Swing vs. Bebop Jazz

Swing vs. Bebop Jazz

When it comes down to it, the world of jazz music is surprisingly vast. There are dozens of subgenres, and while they can have features in common, they’re each distinct in their own way. That’s why many people are curious about swing vs. bebop jazz. Along with wanting to understand each subgenre on a deeper level, comparing the two helps their differences stand out, creating a greater level of appreciation for the unique style of each type of jazz music.

Seeing how swing vs. bebop jazz stand apart is often easier if you learn a bit about each subgenre before comparing. Here is an overview of what swing and bebop are, as well as the difference between swing and bebop.

young people dancing to swing music

What Is Swing?

Swing music – also called big band swing or big band jazz – rose to prominence during the late 1920s and reigned through the late 1940s, with swing declining in popularity after the end of World War II. During the swing era, swing was the most popular music style across the United States, allowing many musicians associated with the jazz genre to achieve stardom.

In some ways, swing was considered a dilution of the broader jazz tradition. Along with featuring larger groups of musicians – with numbers typically ranging between 12 and 20 – usually organized into sections based on instrument type. It also relied more heavily on written music, shifting a bit away from the highly improvisational nature of jazz.

Overall, swing music had significantly more structure, favoring predictable rhythms that worked well as dance music. This inherent degree of consistency didn’t align with many aspects of other forms of jazz, but it did make jazz far more mainstream due to its broader appeal. Plus, swing could include complex solos with a level of improvisation, though a cohesive sound across all instruments was still an aim.

Riffing was also a widely used trope in swing. Simple musical phrases were played either by the entire band or just one section. Often, counterpoints were then played, creating a hypnotic type of repetition.

What Are the Origins of Swing?

Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra in 1925

One of the earliest examples of this evolution involved the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. It began featuring highly innovative arrangements for the time, integrating call-and-response segments between the woodwind and brass sections. Additionally, the group started imbuing their music with the rhythmic qualities typically found in ragtime, making the music highly danceable.

Louis Armstrong joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the mid-1920s. When he arrived, the band incorporated more emphasis on solos, another feature often associated with jazz music. Ultimately, the group began strongly influencing other bands, ushering the way for the swing era. Additionally, Louis Armstrong took his experience with the band back to the world of jazz, causing more blending from the other direction.

Famous Swing Musicians

Benny Goodman playing with the Disneyland Band
Benny Goodman playing with the Disneyland Band by the Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Several musicians paved the way for swing music. Many credit Fletcher Henderson with laying the groundwork for the subgenre. He partnered with Louis Armstrong and introduced more jazz-like qualities into orchestral dance music, allowing for more crossover between the two genres.

Duke Ellington is another highly influential composer and musician who made a name for himself during the swing era. He was significantly inspired by ragtime pianists, bringing that styling into his compositions and playing. Ultimately, he’s broadly considered one of the most influential band leaders of all time, particularly in the world of swing.

Another famous swing musician of note was Benny Goodman. While performing in the mid-1930s in Los Angeles, his jazz band concert caused an excited ground to start dancing. Not long after the show, Benny Goodman earned a solid reputation, with many calling him the “King of Swing.”

Breaking on to the scene as part of Count Basie’s Band, Lester Young made his mark on swing due to his unique approach to improvisation. It had a lightness that kept his music palatable while also diverging from some of the genre’s norms, causing him to stand out from the crowd.

The release of the movie “Swing Kids” in the early 1990s, starring prominent actors like Christian Bale, Robert Sean Leonard, and Frank Whaley, sparked a revival of swing music. The film’s energetic dance sequences and irresistible jazz soundtracks reignited the swing era’s spirit, leading to a reappearance of swing dance clubs and a renewed appreciation for the genre’s timeless appeal, ultimately cementing its enduring popularity in modern culture.

What Is Bebop Jazz?

Charlie ParkerPortrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y.  William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The bebop era generally began in the 1940s, continued through the 1950s, and was initially deemed controversial. The jazz subgenre didn’t have mass appeal, as it was chromatic instead of diatonic. Rhythms were often broken up or disrupted, resulting in highly complex music.

