Top 10 most asked questions about jazz (Part 3)

Ornette Coleman playing the saxophoneIn this third and final part of our series on the top 10 most asked questions about jazz, we cover the final two questions often asked by new-comers to jazz:

What are the different jazz styles?

Where does the name jazz come from?

The National Jazz Archive is grateful to all who continue to write about jazz online and we've included some online resources at the end as references to all parts of this article if you would like to find out more. 

You can read part 1 and part 2 of this article, view our popular jazz timeline, and discover other articles about jazz and the jazz world in other sections of the website.

Lead image of the multi-instrumentalist and founder of the free-jazz style, Ornette Coleman, taken by Michael Hoefner in 2011 and reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


9. What are the different jazz styles?

Jazz has evolved rapidly since its conception over 100 years ago. Many distinct styles were defined by the era in which they became popular among musicians and audiences, often as a reaction to what had gone before.

We have addressed the most popular of these styles or sub-genres chronologically as each one developed from its predecessor and other popular music influences of the time. These include: early jazz and dixieland, swing, gypsy jazz, bebop, cool, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and fusion and world jazz.


Early jazz and dixieland

As outlined in Part 1 of this article, a fusion of African and European music developed to become jazz music in the US in the early 1900s. Taking its influence from ragtime and the blues, jazz evolved within the African-American community of New Orleans.

Kid Ory seated holding his trombone and Joe Oliver standing holding his cornetOriginally a music for dancing, New Orleans jazz has a syncopated beat developed from the marching bands and parades popular in the city in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This earliest form of jazz is sometimes called ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ jazz, given its position in jazz evolution. This style is also sometimes called ‘dixieland’ due to its association with the first recorded music of the Dixieland Jazz Band and the nickname for the southern states of the US, where the music evolved.

New Orleans jazz is characterised by syncopation, improvisation, use of the blues scale, and often an element of call-and-response. This style of ‘hot jazz’ was exemplified by cornetist Joe ‘King’ Oliver, though this music developed further as individual artists stepped forward as soloists. Influential hot jazz stylists included Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton.

As the music originated with marching bands and bandwagon advertising groups, ensembles commonly used brass and other portable instruments. Typically, cornet or trumpet, clarinet and trombone were engaged in polyphony, driven by a rhythm section of guitar or banjo, plus brass bass or snare drum. Later groups added the piano as a rhythm instrument, which was also used as a solo instrument as jazz styles developed.

Traditional jazz had a revival in the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a reaction to the Chicago style, which was closer to swing. In the UK there was a similar revival in the 1950s and 1960s, led by bandleaders Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer, Kenny Ball and others.

Photograph of early jazz pioneers Kid Ory and King Oliver from Swing Music Vol. 2, No. 1, March 1936: 'King Oliver', by Hugues Panassié. Digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top



Swing is a form of jazz that developed as dance music in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

Cartoon of Artie Shaw playing his trumpetAn early reference to swing was the 1932 Duke Ellington song "It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing". The style became popular through big bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman (later dubbed the 'King of Swing’).

These orchestras, much larger than the traditional jazz bands, were distinguished by having multiple brass and reed sections playing complex arrangements. The repeal of prohibition in the US in 1933 was a factor in the rise of swing music as mixing in larger dance venues became more attractive.

As played by popular orchestras, swing developed a smooth, easy listening style, using simple chords and a clear harmonic texture. Its melodies were lyrical and had rhythms with a solid beat and a strong ‘dance groove’, mostly played at a medium tempo. The swing style is typified by alternatively lengthening and shortening the first and second consecutive notes of a bar, which gives it its rhythmic drive.

Although orchestration of these larger bands was necessary (and the style of arrangements helped to introduce a distinctive sound for each band), jazz improvisation was provided by soloists. They included clarinet rivals Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, drummer Gene Krupa, trombonist Tommy Dorsey and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Singers associated with swing bands included Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Helen Forrest.

Made popular by people who wanted to dance, swing was also popularised by radio broadcasts and produced a cult of celebrity band leaders and big-band singers.

The swing era was impacted by World War II. Fuel rationing made touring difficult, and many band members were conscripted, so maintaining large ensembles became difficult.

Cartoon of clarinettist and bandleader Artie Shaw by trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton 'Humph', from 'Artie Shaw' by Steve Race, Jazz Illustrated, No. 1, Vol. 8, July 1950. Journal digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top


Gypsy jazz

Gypsy jazz, or gypsy swing, was developed in the 1930s by its most iconic player, Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt, French swing violinist Stéphane Grappelli and their group the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

Louis Armstrong sitting down and holding his trumpetThe name ‘gypsy jazz’ reflects the influence, through Reinhardt, of the Romani Manouche based in Belgium and France, who played guitar-and violin-based folk music.

