The Present

One of the big trends of today is a return to the bebop and post bop roots of modern jazz. This movement is often referred to as neoclassicism. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, have achieved much popular success playing music that is based on styles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The best of this group of young musicians, including the Marsalises and their rhythm sections of Kenny Kirkland or Marcus Roberts on piano, Bob Hurst on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, manage to extend the art through new approaches to melodicism, harmony, rhythm, and form, rather than just recreate the music of past masters.

An exciting development since the mid 1980’s has been a collective of musicians that refers to its music as M-Base. There seems to be some disagreement, even among its members, as to what this means exactly, but the music is characterized by angular melodic lines played over complex funky beats with unusual rhythmic twists. This movement is led by saxophonists Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Gary Thomas, trumpet player Graham Haynes, trombonist Robin Eubanks, bass player Anthony Cox, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith.

Many other musicians are making strong music in the modern tradition. Among musicians already mentioned, there are Ornette Coleman, David Murray, Joe Henderson, Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette. Others include saxophonists Phil Woods, Frank Morgan, Bobby Watson, Tim Berne, John Zorn, Chico Freeman, Courtney Pine, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Bob Berg, and Jerry Bergonzi; clarinetists Don Byron and Eddie Daniels; trumpet players Tom Harrell, Marcus Belgrave, and Arturo Sanduval; trombonists Steve Turre and Ray Anderson; pianists Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Eduard Simon, Renee Rosnes, and Marilyn Crispell; guitarists John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Kevin Eubanks; vibraphonist Gary Burton; bassists Niels-Henning Oersted Pedersen and Lonnie Plaxico; and vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Cassandra Wilson. This is by no means a complete list, and you are encouraged to listen to as many musicians as possible to increase your awareness and appreciation for different styles.

Post Modern Jazz

While fusion seemed to dominate the jazz market in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, there were other developments as well. Some performers started borrowing from 20th century classical music as well as African and other forms of world music. These musicians include Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, saxophonists Anthony Braxton, David Murray, and Dewey Redman, clarinetist John Carter, pianists Carla Bley and Muhal Richard Abrams, the World Saxophone Quartet, featuring four saxophonists with no rhythm section, and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, featuring trumpet player Lester Bowie and woodwind player Roscoe Mitchell. Their music tended to emphasize compositional elements more sophisticated than the head-solos-head form.

Some groups, such as Oregon, rejected the complexity and dissonance of modern jazz and played in a much simpler style, which has given rise to the current New Age music. On the other extreme are musicians like saxophonist John Zorn and guitarists Sonny Sharrock and Fred Frith, who engaged in a frenetic form of free improvisation sometimes called energy music. Somewhere in between was the long lived group formed by saxophonist George Adams, who was influenced by Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and pianist Don Pullen, who was influenced by Cecil Taylor. This group drew heavily from blues music and well as the avant garde. Other important musicians during the 1970’s and 1980’s include pianists Abdullah Ibrahim, Paul Bley, Anthony Davis and Keith Jarrett.

Not all developments in jazz occur in the United States. Many European musicians extended some of the free jazz ideas of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and further dispensed with traditional forms. Others turned toward a more introspective music. Some of the more successful of the European improvisers include saxophonists Evan Parker, John Tchicai, John Surman, and Jan Garbarek, trumpet players Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr, pianist John Taylor, guitarists Derek Bailey and Allan Holdsworth, bassist Eberhard Weber, drummer John Stevens, and arrangers Mike Westbrook, Franz Koglman, and Willem Breuker.


Miles Davis helped usher in the fusion of jazz and rock in the mid to late 1960’s through albums such as Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. His bands during this period featured Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul on electric piano, Ron Carter and Dave Holland on bass, John McLaughlin on guitar, and Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Tony Williams formed a rock oriented band called Lifetime with John McLaughlin, who also formed his own high energy group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Through the 1970’s Miles continued to explore new directions in the use of electronics and the incorporation of funk and rock elements into his music, leading to albums such as Pangea and Agharta.

Other groups combined jazz and rock in a more popularly oriented manner, from the crossover Top 40 of Spyro Gyra and Chuck Mangione to the somewhat more esoteric guitarist Pat Metheny. Other popular fusion bands include Weather Report, featuring Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, and bass players Jaco Pastorius and Miroslav Vitous; Return To Forever, featuring Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke; The Crusaders, featuring saxophonist Wilton Felder and keyboardist Joe Sample; the Yellowjackets, featuring keyboardist Russell Ferrante; and the Jeff Lorber Fusion, which originally featured Kenny G on saxophone. In recent years, several fusion bands have achieved much commercial success, including those of Pat Metheny and Kenny G.

