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A History of Jazz Styles

Christopher Madsen | October 2013

     Many music educators lack formal jazz training. This is unfortunate because the study of jazz is fascinating and integral to one’s understanding of the American 20th century. From a more practical point of view, many music educators are asked to run a jazz ensemble despite their lack of experience with the music at all. My hope is that all universities will require music education majors to participate in jazz ensemble and take jazz pedagogy and history courses. In the meantime, here is a crash course on the basics of jazz history. 

    Jazz history and style are inextricably linked; the music’s brightest voices have always had their own distinctive styles, some of which spawned movements on their own and changed how mainstream jazz of the day was played. Some people think of jazz history as a continuum; that music has gone through phases or periods. This implies that certain styles are fleeting and are given up by everyone when the hot new style comes along. This is over-simplistic and just not the case. Think of jazz history more as a tree, as shown below. Older styles continue even when new ones emerge. For example, there are people today who play in an early jazz style, although many other movements have emerged since.
Early Jazz: Morton, Armstrong, and Beiderbecke
    The earliest recording of jazz dates from 1917, and the way musicians played remained largely unchanged throughout the next decade. Musical characteristics of this period involve a general staccato or vertical feeling to the music: horn players tongued almost every note, the rhythmic emphasis was on all four beats of the measure, phrasing was almost ahead of the beat, and the quarter note was king. The groups were rather small, usually from five to nine musicians: two or three horns (including clarinet, an instrument indicative of this period), percussion, a bass instrument (tuba, string bass, or bass saxophone), and one or two chordal instruments, such as piano or banjo. 
    In the 1920s, musicians agreed where the beat was to be placed and clearly outlined it. The groups played intricate arrangements with limited solos; the emphasis was on the ensemble. Solos were frequently overlaid on each other, resulting in complex collective improvisation with the trumpet taking the melodic lead. One of the first people to arrange the music in a complex way was pianist Ferdinand LaMothe, known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton. His groups built the foundation for what became big band jazz in the following decade. In the early 1920s his ensembles adhered to the group dynamic; solos always served the arrangement and were not the focus of the music.
    In the mid to late 1920s, emphasis shifted from the group to the soloist. Undoubtedly the figure who accomplished this was Louis Armstrong, the first true innovator of the music. Armstrong was a natural jazz musician who couldn’t help but reinvent the sounds he heard. A primary stylistic innovation of Armstrong was that he played with less articulation; he heard the mostly staccato music of the day a little more legato than everyone else. This innovation is overshadowed by his virtuosic playing. He made the solo into the primary focus of jazz.
    Armstrong’s counterpart was a young man named Bix Beiderbecke, the understated antithesis to Armstrong’s outspokenness. The Oxford Companion to Jazz says that Beiderbecke invited you to listen while Armstrong commanded it. Like Armstrong, Bix heard the music in a slightly more legato way, and helped pave the way for the 1930s Swing style.

Swing Style: Basie and Ellington
    Jazz became the popular music of the 1930s, and people needed larger, louder bands to accompany dancing. The led to the birth of the big band, although in a smaller form than we now think of it today. There are three main differences between Early Jazz style and Swing Style: groups increased in size, improvised solos become more important within arrangements, and in general, the music became slightly more legato.
    As big bands of 15-16 players became more popular, naturally more and more emerged to fill the growing demand. Without question, however, the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington were the stylistic leaders of the 1930s and early 40s. Basie and Ellington are essential for many reasons beyond their popularity at the time. These two bands represented slightly different trajectories within the musical tradition, and consistently churned out innovative and influential music. Like Armstrong and Beiderbecke during the previous decade, the two bands were able to highlight their unique skills within the prevailing style of the day.
    Like any sports team, the big bands had their stars, and these two groups were no exception. Count Basie’s tenor saxophonist Lester Young was the most important among a slew of excellent soloists, while Ellington’s leading man Ben Webster provided the gruff alternative. These two soloists are kinds of microcosms of each band; Young favored a legato, smooth phrasing style while Webster was grittier and, in a way, based his sound more on the prior decade. Young was a radical glimpse of the future while Webster used the past more to his advantage. Overall, big bands emphasized a group sound, but with soloists gaining more freedom within arrangements as collective improvisation vanished. In addition, while downbeats remained important, soloists used eighth-note lines more.
    When it came to orchestration, Ellington’s sonic palette was infinite. He created sounds never heard before and each piece had its own texture. He used clarinet quite a bit in the saxophone section, did not use guitar, and often incorporated specific talents of his band members into his arrangements (Ray Nance played violin as well as trumpet and even sang). Ellington’s orchestra was as much a reflection of his voice as his piano was. The music was more gestural and less straightforward, and in a way used sounds of early jazz styles to further his goal. Basie’s primary goal was groove. The orchestration did not change much from one piece to the next, but all pieces had a natural swing feel to them. With Basie, the band played in the Swing style better than anyone. His band pioneered a specific rhythm section sound, always using guitar to play quarter notes and enhance the groove. 
    Basie’s group of the 1930s and early 40s laid the groundwork for straight-ahead big band styles of the future. The Basie band charts translated well to most any other ensemble, and the rhythms, voicings, and aesthetic were influential and palatable. Ellington created a vocabulary and trajectory that stands alone because what he wrote was so unique to his specific band. The music is more difficult to replicate, more stylistically specific, and generally more abstract. That aesthetic has influenced left-of-center composers such as Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. Certainly the work of Wynton Marsalis borrows heavily from Ellington, but he was one of the few figures able to find something truly unique. 