This distinctly European style of small group jazz, first popular in the 1930s and 1940s, it has remained a popular form of swing music. Typically, a double bass provides the basic rhythm. There are no drums, and rhythm guitars are strummed by two or more guitarists using a distinctive style known as ‘la pompe’ (the pump). This produces the fast syncopated swing feel.

Lead playing and improvisation comes from the decorative and plucked notes of an acoustic guitar, often using fast runs and sometimes flamenco-influenced percussive chords. The violin is also used as a lead, and has been popular in other small swing-style bands since the 1930s in America and elsewhere.

Photograph of Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France from the cover of Swing Music, Vol. 1, No. 5, July 1935. Journal digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top



Developed from late-night jam sessions by small experimental bands, bebop jazz (sometimes shortened to bop) came to prominence in New York in the 1940s.

Dexter Gordon playing his saxophone on a long exposure photograph producing squigglesBebop was revolutionary and the first ‘modern’ jazz style. The popular big band swing of the 1930s and early 1940s was dominated by driving dance rhythms. In bebop the regular marking of the rhythm was moved from the bass drum to the hi-hat and ride cymbals, which allowed greater fluidity.

In bebop, jazz developed from the swing music played by the larger bands of the day, but it became more blues-based with repeated motifs. It is characterised by extended solos with complex harmony and rhythm. Typically, chord changes are rapid, so soloists have to be musically sharp-witted and have great technique.

The classic bebop ensemble included alto or tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, double bass, drums and sometimes guitar. At the vanguard of this music were: saxophonists Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins; trumpeters Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie; pianists Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams and Bud Powell; and drummers Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Art Blakey.

The origin of the name bebop is thought to be onomatopoeic, deriving from a staccato two-tone phrase, which is common in bebop and often heard in improvised scat singing.

Unlike earlier styles of jazz, the rapid chord changes of bebop meant it wasn’t readily danceable and was the first style of jazz purely for listening. Bebop was intellectual and the antithesis of the showbiz jazz that had gone before, which meant it was also perceived by some as an elitist form of music.

Photograph of Dexter Gordon with Squiggles by John Hopkins, reproduced by the kind permission of the John 'Hoppy' Hopkins Estate © John Hoppy Hopkins Estate.

Back to the top



Cool jazz developed in the US in the late 1940s as a reaction to bebop mainly on the west coast of the US, particularly in California. It is characterised by a more relaxed, subdued and understated form than the hot, frenetic nature of bop.

The Gerry Mulligan quartet playing their instruments in a recording syudioEmotionally detached, cool jazz contrasted with bebop by being soft, light, lyrical, low pitched, low energy and sparse. Influenced by players such as the saxophonist Lester Young, cool jazz was established by Miles Davis and those he recorded with in the early 1950s and is exemplified by the playing of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ nonet recordings made in 1949 and 1950 were innovative due to the use of complex polyphonic arrangements. The recording group included baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan who became a major player and composer in the cool jazz genre.

Other innovators associated with cool jazz include pianists Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck, trumpeter Chet Baker, and saxophonists Lee Konitz and Stan Getz.

Picture of the piano-less Gerry Mulligan quartet from Jazz News, Vol. 5, No. 3, 21 January 1961 (Gerry Mulligan baritone saxophone, Chet Baker trumpet, Chico Hamilton drums and Carson Smith bass.

Back to the top


Hard bop

An extension of bebop and a reaction to styles that were distant from the classical forms of jazz, hard bop emerged in the 1950s and was influenced by rhythm and blues, gospel music and blues, especially in saxophone and piano playing. It was the dominant genre in jazz for about a decade from the mid-1950s.

Art Blakey smiling and playing the drums Hard bop evolved as a reaction to cool jazz and marked a return to jazz roots, including use of blues form, blue and bent notes, repetition, and call-and-response. Hard bop was also influenced by the popular rise of rhythm and blues in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The style is relatively emotional and raw (hot), often with a strong driving rhythm and heavy backbeat. Hard bop was a jazz style that people could dance to as its rhythms are usually slow and medium tempo.

The father of hard bop is generally considered to be drummer Art Blakey. His legendary band the Jazz Messengers, co-founded in the early 1950s with pianist Horace Silver, was a starting point for many young musicians who later became prominent jazz figures.

Photograph by Denis Williams of drummer Art Blakey playing at the Forum Theatre, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, 1978. From the Denis Williams collection digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top


Modal jazz

Modal jazz developed in the late 1950s and is characterised by its use of modal scales in the melodic and harmonic content, rather than conventional chord changes. This style uses modality rather than tonality.