Free Jazz and the Avant Garde

During these same decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s, some musicians took jazz in more exploratory directions. The terms free jazz and avant garde are often used to describe these approaches, in which traditional forms, harmony, melody, and rhythm were extended considerably or even abandoned. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpet player Don Cherry were pioneers of this music through albums such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Free Jazz. The former album, as well as several more recorded with a quartet that also include either Scott LaFaro or Charlie Haden on bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums, still retains the basic feel of traditional post bop small group jazz, with alternating soloists over a walking bass line and swinging drum beat. This style is sometimes known as freebop. The album Free Jazz was a more cacophonous affair that featured collective improvisation.

Another major figure in the avant garde movement was pianist Cecil Taylor. His playing is very percussive, and includes dissonant clusters of notes and fast technical passages that do not appear to be based on any particular harmonies or rhythmic pulse.

John Coltrane, as already mentioned, delved into the avant garde in the mid 1960’s. Albums such as Ascension and Interstellar Space show Coltrane absorbing both Free Jazz and the works of Cecil Taylor. Later Coltrane groups featured his wife Alice on piano and Rashied Ali on drums, as well as Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone. He also recorded an album The Avant Garde with Don Cherry that is interesting for its parallels with The Shape Of Jazz To Come and other Ornette Coleman quartet recordings. Coltrane influenced many other musicians, including saxophonists Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, and Albert Ayler.

Sun Ra is a somewhat enigmatic figure in the avant garde, claiming to be from the planet Saturn. He plays a variety of keyboard instruments with his big bands that range from 1920’s style swing to the wilder free jazz of Coltrane and others.

Post Bop

The period from the mid 1950’s until the mid 1960’s represents the heyday of mainstream modern jazz. Many of those now considered among the greatest of all time achieved their fame in this era.

Miles Davis had four important groups during this time. The first featured John Coltrane (“Trane”) on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and “Philly” Joe Jones on drums. This group is sometimes considered the single greatest jazz group ever. Most of their albums are available today, including the series of Workin’ …, Steamin’ …, Relaxin’ …, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. Miles perfected his muted ballad playing with this group, and the rhythm section was considered by many to be the hardest swinging in the business. The second important Davis group came with the addition of alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly and the replacement of Garland with Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly and the replacement of Jones with Jimmy Cobb. The album Kind Of Blue from this group is high on most lists of favorite jazz albums. The primary style of this group is called modal, as it relies on songs written around simple scales or modes that often last for many measures each, as opposed to the quickly changing complex harmonies of bebop derived styles. The third Davis group of the era was actually the Gil Evans orchestra. Miles recorded several classic albums with Gil, including Sketches Of Spain. The fourth important Miles group of this period included Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The early recordings of this group, including Live At The Plugged Nickel, as well as the earlier My Funny Valentine, with George Coleman on saxophone instead of Wayne Shorter, mainly feature innovative versions of standards. Later recordings such as Miles Smiles and Nefertiti consist of originals, including many by Wayne Shorter, that largely transcend traditional harmonies. Herbie Hancock developed a new approach to harmonization that was based as much on sounds as on any conventional theoretical underpinning.

John Coltrane is another giant of this period. In addition to his playing with Miles, he recorded the album Giant Steps under his own name, which showed him to be one of the most technically gifted and harmonically advanced players around. After leaving Miles, he formed a quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and a variety of bass players, finally settling on Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane’s playing with this group showed him to be one of the most intensely emotional players around. Tyner is also a major voice on his instrument, featuring a very percussive attack. Elvin Jones is a master of rhythmic intensity. This group evolved constantly, from the relatively traditional post bop of My Favorite Things to the high energy modal of A Love Supreme to the wailing avant garde of Meditations and Ascension.

