5 subgenres of jazz

Jazz is not just one style
5 subgenres of jazz

Although the roots of jazz are unquestionably traced to African American musicianship in the South, and New Orleans is often thought of as its birthplace, no one person created jazz. Over the last century, the term “jazz” has come to represent as many different styles as there are in classical music. The pervasive stylistic elements include improvisation, a freer sense of rhythmic phrasing known as “swing” and a basic harmonic structure called “blues.”

The major (and easily blurred) subgenres include:

Rooted in African American spiritual music, blues became a prevalent style in jazz and early rock and roll. While strongly identified with vocal music, blues can also be instrumental. Based on a standard 12-bar harmonic progression, the blues lends itself to vocals and instrumental solos. The legends of blues singers include Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. A great and longtime local practitioner is Gerri DiMaggio, who can be heard regularly at the Twist Bar at the Radisson Hotel on Odana Road.

Swing was a dominant style of music in the late 1920s and 1930s, popularized by the big bands of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others. The music was tailored for high-energy, dancing and songs featuring soloists taking turns improvising with the band. Swing music is still in the repertoire of the UW Jazz Orchestra and many area high school bands.

This was the first recognizable style of jazz, exported from New Orleans and eventually to Europe. Dixieland features high-energy improvisation played by small ensembles.

After World War II, the new generation of jazz musicians sought its own voice, and found it in bebop. The style features a higher level of virtuosity, more complex chord structures, and an emphasis on the individual soloist as opposed to the band. The likes of saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor sax player Dexter Gordon–who played in Madison regularly in the 1970s–personified bebop.

Free Jazz
A style almost purely improvised, free jazz can be challenging for audiences as it is neither danceable nor does it give listeners much in the way of “landmarks” to follow. Pianist Cecil Taylor and sax player Ornette Coleman are largely credited with the genesis of the style. “Cecil Taylor has the respect of jazz musicians all over the world, but I bet many of the people–even jazz musicians who appreciate him–don’t especially enjoy themselves when they hear his music,” trumpeter-composer Paul Dietrich says. “I feel that way: I completely respect him and appreciate what he does, it’s just not my favorite thing to listen to.”

Read more about Madison’s jazz scene.