Jazz Styles—the Sub-genres!

When it comes to the subject of jazz styles, without blinking an eye, Louis Armstrong was once quick to reply when asked for a definition of jazz music, "Man , if you gotta ask, you’ll never know."

There is, however, some degree of difficulty in defining jazz music. There are so many different jazz styles. To many, jazz music and the various jazz styles are a state of mind, and you either get it or you don't.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s examine some of the different jazz styles and techniques. You might be surprised at how the jazz medium has evolved over the years.

Ragtime – This is often referred to as the founding base of jazz styles. Originating in the southern U.S. in the late 1800s, this style was developed basically for piano. Ragtime is easy to recognize. The rhythm is vibrant and lively, often being associated with African dance. An early publisher and musician of ragtime compositions was Scott Joplin. He dates back to 1899.

The Blues – Of all the jazz styles, this one truly impacted the development of jazz. In the early 20th century, the blues vocalist emerged on the jazz scene, profoundly expressing the emotions of the African American community. This style of singing was usually performed with piano, guitar, and harmonica. W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey…these are legendary musicians of the early 20th century.

Dixieland – This is often called 'traditional jazz' or 'New Orleans jazz' and developed in the early 1920s as one of our most important jazz styles by integrating the blues tradition, ragtime, and the brass band into one musical arrangement. The trumpet, the clarinet, the trombone, and sometimes the saxophone were all complimented by a rhythm section that included piano, drums, string bass, banjo, or tuba. Most of the time Dixieland was played without a vocalist. Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton are among the most famous musicians of the Dixieland medium.

Big Band – Following the rise and popularity of Dixieland jazz came the beginning of the Big Band. The decade was the 1920s. Jazz styles were constantly being tinkered with and that state of mind we alluded to earlier kept cranking out new sounds…new combinations. The word ensemble applies to this style as the big bands usually were made up of ten or more players. All of the jazz instruments came together to create what became known as “swing” music, which was a high energy jazz style that packed the dance floors. Big band leaders at the height of this movement included Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

Bebop – By the 1940s, with the popularity of the big band sound in full swing, one of the most fascinating of the jazz styles emerged—Bebop. This jazz style was very different from its predecessor, seeing that the group sized dwindled to 4-6 musicians. The style featured complex melodies and chord progressions and was basically not adaptable to dancing. A vocal style known as "scat" also appeared. Nonsense syllables sung to an improvised melody became the rage. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie is generally considered to be the father of bebop.

Free Jazz – In the 1960s jazz music and jazz styles again added a new twist. Free jazz was very much experimental and unique in that pitch and tone were arranged by musicians to develop squeaking and wailing sounds. However, this is one of the jazz styles that has never been widely accepted by public audiences.

These are the basic sub-genres that make up the various jazz styles. The one thing to never forget is that jazz artists everywhere are constantly improvising and looking to expand the sounds and rhythm of the jazz medium, and for that, the listening audience should always be grateful. The bossa nova. The samba. These are jazz styles, too.

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