How Do You Describe Jazz Music?

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The question of how to describe jazz music is a difficult one. There are so many different styles and sub-genres of jazz that it can be hard to know where to start. This blog post will attempt to answer that question by providing a brief overview of the history and main characteristics of jazz music.


When you listen to jazz music, what does it make you feel? Upbeat? Relaxed? Happy?

For many people, trying to describe how jazz sounds can be tough. It’s often described as a mix of blues and ragtime, but it also has elements of African and Latin American music. And while some songs might have a swinging feel, others might be more smooth and relaxed.

Part of the trouble in describing jazz is that it’s such a diverse genre. There are many different subgenres, and each one has its own unique sound. But there are some common elements that you’ll find in most jazz music. These include improvisation, syncopation, and swing.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the basics of jazz history and style. By the end, you should have a better understanding of what makes this genre so special.

What is Jazz Music?

Jazz music is a type of music that originated in the African-American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a genre of music that is characterized by swing, blue notes, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation.

The Origins of Jazz

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz spans a period of over a hundred years, encompassing a wide range of music from ragtime to the avant-garde. While jazz has been called “America’s classical music”, there is debate about whether it truly is “America’s classical music”.

The Elements of Jazz

There are many elements that contribute to the sound of jazz music, but some of the most important are improvisation, swing, blues, and African-American musical traditions.

Jazz is a genre of music that originated in the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a style of music that is characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and a strong emphasis on swing. Jazz has been influenced by many other genres of music, including blues and African-American folk music.

One of the defining features of jazz is improvisation. Improvisation is when a musician creates or invents their own melody, rather than playing a pre-written one. This element of jazz allows for a lot of creativity and personal expression from the performer.

Another important element of jazz is swing. Swing is a type of rhythm that gives jazz its characteristic “groove”. It’s created by playing longer notes on the upbeats (the “and” counts) and shorter notes on the downbeats (the “1” counts). This creates a feeling of movement and energy in the music.

The blues is another crucial element of jazz. The blues is a type of music that originated in the American South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is characterized by its mournful lyrics and slow tempo. Many jazz musicians were inspired by the blues, and you can hear its influence in their playing.

Lastly, African-American musical traditions have had a significant impact on jazz. These traditions include spirituals, work songs, gospel music, and ragtime. All of these genres have contributed to the unique sound of jazz.

The Characteristics of Jazz Music

Jazz music is a type of music that originated in the African-American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is characterized by a complex and often improvised system of harmony and melody, and is known for its use of blue notes, syncopation, and improvisation.


Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a strong grounding in blues and ragtime. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime.

As jazz spread around the world, it drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, which gave rise to many distinctive styles. New Orleans jazz began in the early 1910s, combining earlier brass band marches, French quadrilles, biguine, ragtime and blues with collective polyphonic improvisation. In the 1930s closely related Chicago style developed somewhat differently from New Orleans jazz, becoming more smooth and sophisticated through the use of arrangment while New Orleans continued to develop its more rough-hewn style.

Duke Ellington was a major figure in jazz from the 1920s through the 1940s leading his own big band which included some of the most talented musicians of that era including Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, Lawrence Brown on trombone as well as his exceptional piano playing. In this period composers wrote longer works called “suites” which were sections that blended together usually based upon a theme such as Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” or Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A Train”. These works were performed by Duke Ellington’s Big Band but would often be broken down into individual sections which could be performed separately such as Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”.


Swing is a Jazz music genre that originated in the 1920s and 1930s in African American communities in the Southern United States. The style developed as dancers moved to the new sound of big bands that played recorded music in dance halls. Swing bands featured syncopated rhythms and often included solo improvisation by the band’s musicians.

The term “swing” can refer to the style of dance associated with this type of music, or to the musical genre itself. Swing dancing evolved alongside swing music, and both are still popular today. The Lindy Hop, Charleston, and Shag are all types of swing dances.


One of the most immediately recognizable aspects of jazz is its use of syncopation, which is a disruption or displacement of the regular flow of rhythm. This can be accomplished by accents, stress, or suspending certain notes and sounds while others are played. When these notes are played off-beat, or against the grain of the common meter, they create a new level of rhythmic interest and tension that propels the music forward. It’s this tension and release that helps give jazz its characteristic swing feel.


Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more independent rhythms, usually in different parts of the band or orchestra. For example, a bass drum might be playing quarter notes while a snare drum plays 8th notes, or a piano might play a figure in triplets while a saxophone plays a figure in quarter notes. Polyrhythm can create a sense of forward motion and energy, as well as add interest and complexity to a piece of music.

Melodic and Harmonic Tension

Jazz is often described as “the sound of surprise.” It is characterized by blue notes, syncopation, swing, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Jazz developed in the early 20th century out of a combination of African American vernacular music and European art music. Jazz has been described as “the only original art form created in America.”

There are many different types of jazz, including traditional jazz, bebop, swing, hard bop, free jazz, avant-garde jazz, and fusion. Jazz is often seen as a type of music that breaks the rules or that is played by people who are “outside the mainstream.”

Jazz is a complex and often ambiguous genre. It can be difficult to describe exactly what makes a piece of music “jazz.” One important element of jazz is melodic and harmonic tension. This tension can be created by using blue notes (which are slightly flattened or “bent” notes), bysyncopation (playing off-beat), or by improvised solos. Another important element of jazz is improvisation. Improvisation means making up melodies on the spot or spontaneously creating new harmonies.

Jazz musicians often use standard chord progressions as the starting point for their improvisations. Chord progressions are series of chords that are commonly used in a particular style of music. In jazz, these progressions are usually based on the blues scale or on ii-V-I progressions (which are common in other types of music such as classical and pop).

Jazz musicians also often use call and response patterns in their playing. This means that one player will play a phrase or solo, and then another player will respond to that phrase with another phrase or solo. This back-and-forth exchange between players creates a dialogic quality in jazz that is unique among musical genres.

The Different Types of Jazz

There are many different types of jazz, from traditional to experimental. Traditional jazz is the kind of jazz that most people think of when they think of jazz. It is characterized by its bluesy feel, its improvisational nature, and its use of swing. Experimental jazz is a type of jazz that explores new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies.

Dixieland Jazz

Dixieland jazz is a style of jazz music that started in New Orleans in the early 1900s. It was the first type of jazz to become popular, and it quickly spread to other parts of the United States. Dixieland jazz is known for its lively rhythm and simple melodies. The music is usually played by a small group of instruments, including a trumpet, a clarinet, and a trombone.

The name “Dixieland” comes from the region where the style of music started: the Southern United States, also known as the “Deep South” or “Dixie.”

Swing Jazz

Swing Jazz is a style of Jazz that developed in the early 1930s and 1940s. Swing Jazz is characterized by a strong rhythm section,played by the drums, double bass, and piano; horns, played by the trumpet and trombone; and reeds, played by the saxophone and clarinet. The term “swing” refers to the style of playing in which the musicians play off of each other’s improvisations.


Bebop is a style of jazz developed in the early to mid-1940s in the United States. It featured artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Bebop emphasizedcomplex harmonic structures, fast tempos, and improvisation.

Hard Bop

Hard bop is a genre of jazz that is an extension of bebop (or “bop”) music. Hard bop developed in the mid-1950s, partly in response to the cool jazz and West Coast jazz that were popular at the time. Hard bop typically uses traditional Jazz instruments like trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, as well as piano and drums, while it also sometimes incorporates electric guitar and bass. A lot of hard bop also has a bluesy feel to it. Notable hard bop musicians include Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Thelonious Monk.

Modal jazz is a style of jazz that was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is characterized by a mode or scales instead of the more traditional chord progressions. This type of jazz often uses “standards” or jazz compositions as a starting point, but the solos are based on the mode or scale, rather than the chords. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” is one of the most famous examples of modal jazz.

Free Jazz

Free Jazz is an approach to Jazz that was developed in the 1960s. It removed the restrictions of melody, harmony, and rhythm, making it one of the most open and free forms of music. This type of Jazz is often seen as chaotic and unpredictable, as there are no set rules or boundaries. Instead, each musician is free to express themselves in whatever way they feel. This can result in some interesting and unique sounds, as well as some that are less than perfect.


In short, there is no single answer to the question “how do you describe jazz music?” The genre is vast and varied, with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman. Each artist brings their own unique experience and perspective to the music, making it impossible to boil down jazz to a single definition. The best way to understand jazz is to listen to as much of it as possible, and to let the music speak for itself.

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