Jazz Music


Jazz originated in the early late 19th century among the African-American communities in the southern states of America, in centres such as New Orleans, which, with its position at the mouth of the Mississippi, was a natural staging post for immigrants. The city was a vibrant melting pot of many cultures: as well as African-Americans other incomers were Creole, Caribbean, French, Mexican, English and European.

Originally jazz was a form of dance music that fused African rhythms and European harmony with the existing genres of negro spirituals, gospel, blues, ragtime and the music of the marching bands of New Orleans. At the heart of jazz lie two vital ingredients: first, the vivacious rhythms of syncopation — off-beats and accents that, when combined, give jazz its unique character. Second, the element of improvisation. Whereas European musicians mostly read music from sheets of paper, and played each piece the same way over and over, jazz musicians were happy to extemporise and create their own musical ideas, which they superimposed over the basic form of whatever song they were playing.

Early Jazz

Jazz has its earliest roots not in America, but in West Africa, the birthplace of many of America’s slaves. Out of their suffering and misery was born a rich musical tradition of songs and field chants, with their simple pentatonic (5-note scale) melodies and call and response structures. 

After the American Civil War (1865), the 13th amendment to the American constitution abolished slavery. Many former slaves found themselves looking for work, and some took jobs as musicians, which, when they worked with musicians from other cultures, exposed  them to other musical styles. Their new-found emancipation manifested itself in their music, as a freedom of expression and experimentation, and they eagerly combined the music they knew — negro spirituals, slave songs and hymns  — with music from wider European influences.

Jazz became popular in the 1890s when 'ragtime', a precursor to jazz, started to catch the ear of white Americans. Scott Joplin was the most famous exponent of ragtime, and his music has crossed all barriers to become what we now regard as mainstream.

The Dixieland bands of New Orleans soon spread in popularity over the southern states, and two of the earliest stars of the jazz firmament were the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) and the trumpeter/singer Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong (1901 - 1971) who, as well as improvising on trumpet, also improvised with a form of singing called 'scat'.

A note on the playlist: due to the unavailability of so many recordings from this era we have occasionally selected recordings from a later period, but ones which reflect the style of the period in question.

Key Artists

King Oliver

Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong

Bix Beiderbecke

Earl “Fatha” Hines

Jelly Roll Morton

Sidney Bechet

The Jazz Era

After the First World War there was a boom in jazz for a decade that has come to be known as 'The Jazz Age'. This was the era of the earliest dance music, with the Charleston  and something known as the 'Black Bottom' being particularly popular. Musicians from the south moved etc Chicago looking for work, and the Chicago style was born. New Orleans musicians like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton all made their way to the windy city. Leading bands of the time include Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington.

A new lexicon was emerging and, with it, a handful of songs that would become the first of what would come to be known as 'standards' — songs that became part of the everyday language of the jazz movement. These include such perennials as 'Sweet Georgia Brown', 'Bye Bye Blackbird', 'Ain’t Misbehavin'' and — one of the most beautiful jazz tunes of all time — Hoagy Carmichael’s 'Stardust'.

A note on the playlist: due to the unavailability of so many recordings from this era we have occasionally selected recordings from a later period, but ones which reflect the style of the period in question.

Key Artists

King Oliver

Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong

Bix Beiderbecke

Earl “Fatha” Hines

Jelly Roll Morton

Sidney Bechet

Big Band Swing

During the 1930’s jazz gravitated towards New York, where specialist jazz venues like The Cotton Club drew audiences like moths to a flame. Musicians from previously important jazz centres like New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City — the home of the Count Basie Band — were drawn to New York by the quickly developing jazz scene. Pioneers like Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson were soon followed a list of band leaders that reads like a who’s who of jazz and big band swing music: Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Harry James, Artie Shaw and, arguably, the most commercially successful of them all, a certain Glenn Miller. 

Henderson is an interesting figure in the development of jazz and big band music of this period. His New York-based jazz orchestra was the most popular African-American band of the 1920s. But it was in his slick arrangements that other band leaders found their inspiration. Similarly, Duke Ellington became known for the unique fusion of jazz and classical musical styles — a musical language pioneered by his legendary arranger, Billy Strayhorn.

Big band music was different from what had gone before: it was a much larger ensemble, and for the first time players were organised into set positions — or 'sections' — on the stage. Whereas early jazz was largely developed and learned by a small collective of improvising players, the big bands needed arrangers to set the musical ideas down in a written score, from which the individual parts would be extracted. Improvisation remained, but was organised into set piece solos for featured soloists from within the band.

