This solution not only plays vinyl; it also has a CD player, cassette player, radio, USB drive input, and Bluetooth connectivity. Speakers are also built-in for added convenience and sound quality.

However, the player maintains the classic Victrola feel even with all the media options. It features genuine wood construction and traditional features, giving it a vintage vibe. Plus, it allows people to record from vinyl to mp3s (with the required software included), allowing the recipient to create digital music files of their favorite albums.

8. Brass Alto Saxophone Ornament

If you’re looking for simple but stylish Christmas gifts for jazz lovers, the Brass Alto Saxophone Ornament by Broadway Gifts is an outstanding option. The design is classic and vibrant, guaranteeing it’ll be an eye-catcher on any Christmas tree. Plus, it’s highly detailed, making it almost look playable even in its 5-inch form factor.

Along with brass, this ornament features genuine wood and other metals, improving the overall look. Plus, it comes boxed, making it highly giftable. The company also produces ornaments based on a wide array of other instruments using the same high-quality materials, giving you the option to gift additional companion pieces or even an entire band’s worth of instruments.

9. Metal Sax Wine Rack

If you’re on the hunt for jazz gift ideas that also work for wine lovers, the Metal Sax Wine Rack is a perfect choice. The wine bottle holder is a wire-based design that resembles a saxophone.

The rack features metal components and has a slight avant-garde feel, which feels particularly appropriate for a jazz-themed gift. Plus, it’s sturdy and well-balanced, so the recipient doesn’t have to worry about the wine bottle causing it to tip.

Another benefit is that this wine bottle holder looks excellent when holding wine or empty. Plus, it’s easy to take this gift up a notch by including a bottle of the recipient’s favorite wine, allowing them to enjoy the piece and an excellent bottle of wine in a single gift.

9 Top Jazz Festivals Around the World

jazz festivals

Jazz exists in many forms. It can be relaxing, upbeat, slow, fast, erratic, and many other variations. The best jazz music can transport a listener to a different time and place, wringing every ounce of emotion out of them before bringing them back to the present.

Finding these experiences involves making other, more physical journeys. The best place to find the latest and greatest jazz is at one of the many jazz festivals held annually around the world. If you are inclined to travel and love jazz at its finest, check out our list of the top jazz music festivals around the world.

9 Top Jazz Festivals Around the World

1. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival is held near the start of summer – typically beginning in late June or early July – each year in Denmark. In 2022, it ran longer than usual, starting on June 24 and continuing until July 10. In 2023, it’ll be slightly briefer, beginning on June 30 and running through July 9.

This event has been held since 1979, making it one of the most distinguished jazz festivals in Europe and one of the most famous jazz festivals around the world. It has something for every jazz lover, hosting over 1,300 concerts featuring a slew of styles. Plus, there are kid- and family-friendly activities, allowing visitors to enjoy far more than great music.

If you’re looking for outstanding accommodations, here are some options in Copenhagen that are worth considering:

Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Foto: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen
Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Foto: Kristoffer Juel Poulsen (Courtesy Jazz.dk)

2. The Clearwater Jazz Holiday

The Clearwater Jazz Holiday has also been held since 1979 in Clearwater, Florida. This is a world-class, multi-day celebration of jazz that’s held every October (October 19 – 22, 2023), often hosting over thirty-five thousand visitors.

This event is held at Coachman Park and features a combination of great artists performing in a wide variety of jazz styles that are sure to inspire and delight jazz fans from all over the world. Because of the beautiful Florida beaches, the warm Florida sun, and amazing jazz, this is one of the top jazz festivals to attend.

When it comes to accommodations, Clearwater has plenty to offer. Here are some options you may want to explore:

3. The Java Jazz Festival

The Java Jazz Festival has been held for more than ten years in Jakarta, Indonesia. While the event previously took place in March, it was scheduled from June 2 – 4, 2023.

This event is considered the biggest jazz festival in the Southern Hemisphere. The Java Jazz Festival features popular Indonesian jazz artists and international greats from all across the globe. The lineups often have some of the biggest names in jazz, and the country itself is breathtakingly beautiful, which is why this is one of the most popular international jazz festivals.

Finding great accommodations for this jazz festival is also a breeze. Here are some stellar options:

person playing saxophone

4. The Montreal International Jazz Festival

The Montreal International Jazz Festival isn’t just one of the top jazz festivals in the world; it’s officially the largest jazz festival in the world, too. The event holds the Guinness World Record for hosting more than 1.9 million jazz fans during its 25th-anniversary celebration, cementing its place in history.

The event is held annually, starting in June and running into July in Quebec, Canada. For 2023, the dates will be June 29-July 8.

