Jazz is such a grand and diverse genre of music, there’s no surprise that it has more subgenres than you can shake a stick at.
Now, we understand that music genres aren’t always an exact science and that sometimes a genre can be in the ear of the beholder.
For example, one person’s hard rock could be another’s heavy metal. But when it comes to jazz, these fantastic fusions of creativity stand out on their own and become almost as popular as the original flavour.
As genre names primarily help record store owners catalogue their stock, a lot of the labels stuck onto older music were done so retroactively. At the time of performing a lot of the music below, the artistes will have been categorised simply as jazz or they possibly labelled their work as “their own form” of jazz.
What’s in a label, right?
So, let’s take a look at some of the best jazz subgenres and the influential artistes behind them.
The earliest subgenre of jazz had been conceived and developed long before it was printed onto sheet music.
The first ragtime composition to be published was “La Pas Ma La” in 1895. It was written by minstrel comedian Ernest Hogan.
The following year, Ben Harvey’s “You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down” was a success and it helped launch the genre to the masses.
Ragtime’s syncopated or “ragged” rhythm is the key trait to its sound.
Texan-born composer and pianist Scott Joplin wrote over 40 ragtime songs, one ragtime ballet and two operas in his career. He became known as the “King of Ragtime” and was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
“Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” are instantly recognisable hits of Joplin’s.
DIXIELAND JAZZ (1900S)
Also known as New Orleans jazz, hot jazz, traditional jazz or simply Dixieland, this subgenre of jazz reared its head at the start of the 20th century.
The first-ever jazz recording was made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, who soon after changed the spelling of “jass” in their name to “jazz”.
At the time, the term Dixieland was first used to describe this single band and not an entire genre.
ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s sound blended New Orleans’ ragtime with Sicilian music and it took off.
Not only did the band get plenty of attention for themselves, but other artistes emulated the sound and a whole new subgenre was created.
With many classics in their repertoire, “Tiger Rag” is their most famous. It was recorded in 1917, not long after their debut release “Livery Stable Blues”.
BIG BAND (1910S)
Before big band came into existence, social dance halls were flooded with the polka and the waltz. Jazz’s influence changed that in the early 1910s when more energetic dances came out of New Orleans and found their way to cities like New York City and Chicago.
Bandleaders saw the growing demand for punters to do the Lindy Hop and the jitterbug in public, so they created their own big bands to satisfy those needs.
Big band groups generally consist of four sections: trombones, trumpets, saxophones, and a rhythm section of a piano, guitar, double bass and drums.
However, these were more like guidelines than strict rules, as different bands experimented with a variety of combinations.
Duke Ellington was a legendary musician and bandleader whose rise to fame came through his band’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He wrote or collaborated on over a thousand compositions, many of which greatly contributed to the swing subgenre waiting around the corner.
It would be easy to mention him in many of jazz’s subgenres, but his most notable contribution is likely to big band.
ORCHESTRAL JAZZ (1920S)
Also known as symphonic jazz, orchestral jazz is only a couple of doors away from big band.
Just like with big band, orchestral jazz groups are divided up into sections based on instrument type. However, where big band acts offer somewhere around ten performers, orchestral jazz aims for around 30.
Other differences include a wider selection of instrument types and the occasional preference that the audience sits and watches quietly.
Fletcher “Smack” Henderson was a master pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader. He came from Cuthbert, Georgia, and his smooth, stylish aura was just one aspect of him that drew the attention of crowds.
Making his name in New York around the same time as Ellington, Henderson was also crucial to the development of swing and other jazz subgenres that would come to be.
Swing developed in different stages and in different directions from the 1930s until the 1950s. The main impetus of the swing movement came from the success of big band and orchestral jazz in the 1920s.
The idea to get the crowd moving was essentially the same within swing, the number of performers on stage was just streamlined and/or rearranged in some instances.
New Jersey-born William “Count” Basie formed the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935. He led the group to Chicago in 1936 for their first recording, and he continued to lead them for almost 50 years.
Basie’s direction helped many other musicians who worked under him become stars in their own right; artistes such as Lester Young, Freddie Green, Herschel Evans and Helen Humes, to name a few.
As the younger generation of jazz musicians were starting to rise to prominence, they began experimenting more and staying away from the popular, dance-oriented swing style of jazz.
Bebop, or “bop” for short, was not played for dancing as it often exceeded 200 beats per minute and had complex chord progressions and rapid chord changes.
Slow and steady swing allowed the audience to show off their best moves, whereas the unpredictable bebop offered the musicians that opportunity instead.
Charlie Parker, known throughout most of his life as “Bird” or “Yardbird”, was a head-turning fast-fingered saxophonist, composer and bandleader.
Parker got his nickname early in his career when on the road with Jay McShann. He kept it with him by using it in composition titles such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Bird of Paradise”, “Bird Gets the Worm” and “Ornithology”.
His presence as an entertainer and an intellectual made him an icon to the hipster subculture and the Beat Generation.
COOL JAZZ (1940-60S)
The term “cool jazz” didn’t start popping up on records until the early 1950s when Capitol Records released the album Classics In Jazz: Cool And Quiet.
This vague label was then given to jazz with “soft variants of bebop” like the works of Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. The same went for acts such as Dave Brubeck and Lennie Tristano who leaned away from bebop and more into the swing-era style/sound.
Also marketed as cool jazz was anyone from either of the previous two categories who were active in California from the 1940-60s.