The Swing era spawned numerous hits that have become classics, or 'standards' as jazz musicians call them. Ellington gave us "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933) and "Caravan" (1936), while Basie, with his Kansas “jam session” style — where blistering solos were backed up by riff-based accompaniments from the band — had hits with “One O’Clock Jump”, “Jumpin' At The Woodside” and “Lester Leaps In”, featuring his star tenor sax player, Lester Young.

Bands often featured singers, and they provided early platforms for singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan. Who all went on to forge hugely successful solo careers.

Key Artists

Duke Ellington

Count Basie

Cab Calloway

Jimmy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Benny Goodman

Fletcher Henderson

Earl Hines

Harry James

Artie Shaw

Glenn Miller


The second world war changed jazz in many ways. The shortages of war meant it became increasingly difficult for the big bands to move around and play — it takes a bus and a lot of infrastructure to move twenty or so musicians from one town to another. So, new styles of jazz emerged that used smaller groups, and a standard lineup soon emerged with the birth of bebop: saxophone (alto or tenor), trumpet, piano, guitar, double bass, and drums.

Jazz had started off primarily as a form of dance music; the tunes of the early bands were learned by rote and the individual band parts were improvised around the chord structure. Whereas this element of improvisation had been born out of necessity, mainly due to the lack of printed music scores, after the war a small group of pioneering musicians working out of New York sought to make improvisation the 'raison d’être'.

Saxophonist Charlie Parker was a long-time admirer of the florid, melodic improvisation style of Lester Young, and he was keen to develop the art of improvising. Along with a group of like-minded musicians in New York in the 40s — trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, guitarist Charlie Christian, bass players Ray Brown, Milt Hinton and Gene Ramey, drummers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — he developed an exciting new style of music that came to be known as 'bebop'. Parker himself — who was known as 'bird' or 'yardbird' (allegedly due to his prodigious appetite for chicken, which he called 'yardbird') — never used the term bebop as he felt it demeaned the music.

As the music wasn’t intended for dancing the players could experiment with tempo, with the result that they got faster and faster. Some say they used the sheer speed of the music as a way of excluding less talented musicians, who simply couldn’t keep up with them! Whether true or not, it is a fact that bebop music is characterised by prodigiously fast tempos. As bebop was not intended for dancing, it enabled the musicians to play at faster tempos. As well as the faster tempos, bebop is largely characterised by its florid, often asymmetrical melodies underpinned with complex harmonies, syncopation, significantly altered harmonies, including altered, extended, and substituted chords. 

Miles Davis came to bebop and developed his distinctive melodic and harmonic musical language that eventually led to the birth of the cool jazz style.

Key Artists

The list of bebop jazz musicians is large, so here is a selection of a few notable musicians. 

Charlie Parker

Dizzy Gillespie

Charlie Christian

John Coltrane

Bud Powell

Ray Brown

Miles Davis

Clifford Brown

Max Roach

Kenny Clarke

Gypsy Jazz

Gypsy jazz is another genre that goes by several names — 'gypsy swing', 'hot club' — so named after the popular Parisian jazz club (Hot Club de France) where the style was born — or simply 'manouche', after the gypsy clan of its co-creator, the guitarist Django Reinhardt. One of a number of gypsy guitarists working around Paris in the 1930s (including his brother Jospeh 'Nin-Nin' Reinhardt), Django was a great improviser, and he pushed the boundaries of what was playable in developing his unique style of 'hot' guitar playing.

In the mid 30s he teamed up with violinist Stéphane Grapelli to create arguably the first major European jazz group with their Quintette du Hot Club de France, based in Paris. The group had a unique instrumentation that excluded drums! Instead the characteristic rhythms that popularised the style were created by Reinhardt, Grapelli, two rhythm guitarists and double bass. The absence of drums created a more intimate sound that allowed their virtuosic soloing to be clearly audible.

Hot club jazz became popular in pockets of activity around the world, including America, Europe and the United Kingdom. Following Reinhardt's death in 1953 the style gradually became less popular before a resurgence in the 1970s saw musicians like the Belgian guitarist Fapy Lafertin and the French guitarists Boulou Ferré and Biréli Lagrène championing the style. In 1973 the Anglo-Canadian guitarist Diz Disley persuaded Grapelli to return to the 'hot club' line-up of violin accompanied by two rhythm guitars and double bass.  So, gypsy jazz has remained popular as its own niche sub-genre with a unique style with its own musical language and heritage.