Bill Evans smoking a cigarette and playing pianoRelying on scales, modal compositions tend to include few chord changes and often have a meditational feel of space and peace. For this reason it has some similarity in sound with the preceding cool jazz style.

The most extensive use of the modal approach is in Miles Davis’ 1959 album, ‘Kind of Blue’, the best-selling jazz album of all time. Other innovators in modal jazz include pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist John Coltrane.

The iconic photograph of Bill Evans at the piano, London 1965 taken by David Redfern. Extract from Jazz UK, Issue 65, September-October 2005. Journal digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top


Free jazz

Free jazz emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s when musicians attempted to break down established jazz conventions of harmony, rhythm, fixed tonality and chord sequences.

Eric Dolphy playing the bass clarinetIn free jazz, the dependence of a fixed and established form can be eliminated and the improvising soloist has either complete freedom or fewer constraints (harmonic, rhythmic, etc) on musical expression than in earlier jazz styles. This avant garde movement, in some of its forms, also drew on traditions from world music.

Free jazz began with small groups led by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his 1960 album ‘Free Jazz’ gave the idiom its name. Other style setters included reed players John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, pianist Cecil Taylor and experimental keyboard player and bandleader Sun Ra. In Britain, altoist Joe Harriott was an important and distinctive pioneer.

Photograph of Eric Dolphy by Val Wilmer from the front page of Jazz News, Vol. 5, No. 48, 29 November 1961. Journal digitised and held online by the National Jazz Archive.

Back to the top


Fusion and world jazz

The originators of jazz fusion were musicians who explored a range of world music and jazz (sometimes called ethno or world jazz). These included flautist Herbie Mann who drew from various cultures, tenor sax player Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd who introduced Brazilian bossa nova to the US, Dizzy Gillespie who was influenced by Cuban music, and John Coltrane who drew on African, Middle Eastern and Indian musical traditions.

Herbie Mann playing the flute on stageJazz fusion originated in the 1960s and combined the improvisation of jazz with other popular music forms such as rock music and funk. It is a broad term and, by definition, represents a flexible type of jazz.

Also called jazz rock, it often uses electrical instruments such as guitars and keyboards. Exponents of jazz fusion included Miles Davis, keyboard players Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and guitarists John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny.

Photograph of Herbie Mann by Tom Marcello, Eastman Theater, Rochester, New York 1975. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Back to the top


10. Where does the name jazz come from?

There is no definitive answer to the origin of the word jazz, but here are some of the most credible ideas proposed over the years:

Back to the start


Article by John Rosie, with thanks to Nick Clarke and Roger Cotterell of the National Jazz Archive for their editorial assistance.


Jazz banner with the word 'jazz' superimposed over the images of various jazz artists




  1. ‘Where did ‘jazz,’ the word come from? Follow a trail of clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter’, Lewis Porter, February 26, 2018,
  2. ‘When ‘jazz’ was a dirty word’, Terry Teachout, March 8, 2013, Wall Street Journal
  3. The varying styles of jazz: a road map', Wharton Center, Lansing State Journal
  4. ‘The influence of the blues on jazz: essay', Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Jazz in America
  5. ‘History and tradition of jazz: Chapter 2 African music and the pre-jazz era’, Thomas Larson, Kendall Hunt Publishing
  6. ‘A century later, John Philip Sousa’s marches still quicken the pulse’, June 5, 2012, Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
  7. John Philip Sousa and the culture of reassurance’, Neil Harris, Library of Congress
  8. ‘The mysterious origins of jazz’, Christian Blauvelt, February 24, 2017, BBC Culture, BBC Global News
  9. “Untamed music”: early jazz in vaudeville’, Steven Lewis, Honours Thesis, Florida State University, The Division of Undergraduate Studies, 2012
  10. ‘American jazz culture in the 1920s', Tom Bacig, University of Minnesota
  11. ʻThe structure and essence of jazz’, Brian Jump, July 7, 2017, Blog: Chasing the chords blog and podcast
  12. What is bebop? Deconstructing jazz music’s most influential development’, April 13, 2021, Charles Waring, udiscovermusic
  13. ‘A brief history of jazz dance', Prof. N Cayou, Jacqueline Burgess, Lanley College
  14. ‘Tap dance in America: A short history’, Article by Constance Valis Hill, May 25, 2013, Library of Congress


Jazz banner reproduced from William P Gottlieb, Library of Congress (Parker, Holiday, Fitzgerald and Armstrong by William P. Gottlieb), derivative work: Piquito. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


« Top 10 most asked questions about jazz (Part 2)

The history of Authentic Jazz dance (Part 1) »