A Brief Overview of Jazz Styles
President, Jazz Audience Advocates
As you listen, you will discover that, in addition to the musical personalities of individual jazz musicians, jazz styles also have certain recognizable personalities that enable you to distinguish one from another. The components of these style personalities include the “feel” of the music or the way the pulse is played, the musical role of each member in the group, the nature of chord sounds, style-specific licks, the size and instrumental composition of the group, the nature of the written tunes, and certain characteristics of the improvisation.
Upon close inspection however, you will find that the clear distinction between styles begins to blur almost from the beginning. For example, Chicago jazz that began in the late twenties sounds a bit too modern for New Orleans (traditional). The tuba, banjo, and the 2 and 4 feel of New Orleans were replaced by more of an even 4 feel as you’ll hear in swing. Yet it seems as if it is less developed than swing. Is Chicago jazz actually post New Orleans? Or perhaps it’s pre-swing? By the way, the folks who play and study early jazz will scold you if you interchange the terms New Orleans, Dixieland and traditional jazz. I can never remember the rules and they vary depending upon the authority. Consequently, I avoid that topic.
There are examples of players that fall between the cracks stylistically. Oscar Peterson is a technically superb, swing piano player who often likes to incorporate the musical vocabulary of bebop, a style originated by a genius of jazz, Charlie Parker. Zoot Sims (tenor) occasionally toggles between swing and bop vocabulary within a given solo. Kenny Clarke is a drummer who straddles swing and bebop, and the list continues.
To further cloud the issue, an individual player may change his or her style dramatically over a period of time. A good example is the tenor player Dexter Gordon. He made a wonderful live recording entitled “Steeple Chase” in 1952 with Wardell Grey, another good swing tenor player. If you listen to Dexter on this date, he wasn’t playing bebop but rather swing, pretty much in the style of Lester Young, a great innovator on tenor in the thirties and forties. On subsequent recordings Dexter completely changed his style to bebop and continued playing that style over the years. But, on the earlier recording with Wardell, did Dexter alter his style for that performance to be more compatible with Wardell, or had he yet to develop the style of bebop? It might be fun to determine the answer by listening to albums he made as a leader or with other individuals during that period.
Indeed, certain jazz musicians, especially younger ones, are able to play a number of different jazz styles and some can even play a range of different musical styles from classical to pop and rock. In a 1987 JVC Newport Jazz Festival video, Branford Marsalis at age 27, played a beautiful tenor solo on I Thought About You in a style that was an amalgam of certain great 30s and 40s swing tenor players such as Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. To me, this was a show of respect for the early innovators on saxophone. Yet when Branford played other tunes during the same performance, he was decidedly post bop/contemporary and played in the style of “Current Branford”.
As a personal example of style switching, in the late fifties, I was fortunate enough to play a number of weekends with Ira Sullivan and Joe Farrell. Ira was a good tenor and trumpet player from Chicago, and Joe was a tenor player who went on to play with Elvin Jones following John Coltrane’s death and then later with Chick Corea (piano). I was attending Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, close to Benton Harbor, Michigan, the location of the gig. Somebody recorded one night and I have a copy of that tape. Both Ira and Joe were having great fun a good part of the evening with the honking/bluesy style of the swing tenor player, Illinois Jacquet. Yet on the albums by Joe and Ira recorded during that period, and, at times on that particular gig, their playing was clearly more contemporary. So it’s entirely possible for musicians to push various musical buttons and switch styles on the fly.
As I mentioned in the essay, “Who-plays-better arguments,” jazz styles at the national level in the fifties were being developed by two major groups. The east coast, New York City, Charlie Parker-orientated, Afro-American players, and the west coast, neo-swing, other-than-bop, white guys playing what was dubbed west coast jazz (this is a simplistic description but essentially accurate). The players on the Pacific Coast generally didn’t embrace the bebop style of Parker, but rather they continued on with various updated versions of several of the great swing players of the 30s and 40s. Finally, I want to emphasize that my definition of bebop is the style that Charlie Parker developed. There were others associated with this style in it’s early days, but the seminal artist and innovator was Parker.
Often you will see the label post bop. It seems as if this is a catch-all term that applies to anything that is more current than bebop yet still has elements of bop. As an aside, by now you know that bebop and bop are interchangeable, right?
Confused? Hang on, there’s more.
What the hell is hard bop? I’m never quite sure. I was playing bop in the fifties and early sixties in Detroit and I never heard any musician use the term during that time. I’m convinced it was coined by a jazz critic or journalist obsessed with labeling (I tend to share that obsession). When I try to understand the definition by reading the well-known jazz journalists today I still walk away somewhat confused. Nevertheless, here’s my best take on the definition. It seems to refer to bebop dumbed down a bit in an attempt to make it more assessable to the audiences, more commercial if you will. The written lines were often less complex and more blues/gospel based. I don’t think the horn players dumbed it down as much as the rhythm section players who tended to play patterns rather than interactive accompaniment. The piano players changed their styles most dramatically. But if they went too far in the commercial direction, like early Les McCann for example, I would argue that they were no longer playing bebop at all. So why refer to the style as a variant of bop? I guess we have to ask the writers. (Recently, I heard a jock on a local radio music show refer to both Milt Jackson (vibes) and John Coltrane (tenor) as hard boppers–Ouch!).
