April is a special month so it seems. Among other things it’a National Jazz Appreciation Month-celebrating the one musical genre that can with absolute certainty trace its origin entirely to America. In the early years of school, it was surprising how many people at that time asked me about my fathers taste in music. When they asked I would tell them it was jazz. A few people knew what I was talking about, however most didn’t. When I reached pre-adolescence my family would have these get together’s. A couple of the guests were two DJ’s from local public and community radio stations who had jazz radio shows. Their personal preference was acoustic jazz music-nothing more, nothing less. During this time, when I myself was developing my own interest in funk, soul and R&B of the 60’s,70’s and 80’s I asked my father what inspired his love of jazz. He told me that one reason is because it was uniquely American. And that it represented the sense of progression and change that accurately reflected American life.
During adolescence I began to find that more and more people knew what jazz was. At the time I wasn’t aware of what the categorizations for every music was. Personally I was becoming more aware how musical genres interrelated, rather than the categories magazines and other media would use to separate them. During this learning process I began to learn that the jazz most people were suddenly becoming aware of wasn’t the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock or even the Crusaders and Ramsey Lewis albums in my fathers personal music collection. Turns out it was a music I’d more commonly hear at my grandparents house while watching the Weather Channel. It had a very glassy,electronic and light tone to it. Upon first listen it seemed like an elevator music style of jazz. At the same time, some of it was extremely lively and energetic. It wasn’t actually until just after the turn of the millennium did a radio station begin operation in my area that played this music, and I learned what it’s name was: smooth jazz.
Smooth jazz is a music that during my rising adulthood came to represent probably the most unappreciated and maligned music of my generation. To the point where it seems almost musically sacrilegious to discuss it in the same context with say swing or be-bop music. Everybody I talked to about this music who considered themselves “serious” music fans dismissed this smooth jazz as, at best something to laugh at or, at worst something that didn’t deserve to exist. For this writing I did a little studying of my own on the subject and learned something fascinating about the smooth jazz genre. It would seem its inception had a lot to do with radio formats. I’d grown up listening to songs such as Grover Washington Jr’s “Just The Two Of Us” and Al Jarreau’s “We’re In The This Love Together”. Always considered these pop songs written and/or sung with a jazzy flavor. Apparently they were part of a mixture of radio formats called “urban pop” and “adult contemporary” with jazz fusion that somehow evolved into this style called smooth jazz sometime in the 1990’s when the name was coined. But I never did a lot of concerted thing on the topic. What qualities make smooth jazz what it is? And are they perhaps the same qualities that give it so many detractors?
One of the most important nuggets of knowledge I received in my online conversations with a number of music fans from all of the country is that smooth jazz is not generally a style of instrumentation or songwriting. It is more over a type of musical production- based a great deal on what is going on inside the studio from the mixing board. True smooth jazz focuses more on melody than improvisation. But instrumentally an excellent example of the smooth jazz production that is central to the sound of the music would be former Jeff Lorber saxophone player Kenny Gorrelick-more popularly known as Kenny G. His actual style of saxophone playing is not all that dissimilar to Grover Washington Jr’s. However his solos, especially on his recordings after the mid 1980’s, featured a great deal of echo and other studio effects that gave his sax playing a more synthesized feeling than an organic one. That is almost always a constant for most smooth jazz productions. It’s usually very live instrumental oriented but the sound of the bass, drums, guitar and keyboards are all echoed and processed in the same manner for a much flatter and less intense sound than most pop jazz styles. The overall intention is to make the music more relaxing in sound and not as instrumentally complicated.
A lot of other musical genres have the same relaxing instrumental tone but don’t have the lack of production grittiness inherent to most smooth jazz. A good example of this would be when my parents were at someones office one time and they were discussing Sade with someone there. They told my parents if they liked Sade’s music, they’d like the music of a saxophone player named Bony James. When they heard James’ music, it didn’t move them at all in the same manner as Sade’s. That was because Sade showcased a very organically produced live band sound that was smooth and melodic, yet not oriented around the flattened and echoed production style a Bony James would tend to have. This is why a lot of people seem to have a difficult time separating adult contemporary soul/funk from smooth jazz. Because both feature mostly mid-tempo and gentle rhythms, they seem a lot more musically complimentary than they actually are. Urban adult contemporary music is often very muscly in sound and a good source for funkier sounds because again it often lacks the defining smooth jazz production quality that defines that particular kind of music.
Jazz has never been particularly accurate in predicting it’s future. This can be particularly noticeable with sub-genres of the music such as avante garde and electric fusion. And the appeal of a music like smooth jazz can also depend on economic factors and the temperament of music culture. During the 90’s smooth jazz was attempting to survive in a musical climate dictated by the ethics of “edge and conflict”,due to alternative rock/grunge’s obsession with punk music as well as its predominance at that time. Needless to say the smooth jazz genre ran into a lot of resistance in pop culture as a result and has been the butt of many jokes since. And even in terms of music a lot of people are influenced solely by what they hear in the media. Economically the smooth jazz radio format, so enormous a decade ago, has began to falter due to simple lack of interest from the public. I myself have found some smooth jazz music to sink under the weight of its defining cookie cutter production method. Yet artists such as Joe Sample, Jeff Lorber and some of Paul Hardcastle’s recent work have showcased a different way of utilizing those production qualities in new and exciting ways. So as with any of jazz music’s many tributaries perhaps smooth jazz is worthy of it’s own level of appreciation.