Finally, “exploratory music with a subdued effect” by Chico Hamilton, Teddy Charles, John LaPorta and their colleagues during the 1950s was also marked into the broad category of cool jazz.
Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is an iconic piece of cool jazz.
Whichever version or cover you hear, you’re instantly transported to a classy lounge in front of a fireplace with a glass of something fancy in your hand. Nice.
MAINSTREAM JAZZ (1950-60S)
By the 1950s and 60s, jazz was everywhere. As a huge part of popular culture at the time, jazz was on the radio constantly, in music halls, and Hollywood frequently harnessed whatever current thing they could use to grab potential customers.
Jazz was no exception to the silver screen’s borrowing of art and a textbook “mainstream” format of jazz was established.
Although Coleman Hawkins dabbled in other subgenres of jazz, the man nicknamed “Hawk” inspired countless mainstream jazz artistes.
Hawkins brought the tenor saxophone to the front of the stage, as it was not an acknowledged jazz horn in his early days. Due to his skills with the instrument, many would-be jazz musicians studied him and his technique as a point of necessity.
Technically a genre of folk music, skiffle comprises American folk, bluegrass, blues, country and, what we’re all here for, jazz.
While it was also faintly present in America, skiffle was incredibly popular in the UK during the 1950s.
One of the easier-spotted differences between this and other jazz subgenres is that many skiffle instruments are homemade or improvised.
Where some performers would fear others finding out their budget forced them to create their own instrument, skiffle performers would happily advertise that fact.
The “King of Skiffle” Lonnie Donegan was a Scottish singer, songwriter and musician.
As well as spending a lot of time in the charts during his active career, Donegan’s influence can be found almost everywhere in the 1960s UK pop and rock music. He saw 31 of his tracks enter the UK top 30 and he was the first male British singer with two US top 10 hits.
SKA JAZZ (1960S)
Despite what we know as ska jazz being a thing since the 1960s, it didn’t get a big spotlight shined on it until the 90s.
Back in the 60s, it had been introduced by the “Fathers of Ska” and was a fusion of jazz with harmonic, rhythmic, early Jamaican music. It wasn't until 1994 that Fred Reiter of the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble coined the phrase.
The Skatalites are a Jamaican band that formed in 1963 and much to their fans' shock, disbanded in 1965.
Don’t worry, that wasn’t the end of their journey. The group was reformed in 1983 and has remained active since.
As well as countless live shows and tours, the Skatalites have a discography as long as your arm.
SMOOTH JAZZ (1970S)
Similar to mainstream and cool jazz, smooth jazz tries to avoid the “risk-taking” and unpredictability of many other jazz subgenres. In order to stay as commercially orientated as possible, it mixes easy listening and crossover jazz.
Combining two genres that are easy on the ears caused smooth jazz to dominate airwaves in the 1970s through to the 90s.
The term smooth jazz didn’t come about until the 80s, when it had previously been referred to as “smooth radio”.
As a former child prodigy, it was obvious that guitarist, singer and songwriter George Benson had huge things in his future.
Benson’s library shows that he dipped his toe in more than just one area of jazz.
But, if you were looking for the epitome of smooth, the smoothest of Benson’s releases came in 1976 with his album Breezin’. Reaching number one in the pop and R&B charts, it was certified triple platinum and one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
FREE FUNK (1970S)
Combining improvisational/avant-garde jazz with funk music, free funk does exactly what it says on the tin.
With very few rules, other than to sound somewhat funky, this subgenre was pioneered by Ornette Coleman, Ronal Shannon Jackson and James “Blood” Ulmer”.
Free funk has also been rather influential on the M-Base genre.
Ornette Coleman was an accomplished saxophonist, trumpeter, violinist and composer.
As well as being a principal founder of free jazz and releasing the 1960 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, Coleman jumped at the chance of playing with electrified instruments and experimenting with all the funky new sounds he could make.
This led to him switching stylistically in the 1970s and focusing on a more funk-orientated sound. Released in 1976, Dancing In Your Head is a great example of this time period.
JAZZ FUSION (1970S)
Also known as progressive jazz or simply fusion, jazz fusion is a subgenre that almost grew legs and ran off on its own.
Once jazz was combined with rock, funk and rhythm and blues, anyone who had an interest in just one of those genres instantly appreciated the others more.
When musicians who were influenced by our favourite jazz AND rock & roll artistes started sharing ideas and instruments, things got very interesting.
Miles Davis was already a heavyweight in the jazz world when he released Bitches Brew in 1970.
Anyone already familiar with Davis’ work in jazz and other subgenres was caught off guard when they first saw the cover of this record. Listening to the album didn’t stop the confusion either, as he had repacked his image and sound for this mind-blowing jazz fusion release.
ACID JAZZ (1980-90S)
Acid jazz is a cocktail of jazz, funk, soul, disco and hip-hop. Also called club jazz, groove jazz and psychedelic jazz, acid jazz originated in the clubs of London, England during the 1980s and didn’t take long to spread to the US, Japan, Brazil and Eastern Europe.
Popular artistes include The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Digable Planets, Us3, Incognito, D’Influence and Buckshot Lefonque.
BRAND NEW HEAVIES
Previously performing together instrumentally in the early 1980s as Brothers International, the Brand New Heavies formed in 1985 in Ealing, London.
They had a string of hits in the early 1990s and featured N’Dea Davenport as their lead vocalist for a time. Their debut studio album The Brand New Heavies was released in 1990 and it certainly sets the table for what they and the subgenre are all about.
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Writer | DB Damage
DB Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied IT and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.