Additionally, bebop incorporated a significant amount of unpredictability. Bebop musicians improvise regularly, and they typically weren’t required to adhere to a specific musical structure while playing, instead favoring virtuosity and personal expression over cohesion. Bebop melodies also featured an incredibly quick tempo while highly complicated chord progressions and harmonies.

Scat singing was also common in the genre and is generally where the subgenre got its name. The vocal approach involved imitating the sounds created by instrumental jazz solos, using nonsense syllables and improvisation to add unexpected vocal elements to a song.

What Are the Origins of Bebop?

Bebop developed in the early 1940s, and while it has its roots in swing, it’s a dramatic divergence from the subgenre. While swing was highly palatable to the masses, bebop was generally considered “musicians’ music.” Essentially, it wasn’t concerned with marketability, instead favoring the ability of musicians to create music they wanted to make regardless of commercial appeal. Danceability also wasn’t part of the equation.

Additionally, the rise of bebop music was partially a response to cabaret laws emerging during that period. For example, cabaret taxes were levied against clubs where music led to dancing, and venues that only played instrumental music and didn’t permit dancing were exempt from that type of taxation. As a result, swing became harder to support, creating space for bebop jazz to gain greater traction.

Famous Bebop Musicians

dizzy gillespie
Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, and Howard Johnson, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947 The Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to the bebop style, several musicians gained significant renown. Charlie Parker – an exceptional saxophonist – is largely considered a pioneer of the subgenre. He favored highly complex music with a sense of intricacy coupled with a touch of jitteriness, making his compositions excellent examples of the genre.

Dizzy Gillespie is another famed bebop musician who is also credited as being a creator of the genre. His unconventional, boundary-pushing style functionally redefined what jazz could be, causing him to become a legend within not just bebop but jazz music as a whole.

Widely recognized as an innovator, John Coltrane is another composer and saxophonist considered a prime example of bebop. He often created highly experimental music that explored the edges of the world of jazz, and he’s broadly considered one of the most talented musicians of all time.

Swing vs. Bebop Jazz: What’s the Difference?

When exploring the difference between swing and bebop, a few key aspects allow the two genres to stand apart. Here’s an overview of how swing vs. bebop jazz differ.

Rhythmic Predictability

First, while swing was highly rhythmic, bebop usually left room for greater improvisation. Swing has a degree of predictability, so while it can support solos, any improvisation must align with the rest of the song. Bebop was far more frantic, often featuring unconventional structures and complex time signatures. As a result, bebop, as more freeform, allowed for more space for improvisation.


Another key difference between bebop and swing was danceability. While swing is a bit slower, it’s also less frenetic. The reliable rhythms in swing make it easy to groove to, causing it to be highly danceable. In comparison, bebop is highly unpredictable, and it’s not uncommon for bebop to feature rhythms that don’t repeat across the song. As a result, dancing to bebop music is challenging, if not seemingly impossible.


Scat singing is another feature that distinguishes bebop from swing. Vocals in swing generally lean toward the melodic, allowing them to mesh with the rest of the music. Bebop regularly featured scat singing, which wasn’t necessarily about cohesion with what was being played. Additionally, since scat uses nonsense lyrics, live shows could feature an array of unpredictable sounds. While scat is meant to mimic what instruments sound like, how a vocalist achieved that could vary from one performance to the next, creating even more irregularities.


Bebop also differs from swing music in that bebop wasn’t concerned about marketability, while broad appeal was a common goal with swing. As mentioned above, bebop was considered “musicians’ music,” favoring exploration, innovation, intricate melodies, and self-expression above all else. While swing also made room for those traits, its overall palatability and mass appeal remained part of the equation, effectively shaping where the music did or didn’t go.

Ensemble Size

Finally, bebop shifted away from the big band approach commonly associated with swing. While swing ensembles often featured over a dozen musicians, bebop groups were frequently far smaller. Along with altering the overall sound, this made bebop more practical in smaller venues, as big bands wouldn’t always fit comfortably in anything but large performance halls.