Key Artists

Django Reinhardt

Stéphane Grapelli

Diz Disley

Fapy Lafertin

Boulou Ferré

Biréli Lagrène

Cool Jazz

Every yin has its yang, every north has its south. And so it was with the frenetic, hyper-energetic style of Bebop, which was followed by what we now call 'cool' jazz. The term started to be applied to a new school of jazz in the early 1950s, when Capitol Records released the album Classics in Jazz: Cool and Quiet. But many people associate the nascent cool movement by the uber-cool master of jazz, Miles Davis. He even named one of his albums 'The Birth of the Cool' and it’s an iconic album that stands as a milestone in the history of jazz to this day. He was quickly followed by musicians such as John Lewis’ Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz, Chet Baker and George Shearing.

The musical style is more laid back, with more moderate tempos and a more lyrical, less angular approach to improvising a solo. Although Miles Davis and his associates were based in New York, there was a parallel and simultaneous exploration of the 'cool’ style by musicians based in California, and this became known as 'West Coast' jazz. 

This came about largely because Stan Kenton disbanded his Innovations Orchestra, leaving a group of LA-based players at a loose end. The drummer Shelley Manne and trumpeter Shorty Rogers, the baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan and the valve trombone player Bob Brookmeyer, along with saxophonist Art Pepper were key players.

The influence of cool jazz reached far and wide, arguably into the music of two albums released in 1959 — Dave Brubek’s 'Time Out' and Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue'. One interesting aspect of cool jazz is its heavier reliance on arranged scores, and this provided an early proving-ground for such legendary arrangers as Lennie Niehaus and Gil Evans.

Key Artists

Miles Davis

Shorty Rogers

Sten Getz

Gerry Mulligan

Bob Brookmeyer

John Lewis (Modern Jazz Quartet)

Chet Baker

Shelley Manne

Hard Bop

As a reaction to the more laid back style of cool jazz and west coast jazz, in the mid-1950s some musicians returned etc the ethos of bebop, but combined it with the gospel influences and the emerging styles of rhythm and blues. They created a 'funkier' type of music that was more blues-based, with simpler melodies. Some people called it 'funky hard bop', which pretty much sums it up. Some writers have suggested that hard bop was an attempt to recapture jazz as an overtly African-American art form, while drummer Shelley Manne thought it was more to do with environment, with west coast cool reflecting the Californian climate and hard bop being a product of the hyperactive environment of New York.

A number of notable jazz musicians adopted this style, and the Blue Note record label was influential in spreading its influence. Artists like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Clifford Brown. 

In 1955 the Miles Davis Quintet (with John Coltrane was joint front man), became prominent in hard bop. The first albums to establish this style were the 1957 releases 'A Blowin' Session' — featuring John Coltrane (sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Paul Chambers (bass) and Art Blakey (drums) — and The Jazz Messengers' album 'Hard Bop', which gave the style its name.

Key Artists

John Coltrane

Horace Silver

Art Blakey

Lee Morgan

Sonny Rollins

Hank Mobley

Donald Byrd

Clifford Brown

Max Roach

Avant Garde Jazz

As the 1950s gave way to the swinging 60s some jazz musicians followed their classical music counterparts in trying to break down the most essential elements of what jazz — up to that point — had been. So they experimented with new forms, they abandoned the adherence to a key centre and harmonic sequence that were the cornerstones of pervious forms of jazz. They tried to break down the regular rhythmic patterns of jazz into more fluid movements, often by speeding up or slowing down the music. They experimented with new techniques, such as overblowing on the saxophone, and they incorporated elements of musical language from other cultures, such as African, Asian, Arabic and Indian music.

This new style came to be known by many names — 'free jazz', 'atonal jazz', 'free improvisation' and 'modern jazz'. One of its main champions was saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who abandoned the traditional chord sequence in favour of a freer approach to harmonic language. His early 1958 recordings, 'Tomorrow is the Question!’ and 'Something Else!!!!' Demonstrate his abandonment of the traditional 32-bar song form and its inherent harmonic structure of four lots of 8-bar sections in the pattern A - A - B (middle 8) - A.

When Coleman moved from the West Coast to New York he was signed to the Atlantic record label, and this show of faith by a major label lent credibility to the new genre. His albums 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' and 'Change of the Century' certainly didn’t lack modesty in their prophetic, self-aggrandising names, but, to be fair, they did mark a radical extension of his ideas about free jazz. This culminated in the landmark album 'Free Jazz' in 1960, and thereafter the genre was named after this album.

Other notable exponents of free jazz include the pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Albert Tyler, saxophonist and bandleader Sun Ra, saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and key European musicians Evan Parker and Albert Mangelsdorff.

