Smooth Jazz: A History Of Mellow Vibes
Smooth jazz is often unfairly maligned, but there’s a lot to love in its accessible, mellow soundscapes and flowing melodies.
Smooth jazz, when the history books are written, will go down as a much-maligned genre. That’s unfortunate, because many of the key practitioners of smooth jazz are supremely gifted instrumentalists whose talent and virtuosity deserve wider recognition.
While you’re reading about the history of smooth jazz, take a listen to the Best of Smooth Jazz playlist on Apple Music and Spotify.
Given how inherently smooth it is, it’s strange that it should provoke such extreme reactions, but the truth is that it does – especially in ardent jazz fans, the bona fide purists who look down on the likes of Kenny G, George Howard, and Bob James and many more.
But the prevailing animosity towards smooth jazz is mystifying because, sonically, there’s nothing intrinsically irritating or upsetting about the music. Far from being as abrasive or challenging as other, more extreme forms of jazz, it’s apolitical, rarely subversive, and always exceedingly polite.
Though smooth jazz has some fierce and vociferous detractors, during the peak of its popularity – between the late 80s and early 00s – it attracted a huge audience in America, where it became a highly influential radio format and helped the aforementioned artists sell truckloads of albums.
What is smooth jazz?
For those wondering about the history of smooth jazz, its roots can be traced back to the early 60s. At that time, bebop-influenced jazz had been marginalized by the ascendancy of pop and rock; to remain current, some jazz musicians – guided by record companies and producers looking to stay in the game – began recording instrumental covers of hit tunes of the day. This coincided with the advent of easy listening music and the arrival of the ultra smooth bossa nova sound from Brazil, brought by Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and Astrud Gilberto.
Bossa nova’s harmonic sophistication drew inspiration from jazz and it was no surprise that musicians such as saxophonist Stan Getz – one of the leading figures of the West Coast “cool school” of jazz – were drawn to its irresistible beat. When Getz released the album Jazz Samba with guitarist Charlie Byrd, in 1963, it spawned the US hit single “Desafinado” and set in motion a bossa nova wave that ushered in an age of cool, mellow, jazz-infused moods and grooves. For listeners who refused to be seduced by the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, jazz became an antidote to rock; as the latter got progressively louder and more rambunctious, the former became softer and smoother.
Many others followed in Getz’s wake with similar jazz-pop hybrids in the 60s, including guitarist Wes Montgomery, who recorded unashamedly commercial material for producer Creed Taylor’s A&M-distributed CTI label. Though some criticized him for it, Montgomery broadened his audience and increased his sales figures. Another guitarist with virtuosic jazz chops, George Benson, joined Taylor at CTI in the late 60s and also became a leading exponent of jazz that reworked then-current pop material.
As the 60s gave way to the 70s, Miles Davis and others ushered in the age of jazz-rock and fusion. Fusion came in many forms: while Miles explored a challenging type of avant-funk, some musicians smoothed out the new genre’s rough edges and arrived at a lighter, more commercial and radio-friendly crossover. Keyboardist and arranger Bob James was one of the leading lights of a smoother mode of fusion and enjoyed considerable success with covers of R&B hits, jazzed-up classical music pieces, and striking pop-tinged original material.
James was just one of a multitude of super-talented instrumentalists with a unique sound that enjoyed crossover success in the 70s with a style of music that was the precursor to what is now called smooth jazz. Others included George Benson (who became a superstar in the late 70s when he moved from CTI to Warner Bros. and began adding vocals to his recordings) and fellow master guitarists Lee Ritenour, Eric Gale, Larry Carlton, and Earl Klugh.