Looking to discover more? How about Free Jazz, with its avant-garde allure, while the lightning-fast tempo of Latin Jazz? These genres hold fascinating stories waiting to be explored.

What Is Smooth Jazz?

what is smooth jazz?

In the wide world of jazz, few subgenres are likely as unfairly judged as smooth jazz. Many view the smooth jazz genre as nothing more than background music or even refer to it by the somewhat derogatory term “elevator music.” As a result, many people overlook the exceptional beauty of the sound, as well as the talent of many of the smooth jazz musicians.

Fortunately, jazz fans, by taking a closer look at smooth jazz, most people can see its merits, making it easier to appreciate. If you’re unfamiliar with this jazz subgenre, here’s what you need to know about the smooth jazz genre.

smooth jazz grew in the 1970s

What Is Smooth Jazz?

Smooth jazz is a fusion of jazz and easy-listening music, causing it to embrace jazz instruments and musicality while also being widely accessible. Many consider it a commercially-oriented venture, as the softer sound appeals to a far broader audience than some of the more feverish jazz subgenres.

Overall, smooth jazz tends to be downtempo. It’s highly atmospheric and usually embraces a slower beat that many find soothing. There’s an ambient quality to smooth jazz, which is why many consider it a type of background music. While it’s possible to fully appreciate smooth jazz as it’s played, it can also recede auditorily, allowing people to converse or participate in other activities easily. At the same time, the music creates a gentle backdrop that many favor over silence.

Generally, smooth jazz began in the 1970s and became increasingly popular during the 1980s and 1990s. While it wasn’t as mainstream after that point, smooth jazz remains a favorite genre for many.

What Is Smooth Jazz Known For?

As mentioned above, smooth jazz involves many traditional jazz instruments but uses a much softer approach. Improvisation isn’t generally part of the equation. Instead, smooth jazz favors melody and has an inherent degree of predictableness as the song unfolds.

Essentially, smooth jazz feels incredibly polished, developing gentle grooves with broad appeal. It also isn’t entirely acoustic, often featuring instruments like electric piano, electric guitar, and other modern creations that were popular in pop music during its emergence.

As a crossover jazz genre, smooth jazz incorporated aspects of easy-listening pop music and some of the soft sounds classically associated with R&B. This smooth jazz format differs from jazz hip-hop, which usually has harder-hitting elements and often features rap.

Who Created Smooth Jazz?

Grover Washington, Jr mural

In most cases, Grover Washington, Jr. – who rose to prominence in the 1970s – is considered the founder of smooth jazz. A talented songwriter and saxophonist, he began incorporating easy listening, and R&B sounds into his songs. The music had an increasing amount of soulfulness, leading to a softer feel. In the end, he was effectively creating a new fusion genre that later developed into what is known as smooth jazz.

What Makes Smooth Jazz Distinctive?

Generally, the most distinctive element that separates smooth jazz from most traditional jazz is that smooth jazz shifts away from improvisation. While improvisation can occur, the emphasis is on a clear melody.

Smooth jazz also has a highly soulful quality. For some, smooth jazz has an introspective feel, as the softness provides space for the mind to wander or focus on other tasks. While it’s often downtempo, a lightness to smooth jazz keeps the mood positive in many cases. Essentially, it creates a sense of allure that some view as sensual, depending on the piece.

What Influences Smooth Jazz?

Smooth jazz is primarily influenced by traditional jazz, easy listening, and R&B. It uses many jazz instruments and techniques but adds the broad appeal and soft soulfulness that usually comes with easy listening and R&B.

Is Smooth Jazz the Same as Contemporary Jazz?

Technically, contemporary jazz and smooth jazz aren’t the same, but they can share many features. Both are considered fusion styles, incorporating sounds from modern music genres – such as pop, easy-listening pop, R&B, or hip hop – to create music with a broader appeal than many other types of jazz.

Contemporary jazz is one style that incorporates a wider array of modern elements. For example, it may feature aspects of hip hop, which isn’t as common with smooth jazz. Smooth jazz is also considered slightly more accessible, as its polished nature features very little unpredictability, as improvisation tends to focus more on flourishing without disrupting the broader melody.