Bebop Style: Charlie Parker
    The 1930s and early 1940s was a boom time for jazz musicians. They got to play all the time for audiences that were enamored with the music. A naturally curious bunch, jazz musicians began to search for more complexity in the music as they got more and more sophisticated. However, stretching out creatively did not appeal to dancing audiences, so after hours, some of the more improvisation-minded players would get to together and play. During these jam sessions, musicians could solo for as long as they wanted, experiment with new techniques, and abandon the restrictions placed on them by tightly written big band arrangements. 
   Charlie Parker, who led the next major stylistic shift in jazz, was originally a sideman with trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie, who basically (along with several others) invented Bebop stylistic traits along with Parker. Eventually however, Parker (“Bird”) became the epitome of Bebop and earned the credit for much of the innovations himself. This new style formulated in the early 1940s and by 1945, it had coalesced into a true movement. 
   Because the Bebop style was reactionary in nature, removing any shackle felt by members of larger bands, many of the traits of this kind of music are polar opposites of Swing style. Tempos became faster, complex and virtuosic solos are the focus of the songs, articulations became even smoother, with the tongue used mostly for accenting, groups become much smaller (four or five players), vibrato lessens and becomes terminal, and, most importantly, the rhythmic emphasis is freed from the downbeat. This means that musicians prior to Charlie Parker used the downbeats of measures to guide their rhythms, while musicians who adopt the new style lock their rhythm to whatever part of the measure they want – downbeats or upbeats. The chart below shows how reactionary the Bebop style truly is. The soloist is now the focal point as opposed to the arrangement.
   Bebop articulation, phrasing, and form have arguably been the most influential of all jazz movements. In a fundamental sense, most jazz musicians today play the way that Charlie Parker did in terms of which notes in a phrase are tongued and accented. This is particularly true in the use of the form; melody-extended solos-melody is the template for the majority of jazz performances today, especially in informal settings. In the examples below, not only are the lines longer and less tongue is used in Bebop, but different alterations are chosen over the V7 chord to accommodate for scalar motion. The accents are all over the measure in Bebop, particularly on the upbeats within a given line. Lastly, the sound of the Major seventh chord is preferred over the Major sixth on the arrival.
Cool Style: Miles Davis and Birth of the Cool
    Even though Miles Davis cut his teeth in Charlie Parker’s groups, he never really fit the bebop mold. His playing was less precise than true adherents to that style; there was a vulnerability in his playing that always made him a little out of place in those fast tempos and flurries of notes. As Miles gained popularity toward the late 1940s, he began exploring his first in a series of major stylistic innovations over the coming decades. The important thing to remember, though, is that from an articulation and phrasing standpoint, Miles basically always played the same, regardless of what was happening behind him. He surrounded himself with many different creative environments, but his style was more or less established in the late 1940s with the album Birth of the Cool
    This landmark album was released in 1949 and, like Bebop, was reactionary. It used nine musicians and limited solo space for improvisors; the arrangement was the focus again. If Bebop styles are overtly masculine and aggressive, Cool styles are vulnerable and understated. Miles and his cohorts invented the Cool style, influenced heavily by Lester Young, and then Miles promptly moved on to other things while the movement itself was carried on by other musicians. The stylistic considerations of Cool jazz were the basis of the Third Stream movement that combined classical/orchestral music and jazz. This may be because the Cool style de-emphasizes the rhythmic fireworks of Bebop and further smooths out articulation and swing feel. Miles led pioneering groups in subsequent movements and can be attributed with creating the defining sounds in Hard Bop, Modality, and 1960s Avant-Garde.
    From this point forward in the history of jazz styles, we begin to see more of an individualistic approach. That is, as we see in jazz today, each musician or group comes up with their unique sound which can fit into a general popular concern, but ultimately is more interested in itself than adhering to a movement of any kind. Musicians are more concerned with finding their own way than necessarily taking cues from others. In a fundamental way, we are all still playing using the Bebop style – that’s how revolutionary Charlie Parker was. The difference between the following sections and earlier changes in jazz style, like Bebop or Swing, is that while those were changes to fundamental aspects of playing, the following movements are changes to superficial ones (a general mood, song construction). 