Charles Mingus was another influential leader during this period. His small groups tended to be less structured than others, giving more freedom to the individual players, although Mingus also directed larger ensembles in which most of the parts were written out. Mingus’ compositions for smaller groups were often only rough sketches, and performances were sometimes literally composed or arranged on the bandstand, with Mingus calling out directions to the musicians. Alto saxophonist, bass clarinetist, and flautist Eric Dolphy was a mainstay of Mingus’ groups. His playing was often described angular, meaning that the interval in his lines were often large leaps, as opposed to scalar lines, consist mostly of steps. The album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus featuring Dolphy is a classic.

Thelonious Monk is widely regarded as one of the most important composers in jazz, as well as being a highly original pianist. His playing is more sparse than most of his contemporaries. Some of his albums include Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. Pianist Bill Evans was known as one of the most sensitive ballad players, and his trio albums, particularly Waltz For Debby, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, are models of trio interplay. Wes Montgomery was one of the most influential of jazz guitarists. He often played in groups with an organist, and had a particularly soulful sound. He also popularized the technique of playing solos in octaves. His early albums include Full House. Later albums were more commercial and less well regarded. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins rivaled Coltrane in popularity and recorded many albums under his own name, including Saxophone Colossus and The Bridge, which also featured Jim Hall on guitar. Sonny also recorded with Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and other giants.

Other noteworthy musicians of the era include saxophonists Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and Charlie Rouse; trumpet players Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, and Booker Little; trombonists J. J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller; clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre, pianists Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Bobby Timmons, Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Chick Corea, and Ahmad Jamal; organist Larry Young, guitarists Kenny Burrell and Joe Pass; guitarist and harmonica player Toots Thielemans; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; bassists Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Sam Jones, Buster Williams, Reggie Workman, Doug Watkins, and Red Mitchell; drummers Billy Higgins and Ben Riley; and vocalists Jon Hendricks, Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln, and Shirley Horn. Big bands such as those of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton also thrived.

Hard Bop

In what has been described as either an extension of bebop or a backlash against cool, a style of music known as hard bop developed in the 1950’s. This style also downplayed the technically demanding melodies of bebop, but did so without compromising intensity. It did this by maintaining the rhythmic drive of bebop while including a healthier dose of the blues and gospel music. Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers were, for decades, the most well-known exponent of this style. Many musicians came up through the so-called “University Of Blakey”. Blakey’s early groups included pianist Horace Silver, trumpet player Clifford Brown, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Clifford Brown also co-led a group with Max Roach that is considered one of the great working quintets in history. Several albums from these groups are available today and all are recommended. Miles Davis also recorded several albums in this style during the early 1950’s. There were also a number of groups led by or including organists that came from this school, with even more of a blues and gospel influence. Organist Jimmy Smith and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine were popular players in this genre.

Cool Jazz

Although Miles Davis first appeared on bebop recordings of Charlie Parker, his first important session as a leader was called The Birth Of The Cool. An album containing all the recordings of this group is available. The cool jazz style has been described as a reaction against the fast tempos and the complex melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas of bebop. These ideas were picked up by many west coast musicians, and this style is thus also called West Coast jazz. This music is generally more relaxed than bebop. Other musicians in the cool style include saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, and trumpet player Chet Baker. Stan Getz is also credited with the popularization of Brazilian styles such as the bossa nova and samba. These and a few other Latin American styles are sometimes collectively known as Latin jazz.

Many groups in the cool style do not use a piano, and instead rely on counterpoint and harmonization among the horns, usually saxophone and trumpet, to outline chord progressions. Pianist-led groups that developed from this school include those of Dave Brubeck (with Paul Desmond on saxophone), Lennie Tristano (with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh on saxophones), and the Modern Jazz Quartet or MJQ (featuring John Lewis on piano and Milt Jackson on vibraphone), which also infuses elements of classical music. The incorporation of classical music into jazz is often called the third stream.


The birth of bebop in the 1940’s is often considered to mark the beginning of modern jazz. This style grew directly out of the small swing groups, but placed a much higher emphasis on technique and on more complex harmonies rather than on singable melodies. Much of the theory to be discussed later stems directly from innovations in this style. Alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker was the father of this movement, and trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie (“Diz”) was his primary accomplice. Dizzy also led a big band, and helped introduce Afro-Cuban music, including rhythms such as the mambo, to American audiences, through his work with Cuban percussionists. But it was the quintet and other small group recordings featuring Diz and Bird that formed the foundation of bebop and most modern jazz.

