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Tangents: Confessions of a (Former) Smooth-Jazz DJ

The one-sided battle in the war against smooth jazz still rages. The mainstream jazzerati continue to fume, foam, fulminate and fuss about how some people think that music has something to do with jazz.

But how many hardcore jazz lovers have actually spent any time in the smooth-jazz milieu, listening to the music extensively and getting to know the smooth-jazz artists and audience? Not many would be my guess. But I’ve done my smooth-jazz homework. You see, after many years of hard labor in the world of mainstream-jazz radio, I decided to cross over and take a walk on the mild side.

It started a little over a year ago when, after a couple of decades as a mainstream-jazz radio programmer, I was lured away by an offer from Bigger Money to host the morning-drive show at my city’s smooth-jazz station. I figured that I was old enough and cynical enough to sell out successfully, so I took the job.

To commemorate my one-year anniversary at the new station, Bigger Money invited me into its office, gave me a firm but otherwise neutral handshake, massaged my backside with a severance check and encouraged me to contemplate the romance and allure of the open road immediately. Smooth jazz had given me the bum’s rush and I can’t say that I was surprised. To put it bluntly, I sucked as a smooth-jazz host, at least in part because I had absolutely no affinity for the music.

However, unlike many, perhaps most, mainstream-jazz fans, I’ve never really hated smooth jazz. I just never cared about it much one way or the other and couldn’t really understand why anybody would listen to it in any circumstance other than when getting one’s teeth cleaned or sitting in the auto dealership waiting for the bad news about the brakes. But now, after having lived through a year of playing it on the radio every Monday through Friday for five hours a day, and then getting fired for my pains, you might think that I’ve finally joined the jazz majority and come to loathe it. Oddly enough, that is not the case. I still just don’t care about it much one way or the other.

OK, that’s not quite true. Toward the end of my abbreviated smooth-jazz career I was beginning to find the music somewhat annoying-in the same way that a person who doesn’t absolutely love dogs finds them annoying. The dog is just trying so damn hard to be your friend that you have the rather perverse, and downright ignoble, desire to give it a sharp whack on the snout, just to wake it up as well as to discourage it from spreading its saliva all over your clothing. In fact, if you ever meet a smooth-jazz artist, don’t be surprised if you find that you have to fight down the urge to shake your finger in the person’s face and shout, “Stay down!” because most of them are very much like dogs-and I mean that in a good way. Smooth-jazz artists are quite friendly and eager to please. All in all, they’re a nice bunch of folks.

And you might be surprised, perhaps even pleased, to know that most of them have no false illusions about being great jazz musicians. Most of them simply see themselves as professional entertainers who want to give the fans their money’s worth. They put on a show and play their music-generally in that order. And, as stated above, they seem to be quite happy to be doing it.

As it turns out, the false illusions about smooth jazz come mainly from the fans. As opposed to many of the players, the fans actually think that the funk-lite-instrumental-pop music they enjoy really is some manner of jazz.

I remember one morning, after I’d played some smooth-jazz saxophone instrumental, the computer-generated playlist directed me to play Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song I’ve always liked. About halfway through the song, the telephone rang. I answered it and a very stern gentleman said, “I just wanted you to know that I’ve turned off my radio. I’m a smooth-jazz aficionado and this pop crap that you throw in there isn’t jazz.” It took every ounce of restraint I could muster not to say, “But, sir, you don’t seem to understand. None of the music played on this station is jazz. None of it!”

And, of course, that’s exactly what drives mainstream-jazz lovers nuts: It’s not jazz! Smooth jazz has taken a beating for years only because the word jazz somehow found its way into the marketing of the genre. If it was simply called “smooth music” only the people who liked it would be paying any attention to it at all. And if that was the case, all those anti-smooth-jazz screeds and flame wars would disappear from the Internet and there would be much more room in cyberspace for other equally futile and unimportant arguments.

But that won’t happen. It’ll continue to be smooth jazz until it has run its course and fades away. Until then, smooth-jazz players and their fans will go right on having a good time with each other no matter what you or I say. And more power to them. There’s not enough happiness in this world as it is.

So maybe it’s time to just leave them alone. After all, you know and I know that “real” jazz radio is much better than smooth-jazz radio. Yeah, real jazz radio, with all those long, incredibly complex, totally self-indulgent passages of improvisation that keep saying over and over, “Look at me, Ma, look at me.”

And those acoustic bass solos that pop up out of nowhere and totally destroy the momentum of a song.

And let’s not forget all those second- and third-tier jazz vocalists who seem to have, at best, a shaky concept of pitch. But when it’s suggested that he or she might be singing flat, the response goes something like, “Oh, don’t be an idiot. I’m not flat, I’m dissonant. It’s what was called for in the moment. I was responding to the moment-and you should have to listen to that moment on this CD for the rest of your life!”

Yeah, by and large, that’s real jazz radio alright-and we know the difference. Originally Published