Key Artists

Ornette Coleman

Cecil Taylor

Albert Tyler

John Coltrane

Eric Dolphy

Evan Parker

Albert Mangelsdorff

Trad Jazz

Just as America was forging ahead with new forms of jazz in the 50s and 60s, the opposite was happening in the UK, where a revival of the 'traditional' New Orleans and Dixieland jazz was in full swing.

After the second world war jazz bands became smaller, and a return to the line-up of the new Orleans street bands, where a tuba or sousaphone played the bass line and a banjo played the chords, brought with it a return to that style of jazz.

Musicians such as Humphrey Littleton, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Terry Lightfoot and George Chisholm, Kenny Ball, Alex Welsh and Roy Williams all enjoyed a successful period, while other musicians such as Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner incorporated elements of skiffle, which led directly to the British rhythm and blues music that was the forerunner of pop.

Key Artists

Humphrey Littleton

Chris Barber

Acker Bilk

Terry Lightfoot

George Chisholm 

Kenny Ball

Alex Welsh

Roy Williams

Latin Jazz

Rhythm — and particularly syncopation — has always played an important role in the language of jazz, so it’s not surprising that musicians looked to the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music for rhythmic inspiration. You get Latin jazz when the swing rhythms of mainstream jazz are replaced by the heavily syncopated rhythms of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music.

Afro-Cuban music is notable for its use of ostinato (which simply means repeating) patterns, on percussion instruments — usually claves (pronounced 'cla-vays') which are two shaped pieces of wood that are held in each hand and struck together.

Clave is both the name of the instrument and the name of the type of rhythmic pattern that’s present in mambo, salsa, rumba and other Latin rhythms. Clave literally means 'key' in Spanish, and this simple little instrument, with its distinctive sound, is indeed the key to Latin music.

Latin influences can be traced back as far as 1910 when Jelly Roll Morton used Cuban rhythms in songs like 'New Orleans Blues' and 'The Crave'.

In the 1940s a number of prominent Cuban musicians arrived in New York. Among them was a multi-instrumentalist called Mario Bauzá, who brought with him some exotic percussion instruments — bongos, congas, and timbales and, most important of all, claves. In 1940 Bauzá  formed his band 'The Afro-Cubans’ with the legendary Cuban percussionist/singer Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, known simply as 'Machito' — who happened to be his brother in law.

As well as being Musical Director of the band, Bauzá worked with other musicians, and befriended Dizzy Gillespie, who soon incorporated Latin rhythms into his recordings. Dizzy asked Bauzá for a conga player, so in1947 Bauzá introduced Chano Pozo to him and, in less than a year they had co-wrote the Gillespie classics 'Manteca’ and 'Tin Tin Deo’.

Early hits such as Stan Kenton’s Latin-infused version of 'The Peanut Vendor' brought Latin jazz to the masses and it took off. The Bossa Nova became very popular through Latin artists such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto — who had a huge hit with 'The Girl From Ipanema', sung by Gilberto’s wife, Astrud Gilberto. Since that time Latin has cemented its place as one of the most enduring of jazz genres.

Key Artists


Mario Bauzá

Stan Getz

Tito Puente

Arturo Sandoval

Antonio Carlos Jobim 

João Gilberto

Dizzy Gillespie

Astor Piazzolla

Sérgio Mendes

Jazz Fusion

As with many jazz genres, jazz fusion labours under a number of labels, and has spawned a few sub-genres of its own: these include ’fusion’, 'progressive jazz', 'jazz rock' and 'jazz funk'. Its genesis lies in the perennial willingness of jazz musicians to explore other genres, forms and styles. With the advent of pop music in the 60’s, and in particular the use of amplified electronic instruments — electric guitars, electric basses and keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes piano — a while new sound works was available to jazz musicians.

Not only that, but the radical change in rhythmic emphasis, from swing — with its emphasis on beats 2 and 4 — to the more 'four-square' rhythms of rock and funk, where beats shared more equal emphasis, opened up a world of possibilities.

When Miles Davis morphed yet again from one style to another in the form of the 1969 album 'Bitches Brew' he had a line-up that included electric instruments — guitar, bass, keyboards — and a team of sidemen who were going to make their own waves. Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Joe Zawinul (electric piano),  Chick Corea (electric piano), Harvey Brooks (electric bass) and John McLaughlin (electric guitar). Miles put a microphone on his trumpet and played through electronic effects and pedals, rather like an electric guitar.

