January 23, 2016

Modern Jazz vs. Trad Jazz

Imagine a pie. 

Now imagine you get a piece (yay!), but not 1/6th or 1/8th of the pie, but rather 1/70th of the pie. How would that piece look? Could you even remove it from the pie? Now picture taking your thin slice and trying to slice it even further, into say a dozen pieces. Could you do it? What would those tiny slices look like? Now imagine gathering all those wispy micro-slices on your plate in a sad little pile.

That’s jazz.

At a whopping 1.4% of American music consumption1, jazz is that slice of 1/70th of the pie, and its subgenres—traditional, Afro-Cuban, modern, fusion, etc.—are those all-but insubstantial slices of slice.

1. Nielsen 2014 U.S. Music Year-End Report: http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/public%20factsheets/Soundscan/nielsen-2014-year-end-music-report-us.pdf

I say all this to demonstrate the microscopic scale on which we operate when we talk about  TRADITIONAL JAZZ vs. MODERN JAZZ.

  1. Introduction
  2. Trad Attacks Modern
    1. You Can’t Dance to Modern Jazz
    2. You Can’t Sing Modern Jazz Melodies
    3. Modern Jazz Doesn’t Swing
    4. Modern Jazz is Crap
    5. Modern Jazz is Too Long
    6. Modern Jazz Doesn’t Play Standards
    7. I Can’t Understand Modern Jazz
    8. Modern Jazz is Musical Masturbation
    9. Modern Jazz is Too Weird
  1. Modern Attacks Trad
    1. Trad Jazz Melodies Are Too Simple
    2. Trad Jazz Harmony is Too Simple
    3. Trad Jazz Rhythms Are Too Simple
    4. Trad Jazz Solos Are Too Short/Simple
    5. Trad Jazz Songs Are Too Short
    6. Trad Jazz is Crap
  2. Stepping Stones
    1. Introduction
    2. Example Path 1: From Satchmo & a Horse to Jazz Electronica
    3. Example Path 2: From Armstrong to an Exploding Piano

As a musician who has extensively studied and performed both traditional and modern jazz (alternatively, read: early, Dixieland, 1920–30s; vs. contemporary, avant-garde, post-bop, etc.), it saddens me to see fans in either camp bashing the other. On the one hand, I don’t understand it because they’re so similar—part of the same tree!—blood relatives separated by hardly any time at all. (More practically: how far can you subdivide an already miniscule fan base, and why would you?) On the other hand, I totally understand it because while they’re both jazz, they’re quite different, separated sometimes by very contrasting goals and aesthetics. And that surface similarity concealing inner difference is a prime recipe for sibling rivalry.
Army of Darkness

A note on labels: when I say ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ jazz, these are really ad hoc, post ex facto terms that were created in part by record labels, music publishers, critics, and academia, and reinforced by festivals, venues, fans, and musicians themselves. ‘Traditional’ or ‘early’ jazz can refer to ragtime, Dixieland, New Orleans jazz, 1920–30s dance band jazz, swing, trad swing, or any other number of things, depending on referrer. Similarly, ‘modern’ jazz can mean American songbook jazz, contemporary jazz, bebop, post-bop, avant-garde, free, fusion, ECM/Eurojazz, and more. For no great reasons other than utility and brevity, my use of ‘trad jazz’ shall refer to the center of that conglomeration: small-group, multi-horn front line jazz popularized in New Orleans around the 1920s. By ‘modern,’ I mean the post-bebop jazz prevalent in the ’50s to today.

Now let’s take a look at some of the most common missiles launched in the Trad vs. Modern conflict. Only certain ones can be disarmed, or shown to be untrue; most others lie in the gray in-between. Nonetheless I hope these brief explanations can at least illuminate what makes trad and modern jazz unique, as well as what unites them. First up: projectiles fired by trad jazz against modern.

PART 1: Trad Attacks Modern!


Mostly true, in that modern jazz is generally not created to appeal to social dancers in the way that 1920s jazz was. Furthermore, it uses complex time signatures (7/4, 11/8, 10+12/8…), extreme tempos and tempo changes (metric modulation to 2/3rds time, 1.5 time…), and forms (through-composed without repetition, phrases of irregular length…). That’s not to say it’s impossible to dance to, but that by and large it’s more in the realm of modern expressionist dance rather than the foxtrot and charleston.


Sometimes true. Much of it is not created with lyrics nor intended to be sung. Melodies can include wide jumps, can be based on pentatonics or other scales/structures, and can reference complex harmony (upper chord tones, altered tones, chord substitutions, ‘outside’ harmony). All this can make modern jazz melodies difficult (but not impossible) to sing.

