Dizzy Gillespie

Poncho Sanchez

So you’ve decided you like jazz. You’ve opened your ears to bebop, hard bop and more. Now with summer practically upon us, you’re ready for something with mucho calor, to leap into what Tito Puente would call “jazz with the Latin touch.” In other words, jazz that incorporates Latin American rhythms.

The development of Latin jazz over the years overlaps with the changes of jazz overall, encompassing a wide range of styles from traditional song structures to free form to fusion. Even as far back as early 20th century New Orleans, Latin American music was an important component in jazz’s development—early jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton called it the “Spanish tinge.”

As jazz spread north and through the Caribbean and Latin America, musicians of all backgrounds were inspired, integrating familiar melodies and rhythms with improvisational jazz. These creations in turn inspired jazz groups in the U.S. and the popularity of big band dance music in the 1930s-’40s meant bands were constantly on the look-out for music that would bring the crowds. In-demand Latin musicians either joined existing bands or formed bands of their own.

Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean, mambo, salsa, charanga, boogaloo, son and bossa nova are just some of the many styles of this vibrant genre of music. And there are far too many Latin jazz greats and essentials to dive into. It’s a genre that’s ever-evolving with the works of current musicians like Pedrito Martínez and Arturo O’Farrill making their progressive mark. But these 10 albums can get you started.

Dave Valentin

Latin Jazz World

Ruben Blades

Cal Tjader

Arturo Zandoval

Toots Thielemans

Eddie Palmieri

Bebo Valdes


Monguito Santamaria

Willy Colon

Vince Guaraldi

Terry Gibbs

Elianis Elias

Cachao Lopez


La India

Charlie Palmieri

Eddie Palmieri

Tito Puente

    Latin Jazz & More

Ray Barreto

Nestor Torres

Willy Bobo

Latin Jazz Artists Highlights

Xavier Cugar

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Chucho Valdez

Of all the post-swing styles, Latin Jazz has been the most consistently popular and it is easy to see why. The emphasis on percussion and Cuban rhythms make the style quite danceable and accessible. Essentially, it is a mixture of bop-oriented jazz with Latin percussion.

Among the pioneers in mixing together the two styles in the 1940s were the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, and the music (which has never gone out of style) has remained a viable force through the 1990s, played most notably by the bands of Tito Puente and Poncho Sanchez.

The style has not changed much during the past 40 years but it still communicates to today's listeners. Latin jazz is also sometimes called Afro-Cuban jazz, a term preferred by Mario Bauza and Ray Barretto.