Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury smooth jazz, not to praise it. The evil that radio formats do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their gimmicky call letters. So let it be with smooth jazz.
In recent months, the continual format shuffle that is inevitable in corporate-controlled radio cast a shadow over a previously successful corner of the “jazz” world. In February and March of 2008, “smooth jazz” stations in New York and Washington, DC shifted formats to rock, leaving two of the nation’s largest radio markets free of Kenny G, Chris Botti, Dave Koz, and Spyro Gyra.
Dentists in the two most powerful cities in America are panicking.
Of course, I am supposed to hate Smooth Jazz—I’m a real jazz critic. But I will be first to acknowledge two facts about the format: (1) Many of its practitioners don’t even consider it jazz, thus preserving a certain dignity for them; and (2) It likely served to bring some listeners to the real thing, giving them the courage to like Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins. That said, I still feel its ongoing demise is a hopeful sign for our civilization. Smooth jazz is dead—long live Kenny G’s Michael Bolton-esque curls.
What Was Smooth Jazz, Anyway?
Getting into a definitional discussion about jazz is always a tricky matter. But to mourn the “smooth” variety, we have to ask—what the heck is Smooth Jazz? And, then, what made Smooth Jazz not really jazz at all? Goodness, it contained saxophones, right?
Smooth Jazz is probably best understood as a kind of easy-listening contemporary R&B without vocals. Technically, you can say this: it rarely used swing rhythms, instead favoring a lite funk groove; the music was usually made by electric instruments or even sequenced synths in the rhythm section, while the leader (usually sax players or guitarists) played basic pentatonic melodies and improvised solos somewhat in the manner of jazz musicians, but highly conventional—using blues elements in the most basic way; and there would often be background vocals—as if the Raylettes made a gig without Brother Ray.
But aside from these semi-musicological guidelines, there was an overriding aesthetic of cheesiness that even the most soulful Smooth Jazz could never shake. The music was consciously in love with the kind of electric piano that was used on those ‘80s Whitney Houston records (the Yamaha DX-7), with candy-apple sweet saxophone vibrato, with looped drums drained of punch and edge, with the kind of pussy-footed noodling that gives improvised music a bad name. The height of Smooth Jazz preening would have to be the schtick favored by Kenny Gorelick (the million-selling Mr. G) in which, by circular breathing, he holds a single note for minutes on end, sometimes even shaking hands with audience members while tooting his soprano. The audience shrieks at the spectacle but—let’s be honest—it’s the equivalent of a basketball player shooting a free throw blindfolded and backwards from half-court. What’s the point?
In this and other spaces, the origins of the smoothiverse (thanks for that coinage, Ben Ratliff!) have been discussed. Creed Taylor’s production of guitarist Wes Montgomery covering pop hits in the 1960s (A Day in the Life, 1967) provided a blueprint of sorts: slickly played instrumental melody accompanied by the pop sounds of the day. “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (1975) was a seed of disco but, with its simple flute line and background vocals, was not un-smooth. While straight-up jazz fusion was at first far from smooth (The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bitches Brew, Weather Report), the watered-down stuff produced on Creed Taylor’s CTI label was a mainline source—Bob James and Grover Washington, Jr. come to mind. Chuck Mangione’s huge 1977 hit “Feels So Good” was proto-smooth jazz most certainly. And then the GRP record label—founded by producer Larry Rosen and keyboardist and soundtrack composer Dave Grusin (how can you take issue with Grusin when he wrote the Good Times theme song?)—was founded in 1978 and ushered in a long era of mushy fusion from bands like the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, and the Rippingtons; melodic guitarists like Earl Klugh, George Benson, and Lee Ritenour; buttery pop saxophonists like Mindi Abair; keyboard noodlers such as David Benoit and Bernard Wright; and schmaltzy trumpeters like Arturo Sandoval and Tom Browne.
GRP is as good a place as any to locate the odd nexus between “smooth” and “real” jazz. The label plainly generated a model for most simplistic of jazz formats, but it also was home to some fine albums by genuine jazz masters: Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea (and not just the electric Chick), and Gary Burton, for example. The label even put together a GRP All-Star Big Band in 1992 that featured a slew of talented players who were fusion or “smooth” players playing in a relatively traditional big-band format doing genuine jazz standards—Rollins’ “Airegin”, Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, and Monk’s “Round Midnight”, among others. The musicians on these records, at least, could be legitimate jazz players. But that didn’t make their own GRP records examples of the genre, and as Grusin and Rosen would surely be the first to tell you, it was the “less jazzy” records that sold in greater volume.