Obviously I’m choosing for contrast, but here’s the melody to a typical and popular trad jazz song, versus one from a modern jazz standard:

And here’s a pair of typical chords (though once again chosen for effect):

Does this make modern jazz melodies ugly? No. Despite being difficult to sing, many of them are beautiful and memorable, especially when played on the instrument for which they were intended. To wit:
➡︎ The Peacocks—Stan Getz with Bill Evans Trio
➡︎ Inner Urge—Joe Henderson
➡︎ Four in One—Thelonious Monk


Sometimes true. But really, swing is SUCH a specific thing. Bass goes like this. Drums go like this. Eight notes feel like this. Feels good. But there are other beats out there that have their own groove, their own charm. Modern jazz can incorporate grooves/beats from other styles—rock, hip-hop, world music, electronica, etc. (and many of these started as dance music). Furthermore, if you want to be specific, swing itself didn’t arise from a vacuum, but likely originated from a mix of brass band, Caribbean, and African beats and instruments. Likewise for other trad jazz beats, such as the New Orleans street beat, which arguably is a direct adaptation of the African abaqua (abakwa).

Does this mean it doesn’t groove? Hell no. There are so many ways for music to feel good. 



Often true. Our DIY and digital revolution, empowering independent artists and amateurs to release their own music, means that there’s a TON of jazz out there today. Statistically, a lot of it is crap, and some of it is great. (See Sturgeon’s Law). However, before passing overall quality judgments on modern jazz as compared with trad jazz, you should remember that much of the latter was crap as well. The crap just hasn’t survived to reach us today, since it wasn’t worth all the effort to record and preserve. In other words, there’s already a filter in place determining what trad jazz you can hear today—not so for modern jazz, for better or worse.

Does this mean it’s ALL crap? No. It’s like modern TV: is a lot of it total crap? Yes. But is the best of modern TV great—just as great, arguably greater, than what was produced in the early days of TV? Yes.


Stravinsky said “too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” In other words, this has been a problem since way before modern jazz. Lack of a proper and timely ending is symptomatic of crap. And all musical genres have their crap (see previous paragraph).


While this is strictly untrue (there IS a large body of ‘standard’ songs that the modern jazz musician is expected to know), it is widely accepted that modern jazz includes much more original composition than trad jazz. I would argue that composing is an essential component of learning harmony—a complement to studying standard songs—as well as a component of becoming a fully mature improvisor (since composing is essentially to deliberate, careful, edited improvising).

This does mean that a jazz fan is perhaps less likely to recognize all the songs at a modern jazz gig than at trad jazz gig. On the other hand, hearing not only a musician’s playing and improvising but also his/her original compositions is to see a more complete picture of the artist, which can be a wonderful thing.

Does this mean I won’t like it? Well, that’s hard to say…but if you like the musician/band, and their playing and improvising, hopefully you’ll like their writing as well. In addition, under the category of “don’t forget”: all standards were at one point original compositions being played for the first time.
by Peter Buitelaar
“I mean, I can’t play Honeysuckle Rose. Fuck that. I was playing that shit when I was 12. It’s a nice song for a show… there’s gotta be some different stuff, man. You can’t keep playing The Barber of Seville and stuff.”

—Miles Davis (who recorded Sketches of Spain, an album based on Spanish classical music…)



If this is true, recognize that it’s because of you, not because of modern jazz. Also note that understanding art is not always a prequisite to appreciating it (though it certainly helps). That said: modern jazz is a complex music, as evidenced by the existence of jazz curricula in universities. Over and above general music training, there are modern jazz-specific scales, chords and progressions, melodic and harmonic ear training, arranging and composing, instrumental technique, vocabulary, conventions, and culture and history to learn. There may be a degree of over-intellectualization here, on the part of the academics who first decided to induct jazz as a worthy subject, but nevertheless: learning a little about jazz can go a long way towards appreciating and understanding it.

Some genres of music are eminently enjoyable to the complete layman, the everyman: music for the masses. While that can be a good or bad thing, think of listening to modern jazz as a challenge both artistic and intellectual, a puzzle whose unraveling can be savored just as much as the solution itself.
➡︎ Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy
➡︎ The Benefits of Music Education: An Overview of Current Neuroscience Research, 2014, The Royal Conservatory
➡︎ Music Matters: How Music Education Helps Students Learn, Achieve, and Succeed, 2011, Arts Education Partnership


Unfortunately, sometimes true. We must remember that, unlike the modern jazz of today, jazz was once THE American popular music, widely accessible to the ordinary listener, and largely responsible for the popularity of printed sheet music as well as the creation of the record and phonograph. But after the big bands’ financial struggles in the 40s, the rise of individual singers and the beginning of rock & roll in the 50s, and the arrival of the Beatles in America in the 60s, it was clear that jazz had been dethroned.