For many people, this is easily one of the best jazz festivals for anyone who wants to experience more of what the genre has to offer. This festival has stood the test of time, as it’s been going since the early 1980s. Typically, this long-lasting festival features upwards of three thousand artists from thirty-plus countries. You are sure to find your favorite jazz artists at The Montreal International Jazz Festival.

If you want to make sure your accommodations are conveniently located for the festival, here are some options:

5. The Montreux Jazz Festival

The Montreux Jazz Festival takes place in Switzerland, usually starting in late June or early July. In 2023, the event will begin on June 30, running through July 15.

This event is one of the biggest jazz festivals, coming in second only to Canada’s Montreal International Jazz Festival. The Montreux Jaz Festival attracts between two hundred and three hundred thousand people every year, all of whom come to enjoy fantastic music and a sense of camaraderie.

This grand event was founded in 1967, causing many to view it as one of the more traditional jazz festivals. However, that isn’t a comment on the music or amenities, as you’ll find modern conveniences and nearly every jazz style represented here.

For great accommodations for your stay in Switzerland, consider these options:

6. The XJazz Berlin Festival

The XJazz Berlin Festival is a newer event, first occurring in May 2014. However, it quickly became a favorite among jazz fans and is often considered one of the best jazz festivals in the world for anyone who enjoys boundary-pushing, innovative jazz music.

This event brings together an eclectic array of jazz artists and attendees every May, giving this festival a unique edge. If you’d like to experience it firsthand, plan to be in Berlin between May 10 and 14, 2023, and make sure to scoop up your tickets in advance.

If you’re looking for a great place to stay in Berlin, here are some options for accommodations:

XJAZZ Berlin festival
XJAZZ Berlin (Photo: XJAZZ / Ulla C. Binder)

7. The Eltham Jazz, Food & Wine Festival

When it comes to jazz festivals in Australia, the Eltham Jazz, Food & Wine Festival is considered by many to be one of the top jazz festivals in the world. It features incredible music, delectable food, and magnificent wine, making the total experience absolutely stellar.

Usually, this event – which is scheduled for February 25-26, 2023 – features mainly local jazz artists, making it an excellent option for anyone who wants to explore the Australian jazz scene. Plus, the Eltham Jazz, Food & Wine Festival is a free, child-friendly event, so this jazz festival could take your Australian vacation to the next level.

If you’re coming in from another city or country and want some local accommodations, here are some excellent options:

8. Manly Jazz Festival

With stages set up alongside Manly Beach in Australia, the Manly Jazz Festival is another fantastic event for jazz fans. Along with traditional jazz artists, you’ll find a lot of jazz fusion at this event, making it a fun way to explore new styles. In 2023, this event will take place on September 22-24.

You also have plenty of options for outstanding accommodations. Here are some to consider:

9. Cancun Jazz Fest

From November 11-13, 2023, you can enjoy the Cancun Jazz Festival. You can enjoy a wide array of jazz artists in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. Whether you prefer smooth jazz or jazz with a bit of soul, there’s something for you.

Finding a great place to stay in Cancun isn’t too challenging. If you want to get started with your search, here are some accommodations you might want to explore:

sign that says cancun

BONUS: 4 USA Jazz Festivals

After exploring some of the best jazz festivals around the world, you might want to see some of the best of what the USA offers. Overall, there are several top jazz festivals in the USA, with amazing events happening all across the country.

If you’re looking for some of the best jazz festivals in the US, here are four that easily qualify:

Now it’s your turn. What is your favorite jazz festival and why

What Is Jazz Fusion?

When it comes to music genres, jazz fusion has long been a favorite of jazz enthusiasts and general music fans alike. It’s a unique music category that enjoys pushing boundaries and making unexpected moves, creating a compelling sound while embracing multi-genre influences.

If you aren’t familiar with the jazz fusion definition, it’s common to be curious about how it stands apart from other music categories, including standard jazz music itself and the genres serving as influences. If you’re wondering, “What is fusion jazz?” or “when did jazz fusion start?” and you would like to learn more about this amazing genre, here’s what you need to know.

What Is Jazz Fusion?

In the simplest sense, jazz fusion is a music genre that incorporates aspects of other music styles into songs. For example, some jazz fusion characteristics may have been influenced by rock music, funk, or hip-hop, though the base style always has jazz elements. For example, improvisation is often a core element regardless of the other influences.

When it comes to jazz fusion instruments, you’ll get jazz classics like acoustic guitars, pianos, trumpets, saxophones, basses, and drums. However, the overall mix may also include electronic instruments, including synthesizers, drum machines, electric guitars, and other instruments more commonly found in different genres.