Any history of smooth jazz, however, must mention several brilliant saxophonists, among them David Sanborn, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington Jr, Hank Crawford, Ronnie Laws, and Tom Scott. These were the founding fathers of what we now know as smooth jazz. Their work suffered from the tyranny of expectation. Many hardcore jazz fans expected fast, loud, and complex. But those who disapproved of “fusion lite” were missing the point: Bob James, Grover Washington, et al, weren’t playing strict jazz. They were playing a hybrid that defied categorization. Sure, it had elements of jazz, but it also tapped into the DNA of pop, rock, disco, Latin, and classical music. And it often melded these elements together in a skilful and seamless way that obscured just how hard they were working. These early smooth jazz pioneers weren’t betraying their music’s roots, rather they were finding a way to stay relevant in the times they were living in. And also, crucially, they just wanted to make a living and survive in the most fickle industry of all: the music business.
Just how fickle it could be was reflected in the fact that many major labels ditched their roster of jazz artists once 1980 arrived (CBS famously got rid of almost every jazz musician on its books when the fusion boom began to wane, only retaining the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Ramsey Lewis). But new labels sprang up to accommodate cast-adrift fusioneers.
One of them was GRP (Grusin-Rosen Productions), formed by keyboardist Dave Grusin and drummer-turned-producer Larry Rosen. It quickly became a home for the newly emerging smooth jazz phenomenon in the 80s and its roster included Tom Scott, Lee Ritenour, David Benoit, Spyro Gyra, George Howard, and Yellowjackets. But the decade’s biggest smooth jazz hit came from a saxophonist called Kenny Gourlick, a former Barry White sideman sporting long, flowing locks. His 1986 album, Duo Tones, went platinum in the US and yielded the hit single “Songbird.” Though Gourlick sold a humongous amount of records, he became an easy target for “serious” jazz fans. But the man better known as Kenny G spawned a slew of imitators looking to cash in on “Songbird”’s phenomenal success, ensuring smooth jazz’s surge in popularity in the 90s.
By then, the music had a more contemporary, processed sound, embracing pre-programmed drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers. But that didn’t stop Fourplay, a smooth jazz supergroup led by Bob James, making waves with a more organic approach.
In terms of its popularity, smooth jazz peaked in the early 00s, but the genre hasn’t been consigned to history yet, with artists such as keyboardist Jeff Lorber, saxophonists Boney James and Richard Elliot, guitarist Chuck Loeb, and vocalist Will Downing (the latter proving that smooth jazz isn’t the exclusive preserve of instrumentalists) still leading the way. And even George Benson and Bob James are still going strong, while exciting young talents such as singer-songwriter Lindsey Webster and guitarist Tyler Reese represent a new generation of committed smooth-jazzers.
Music isn’t always about revolution and social commentary. Smooth jazz, with its mellow soundscapes and flowing melodies, can hasten relaxation and lower the blood pressure. As the great drummer Art Blakey once said of jazz, it “washes away the dust of everyday life.” Any music that can do that is not to be sniffed at.
Looking for more? Discover the best jazz saxophonists of all time.
February 1, 2017 at 9:03 pm
Some of it is crap, some of it isn’t. It takes a bit of patience and open-mindedness to find good smooth jazz but it’s out there.
February 1, 2017 at 9:26 pm
Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells that way.
February 3, 2018 at 11:08 pm
Credit Frank Zappa for that quote.
August 27, 2019 at 4:18 am
“it just smells funny.”
February 2, 2017 at 1:25 am
LIES. Also it is the idea that is most hated. Making millions by ripping real jazz of its soul and improvosation and shoving it through a filter so 35yo moms will buy. It used the infrastructure of jazz (radio stations, sections in music stores, etc) and forever tainted the music to the point where the uneducated masses don’t even know there is a difference. As the joke goes, “If you were in a room with Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Kenny G and you had a gun with two bullets who would you shoot? Kenny G twice, just to be safe.’
September 19, 2017 at 3:22 am
Either you are a GREAT musician or you are sick.