The fact that jazz is now not pop music can be misinterpreted as a license for jazz musicians to disregard their audiences. In the worst case, this dangerous sin gives rise to what my friend calls ‘jazzturbation,’ in which the offender plays for him/herself only, at great and unjustifiable length, using flashy displays of technical skills or rote pattern memorization, leaving little of substance, development, interaction, or real creativity:
“Half the time I wonder if the other musicians in the band enjoy the performance as they often walk off because it’s too dirty to stay on stage while the modern player is jacking off with their axe on stage.”
I should point out that if a musician walk off stage during another’s solo, sometimes that’s to put the spotlight on the soloist, and to avoid blocking the audience’s view of the soloist or the rhythm section. Other times it’s because the musician is an asshole. In this and other cases of jazzturbation, it’s not modern jazz that is crappy and self-indulgent—it’s just these particular musicians.
Following the previous point about education: the institutionalization of modern jazz, the analysis and digestion of it, can lead to neglecting what defies that analysis, and what may be the most important elements within it: the emotional resonance, the passion, the feeling, how to touch an audience, how to communicate pain. Unfortunately, many of these things cannot be taught, but only learned for oneself.

Much harder to teach the inner circle.


Sometimes true. To me, the spirit of modern jazz, as in modern dance, modern art, etc., is of pushing the boundaries, of breaking the rules, of innovating. However, there is a way to do this without losing connection to what came before, to the central tenets of your art, and to your audience. Hence you might have a song in 7/4 with augmented scale-based harmony, but a lyrical and emotional melody. Or you may have an monotonous melody, but a very rhythmic one that anchors a groovy multi-layered beat and serves as a launching point for exciting improvising.

The point is that so many things are possible, limited only by one’s imagination, but perhaps more importantly, by one’s TASTE. And again, this is one of those things that is impossible to teach. When listening to modern jazz, hopefully you can find the area of Venn overlap between your taste and the musicians’ taste.

Phew! So that, in sum, are most of trad jazz’s attacks on modern jazz. Now for the other battle front.

PART 2: Modern Attacks Trad!


Well, they ARE often simple. Trad jazz melodies are most often songs with lyrics, with repetitive, predictable forms (8-bar phrases, AABA and other forms), and many of these were first spread solely by oral tradition. This simplicity leaves space for nuanced interpretations of the melody, both vocally with the lyrics, in instrumental melodic statements, and in solos. Take, for example, Louis Armstrong’s singing and playing on “La Vie en Rose,” which, by modern jazz accounts, is not a complicated melody: http://youtu.be/Bq_bmlx021c

The melodic simplicity of trad jazz also facilitates polyphonic improvisation—the group improv that is a hallmark of trad jazz. The traditional 3-horn front line of New Orleans jazz, in which players weave simultaneous and spontaneous melodies/countermelodies/harmonies around each other, is an amazing thing to behold when it is done right. Here is Tim Laughlin’s great band doing just that:

➡︎ Monkey Hill—Tim Laughlin

Note that this song—which is an original composition, I might add!—is simple by modern jazz standards: the melody, played here by cornetist Connie Jones, even contains several whole notes! This allows room for the two additional countermelodies played by the clarinet and trombone.

Does this mean ALL trad jazz melodies are simple? No. There are some songs which are more complicated but still allow for incredible diversity of beautiful interpretation (e.g. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”).


Kinda true. Trad jazz harmony IS overwhelmingly diatonic, upper chord extensions are absent, and standard harmonic progressions are widespread and often shared among countless songs. But this enables an immediate familiarity and access to a shared set of melodies, harmonies, and other conventions that make trad jazz what it is. In addition to facilitating polyphonic improv, predictable harmony also enables the spontaneous yet cohesive group choice of song ending, including the turn-around, drum tag, 3-time loop, half-time ending, cowbell (aka woodblock) ending, double ending, 12-time turn-around, loop-the-loop, cock-a-doodle-doo ending, and standing and leaving (kidding).   

Does this mean ALL trad jazz harmony is simple? No. In fact, some songs that are regarded as simple have been ‘regularized’ over the decades, and in their original state actually contained some unusual harmony, often with specific bass movement. Bars 9–10 of the second half of “Margie” is one example of this. The first half of Cole Porter’s “Rosalie,” meanwhile, is sometimes played with a mere 4 chords, while the original contains 20, including 2 chords from keys a half-step above and below the key of the song. Still more frequently, songs have all-but-forgotten introductory verses, which are often harmonically adventurous: “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a mostly diatonic song, has a verse which modulates through 3 different keys to reach the 4th (the chorus).

