The Labels of Jazz

Big band, swing, Dixieland, Bop, smooth, contemporary, soul, latin—on and on go the labels we use to characterize different styles of jazz. What do the various terms mean to you? Can you hear in your mind what that jazz sounds like? Is there any scholarly consensus as to what they mean? Let me take a swing (pun intended) at a concise summary of commonly accepted descriptions of the main jazz styles and their respective labels. My source for “commonly accepted descriptions” is the website, (one of the links on, a great source of information on any genre of recorded music. When you visit and punch the "Discover" and then “Jazz” button on the menu bar, you will get a nice paragraph describing jazz in general and a large group of categories (9) and subcategories (60) of Jazz Styles. Then you punch more buttons and the learning begins—lots of it. The 2 main authors of the individual write-ups are Scott Yanow and Mark C. Gridley, both widely respected writers of books and articles about jazz, and I borrow heavily from their words.

So, here we go—the main style labels are, in rough chronological order: New Orleans/Classic Jazz, Big Band/Swing, Bop, Latin Jazz/World Fusion, Cool, Hard Bob, Free Jazz, Soul Jazz/Groove and Fusion. Not too confusing so far. Lets see if we can briefly describe each one without getting mired in the quicksand of exact chronology, evolution, interrelatedness and other water-muddying factors.

New Orleans/Classic Jazz

New Orleans was the home of the first jazz style, and it took the form of small-band music that was first prominent at the beginning of the 1900s. Elements of ragtime, brass bands and blues coalesced into what they eventually called jazz. The quintessential combo became the front line—cornet/trumpet, clarinet and trombone—backed by various rhythm section combinations—drums, tuba, string bass, banjo, guitar, piano—to make jazzed up interpretations of tunes of the day with lots of countermelodies by the clarinet and trombone and a strong, motivating beat by the rhythm section. Improvised solos, at first mainly short breaks, became common practice as the style evolved. Stride and boogie woogie are two of the solo piano styles. Dixieland, Chicago, traditional and mainstream are more labels that fall under this style umbrella. If you hear one of these bands today, you might detect some similarities with the swing style…

Big Band/Swing

Big bands are generally measured over 10 musicians. Swing is the type of rhythmic motivation characteristic of the big bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the classic era of swing. This was largely about dancing and entertaining. Dance bands of this time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, were extraordinarily popular. This style can be a little confusing for two reasons. Swing style can also be played by combos (less than 10 musicians), as done prominently by Benny Goodman. Also, the big bands of today often play jazz that is not in the swing style; examples are latin and rock-like grooves. Therefore, I find it best to think of big bands as larger jazz ensembles and swing as a characteristic rhythmic feel, with the big band/swing label nonetheless rooted in the swing era of jazz history. A big band of today might even perform a bebop tune or two…


Also known as bebop, bop was a radical new music that developed gradually in the early 1940's and seemed to explode in 1945. The main difference between bop and swing is that the soloists engaged in chordal (rather than melodic) improvisation, often discarding the melody altogether after the first chorus and using the chords as the basis for the solo. Mostly performed by combos, tempos were fast, melodies were complex and the audience in the night clubs were there to listen and not dance. Among its key innovators were alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, drummer Max Roach and pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. Bop was probably the first jazz style that stretched the boundaries of popularity—leading to debates about what is real jazz and a movement known as the New Orleans Jazz Revival in the early ‘50s. Nonetheless, bop was firmly entrenched in the further evolution of jazz styles. Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, which played bop and swing, also introduced some Cuban musicians and did tunes like “Mantecca”…

Latin Jazz/World Fusion

Of all the post-swing styles, Latin Jazz has been the most consistently popular; the emphasis on percussion and Afro-Cuban/Brazilian rhythms make the style quite danceable and accessible. Essentially, it started as a mixture of bop-oriented jazz with Afro-Cuban percussion. Among the pioneers in the 1940's were the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. The 1950s saw the popularity of Bossa Nova and Samba jazz music from collaborations by Stan Getz and others with Brazilian artists such as Antonio Carlos Jobim. Latin jazz has not changed much during the past 50 years, but it still communicates to today's listeners. A broader inclusion of music from other countries, such as India or the Middle East, in jazz is often called World Fusion.

Cool Jazz

In the late 1940's and 1950's cool jazz evolved directly from bop. Essentially it was a mixture of bop with certain aspects of swing that had been overlooked or temporarily discarded. Dissonances were smoothed out, tones were softened, arrangements became important again and the rhythm section's accents were less jarring. Because some of the key pacesetters of the style (many of whom were studio musicians) were centered in Los Angeles, it was nicknamed "West Coast Jazz." Among the many top artists who were important in the development of Cool Jazz were Lester Young, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz.

