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It’s OK To Like Smooth Jazz

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Smooth jazz is a much-maligned genre – and it doesn’t look like that situation is going to change anytime soon. That’s unfortunate because many of the key practitioners of the music are supremely gifted instrumentalists whose talent and virtuosity deserve wider recognition. But, sadly, the svelte grooves and moods that these musicians create are usually categorised as “dinner jazz”, and can be heard piping gently in the background of myriad wine bars and restaurants all around the world.

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…

For those wondering where smooth jazz came from, its roots can be traced back to the early 60s. At that time, bebop-influenced jazz had been marginalised 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 coalesced 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 his wife, Astrud.

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 smoother and more polite.

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 criticised 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.

George Benson With Quincy Jones And Stevie Wonder - 530

George Benson, with Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder

As the 60s gave way to the 70s, Miles Davis plugged into the mains socket and 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.

David Sanborn - 530

David Sanborn

But they were eclipsed by 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, but their music, though polished and expertly executed, wasn’t insipid or sterile. Though its jazz content was diluted compared to what bebop fans expected, it still had room for some fine soloing alongside supreme melodic playing. 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 categorisation. 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 reflected how versatile and adaptive jazz musicians could be. 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 synthesisers. But that didn’t stop Fourplay, a smooth jazz supergroup led by Bob James, making waves with a more organic approach.

Jazz Pianist Bob James (far left) with Fourplay in 2015 - 530

Pianist Bob James (far left), celebrating Fourplay’s 25th anniversary in 2015

In terms of its popularity, smooth jazz peaked in the early 00s, but it still has a loyal audience, 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. Sometimes it can just be enjoyed for its own sake, and smooth jazz, with its accessible, 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.

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27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. robertm2000

    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.

  2. Pat

    February 1, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells that way.

    • Chris Basten

      February 3, 2018 at 11:08 pm

      Credit Frank Zappa for that quote.

  3. Chris

    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.’

    • Salomon

      September 19, 2017 at 3:22 am

      Either you are a GREAT musician or you are sick.

    • Robn

      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?

    • Chris Basten

      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.

  4. rash

    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

    • Dwight Homer

      September 19, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      Nothing Rash about your comment. Couldn’t agree more.

  5. JOHN

    February 2, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    COOL

  6. Bob Gavin

    February 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    Smooth jazz IS jazz–just less filling

  7. 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.

  8. Ricardo da Mata

    September 18, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Real jazz is never smooth. Please, respect jazz!

  9. Scott Dettman

    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).

  10. Wayne Land

    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.

  11. Celan

    September 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Ornette Coleman wouldn’t favor watered-down jazz-lite.

  12. Robn

    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.

  13. Perry

    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.
    Later
    https://www.numberonemusic.com/slang1

  14. Dwight Homer

    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.

    • Robn

      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.

    • Scott Dettman

      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.

  15. TOM CARVALHO

    February 3, 2018 at 2:59 pm

    Norah Jones, a jazz giant???????? Ridiculous!!!

    • Chris Basten

      February 3, 2018 at 11:13 pm

      Snorah Jones.

  16. Chris Basten

    February 3, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    I’d much rather 15 minutes of Smooth Jazz than 15 minutes of atonal saxophone gasping.

    • Viktor Muerte

      March 1, 2018 at 7:27 am

      It’s the opposite for me.

  17. Matt

    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.

  18. Patrick Longworth

    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.

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