September 20, 2017 at 6:19 am
Chris…oh my! A bit of aggression showing much? When you need to use names such as Hitler, Hussein, as a comparison and hatred of something like a style of music..? Really?? I can’t count the times I’ve heard people refer to jazz as music for the snobby pretenders, or music for the arrogant crowd. Your statement has reinforced their views. Why not use the basic smooth jazz form to enlighten the masses, and use it as a stepping stone to the jazz idiom..? To say it forever tainted the music…if that’s the case, please tell us what things like auto-tune pop vocals and rap done? FYI, all music…ALL music…uses the “infrastructure” to promote itself…including jazz. Blaming the tainting on one style of music is preposterous. At least smooth jazz allows people to peer thru the window of jazz, and they begin questioning it, wondering about its roots, eventually wanting a bigger fix. Use it (smooth) as a tool, to train consumer ears. Suggesting to shoot someone twice is incredible hatred. Based on such self-righteous statements and aggression, one wonders: do you play an instrument, or play jazz?
February 3, 2018 at 11:10 pm
How bout this for an idea Chris, If you don’t like a style of music, just don’t listen to it. Easy.
February 2, 2017 at 4:04 am
Stan Getz is definitely NOT smooth jazz, Jazz yes, Bossa Nova yes, Samba yes,
not smooth jazz
neither is Charlie Byrd, or Art Pepper or Colman Hawkins or Milt Jackson or Charlie Parker
or Lester Young or Gerry Mulligan or Oscar Peterson or Ben Webster or Chet Baker or Art Blakey
Kenny G is smooth jazz and Chris Botti
September 19, 2017 at 9:53 pm
Nothing Rash about your comment. Couldn’t agree more.
February 2, 2017 at 12:15 pm
February 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm
Smooth jazz IS jazz–just less filling
Frank L Campbell
September 18, 2017 at 12:20 pm
Smooth jazz to me has a lot of memphis southern soul mixed with variations on Ray Charles style soul, a continuation of 50’s and 60’s r&b no longer considered part of rock/pop music. Individual songs and albums can be great, but if you want Jazz that drives a little harder it is hard to beat the old dixieland, or big band and its derivatives. Lionel Hampton is a great example of a harder groove as is many of the latin based artists. Smooth jazz is legitimate art, people like what they like, and dislike other forms, as in all forms of art.
Ricardo da Mata
September 18, 2017 at 2:39 pm
Real jazz is never smooth. Please, respect jazz!
September 18, 2017 at 3:20 pm
It is possible for hard core classic jazz aficionados, who cut their teeth on big band swing, Dixieland, bebop, hard Bop, post-bop, modal, cool, straight ahead, fusion, vocal, jazz-rock, crossover, etc. to also appreciate what is known as “smooth jazz”. It’s just another variation which you can appreciate or not appreciate. Notice I left off avant-garde, acid jazz, and free jazz from my list, namely because I have very little patience for these variations. It’s a choice and no two people are alike in their appreciation for music genres. Listening to my catalog of GRP greatest hits as I type (which includes artistis across several jazz and blues genres).
September 18, 2017 at 4:17 pm
So sad for many of my fellow jazz musicians who want to look down their noses and toss around the idea that there is some type of jazz known as “real jazz”. What the heck is “real jazz”? Is it Dixieland? Is it BeBop? Is it Big Band Swing? Is traditional blues a form of Jazz? Does jazz “require” improvised solos? Such questions are irrelevant. The name you give to any variation of music styling is irrelevant. It’s all music folks! Enjoy it or don’t. That’s your right. But don’t tell others what they have to enjoy or belittle them because they like something you don’t like. That’s just wrong, and is hurtful to all musicians.
September 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm
Ornette Coleman wouldn’t favor watered-down jazz-lite.
September 19, 2017 at 10:50 am
Smooth jazz has its place, regardless of what the snobs and purists might say…it isn’t bebop, it isn’t big band, it isn’t any of those. It is its own thing. To look down your noses, to snub another art form, will only turn people against you and “your” choice of jazz. Accept it, people… it’s here to stay, and it is becoming even more accessible to music lovers everywhere.