Hard Bop
    Charlie Parker was such a tremendous innovator and influence that when he died in 1955, there was a gaping hole in the jazz world. The question of how to deal with Bird’s legacy was on everyone’s mind. The style he created was the most influential and revolutionary since Louis Armstrong, and luckily, the jazz scene of the 1950s was one of the most productive and creative in all its history. Many musicians were creating music based on Bebop styles and form, but with more emphasis on the blues. The mainstream sound that emerged in the mid-1950s into the 1960s is generally known as Hard Bop or Post-Bebop, and can be seen as a melding of Bebop style, Cool style, and the blues. Note that this, like all subsequent points touched on here, is not really a style as much as it is a movement. The official beginning occurred in 1955 when Charlie Parker died and Miles Davis formed his first classic quintet featuring saxophonist John Coltrane.
    Miles Davis’s group is basically a re-imagining of Charlie Parker’s style. Ultimately though, this group has a sound of its own, as do most other groups from this period. Some other groups of the late-1950’s that fit this mold include: Clifford Brown/Max Roach, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Benny Golson/Art Farmer. These groups all use the Bebop style and form as their basis, but are not necessarily influenced by a contemporary leader of any kind (Miles Davis’s group comes the closest). 

Modality: Miles Davis and John Coltrane into the 1960s
    In 1959, Miles Davis continued to experiment with his seminal album Kind of Blue. This is the quintessential modal jazz album, perhaps inadvertently creating a new group sound which has become part of every ensemble to emerge since. Elements of Jazz Modality include a style of improvising using modes instead of scales and a general mood or feeling that varies from player to player and ranges from introverted to tumultuous. The style of composing uses modes, chords that eschew tonality, and chords that last longer than in the past. This was an influential movement within jazz history, and even if today’s jazz musicians are not consciously influenced by modality, it has still become a part of most jazz since its development.
    Davis continued to explore music without tonality with increasing freedom as the 1960s progressed. He was perhaps the strongest judge of musical potential to ever live, and hired promising young musicians over and over again, but John Coltrane is the standout.
    John Coltrane is an interesting example of a personal style that paved its own way. Arguably the most influential tenor saxophonist ever, Coltrane began his career playing very much in the style of Parker himself, a kind of reimagining of Parker’s style with Coltrane’s own twist on it. He was an important part of 1959’s Kind of Blue, but that same year, he released an album on his own called Giant Steps which introduced the Coltrane chord substitution pattern, a technique he invented. In the years leading up to Giant Steps, Coltrane became increasingly interested in implying chord substitutions while playing, cramming in as many additional implied chords as he could within a song. However as the 1960s progressed, his own groups began to play songs with fewer and fewer chords (a technique likely influenced by the Modal movement), so much so that, by Coltrane’s death in 1967, his songs did not have any real harmonic structure whatsoever. This is reminiscent of the music pioneered by Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman and the Avant-Garde
    In the late 1950s, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman presented a style to the world with his album The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was another reaction to Charlie Parker’s music. An obvious admirer of Bird’s style, Coleman produced music that fought back against the harmonic complexity of the Bebop style and raised melody up to be the music’s highest priority. This is, purposely or inadvertently, a throwback to jazz styles that originated before Bird, where improvisors placed the creation of melodies at the top of their priority list. Coleman chose not to use any chordal instruments (such as piano and guitar), allowing players even more freedom as they improvised. Coleman’s innovations and Coltrane’s later music inspired a huge movement deemed the New Thing, Free Jazz, or the Avant-Garde, where structure either did not exist, or was implied very freely. Much of the time, music produced in the wake of this movement tends to be aggressive, harsh, and more concerned with the creation of textures and sounds. 

