Traditional vs Contemporary Jazz: Characteristics of Each

image: piano and saxophone; article: Traditional vs Contemporary Jazz

For 100 years, jazz has been a pillar of American music. The genre was groundbreaking when it emerged in the first part of the 20th century, blending different styles and embracing a unique style of playing and musical expression. Musicians, vocalists and composers learned how to be a part of this new style of music, which was bold and vibrant.

As with many things that have a long history, jazz has evolved over the years. That includes the split between traditional jazz and contemporary jazz. Either could be a valid answer if you ask, "What is jazz" but there are some key differences. Let's explore each of them to see the distinctions.

What Is Jazz? The Traditional Style

Traditional jazz is the music that most closely resembles the songs early jazz stars made. The roots of this music can be traced back to the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana. In the early 20th century, the city was full of diverse groups. People of African, European and Indigenous descent lived in New Orleans, and their musical influences combined to form the basis of traditional jazz.

African rhythms and melodies made the most of European harmonies and instruments to birth a new sound. Blues music and Creole traditions were woven in, and the music took on a life of its own. Bustling dance halls and street parades in New Orleans became places to share and perform jazz, growing the art form.

As Southerners moved north, jazz communities began to emerge in Chicago, Kansas City and New York City. Each of these cities would develop its own answer to the question of what jazz is.

Key Characteristics of Traditional Jazz

Like any style of music, traditional jazz has a few key characteristics that are generally present in most of the songs. These are the features that make the genre stand out.

1. Improvisation

Improvisation is one of the most important parts of traditional jazz. Composers and performers became known for changing their songs in real-time, reacting to each other and the audiences to see what notes and styles should be played next. Each song starts with the pre-set melody, but that becomes a foundation for spontaneous changes. While this improvisation may seem easy, it actually requires an in-depth knowledge of music theory and complete mastery of your instrument.

2. Swing and Groove

As you examine what jazz is, you have to acknowledge swing and groove. Swing is the practice of emphasizing the off beats in a piece of music in a way that creates a unique rhythm. This can include surprising beats or new patterns that keep the audience engaged and wondering what's coming next. The groove aspect of jazz is all about making sure that the pulse of the song remains steady. No matter where some of the beats swing, there's still a constant groove for the audience to stay with.

3. Complex Syncopation

Traditional jazz is famous for improvisation, which means every now and again, there will be some surprises. With complex syncopation, beats can shift and land in unexpected ways. This adds a layer of complexity to the music, something that is a hallmark of jazz. Each song and each performance offer new rhythmic puzzles for the listeners to enjoy.

4. Polyphonic Ensemble Play

The great traditional jazz bands have the amazing ability to sound united while making the most of their individual instruments and voices. This type of polyphonic play creates multiple melodies in one piece of music. The trumpet of the band might be playing one melody while the clarinet is playing a different one, and the trombone has its own style, but all three work together to create a tapestry of sound. The result is music that is ornate and exciting.

5. Expressive Tonality

Emotions play a big part in jazz and the way that emotion is expressed is often through the unique tonality that artists use to play their instruments. Many traditional jazz artists used a technique called "bending" to alter a note from its expected tone. This allows that same instrument to tap into the emotions of melancholy or excitement.

6. Diverse Instrumentation

What is jazz if it doesn't have its wide array of signature instruments? As the genre, grew it absorbed more and more instruments into the fold. While early musicians started with trumpets and trombones, saxophones, pianos and many other instruments have found their way into jazz ensembles.

Traditional Jazz Songs To Know

To truly appreciate traditional jazz, try your hand at playing a few iconic songs from the genre.

  • "West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong: Recorded in 1928, this song is considered one of the masterpieces of early jazz.
  • "Take the 'A' Train" by Duke Ellington: This is thought of as Ellington's signature piece, capturing the essence of jazz's swing era.
  • "Summertime" by George Gershwin: This composition was created as an aria in the opera "Porgy and Bess". Countless jazz artists have covered this song and added their own touches over the years.
  • "Body and Soul" by Johnny Green, performed by Coleman Hawkins: Hawkins' 1939 rendition on the tenor saxophone is transformative and has become a standard in jazz.
  • "Dippermouth Blues" by King Oliver: A classic from 1923, this track showcased the brilliance of Oliver and a young Louis Armstrong.
  • "St. Louis Blues" by W.C. Handy: Another jazz standard, this song blends the blues with the syncopation of early jazz.
  • "Tiger Rag" by Original Dixieland Jass Band: Released in 1917, this is one of the earliest jazz recordings and remains an influential piece in traditional jazz circles.
  • "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin: This track pulls from ragtime just as much as it does early jazz, making it a classic that musicians love.
  • "Sweet Lorraine" performed by Nat King Cole: The beautiful melody coupled with Cole's silky-smooth vocals make this song the epitome of jazz's romantic side.

It can be fun to dive into the world of traditional jazz and see how the greats brought these notes to life. As you master the art, you can play these songs and add your own improvisations.