September 19, 2017 at 7:16 pm
“Smooth”, is the worst description of the genre. You can blame the marketing departments for that. The “educated masses” also hated Jazz-Rock/Fusion. Heck, I grew up listening to Charlie Parker, Miles, Willie Bobo, Art Pepper. But when I heard Weather Report, Billy Cobham (Spectrum), I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough! Everyone’s got an opinion, you don’t like “Smooth Jazz”, don’t listen to it. I can still hear “Westchester” Lady by Bob James. When it came out, I had no idea it would be labeled “Smooth Jazz”, it was just ass kicking music to me.
September 19, 2017 at 9:50 pm
I’m sorry but Smooth Jazz is an oxymoron. There are players and groups that define its precincts that are competent enough musicians; but the form itself is a simplification of the great old tradition of improvised performance sometimes of a complex written arrangement–such as frequently happened in the great Ellington bands. But the smooth part is what kills the genre and commits it to a kind of permanent mediocrity. Where true jazz emerges from discovery and invention through a deep understanding of the the architectures of the composition, the lack of complex voicings and the over-simple reliance on a single thread in the composition condemns the form to something less interesting than what might be possible if the performers were genuinely engaged in their art.
September 20, 2017 at 5:52 am
Dwight Homer…you say the smooth part is what kills the genre. False. It is what defines the smooth jazz genre. If complex voicings are the only thing you see as jazz, I feel sorry for your closed mind. Not everyone wants to hear complexities. Not everyone wants to hear more than one thread. Most consumers of music do not understand players like Miles Davis, or many other great players. You should be happy that smooth jazz is capturing the average consumer and opening their ears to a hint of jazz…think of it as a stepping stone to gradually drawing in new people to the jazz art form. The more they hear smooth jazz, eventually the more they will want more, and begin tuning in to more complex material. It’s better they listen to smooth jazz, rather than 4-chord pop music on a loop. Feed the masses with small amounts of jazz they can comprehend, and convert them with time. Don’t close the door on people because they have yet to acquire a taste for a higher grade of music.
September 21, 2017 at 1:54 pm
Dave Brubeck’s Take Five (among others on Time Out) is rather simplified and has a “lack of complex voicings and the over-simple reliance on a single thread in the composition condemns the form to something less interesting than what might be possible if the performers were genuinely engaged in their art.”
Is this classic album smooth on your scale? If not, why not? Where is the line?
I know Dave Brubeck and Desmond felt constrained by the melodic line they created but you could say the same for numerous other “true jazz”” artists. I mean on one extreme you have pure improvisation based on chord changes with virtually no written melody (free) to prescriptive swing band jazz with solo improvisation (most, but not all of the time) or even further to “smooth jazz” where improvisation is practically non-existent in the recording (but not necessarily so in a concert format).
In my opinion, all are forms of jazz, just with different levels of spice. Like I said earlier, free jazz is “not my bag baby””, but that doesn’t exclude it from the “true jazz” label by definition, only by listener preference.
February 3, 2018 at 11:12 pm
I’d much rather 15 minutes of Smooth Jazz than 15 minutes of atonal saxophone gasping.
March 1, 2018 at 7:27 am
It’s the opposite for me.
February 5, 2018 at 7:50 pm
Most of the comments in this thread are obviously from people who are not musicians. You have no idea what you’re talking about.
February 6, 2018 at 4:24 am
I am not a musician but I do know what music I like and appreciate and I have allowed myself to experience a wide range of music from rock to pop to “classic rock” to blues to country to to classical, to instrumental, to Tejano, to German polka to jazz. I dislike only the genre of rap, essentially because of its sexism or misogyny but even rap can be redeemed by positive lyrics or an artist. The prejudices displayed by writers here is disgusting and disturbing.
December 31, 2018 at 6:10 pm
Smooth jazz has been rightfully relegated to Muzak in public restrooms. I only wish I could flush it down the toilet as easily as other waste.