The only time in the fifties I was aware of the term hard bop was when it appeared as the title of a mid fifties Art Blakey album. Art was one of the great masters on drums and categorized as a hard bopper by the writers. Curiously, if you accept my definition of hard bop outlined above, you won’t hear it on this relatively early Blakey album entitled, “Hard Bop.” My pick for examples of hard bop include the tune Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, by Cannonball Adderley, many of Horace Silver’s tunes such as The Preacher, and Alligator Boogaloo by Lou Donaldson.
If indeed hard bop was designed to make the music more assessable for the purpose of increasing the size of the audience, then functionally, hard bop may be considered the forerunner of smooth jazz.
Smooth jazz is a relatively big business, money making jazz style. There are radio stations dedicated to it and album sales far outnumber straight-ahead jazz. Sorry–more undefined terms. I’ll take them one at a time. Straight ahead jazz is another catch-all term. It is usually used to distinguish various forms of pop jazz, such as smooth jazz, from the more traditional forms of jazz, or classic jazz. Classic jazz is generally used as a synonym for straight-ahead jazz.
Back to smooth jazz–it is pop jazz, elevator jazz, but it does have a relatively sizable audience compared to straight ahead jazz. The tunes are usually quite simple, consisting of one to several chord changes. There is usually a leader who actually plays an instrument or sings but, generally, a sizable part of the “group” consists of music generated by sequencing software. These are programs capable of note input, modification, and flawless playback. The musicians are often acknowledged by “drums and keyboard programming by “so and so.” One of the several difficulties I have with this music is that there is no interaction between the players – obviously - and interaction or musical conversation between members of a jazz group is an integral part of the music. However, I’ve heard the argument that smooth jazz may lure young folks away from various forms of pop music as they grow up and out of it. So it may be a stepping stone to straight ahead jazz. I’m not aware of any evidence for this, but it’s possible. I do know that a number of jazz fans have jumped ship from blues.
Even more confused? Thankfully we’re at the end of the jazz style nomenclature parade and I think I’ve touched on most of them with the notable exceptions of free jazz, avant-garde and fusion. These styles will be the topics of other essays.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be concerned with categorizing players in terms of the style they like to play, although, I must admit, it is great fun to argue about it. The key is discovering and enjoying the good players regardless of their style. There are wonderful players in all styles and, for you, they aren’t necessarily the ones suggested by those who write about jazz (myself included). The Jazz Audience Advocates multi-media tutorials will enable you to discover the good players on your own, freeing you from the influence of various “experts” who may have varying agendas as they purport to inform you.
Did jazz styles develop over the years in a manner that would have made Darwin smile?
In your reading about jazz styles you may find a number of jazz journalists who are fond of applying the concept of evolution to the emergence and development of jazz styles. In biology, evolution results in organisms that develop from simple to complex over time. As such, use of the biology evolution metaphor does seem to work for jazz styles at first, but then it fails. In the beginning, jazz styles developed in a fairly linear fashion and they did become more complex harmonically and rhythmically as each new style emerged, for example from New Orleans to swing to bebop. At this point however, a number of writers and even some musicians begin to make mistakes. They suggest that the earlier more simpler jazz styles are somehow inferior to those that followed and that the musicians who played, and are playing, the early styles are somehow restricted or confined. Not true. Furthermore, I feel many, if not most, jazz journalists obsessed with the jazz evolution metaphor feel that free jazz or avant-garde is the next step in the ongoing development of the music. I can’t buy this one either.
The take home points
Again, encourage yourself to move around from individual to individual and style to style, in your listening. There’s good stuff in all. Remember that my goal, and the goal of our organization and this site, is to help you listen to and understand the music. This will, in turn, enable you to discover your own favorites. As you enjoy these artists, your understanding of the music will increase and you will discover even more players. From there it’s continual positive feedback on to listening bliss.
There are a number of fairly accurate pieces on jazz history and styles on the net and in books. They are not all great but good ones do exist. However, if you want one of the best, take a look at “The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz” by Barry Kernfeld, the 3 vol., second edition. Most branches of knowledge have a “bible”, the ultimate authoritative publication. Some feel the Kernfeld Dictionary is it for jazz. It is a bit pricey but, you may find used copies or you may access it on line. If you are a bit low on bucks and still want a hard copy, look for a used copy of the first edition on line. This dictionary is a good investment if you’re interested in increasing the level of your jazz appreciation.
Copyright © 2013
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.
Back to Top