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The Genres: Brian Soergel on Smooth Jazz

Grover Washington Jr.
Grover Washington Jr. (photo: Paul S. Wilson)

Blame Miles Davis.

The jazz great couldn’t have peered into a crystal ball and seen that his hard-edged fusion of jazz and rock, which bubbled up with Bitches Brew 30 years ago, would lead to Peter White, Boney James and Rick Braun. But before he died in 1991, Davis probably had heard those players, and others like them, as these purveyors of instrumental pop took jazz sketches, some rock and gobs of soul to craft a fusion of their own: smooth jazz.

Today, smooth jazz—mostly instrumental music, with some vocals—has probably reached its peak of popularity. Although more than 35 million smooth-jazz records are sold every year, some radio stations have abandoned the format and others have virtually shut out music by new artists as ratings-conscious programmers increasingly spin R&B vocals and adult-oriented greatest hits. Certainly, much of the change has been orchestrated by Broadcast Architecture, a research and consulting firm that tests music through listener surveys—and listeners say they feel comfortable with familiar songs mixed in with the synth and sax swirls.

Is smooth jazz headed toward obscurity? Probably not, especially when artists like Boney James and Kenny G reach platinum with each release. Ratings are decent, especially in the prized 25-54 demographic, but smooth-jazz artists, as they have since its beginning, must bow to the demands of listeners.

It didn’t start out that way, of course. Early jazz-fusion groups—the progenitors of today’s smooth jazz in name only—were aggressive with their sound and experimental in concept: Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra. But the hard-edged sounds didn’t move off the shelves and soon gave way to music with a lighter texture and, when audiences and the record-buying public responded, a new hybrid of jazz-pop took off. The Crusaders struck with a big hit, “Put It Where You Want It.” The late Grover Washington Jr., the true progenitor of smooth jazz, released the soulfully jazzy Mister Magic in 1975, which sailed to the top of the album charts. Jazz musician George Benson crossed over to pop with the vocal hit “This Masquerade” from Breezin’, whose title track started many on the road to their love of, well, breezy instrumental music. In 1977, Jeff Lorber Fusion made some sweet sounds and featured a saxophonist named Kenny Gorelick, who would later drop the “orelick.” Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” was pure pop-jazz perfection and dominated the charts. In 1978, the Pat Metheny Group released its self-titled first album, which included the sublime “Jaco.” Jay Beckenstein and Spyro Gyra scored big with “The Shaker Song” in 1978 and “Morning Dance” in 1979 by mixing irresistible pop melodies with a saxophone lead over light Latin beats. Bob James played and wrote the theme to the hit TV show Taxi, its mellow soul at odds with the comedic frenzy that followed.

In the ’80s, smooth jazz added even more soul to its sound and increased its already large African-American fan base. Grover scored big again with “Winelight” and the smash “Just the Two of Us.” The Yellowjackets pushed their Latin-jazz melodies, while Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” punched some hip-hop into the genre. Then, quietly, George Winston’s new-age piano solos turned down the volume.

Still, smooth jazz as we know it today took on a new, even more polished sheen in 1987 with the birth of 94.7 The Wave, a radio station in Los Angeles that programmed new-age music, instrumentals and songs by established vocal artists. Targeted at boomers disenfranchised by rock, it was cleverly and specifically nourished by Broadcast Architecture, which fiddled with its format when ratings took a dive or failed to progress. Bye-bye new age, hello smooth jazz.

After the release of Kenny G’s single “Song Bird” and album Duotones put heavy dents in the charts in 1986 and 1987, smooth jazz lost any pretense of adventurousness as groove and accessibility became key. Not everyone who wanted to make a successful smooth jazz record could; there were plenty of duds taking up space in record stores. But there were also talented groups and artists who churned out hook after hook while getting plenty of airplay: Acoustic Alchemy, Ottmar Liebert, David Sanborn, Fourplay, Richard Elliot, Peter White, The Rippingtons, Kirk Whalum, Ken Navarro, Brian Hughes. Seeing the results, artists who played mainstream jazz at one point in their careers, like Bob James and Earl Klugh, tried smooth jazz and found it to their liking.

Although it may appear that the artists and songs heard on smooth-jazz stations all sound the same—a common refrain—they truly don’t. Why the misconception? It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when “smooth jazz” replaced “contemporary jazz” as the moniker of choice a couple of years ago, it immediately pigeonholed hundreds of artists and numerous musical subgenres. The majority of artists in the field tend to distance themselves from the smooth-jazz label: Guitarist Doc Powell titled his 1997 album Don’t Let the Smooth Jazz Fool Ya ; veteran singer/songwriter Michael Franks savagely attacked the format with “Mr. Smooth,” a song on 1999’s Barefoot on the Beach. To some, “smooth jazz” is only slightly better than such derisive terms as “jazz lite” and “elevator music.” Contemporary jazz is the designation most artists could live with and it’s generic enough to encompass the many musical styles now flourishing in the genre. There’s acid jazz, as popularized by Chris Bangs and others; nouveau flamenco by Ottmar Liebert and Jesse Cook; retro jazz by Chris Standring and Ronny Jordan; groove jazz by Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and many others; soul-jazz by Kirk Whalum and Paul Taylor; vocals by Sade and Maysa.

The truth is that, for many people weaned on pop, rock and soul, the demanding jazz practiced by the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron and Steve Coleman will never work its way into their CD players. Diana Krall, fine, and maybe some of those jazz-for-a-summer day/rainy day/for-when-you’re-alone compilations. To be young and in love with traditional jazz today means being turned on to it by family, by older friends, by seeking it out in expensive clubs. You don’t find much mainstream jazz on the radio or in the vast pop culture. Smooth jazz is just fine for those looking to brighten their lives, and it’s a familiar sound on soaps, on soundtracks, on hold. Some listen to de-stress. Some listen to seek variety in their music.

Miles might even like what he would hear today.

Originally Published