➡︎ YOU TRY IT: Ask a trad jazz musician if (s)he knows the verse
to “Happy Birthday,” or the original chords to the ABC song!

Well, the majority of trad/early/swing jazz songs are swing in 4/4, with some 2/4 and 3/4 and improperly-named ‘rhumbas’ and such thrown in. Hardly a 5/4 bar in sight. But again, this was DANCE MUSIC. And in this case, there were a variety of dances done to swing in 2 or 4: depending on the tempo and rhythmic characteristics of the song, foxtrot, quickstep, charleston, peabody, black bottom, sugar foot strut, lindy hop, and more. Also, within this framework, arrangers did some pretty impressive work—check out Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of “Copenhagen,” with those breaks, and that ending!

Perhaps true. As far as length: individual-centric soloing is just one component of trad jazz improv. Others include the aforementioned polyphonic improv, trading, duets, harmonizing/interpreting the melody, etc. As far as simplicity: to generalize, it is more common in trad than in modern jazz for solos to be grounded in the melody of the song. Soloing is often an extension of simply embellishing the melody.

This has ramifications for jazz education. I’m FULLY nerding out here, but there’s a phrase from developmental biology that says “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Meaning: the physical development of an embryo (ontogeny) often involves passing through stages in which it anatomically resembles its evolutionary predecessors—a kind of fast-forward review of its evolutionary history. Organisms thought of as ‘highly evolved’ tend to have longer periods of embryonic development; postnatally, their offspring tend to take longer to reach full maturity. 

by George Romanes

By analogy: realizing your full potential as an artist may require a long development period, and a long road to full maturity. It may also mean reliving your artistic ancestry by starting at the beginning and working forwards. In other words, my modern jazz friends: try teaching/learning trad jazz first!

➡︎ Check out this blog post from Ricky Riccardi, curator of the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, about teaching a graduate seminar on the music of Armstrong to a class of modern jazz students: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2015/12/reflections-on-music-of-louis-armstrong.html

True—of vintage recorded trad jazz. From 1910 to 1948, the dominant music medium (10-inch 78 rpm record) could hold only about 3 minutes of music per side. This imposed somewhat of a limit on the length of compositions—long-form through-composed songs could not be recorded until the advent of the LP in 1948—though of course it did not limit the length of live performances, or unrecorded compositions. (Thanks to Adam for his comment below.)

Sometimes true. If you dig through archives of public domain jazz sheet music in university libraries, you can find a lot of songs that no one knows. Lyrics that no one sings. Melodies that no one remembers. And why? Cause they’re crap, and it’s natural they’ve been forgotten. But is there plenty of great trad jazz still around today?—of course. Remember the bell curve of crap.

And there we have it. I hope this has helped you to picture the Venn diagram of Modern and Trad Jazz. Now, one more concept, related to crossing the aisle…


An idea I feel to be true in the appreciation of all art is that of STEPPING STONES. In this case, the idea is that whatever music you like/enjoy, be it 1920s jazz or modern jazz fusion, you can probably find sometime else you will enjoy that is one step removed, stylistically speaking. From Louis Armstrong to Sidney Bechet, from Charlie Parker to Hank Mobley, etc. However, if you try to listen to something more than a few stepping stones away, the chances increase that you won’t like it. As a consequence of this, you may not like something at first, but like it later, once you have the correct stepping stones in place.

In my own experience: I didn’t like the (very) modern jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw when I first heard him. At the time, I was listening to trad jazz and Chet Baker, and I just didn’t GET Woody Shaw. Didn’t understand what he was doing, or the aesthetic. Later, after I had listened to and gotten into Arturo Sandoval, and Coltrane, and Miles, and Freddie Hubbard, THEN I came back to Woody Shaw and LOVED him and appreciated his genius. I had to find a path of stepping stones to a place where I could like his music.

