Stylistic Playing – Traditional Jazz versus Modern Jazz

I recently read a great essay by trumpet player Gordon Au about playing traditional and modern jazz styles. I’ve played a couple of times with Gordon in swing dance bands at Lindy Focus. Gordon was such a fantastic swing player that I assumed that he specialized in playing in older jazz styles. As it turns out, he is equally skillful in modern jazz playing and has quite a bit to say about the different “camps” promoting different jazz styles.

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.

I too find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting how otherwise accomplished jazz musicians don’t demonstrate stylistic playing outside of their particular area of interest. In particular, I’ve found that excellent modern jazz players will often not be able to play a convincing solo in a swing or early jazz style. Frequently musicians that I hire to play big band don’t know standard Swing Era phrasing and nuances that make a chart by Fletcher Henderson, for example, sound different from Maria Schneider. There are some musicians I frequently play with that specialize in earlier jazz styles and struggle if the music is more modern. At least, that’s not uncommon among the musicians I happen to work with most frequently. I should also say that there are some musicians in my area that are virtual chameleons, like Gordon, and you would swear they specialize in whatever they happen to be playing.

In my opinion, attentive and extensive listening is the key to performing whatever you’re playing in an appropriate stylistic manner. You must know what it’s supposed to sound like before you can interpret it. Serious jazz musicians should spend some time doing some transcribing in all styles in order to make they phrasing, note choice, rhythmic language, vibrato, articulations, and other nuances sound natural while playing in any jazz style.

Gordon has some great points to make regarding the different arguments between traditional and modern jazz enthusiasts and is a great read. Go over and check it out and if you have the chance to hear him play live, jump on it!


Gordon Au

Hello Dave, just saw that you shared this—thank you for that, and for your thoughts as well. Hope you have been well, and hope to cross paths again soon!


This caught my eye as I’m sitting here in a hotel room in Hot Springs, as a guy who studied at North Texas (doesn’t stop me from loving the strains of tunes like Moose the Mooch and East St. Louis Toodle-oo coming from the well-preserved lobby).

I think we ended up developing a Common Practice Period in jazz just like in Western Classical Music. For classical music, it’s 1750 to 1920. For jazz, it’s 1940 to maybe 1990. And you end up with a bell curve where only specialized stylists know how to play the earlier styles, and only college players and educators sometimes know how to play the avant-garde. Not always, but often.

Oddly enough, playing piano in a salsa band more lately than in as many bands that play Stan Kenton or Maria Schneider makes me think salsa players might be the ones to pull off the kind of “nasty” swing feel you need to make the Hot repertoire really tell its story. Playing montunos all night made the rhythms I heard in the earlier stuff make more sense. And salsa solos are less harmonically-oriented and more of a “play it like a drummer” deal. I hear that as a consistent approach from the 20s on up through early Bop, but not as much after 1960. So maybe that’s the thinking we tend to miss as contemporary players (for me, think less like Bill Evans and more like Art Tatum).

Of course, it also helps to envision it in its original Art Deco-inflected surroundings (along with the social realities of the time), when it was young music and still very raw.

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