While, as with previous styles, much use was made of the blues and popular songs of the day, including songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, the original compositions of the bebop players began to diverge from popular music for the first time, and in particular, bebop was not intended to be dance music. The compositions usually featured fast tempos and difficult eighth note runs. Many of the bebop standards are based on the chord progressions of other popular songs, such as “I Got Rhythm”, “Cherokee”, or “How High The Moon”. The improvisations were based on scales implied by those chords, and the scales used included alterations such as the flatted fifth.

The development of bebop led to new approaches to accompanying as well as soloing. Drummers began to rely less on the bass drum and more on the ride cymbal and hi-hat. Bass players became responsible for keeping the pulse by playing almost exclusively a walking bass line consisting mostly of quarter notes while outlining the chord progression. Pianists were able to use a lighter touch, and in particular their left hands were no longer forced to define the beat or to play roots of chords. In addition, the modern jazz standard form became universal. Performers would play the melody to a piece (the head), often in unison, then take turns playing solos based on the chord progression of the piece, and finally play the head again. The technique of trading fours, in which soloists exchange four bar phrases with each other or with the drummer, also became commonplace. The standard quartet and quintet formats (piano, bass, drums; saxophone and/or trumpet) used in bebop have changed very little since the 1940’s.

Many of the players from the previous generation helped pave the way for bebop. These musicians included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, and Jo Jones. Young and Hawkins in particular are often considered two of the most important musicians in this effort. Other bebop notables include saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Lucky Thompson, trumpeters Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, and Miles Davis, pianists Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, Al Haig, and Thelonious Monk, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassists Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, and Charles Mingus, and drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Roy Haynes. Miles, Monk, and Mingus went on to further advances in the post-bebop eras, and their music will be discussed later.

Big Band Jazz and Swing

Although the big bands are normally associated with a slightly later era, there were several large bands playing during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, including that of Fletcher Henderson. Bix Beiderbecke was a cornet soloist who played with several bands and was considered a legend in his time.

The mid 1930’s brought on the swing era and the emergence of the big bands as the popular music of the day. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie led some of the more popular bands. There were also some important small group swing recordings during the 1930’s and 1940’s. These differed from earlier small groups in that these featured very little collective improvisation. This music emphasized the individual soloist. Goodman, Ellington, and Basie recorded often in these small group settings. Major saxophonists of the era include Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. Trumpet players include Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Shavers. Pianists include Ellington, Basie, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson; guitarists include Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessell, and Django Reinhardt; vibraphonists include Lionel Hampton; bassists include Jimmy Blanton, Walter Page, and Slam Stewart; drummers include Jo Jones and Sam Woodyard. Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald were important singers in this era. Most of these musicians recorded in small groups as well as with big bands. The styles of these musicians can best be summarized by saying they concentrated primarily on playing melodically, on the swing feel, and on the development of an individual sound. The blues was, as in many other styles, an important element of this music.

Early Jazz

The earliest easily available jazz recordings are from the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Trumpet player and vocalist Louis Armstrong (“Pops”, “Satchmo”) was by far the most important figure of this period. He played with groups called the Hot Five and the Hot Seven; any recordings you can find of these groups are recommended. The style of these groups, and many others of the period, is often referred to as New Orleans jazz or Dixieland. It is characterized by collective improvisation, in which all performers simultaneously play improvised melodic lines within the harmonic structure of the tune. Louis, as a singer, is credited with the invention of scat, in which the vocalist makes up nonsense syllables to sing improvised lines. Other notable performers of New Orleans or Dixieland jazz include clarinetist Johnny Dodds, soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet, trumpeter King Oliver, and trombonist Kid Ory.

Other styles popular during this period were various forms of piano jazz, including ragtime, Harlem stride, and boogie-woogie. These styles are actually quite distinct, but all three are characterized by rhythmic, percussive left hand lines and fast, full right hand lines. Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton were early ragtime pioneers. Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson popularized the stride left hand pattern (bass note, chord, bass note, chord); Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis developed this into the faster moving left hand patterns of boogie-woogie. Earl “Fatha” Hines was a pianist who was especially known for his right hand, in which he did not often play full chords or arpeggios, playing instead “horn-like” melodic lines. This has become commonplace since then. Art Tatum is considered by many to be the greatest jazz pianist ever; he was certainly one of the most technically gifted, and his harmonic insights paved the way for many who came after him. He is sometimes considered a precursor of bebop.