Types of Jazz Styles

members of jazz band playing music

Jazz is a musical genre that originated in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. It has its roots in blues music, and the genre has given birth to a number of jazz styles over the past century.

Jazz Styles

Numerous jazz styles exist, each with its own unique features. Listen to samples of different styles to hear how the genre has evolved.

The Blues

The blues is the original jazz style that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, originating in African American communities in the Deep South. Modern musicians continue to incorporate blues riffs and themes in much of today's popular music in genres like rhythm and blues (R&B), country, and rock.

Originally, typical blues instrumentation included piano, harmonica, guitar, and vocals. Traditional blues relies on certain chord progressions, as well as a walking bass rhythm (known as a shuffle). The blues also incorporates the call and response pattern in music in which one musician plays or sings a phrase, and another musician "answers."

Blues has many sub-genres, including country blues, urban blues, jazz blues, Kansas City blues, Chicago blues, Detroit blues, and modern blues.


One of the earliest jazz styles, ragtime music grew to popularity in the 1890s. One of the most well-known ragtime composers, Scott Joplin, wrote sheet music that remains in the repertoire of musicians today. Joplin's rags included his most well-known work, The Entertainer, as well as many other pieces such as The Maple Leaf Rag and The Wall Street Rag.

Ragtime pieces were a combination of march-style music and African rhythms, and featured heavy syncopation known as "ragging." While Joplin's pieces were played mainly on piano, ragtime bands also performed music by composers such as Irving Berlin (Alexander's Ragtime Band), Claude DeBussy (Golliwog's Cakewalk), and Jelly Roll Morton (Kansas City Stomp).


In the 1930s and 1940s, swing music grew popular. Swing music was often performed by "big bands" with an array of musicians in sections including rhythm (piano, percussion, guitar, bass), brass (trumpets and trombones), woodwind (clarinet and saxophones), and vocals. Swing music featured rhythms that emphasized the offbeat. Many of the charts had a big, energetic sound due to the size of the band.

Popular swing musicians include Count Basie (Sweet Georgia Brown), Duke Ellington (It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing), and Glenn Miller (In the Mood). Today, swing is enjoying a revival thanks to bands like the Cherry Poppin Daddies.


Also known as New Orleans jazz or marching jazz, Dixieland features vibrant brass, upbeat rhythms, and catchy tunes such as When the Saints Go Marching In. In Dixieland music, a single instrument will play the song's melody, while all other sections of the band improvise to the tune. The result is lively and entertaining music with a distinctive sound.

Dixieland got its start in New Orleans in the early 1900s, and it is a style that remains popular in the South today.

Many jazz musicians included Dixieland in their repertoires, including Louis Armstrong's Basin Street Blues and Isham Jones's Wabash Blues.


In the 1940s, bebop music came of age. These charts featured fast rhythms, lots of improvisation, and extremely complex counter melodies and harmonies. Bebop was musicians' music because of the skill level required both for playing and listening. Typically, bebop musicians played in small combos featuring a bass, drums, sax, piano, and trumpet, as opposed to in larger groups or big bands.

Unlike earlier versions of jazz, bebop wasn't played so people could dance to it. This allowed for faster tempos and long improvisational solo sections by various instruments in the combo. During improvisational sections, the solo musician often referenced the melody of the piece while accompanied by the rhythm section. Scat singing (using nonsense syllables to sing an improvised melody) is also common in bebop music.

Famous bebop musicians include saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), trumpet player Miles Davis (So What), and saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker (Ko Ko).

Cool Jazz

As an alternative to the more up tempo and less structured bebop, cool jazz, also known as West Coast jazz, featured slower tempos with a mellower sound and greater structure. Cool jazz itself was based on a combination of jazz with classical music, creating melodic pieces that flowed smoothly and were easy to listen to.

While improvisation was still a part of cool jazz, the main feature was the melody, which was played by horns and accompanied by the rhythm section. This lent the music the laid back sound found in many of Dave Brubeck's pieces like Take Five. Other popular cool jazz pieces include Woody Herman's Early Autumn and Miles Davis's Round Midnight.

Latin Jazz

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Latin-style genres of jazz became popular including Afro-Cuban jazz and Afro-Brazilian jazz. These styles featured Latin rhythms played on instruments such as the timbales or claves, as well as bossa nova or samba bass lines. These rhythms feature heavy syncopation and derive from Latin and African rhythmic influences. Unlike other types of jazz which swing eighth notes, Latin jazz relies on straight eighth notes in which musicians play each note of an eighth note pair for the same duration.

Popular Latin jazz songs include Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia, Antonio Carlos Jobim's The Girl from Ipanema, and Duke Ellington's Caravan.

Jazz Fusion

The 60s and 70s also brought a fusion of jazz and rock called jazz fusion. While the rhythms of this genre were decidedly rock, the music was also characterized by improvisation, jazz chords, and syncopation. Jazz fusion often featured rock instruments like electric guitar, Hammond organ, and electric bass, as opposed to traditional jazz instrumentation.

Jazz fusion represented the first time jazz and rock emerged from their largely separate worlds to combine into something altogether new. Many jazz fusion songs became hits on Top 40 lists for pop music, bringing a little bit of jazz to a wider audience.

Artists like Chick Corea (Spain), Herbie Hancock (Chameleon), and Carlos Santana (A Love Supreme) all recorded jazz fusion hits.


Jazz funk features electronic sounds and a strong, grooving beat. The music grew popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of the rhythm and beat, funk pieces are quite danceable, making them popular dance club staples.

Musically, jazz funk often featured instruments not typically seen in jazz music, such as synthesizers, electric pianos, and electric bass, as well as more common jazz instruments such as the drums, piano, brass instruments, and saxophone.

Songs in this genre include Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man and Harvey Mason's Till You Take My Love.

Acid Jazz

The mid 1980s brought a new type of jazz - acid jazz - which arose from the London club scene. Acid jazz artists often sampled from traditional jazz pieces, incorporating them with a grooving electronic beat. Other artists combined elements of jazz, hip hop, and funk to create dance music with a unique electronic sound. Acid jazz instrumentation typically includes a rhythm section and horns, along with vocalists, rappers, or DJs.

Popular acid jazz pieces include J. Spencer's Blue Moon, Balanco's Cinnamon and Clove, and Liquid Soul's Show Me.

Smooth Jazz

In the 1980s and beyond, smooth jazz grew popular. Smooth jazz is sometimes classified as adult contemporary music, and it features slower rhythms with melodic instrumental or vocal solos. Most smooth jazz pieces are down tempo enough to be considered ballads. Saxophones and vocals are particularly popular solo instruments in the genre, which saw such popularity in the 90s and early 2000's that many radio stations actually had an entirely smooth jazz format.

While the genre is less popular today, many smooth jazz musicians remain highly regarded. Popular musicians include Kenny G (Forever in Love), Anita Baker (Sweet Love), and David Sanborn (Soul Serenade).

The Evolution of Jazz

Jazz has evolved over the years, arising out of influences from classical and African music and encompassing a wide array of unique genres. With so many jazz genres from which to choose, finding a style that you enjoy is easy, so tune into some jazz to broaden your musical horizons.

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
Types of Jazz Styles