Jazz 101: Jazz Styles


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at different jazz styles.

Last time, we talked about the act of listening when it comes to jazz. We walked through the three different elements to keep an ear out for, and hopefully provided everything needed for anyone to start listening to jazz with confidence instead of confusion. Now, we turn our attention to the labyrinth of jazz styles.

I didn’t fully realize the complex problem of attributing certain music to specific styles until I read this chapter. To me, the matter of style was pretty much cut and dry. A simple system for categorizing musical trends and differences within genres, but nothing more. I’m both pleasantly surprised, and slightly annoyed that the issue is more complicated than I’d previously thought. We’ll try to get through this together.

Jazz Styles

For a nice overview, Szwed provides a comprehensive chronology of jazz styles in the first pages. Before we go any further, I’ll just lay them out here for context.

  1. “Pre-jazz (ragtime, vaudeville) – ca. 1875-1915.
  2. Early jazz (New Orleans jazz) – 1910-1927.
  3. Swing – 1928-1945.
  4. Bebop – 1945-1953.
  5. Cool jazz/West Coast jazz – 1949-1958.
  6. Hard bop – 1954-1965.
  7. Soul/funk jazz – 1957-1959.
  8. Modal jazz – 1958-1964.
  9. Third-stream jazz – 1957-1963.
  10. Free jazz – 1959-1974.
  11. Fusion and jazz-rock – 1969-1979.
  12. Neo-traditionalism – 1980 -” (p. 79).

You can see already, that jazz didn’t necessarily have a typical evolution. As jazz changed, and new styles were picked up, there was a considerable amount of overlap in its chronology. By looking at this list, you may think that each time period signals the end of a style. But the truth is, that jazz styles don’t die, and all of these are still played to some extent today.

“When we look back from one era to the previous one, we can see that not only did these musics coexist in the same time period, but that the players formed a cohesive whole, shared many of the same principles, and sometimes played each other’s music” (p. 83).

Rethinking Styles

Szwed brings up the matter that we could benefit from rethinking about the way we think about styles. One example of such a way is given based on composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s thoughts on the matter. He posits that all changes in jazz (and all music/art/culture) can be seen in terms of restructuralists, stylists, and traditionalists.


According to Szwed and Braxton, “Restructuralists are musicians who change music to the extent that the structural properties of the music change–change to the point that they may literally threaten the musical and even the social order”. Restructuralism gives music a sense of development and direction.

But if it was the only force at work, “it would produce novelty rather than culture, one change following another forever” (p.84).


Stylists are the ones who pick up the new structures laid down by restructuralists, and make changes to render it more socially acceptable. We see this in everything from books to movies to music. There’s one pioneer, and then a million more hop-ons who make minor stylistic tweaks, but are not innovators themselves.

“Stylists alone would put an end to forward motion in music by slowing or ending innovation” (p. 84).


As its name suggests, traditionalists are those who are knowledgeable about the styles and conventions that came before. They work to reinvent traditional styles to better suit the modern culture. A perfect example of a traditionalist band is The Black Keys. They re-purposed the blues, infusing it with pop beats and production.

“Traditionalism, if carried to its logical conclusion, would stop change altogether and expend its efforts attempting to adapt another era to our own under a nostalgic rejection of the current cultural situation” (p. 84).

While these new terms don’t necessarily give us a clean look into the matter of jazz styles, hopefully by learning them, we can come closer to understanding how styles change. There’s a nice pattern here, with restructuralists paving the way, stylists making changes for the masses, and traditionalists making sure no one forgets the past.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article gave you a better idea about the complex nature of styles –not only in jazz, but in everything. Toward the end of the chapter, Szwed presents a small disclaimer that I found helpful.

“The invention of a style is always the result of someone’s theory of aesthetics, someone’s idea of how music should sound, even if that idea is never completely articulated (even in the minds of its theorists)” (p. 85).

So really, don’t take any of this too seriously. I hate to quote my least favorite person on earth but, it’s just words, people.


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