Hard Bop

Although some history books claim that hard bop arose as a reaction to the softer sounds featured in cool jazz, it was actually an extension of bop that largely ignored West Coast jazz. The main differences between hard bop and bop are that the melodies tend to be simpler and often more "soulful," the rhythm section is usually looser with the bassist not as tightly confined to playing four-beats-to-the-bar, a gospel influence is felt in some of the music and quite often the saxophonists and pianists sound as if they were quite familiar with rhythm and blues. Since the prime time period of hard bop (1955-70) was a decade later than bop, these differences were a logical evolution and one can think of hard bop as bop of the 50's and 60's. By the early '60s, the music had already splintered into a number of different styles, notably Modal Jazz, Post-Bop and Soul-Jazz. With the rise of fusion and the sale of Blue Note (hard bop's top label) in the late 1960's, the style fell upon hard times, although it was revived in the 1980's and continues as one of today’s mainstream jazz styles.

Free Jazz

Dixieland and swing stylists improvise melodically and bop, cool and hard bop players follow chord structures in their solos. Free Jazz was a radical departure from past styles for typically after playing a quick theme, the soloist does not have to follow any progression or structure and can go in any unpredictable direction. When Ornette Coleman largely introduced Free Jazz to New York audiences in the mid 1950s, many of the bop musicians and fans debated about whether what was being played would even qualify as music; the radicals had become conservatives in less than 15 years. Free Jazz, which overlaps with the avant-garde, remains a controversial and mostly underground style, influencing the modern mainstream while often being ignored. Avant-garde Jazz, originating in the 1960's, differs from Free Jazz in that it has more structure in the ensembles (more of a "game plan") although the individual improvisations are generally just as free of conventional rules. Key performers of free/avant-garde jazz were pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, keyboardist-bandleader Sun Ra and saxophonist John Coltrane in his later years.

Soul Jazz/Groove

Soul Jazz, which was the most popular jazz style of the 1960's, differs from bebop and hard bop (from which it originally developed) in that the emphasis is on the rhythmic groove. Although soloists follow the chords as in bop, the bass lines (often played by an organist) dance rather than stick strictly to a four-to-the bar walking pattern. The musicians build their accompaniment around the bass line and, although there are often strong melodies, it is the catchiness of the groove and the amount of heat generated by the soloists that determine whether the performance is successful. Soul Jazz's roots trace back to pianist Horace Silver whose funky style infused bop with the influence of church and gospel music along with the blues. With the emergence of organist Jimmy Smith in 1956, soul jazz organ combos (usually also including a tenor, guitarist, drummer and an occasional bassist) caught on and soulful players including Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Jimmy McGriff, and Richard "Groove" Holmes, along with such other musicians as guitarists Grant Green, George Benson and Kenny Burrell, tenors Stanley Turrentine, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, David "Fathead" Newman and Houston Person. Despite its eclipse by fusion and synthesizers in the 1970's, soul jazz has stayed alive and made a healthy comeback in recent years. Groove, a sub-set of Soul-Jazz, is injected with the blues and concentrates on the rhythm. It is a funky, joyous music, where everything in the performance is there to establish and maintain the groove.


Fusion is basically a mixture of jazz improvisation with the instruments and rhythms of rock. Up until around 1967 the worlds of jazz and rock were nearly completely separate. But as rock became more creative and its musicianship improved, and as some in the jazz world became bored with hard bop and did not want to play strictly avant-garde music, the two different idioms began to trade ideas and occasionally combine forces. By the early 1970's, fusion had its own separate identity as a creative jazz style (although sneered upon by many purists) and such major groups as Return To Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis' various bands were playing high-quality fusion that mixed together some of the best qualities of both jazz and rock. As it became a moneymaker, much of what was labeled fusion became a combination of jazz with easy-listening pop music and lightweight R&B. This style of commercially-oriented, melodic, crossover jazz became the dominant style of fusion in the '80s, and by the beginning of the '90s, it had earned a new name­—smooth jazz. This label, along with terms like The Wave, contemporary jazz, and New Adult Contemporary were crafted by the now widespread commercial radio networks that program jazz (and near jazz) aimed at the widest possible audience. The many examples include artists such as Kenny G, Dave Koz, Chris Botti and David Sanborn.

So there you have it, you now can claim at least some understanding of the basic labels attached to jazz music. Now, go out there and listen to lots of jazz. Explore the different styles—you might discover some keepers. And by the way, since Jazz Pensacola supports all kinds of jazz, we program a variety of jazz styles in our monthly performances and in the Pensacola JazzFest. Hope to see you at the next Jazz Jam or Jazz Gumbo.