What Is Jazz? The Contemporary Style

As traditional jazz spread and gained popularity, it also developed new styles. Different musicians began to find new ways to use the foundational ideas of jazz to create something of their own. The result is the contemporary jazz landscape. But what is contemporary jazz? This multifaceted genre borrows from the past while always looking to the future.

Contemporary jazz as we know it began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many other musical expressions of the time, contemporary jazz was partly a response to the shifting culture. Rock, funk and R&B were growing in popularity, and jazz artists started to incorporate more of those influences into their songs. Miles Davis is a key figure in this era, using his albums to shape the direction of this new jazz sound.

Over the following decades, modern jazz would split into even more sub-genres. Smooth jazz, nu jazz and jazz fusion all became significant. As the digital age dawned, the genre took another turn with the addition of electronic elements. Instead of the improvisation of traditional jazz, contemporary jazz became focused on pushing the boundaries of what is jazz and what the music would sound like.

Key Characteristics of Contemporary Jazz

1. Eclectic Fusion

One of the defining features of contemporary jazz is its eclectic nature. There are so many influences and inspirations in the music that create an auditory mosaic for the listeners. Electronic beats that would have been unheard of in traditional jazz play a major role in nu-jazz, which is funky and groovy. In recent years, soul and hip-hop music have also been integrated into jazz pieces. This level of eclectic composition means every music lover can find something to enjoy in contemporary jazz.

2. Sophisticated Harmonies

Modern jazz harmonies are all about complexity. Artists introduced extended cords and innovative progressions to build upon foundational jazz structures. They used these new harmonies to evoke emotions in their audiences. It left them with a multi-dimensional sound that keeps listeners coming back to discover the different layers that are woven into each piece of music.

3. Extended Instrumentation

Traditional jazz tends to rely on a host of traditional instruments: the saxophone, the trumpet, the clarinet and the piano. Contemporary jazz embraces those classical instruments but adds new world elements. Digital musical tools such as synthesizers are incorporated, but so are Instruments from other cultures, such as the sitar or the didgeridoo. This creates a broader sonic palette for the audience while also combining traditional elements of jazz with modern musical stylings.

4. Experimentation with Form

Whereas traditional jazz focuses heavily on coming up with new ideas on the fly during performances through the practice of improvisation, contemporary jazz is all about breaking the mold when artists actually create the songs. Modern jazz songs tend to explore ideas like extended solos, major thematic shifts and more freeform improvisations. The entire goal is to push boundaries and change the idea of what a traditional song structure looks like.

5. Diverse Influences

Classical jazz is inherently American, rooted in the sounds of New Orleans, New York City, and the other major jazz makers of America. Modern jazz tends to incorporate more worldly sounds. Contemporary jazz artists may integrate Afrobeats, flamenco strains from Spain, or Asian melody traditions. By combining all of these different global influences, artists create a special sound that crosses borders and unites people.

6. Conceptual and Narrative-driven

Storytelling is central to the goal of many contemporary jazz artists. They use albums to share personal stories, explore themes or convey important messages. By taking listeners on these thematic journeys, artists add more to the listening experience, giving the audience an emotional foothold in this musical world.

Contemporary Jazz Songs To Know

The world of contemporary jazz is wide and varied, so start exploring by trying your hand at playing some of these essential tracks from the genre.

  • "Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock: From the iconic 1973 album "Head Hunters," this track fuses funk elements with jazz improvisation.
  • "Spain" by Chick Corea: A fusion classic, this song combines the passionate flamenco vibes of Spain with Corea's signature keyboard improvisations.
  • "Where We Used To Live" by Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.): This Swedish trio brought European sensibilities to jazz.
  • "Turnaround" by Ornette Coleman: Coleman's free jazz principles evolve in this track, creating a soundscape that's mesmerizing.
  • "Songbird" by Kenny G: Kenny G is one of the leaders of the smooth jazz movement, and this track helps exemplify the style.
  • "Come Away With Me" by Norah Jones: This soft jazz tune is soothing and also brought mainstream jazz music to a new generation.
  • "Nothing's Going To Change My Love for You" by George Benson: Check out this track to learn how the guitar is being used in new ways by jazz master Benson.

Once you start playing some of these songs on your own, you'll find yourself inspired by the way these artists learned to build something new on the foundations of traditional jazz. Let that motivate you to push boundaries in your own music and find new sounds that resonate with you and everyone who listens to your music.

What Is Jazz: An Evolving Art

Great art forms are always growing and changing, and jazz is no exception. Since the music first hit the scene in the early 20th century, artists have found new ways to use their instruments and creativity to compose pieces that speak to audiences across the country and across the world. As that genre grew, new artists found ways to integrate the latest technology and global stylings to move the musical genre forward. This resulted in the evolution of contemporary jazz, including subgenres of smooth jazz and jazz fusion.

The next time you have a discussion about what jazz is, don't limit your answer. Jazz music is always evolving, so embrace what's next while honoring the music that created the foundation. To start exploring jazz songs, download sheet music from Musicnotes today!