These sidemen branched out to form their own important groups: McLaughlin formed the 'Mahavishnu Orchestra' with Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer; Chick Corea formed 'Return to Forever' with guitarist Al DiMeola and bassist Stanley Clarke; Joe Zawinul was a founder member of 'Weather Report', along with bass virtuoso Miroslav Vitouš, later to be replaced by the even more prodigiously talented Jaco Pastorius. Meanwhile pianist Herbie Hancock was cooking up his own jazz fusion with iconic albums like 'Headhunters (1973) and 'Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now'. 

In the 70s bands like the Crusaders and Spyrogyra — with their commercial mix of jazz and pop styles, carried the torch for fusion jazz. Later still came the Brecker Brothers and Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

Another offshoot of fusion appeared in the form of Jazz Rock, with bands like Colosseum, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Nucleus, Brand X and Frank Zappa’s 'Mothers of Invention' and, more recently, Snarky Puppy.

Key Artists

Miles Davis

Chick Corea

Herbie Hancock

John McLaughlin

Wayne Shorter

Joe Zawinul

Stanley Clarke

Billy Cobham

Joe Sample

Wilton Felder

Randy Brecker

Michael Brecker

Pat Metheny

Jazz Funk

Jazz funk is the natural development from jazz fusion, incorporating, as it does, elements of a strong R&B backbeat, the use of electronic instruments — keyboards, guitars, bass and synth — and the incorporation of what jazz purists see as 'non-jazz' elements borrowed from the world of pop. Its range is wide, encompassing, on the one hand, instrumental pieces with strong elements of improvisation at their heart, and, on the other, songs that sound more like pop songs with a few jazzy elements thrown in.

Pianist Herbie Hancock pioneered the use of synths in jazz funk — he was surrounded by band of keyboards that included several Moog synthesisers, Hohner Clavinet and a Rhodes electric piano. If the 1973 album 'Head Hunters' had seen his foray into fusion, his development down this road was further cemented by the 1983 album 'Future Shock'.

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard embraced the new genre and embraced a highly polished, produced sound reminiscent of the R&B that had come out of Philadelphia — known as the 'Philly sound'.

Because of its infectious, dance-based rhythms, jazz funk became popular in clubs in the UK and in the USA and a rarified version of the genre, where influences of hip hop, R&B and pop were fused with jazzy elements to create what became known as 'acid jazz' — so called after the drug-infused late night club culture in which it found its natural audience.

Ever-willing to experiment with new genres, trumpeter Miles Davis went through a jazz funk phase, as did jazz artists like Stanley Clarke and Donald Byrd. Saxophonists Grover Washington Jr, Ronnie Laws and, later, contemporary bands like Snarky Puppy keep the funk torch burning.

Key Artists

Donald Byrd

Herbie Hancock

Stanley Clarke

The Crusaders

George Benson
Marcus Miller
Roy Ayers

The Brecker Brothers

Modal Jazz

Whereas Jazz had always been based on the concept of improvising over a chord sequence that was clearly in a major or minor, or blues-style key, musicians — in their constant search for new sounds — started experimenting with modes. Put simply, modes can be described as the scales you get if you start a major scale on a note other than the traditional starting note. So, in the key of C major, if you start your scale on the second note — D — you get a progression of notes that has a different sound from the one that starts on C. It has a minor feel, and is called the Dorian mode.

A great example of modal jazz is Miles Davis’ classic 'So What', which uses the dorian mode based on D, then another version of the same mode (Dorian), but moved up a half step to E flat.

Miles loved the freedom of being able to run free over one mode for several bars rather than, say, the harmonic discipline of following a strict chord sequence that outlines very definite key centres. And so did other musicians. Modal jazz caught on in a big way and was championed by many other musicians.

But how did it start? Well, in 1953 the composer, arranger and band leader George Russell published a book called the 'Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization'. He outlined how it might be possible for musicians to improvise over a long period — say 8 bars — over a single scale, and for that scale to be based on a mode (Lydian is the name of a mode).

By the mid-60s modal jazz became the mainstream method through which modern jazz musicians expressed their ideas. Musicians such as Miles Davis, with his landmark composition 'Milestones' in 1958 and the 1959 album 'Kind of Blue', John Coltrane, McCoy Tyler, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and — especially — the arranger Gil Evans led the way where others soon followed. Coltrane’s work with pianist McCoy Tyler in the 1960 brought great intensity and inventiveness to modal jazz and in the albums 'My Favourite Things' (1961), 'Impressions' (1963) and 'A Love Supreme' (1964).

Key Artists

George Russell

Miles Davis

Gil Evans

Bill Evans

John Coltrane

Freddie Hubbard

Herbie Hancock

McCoy Tyner

Wayne Shorter

If you want to commission your own music in any of these styles, or would like more information or help, please contact us.