May 3, 2020 at 3:25 pm
I love smooth jazz. I love all music and regularly listen to many genres.
July 5, 2020 at 7:56 am
the Only people that claim to hate jazz are classic rock whites, Millennial age Hip hop lovers, and Jazz artists. the Latter mistakenly think, because they see the word “jazz” in the term, that it is a shunt of Jazz. ITS NOT.
We call some music “r&b”
Is there any blues artists that are offended by the term “rhythm and BLUES?
I Hate jazz. Its long, and self serving, and its 20 minutes of soloing.
You dont have to hate it with me.
The main people saying that smooth jazz was hated are the people in the media, who successfully killed it, because the genre was making it hard to divide us into neat demographics.
It wasnt black nor white. Gay, nor straight. Old nor young. Male nor female. It included all of it. Radio wants pointed genres that reach specified Demographics. THATS why Smooth jazz, As well as disco had to be killed.
The way the labels try to divide if they see us all liking one style, is to take the whites and make the same music, and them make new black artists in the same genre, so offensive in appearance to whites , that the whites wont want to listen.. but the blacks will.
they tried that with rap. It was party music that all liked. then to divide, they pushed gang member music. Unfortunately whites still remained. they made white gang looking artists… Blacks liked them and so did whites.
rap couldnt be killed. So it was relegated to one station on a city market, if ANY at all.
Despite its massive sales.
Till this day, there are more country music stations in many markets despite the reality that country doesnt sell anywhere close to rap, in those same areas.
Wake up. the radio and who the labels push are all tied together. thats why rappers are entering country.’
the hope is once again, to peel off those whites that will accept a Darius Rucker, from the Clink Black loving whites.
It wont work.
Satchmo KeithJarrett lover
February 27, 2021 at 1:51 am
Like any genre, there are original voices, and then many who are deeply influenced by one or another predecessor, some good, some just OK.
Snobs abound in our world, but there is such a wide family tree of American music that was originally called “jazz” or “devil music”, but thanks to the dancehall swing era, and Ellington’s concert presentations then gained some respectability. The keys to understanding the SMOOTH JAZZ “label” are an evolution out of “Soul Jazz” (Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Jimmy Smith, Turrentine, Lou Donaldson), Fusion, Funk and R&B/Soul. The radio stations were originally labeled “New Adult Contemporary”, when they all played a mixture of the above styles. Then, the Chicago WNUA and LA KTTW The Wave radio stations BRANDED themselves as “smooth jazz” and the marketing name stuck and sold a lot of radio ads; Affluent, multi-cultural listeners……The station owners got rich, and they also emphasized the live outdoor concerts that they promoted featuring a mostly energetic, or mesmerizing soulful group of performers. A very good strategy for quite a while, until they burned it on both ends – deregulation helped them consolidate the radio “properties” – selling stations for millions and many ended up playing 70% classic R&B vocals…..
So, now the only “smooth jazz” “radio” is found on the internet. Still 4 or 5 generations of musicians playing on the legacies of Grover, Crusaders, Wes, Hank Crawford, Bob James, JB…..
February 9, 2022 at 1:29 pm
Grover Washington Jr. was not smooth jazz. He could lay down some serious grooves. “Winelight” alone will tell you that
January 21, 2023 at 6:17 am
I’ve been a strong fan of Smooth Jazz since it was its own entity; even as far back as the early 1980s. The irony is I look like a surfer/Redneck White Trash hillbilly, etc KTWV in SoCal, KYOT Phoenix, etc.
Prior to that format’, I was/is a huge fan of soft/mellow rock, KNX-FM summed up in a nutshell. And the Sunshine Pop era also caught my attention, despite not really knowing about it till the early 1970s. Spanky and the Gang, Brian Auger and the Trinity, Sugarloaf, Beach boys, 5th Dimension, etc.
My musical tastes were formed in part to keep my sanity while still stuck in the Wash DC area. Then 1978 saw me in Calif and now Arizona.