Fusion: Miles Davis into the 1970s
    Davis was relentless in his pursuit of new sounds and ideas, and pioneered an ethereal blending of rock rhythms and jazz sensibilities of the late 1960’s called Fusion (implying the fusion of jazz and rock). Early Fusion in the late 1960s was an extension of the openness of Modality and the freedom of Free Jazz, and most definitely leaned more in the direction of experimental jazz than rock. As the 1970s progressed, more groups involved in this movement began to use electronic instruments like electric bass, Fender Rhodes keyboard, or other electronic keyboards. 
    The aesthetic of mainstream jazz during the 1970’s began to change so that even musicians not adhering directly to the Fusion movement favored sounds popular in rock and pop music of the day. Double bassists used amplifiers that increased the treble end of the spectrum, and in studio recordings, many bassists used the direct input method, which compresses the bass sound and decreases its acoustic characteristics. Drummers used larger drum sets with large, deeper-pitched toms and bass drums and less resonant sounds. Pianists favored brighter-sounding instruments or even electronic keyboard sounds, and wind players, especially saxophonists, favored brighter, more compressed sounds.

The Acoustic Renaissance: Wynton Marsalis
    In the early 1980s, it had become time for another reactionary movement. The rock-based aesthetic of the 1970s had run its course, and the stage was set for someone to take hold of the jazz scene. The person that filled this void was one of the most prodigious, talented, and ultimately controversial jazz musicians to ever emerge: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (and, to a lesser extent, his brother Branford). As the 80s began, young Wynton expressed disillusionment with what he saw as a surface-level approach to jazz performance as some musicians embraced pop-music trends of the day and, to some, began to dilute jazz and remove its artistry. 
    Marsalis championed a return to earlier jazz forms that were not influenced by the Fusion movement; he felt that jazz had been corrupted as it attempted to become more inclusive of pop and rock techniques. As his career progressed, Marsalis championed more and more early movements and musicians whom he felt were examples of how to play jazz appropriately. He believed that jazz musicians should be knowledgeable about as much jazz history as possible, and strive to incorporate influence from all eras of the music.
    Perhaps one of Marsalis’s most influential contributions has been the sea change for almost all modern jazz to return to its acoustic roots. For example, he believed that jazz should be as natural and acoustic-sounding as possible, eschewing the use of bass amplifiers and overtly artificial sounds. This aesthetic did not really take hold through the 1980s as most recordings we hear use the treble-centric, compressed, and bright sounds adopted in the 1970s. As the 1990s approached, however, Marsalis’s acoustic aesthetic began to take hold in the jazz mainstream, and by 1995, most jazz musicians were on the acoustic bandwagon. We now see the majority of jazz recordings striving to use sounds which are as acoustic and natural as possible.

Jazz Today
    There is no prevailing movement that encompasses today’s jazz musicians. Because of the wide availability of recordings from any era in jazz, and for that matter, jazz musicians’ growing eclectic tastes in all kinds of music, there is a holistic approach to jazz style now. Musicians are basically a stylistic mishmash of everything that has come before (but predominantly, phrasing used before Charlie Parker is not used in the mainstream). We basically pick and choose which styles to focus on and make our own. This approach to jazz began after Charlie Parker’s death and continues to this day. However, the acoustic or natural instrument sound pioneered by the Marsalises in the early 1980s has remained the preferred quality. 
    The case could be made that every major movement within jazz’s progression has served to emphasize the legato aspects of the music and deemphasize the staccato ones. The tongue is used less, eighth notes become less swung and more straight, and time feel is not delineated as clearly. So whenever we play jazz, it’s very important to realize what style the music is coming from and give appropriate articulations. This one aspect alone can make the difference between a mediocre performance and one that jumps off the page.