At some point, however, this pleasant variant on jazz became something else entirely.
Smooth Jazz Ripens Into a Marketing Ploy
To really get to the bottom of the Smooth Jazz phenomenon, focusing on music is a waste of time. The story is in radio.
Between the mid-‘60s and the late ‘70s, there was a full-time commercial radio station in New York, WRVR, with origins as a serious, non-commercial jazz station that featured the smartest show in the history of jazz broadcasting (“Just Jazz with Ed Beach”). In 1976, RVR was suddenly purchased by Sonderling Broadcasting, and the station went to a system of playlists promoting a different, more accessible kind of jazz. Not long after this, the programmer Frank Cody started something called “The Wave” in Los Angeles (KTWV), San Diego (KIFM), and San Francisco (KKSF), and a format was taking shape. At first, though, it wasn’t called Smooth Jazz.
For a time, the notion of inoffensive instrumental “wallpaper music” was given the mystical title “New Age”. The music embraced as New Age was not the same music that would become Smooth Jazz, but it had a similar, if tenuous, relationship to jazz. Pianist George Winston, who favored acoustic solo recitals that were Keith Jarrett Lite and preferred playing barefoot, and acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges, who was discovered playing in a Palo Alto cafe, were the heroes of this genre and were leading sellers for the New Age label Windham Hill. Radio programmers recognized New Age as a new “category”, with WNUA in Chicago and KNUA in Seattle reflecting the term in their call letters, and the new Grammy category appeared in 1987. In the end, though, New Age music was more a reflection of the aesthetics of folk music, acoustic “world music”, and ambient music, and its viability as a commercial blockbuster was obviously limited. Although jazz musicians would dabble in New Age (reed player Yusef Lateef won the second New Age Grammy in 1988), it is far removed from the light funkiness that came to define Smooth Jazz.
It was through market research conducted by Cody for WNUA that the phrase “smooth jazz” was coined—it apparently came from the mouth of a focus group participant. Thus is was that some stations that had been tagged as New Age began focusing on the likes of the GRP Records crowd and, eventually, the true Smooth Jazz heavyweights such as Dave Koz and Kenny G.
It’s worth noting that the new Smooth Jazz stations were, from early on, associated with the new manner of recording music—digital recording and the new (in the mid-‘80s) digital compact disc format. GRP Records, in fact, was the first record label to release all of its material on CD, and Mountain Dance by Dave Grusin was the first album to be recorded digitally outside of classical music. When New York got a Smooth Jazz station, it was dubbed “CD101” and given the call letters WQCD at 101.9 FM.
Smooth Jazz, then, can be understood as an embrace of clean edges, a rejection of the analog sensibility that sits at the root of all the great American music, whether Delta blues, improvised jazz, or rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. Smooth Jazz sought to be pleasant and shining and sweet and easy. Like soul music without the sex, like jazz without a pulse of urgency, like rock without the essential roll, Smooth Jazz was an answer without a question.
What Was So Horrible About Smooth Jazz?
The case against Smooth Jazz can’t just be that it is not as good as “real” jazz. That kind of purist argument is easy to make but finally counterproductive. Sure, it’s not the “real” or traditional style of jazz, but what it’s not doesn’t make it bad.
The key to understanding the bankruptcy of Smooth Jazz is in noting that it was always a retreat—and not just away from jazz but also away from soul music and rock music and even its New Age precursor. Each step of retreat was a thinning out of what gave the original music its texture and interest. The woman in the focus group who called the music “smooth” was right—it had its surface polished to satin. Proof of this backward motion is easy to see relative to jazz because there were so many adventurous jazz players who took the same tools used in Smooth Jazz and constructed music that was more rather than less bold. A backbeat did not ruin jazz—Ronald Shannon Jackson and Bobby Previte used backbeats to make the music grow in interest and fire.
But it’s equally crucial to see how Smooth Jazz was a retreat away from its other influences. Replace Al Green with an alto saxophone on “Let’s Stay Together” and what have you got? Take the analog grit out of the instrumental backing on the same song, too—replace it with digital keyboards and looped drums. In short, cut back on the “soul” part of soul music, and what is left?
Rock ‘n’ roll can be pretty aggressive and biting. But what if you bleach the guitars of distortion or twang? Take the crack out of the beat, and substitute a fancy fill. Shine it up with digital piano like it was Steely Dan, but please no sardonic lyrics or nasal singing, just soprano saxophone.