Who Are Some Famous Smooth Jazz Musicians?

Grover Washington Jr

Grover Washington, Jr. is largely credited with inventing smooth jazz. He began fusing jazz with pop and R&B, using light funk arrangements and a soulfulness that made his music broadly appealing. The album Inner City Blues, released in 1971, allowed him to rise up the charts. Subsequent albums, particularly Winelight, cemented his place as a legend among smooth jazz fans.

Wes Montgomery

wes montgomery
Photo first published by Gibson, the photo was taken by Chuck Stewart., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An exceptional guitarist known for producing warm melodies, Wes Montgomery is considered highly influential in the world of jazz. While he was recognized for his talent during the 1960s, his commercial success was initially limited. He began adding pop elements to his albums, forgoing some of the adornments more classically associated with jazz, causing him to become an integral part of the development and rise of smooth jazz.

George Benson

George Benson is largely considered a crossover jazz artist and is an exceptional guitar player. He easily weaves between smooth jazz, straight-ahead jazz, and R&B, typically creating a clear sense of flow that’s highly captivating. Plus, George Benson is adept at building, adding energy that isn’t always found in these softer genres. As a result, he stands apart from many other renowned smooth jazz musicians, essentially harnessing his unique take to keep listeners engaged.

Bob James

A skilled jazz keyboardist, producer, and arranger, smooth jazz isn’t where Bob James started. Instead, he played free jazz and other genres incorporating more improvisations and elements more classically associated with jazz. However, he gained renown when he shifted into the smooth jazz space, often including elements of classical music along the way.

Dave Koz

dave koz
Dave Koz CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dave Koz is a saxophonist, producer, and composer who later became a radio personality. Originally, he was a rock saxophonist, only shifting into smooth jazz in the late 1980s. His album Saxophonic is considered one of the best examples of his work in the smooth jazz genre, and it rose up the Billboard Jazz Album chart, reaching number two not long after its release.

Norman Brown

Norman Brown is a smooth jazz guitarist whose style of music is often described as romantic, with an inherent softness that feels welcoming. Generally, his music falls between smooth jazz and R&B, making it easy to enjoy and highly accessible. His 1992 album Just Between Us is a must-listen, representing his rise in the world of contemporary jazz.

Boney James

Boney James is a saxophonist whose music generally sits between R&B and more pop-friendly jazz subgenres, including smooth jazz. He was heavily influenced by jazz musician Grover Washington, Jr., but he also explored other approaches. In more recent times, he incorporated different sounds – including Latin music and hip hop – into his songs while maintaining a feeling that aligns strongly with smooth jazz.

Kenny G

Kenny G
photo by Prayitno view from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Generally, Kenny G is considered the personification of smooth jazz, often being the first name that comes to many people’s minds when they think of the genre. The highly skilled composer, saxophonist, and music producer is one of the best-selling of all smooth jazz artists, rising to prominence in the 1980s with the release of albums like G Force, Duotones, and Classics in the Key of G. Kenny G has the ability to effortlessly improvise and deliver captivating performances has solidified his status as a prominent figure in the realm of smooth jazz. In 1997 during a live performance, Kenny G broke the world record when he held an E-Flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds.

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa is, in a word, eclectic. His highly experimental approach to music often fuses a wide array of genres, including rock, classical, and jazz. There’s a richness to his music, but it does require an open mind to enjoy some of his creations. He’s known for the unexpected – even when a song is softer – so it doesn’t resonate with everyone. Some believe that Frank Zappa speaks a musical language that defies definition, but his willingness to explore makes his various tracks such a unique experience.

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

origins 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.  Did you know April 30th is International Jazz Day?  It was created in 2011 by UNESCO to help highlight how jazz is able to bring unity across the world.

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 bop 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 Pixar/Disney 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.

Cool jazz is also know 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. The first of the cool jazz pioneers is, 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.


What Is Latin Jazz?

what is latin jazz

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.


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.