A path of stepping stones will always be specific to you and your tastes and experience. As such, you may need to jump between certain stones in the examples below:
by harlyk
Example Stepping Stone Path 1:
From Satchmo & a Horse to Jazz Electronica

Louis Armstrong & a horse: Jeepers Creepers / Trad Jazz

Nicholas Payton & Doc Cheatham: Jeepers Creepers / Trad Jazz

Arturo Sandoval & Clark Terry: Mack the Knife / Trad Swing

Chet Baker & Paul Desmond: Tangerine / Cool Jazz

Wes Montgomery: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? / Cool/Pop Jazz

⑥ Pat Metheny: See the World / Pop Jazz

⑦ Jaga Jazzist: Day / Jazz/Electronica

by holzliim
Example Stepping Stone Path 2:
From Armstrong to an Exploding Piano

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five: Cornet Chop Suey / Trad Jazz

Scott Robinson: Cornet Chop Suey / Trad Bop

Lennie Tristano: Donna Lee / Bebop

Lennie Tristano: Line Up / Post/Be-Bop

George Garzone: Hey, Open Up / Post-Bop

Don Pullen: Reap the Whirlwind / Avant-Garde Jazz

Piano Music By Random Numbers No. 1Tristan9874

Exploding PianoBlckHwkDown

Of course, stepping stones can take you far afield from jazz as well. I encourage folks who are more well-listened than me in other genres to submit their own stepping stone playlists below!

As for the Trad vs. Modern Jazz conflict: for those of you in the OKOM (our kind of music) camp on either side, try finding your stepping stones towards the other. Broaden your tastes. Expand your ears. Open your heart.

Special thanks to Kelsey, Michelle, and my many friends who chimed in on the original Facebook post with their ideas and keen insights.

Bonus Addendum: here is the alternate ‘dancing problem’ graphic with a different stock photo.


  1. Nice Gordon! To expand on the "trad jazz songs are too short" point, recorded trad jazz songs were short but that doesn't mean that they were short at the time. Incautious music historians attribute style qualities to these early recordings as if they were gospel truth. Solos too were often truncated to fit the requirements of the 78rpm or wax cylinder formats of early recording technology.

    1. Thank you, Adam, of course that’s absolutely correct! I’ve edited that section to clarify.

  2. It should be no more unusual for artists to perform all the styles in the Jazz idiom, than it is for "classical" musicians to perform Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern music on a single concert.

  3. Nice article, G.
    I argued with it from start to finish.

  4. Thank you! As one who cut his teeth on classical music and 1940's Big Band, played Rock and Blues, and then went through Be-Bop to get to "Trad Jazz," and is now a hoofer, I have struggled with the narrow perspective shared among many swing dancers. Particularly since I favor Balboa, and am as happy dancing to Django as I am to Waller, Goodman, (most) Miles Davis or Bill Evans, and even some Santana and Dave Matthews!

    Furthermore, I found it interesting to note that East Coast Swing--the starting point for most swing dancers--is a six count dance done to what is usually four count music. This tends to alternate our dance phrases between beginning and mid musical measures, which often works nicely for opening tags, codas, and da capos, but frustrated me for a long time as a musician learning to dance, until I figured out how to relax and let it swing in and out of the phrases in the music.

    I look forward to your next Portland visit!

    1. Jon, thank you for writing. I totally concur with the 6-count basic—that really threw me for a long time as well. I’m not sure that’s the best entry point for learning swing…but that’s another conversation.

  5. You are one of the few guys that really has the 'authority' to write a piece like this. Some great thinking. I think I'm missing which "we" it is that would argue for one or the other? Musicians? Swing Dancers? Seated Concert audience? Each would have to be addressed for their own concerns.

    On a basic level, in my mind, the musics you are referring to above are just plain different things. Ya probably won't hang that Rembrandt portrait on your wall next to that late-era Picasso. Ya could, but you probably won't, though both are traditional brush and paint pieces of art. Bach is not even close to Berlioz, but the general populace calls both 'Classical Music'. Though in a more compressed time frame, Bechet is not the Brecker Brothers, even though both are 'Jazz'.

    c/o the oft-quote Ellington 1962 "Where is Jazz Going" Music Journal article:
    "There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. Classical writers may venture into classical territory, but the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it's successful; if it doesn't it has failed. As long as the writing and playing is honest, whether it's done according to Hoyle or not, if a musician has an idea, let him write it down.
    And let's not worry about whether the result is jazz(sic) or this or that type of performance. Let's just say that what we're all trying to create, in one way or another, is music."

    1. Rich, thanks for your thoughts. I think you’re absolutely right, and certainly you could argue that, regardless of all these specific differences between trad and modern and any other musics, the most important metric is whether it’s plain good or not. Since this is subjective, you might repaint this as “whether you like it or not.” And I think that as long as one person likes it, whether it’s the creator or someone else (hopefully it includes the former or else that’s really sad), it’s music that is worth creating.

  6. Im from Sri Lanka and we dont have jazz music here. After many years i got the chance to listen, and i loved it. Thank you for this information that opens many many doors of magic!