In many cases, jazz fusion is purely instrumental or, at a minimum, doesn’t have incredibly well-defined lyrics. That creates more room for improvisation, as set lyrics usually require a particular melody at key moments within a song.

When there are vocals, it’s usually vocalizations only. With those, the singer uses only vowel sounds or nonsense words to create a sense of melody without adding formal lyrics. Since they don’t have to use specific phrasing, it leaves enough room to adjust to improvisations from other band members.

What Fusion Jazz Sounds Like

Often, you can get a basic idea of what fusion jazz sounds like by understanding how most fusion jazz originally came together. First, its foundation is always in jazz, with classic instruments and structural approaches serving as a basis.

Next, it brings in rock instruments, introducing electric elements that aren’t present in traditional jazz. Finally, some of the original jazz-fusion bands brought funk rhythms into the mix while leaving enough room for improvisation.

The improvisation factor makes describing the sound of jazz fusion challenging. Even if you’re familiar with every instrument and the base rhythms of jazz and funk, the fact that every band member can head in a near-endless number of directions makes it hard to describe past that point. As a result, fusion jazz is mainly something that must be experienced to gain a stronger understanding.

The History of Jazz Fusion

person playing trumpet

Jazz fusion history is actually very intriguing. Its origins mainly date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when jazz-rock began to make its mark on the music scene.

Throughout the 1970s, jazz fusion’s popularity grew, serving as a counterpoint to the more radio-friendly smooth jazz. There was a substantial emphasis on experimentation and improvisation, bringing in unexpected elements to keep listeners on their toes.

Largely, that mentality remains today. However, the fusion elements often change over the years. While the original emphasis was on classic rock music and fun, you’ll see an increasing number of potential influences as pop music becomes more of a melting pot and subgenres within the existing categories continue to emerge.

When it comes to influential figures, Miles Davis played a big role in the evolution and expansion of jazz fusion. While initially a bebop sensation, he was also a fan of experimentation and enjoyed introducing sounds and technologies with roots in other genres. Since Miles Davis was also a prolific collaborator, that view of music spread quickly.

Guitarists Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin also played a role, taking electric guitar prowess and mixing it with jazz harmonies. Keyboardists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul also had similar parts in advancing the genre, along with bassist Dave Holland and drummers Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, and Tony Williams.

Top Jazz Fusion Songs

Ultimately, which songs qualify as some of the best of jazz fusion is a bit subjective. Every person has unique tastes and may favor certain sounds over others. This is particularly true among those who prefer new jazz fusion over classic jazz fusion, as the two sounds can be surprisingly far apart.

However, whether you enjoy early-stage or modern jazz fusion songs, most genre fans agree that certain ones stand apart and are hallmarks of jazz fusion. As a result, they can be good starting points for anyone taking their first steps into the genre or great additions to the playlists of anyone who’s already a fan.

Here is a list of some of the top jazz fusion songs, based on general popularity and in alphabetical order:

Best Jazz Fusion Albums

For those new to the genre, checking out some of the best jazz fusion albums and jazz musicians of all time can be a great way to explore this style of music and get a grip on its origins. Plus, it can help you see what shaped modern jazz fusion, which can be surprisingly enlightening overall.

As with the top jazz fusion songs listed above, which album is considered the best is mainly subjective. Everyone has their preferences, so many people would disagree about which is number one. 

However, the options listed below are essentially universally respected by genre fans, which is why most would agree that they’re at least among the top albums ever created.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the best jazz fusion albums, based on general popularity and in alphabetical order:

  1. Chick Corea – Return to Forever
  2. Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters
  3. Eddie Henderson – Realization
  4. Frank Zappa – Hot Rats
  5. Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin – The Inner Mounting Flame
  6. Miles Davis – In a Silent Way
  7. Soft Machine – Third
  8. The Mothers – The Grand Wazoo
  9. Wayne Shorter – Supernova
  10. Weather Report – Heavy Weather

Best Way to Listen to Jazz Fusion

listening to jazz fusion

Since jazz fusion embraces improvisation, unexpected elements usually make it an odd listening experience for someone new to jazz music at large. As a result, you may want to use a particular technique as you explore the genre.

First, try listening to the song or album without any other distractions, allowing you to focus. Then, consider repeating the same song several times and, with each listen, choose a particular instrument and really tune into the role it’s playing.

Finally, focus on the enjoyment. Sometimes, having a bit of the unexpected can fundamentally alter how you view music, piquing your curiosity and making you wonder about the possibilities. By embracing that, you can have fun regardless of how you feel about individual songs, as you’re getting the most you can out of the broader experience.