New Age music, quiet and contemplative as it is, maintained a simplicity and folk directness that was true to its purpose. The Paul Winter Consort may sound featherweight, but it has a purposefully spare aesthetic. Smooth Jazz was perpetually unable to skimp on the gaudy, the plastic, or the convenient—it was full of trills and glissandi and fancy-sounding chords. It always sounded like the music for a Cadillac commercial rather than a hiking trip out West.
No matter the comparison, Smooth Jazz coated its area of influence with powdered sugar, making music a treacley dessert without an ounce of protein. And that should be no surprise—though some fine musicians starting making pleasant instrumental pop in the mid-‘70s, a decade later the inspiration for making Smooth Jazz was explicitly economic. The radio stations had a format that had to be filled out, and so Smooth Jazz became exactly that, a product, an assembly line of Twinkies. Easy to eat, hard to digest.
Why Did Smooth Jazz Lose Its Popularity?
Having posited from the start of this essay that Smooth Jazz was both very popular and artistically bankrupt, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the public is more than happy to listen to crap. To analyze why the public likes pablum—in music, in food, in movies, in just about anything—is a matter wildly beyond the scope of this essay. But maybe the more interesting question is this: Why is the public losing its taste for Smooth Jazz now?
There are plenty of theories about public taste in the arts—short hemlines when the market is up, long when the market is down—but it’s not clear what those theories might say about bland instrumental R&B. If societal trends are your thing, then you might link the rise in Smooth Jazz to the twin fantasies of Reagan’s “Morning in America” and Clinton’s Dow Jones Skyrocket of technological change and US global dominance. Today, reality (the economy, the war, the government) makes it that much tougher to groove to work on a snappy guitar lick.
More likely, though, the death of Smooth Jazz is the product of generational shift and technological change. If the genre was ever really “cool”, then it was cool with a group of yuppie consumers who came of age at least 20 years ago—the gang who loved both CDs and CD101, the folks who went to law school, bought a mini-van and aren’t so sure about that rap music the kids all like so much today.
The folks driving the music market today are YouTubers and GarageBanders—folks who are comfortable with a do-it-yourself, download-it-for-free ethic that is informed by hip-hop and an easygoing post-modern irony. An easy-to-listen-to record is less likely to be monochromatic sax noodling and more likely to be an eclectic bit of folky hip-hop like Feist. The new taste in pop, even bland pop, is for music with the look of credibility or the feel of homemadeness. “Cred” matters, and Smooth Jazz sounds like it was stamped out of a mold.
There is still an appetite for schmaltz out there, but it is the schmaltz of American Idol, where good-looking 20-somethings with outsized personalities try to find new ways of delivering songs by Lennon and McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, and Neil Diamond. Say what you want about the crass commercialism and questionable artistic pedigree of American Idol, but who would ever want to “cover” a song by Dave Koz? And if someone did, who would ever make a toll call to vote for such a thing?
Now That Smooth Jazz Is Gone…
Smooth Jazz, in 2008, is finally nothing more than the aural air freshener it has always been. It lingers in the air, absolutely, but it can’t last. It will, predictably, vanish into thin air.
Last week, I was talking to a friend who is just four years out of college—a guy with an extensive interest in music and a good sense of history—and I explained that I learned the melodies to many of the Tin Pan Alley standards because my parents always played the Easy Listening station in our house. “What was ‘Easy Listening’ music?” he asked me. I tried explain that these stations featured bland version of old and some newer pop songs, interpreted by the likes of Paul Muriat, the 101 Strings, the Ray Coniff Singers, Percy Faith, and pianists Ferrante & Teisher.
The guy stared at me as if I was making this up.
“No, really,” I said. “There used to be scores of these groups—you’d hear ‘Georgia on My Mind’ done by an orchestra with no saxophones, then you’d hear a vocal by Engelbert Humperdinck or Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.”
“You are making this up, right? Why wouldn’t the station just play Ray Charles’ ‘Georgia on My Mind’? And—was there really a singer named Engelbert Humperdinck?”
Cross my heart and hope to die. And just such an oblivion awaits Smooth Jazz.
In the end, the fears of jazz purists that Smooth Jazz was a cancer on the music were unfounded. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue will always be around, and it will always be a better way of chilling out to jazz than Chris Botti. Other forms of mellow music of one kind or another will rise up to soothe the savage office worker or the keyed-up commuter. With Smooth Jazz stations falling off the air, some station will play more Norah Jones or maybe that great Allison Krauss & Robert Plant album. Relaxation will still be achievable, even without a soprano saxophone note held for 45 minutes. Dentists will still make you wait too long for your appointment, and the magazines will still be a few months old.
Life without Smooth Jazz will go, mercifully, on.
Rest—how else?—in peace.