The Strange History of Smooth Jazz: The Music We All Know and Love … to Hate

It’s the most unloved and derided of music genres, but the history of Smooth Jazz is not as bad as you might think. In another chapter of Vox’s excellent Earworm series (see Chapter 1 here and Chapter 2 here), Estelle Caswell explores the rise and fall of this modern day elevator music and asks if it’s worth reconsidering.

The undisputed star of smooth jazz has to be the “Songbird” himself, the frizzy-hair be-coifed Kenny G. (The only part of the video I took issue with is when one fan is quoted saying “he was the cool white boy.” Ma’am, all due respect, but Kenny G was never cool.) The man played alongside Clinton’s inauguration and once broke a world record by holding a note for 45 minutes. The smoothest of smooth jazz issued forth from his soprano sax and like it or not, his was a readily identifiable sound in a genre where nothing is supposed to stand out.




Earworm first traces the history of the form back to Grover Washington Jr., CTI Records, and other artists like Wes Montgomery. While Miles Davis was exploring difficult sonic textures, jazz headed into free improv territory, splitting from tonality in much the same split as befell classical music. What emerged was something closer to r’n’b and soul with improvised melodies over the top, or covers of popular pop hits from the ‘60s. This also could be seen as an evolution of jazz’s raiding of the Great American Songbook along with Broadway hits. If Coltrane could break “My Favorite Things” into cubism, surely there was a place for Wes Montgomery to riff over the groove of “Goin’ Out of My Head” by Little Anthony and the Imperials.

And from Montgomery we get to George Benson, silky smooth and undeniably funky. He even scat sang his solos at the same time as he played them on the guitar. His records went platinum which meant something in the days of rock’s ascendancy and jazz’s fall.

But as Earworm points out, Smooth Jazz only became a thing when marketing stepped in. As freeform stations were bought out by corporations, market research firms targeted audiences with focus groups. It was in one of those groups that a woman described the music like Benson and Bob James as “smooth jazz,” and the name stuck. 
It’s fitting that the west coast was the birthplace in 1987 of the first “smooth jazz” station, KTWV in Los Angeles, 94.7 THE WAVE, home of all sorts of laid-back grooves since the very beginning of jazz and pop. Other stations would soon follow suit, reaching a height of popularity in 1994, when Kenny G won Best Adult Contemporary Artist at the American Music Awards. It was “smooth sounds for a rough world,” as one adman called it, but what it really was comfort music for office drones.

Ironically, the forces that put smooth jazz at the top were responsible for its fall, as new technology to measure radio ratings found it couldn’t pick out the music from the background sounds. By 2008 and the financial implosion, smooth jazz radios stations were on the decline and the great recession killed it off.

It’s fitting because smooth jazz was the soundtrack to a dream of capitalism, all the rough edges burnished away, blinkered aspirations made into melody. But when the dream melted for everybody, smooth jazz evaporated. At least with soft rock you got songs and tales of heartache.

However, it would not surprise me to see Smooth Jazz make a nostalgic, ironic-but-not comeback. If Japan’s City Pop, which trades in similar smooth textures, can speak to the disaffected youth about a deep, affluent wish that never came true, Chuck Mangione can’t be too far behind. And it just feels. so. good.

P.S. If you have a hankerin' to hear some smoothness right now, Vox has a Spotify playlist for what ails you.

Related Content:

How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit: Discover Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”

The History of Spiritual Jazz: Hear a Transcendent 12-Hour Mix Featuring John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock & More

Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.


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  • Mo McFadden says:

    I never liked smooth jazz, I preferred one straight up no chaser. It always reminded me of that dastardly Muzak. There was nothing remotely musical about Muzak. Good story Ted.

  • David Wright says:

    I disagree about there being nothing remotely musical about Muzak. Of course there is, but it generally is disparaged in this way similar to Kenny G., or Michael Bolton. I find Muzak to be quite soothing at times and a lot of time it was played by professional, accomplished musicians. There’s a need for it just like the New Age movement, which might be its closer cousin. We can all stand to decompress in our daily lives. I ran into a older vinyl album not long ago that talked about this cause and effect of Muzak–as a way to psychologically relax the mind. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.

  • Gene Engene says:

    There is something reminiscent of the early Big Band era, pre-WWII, during, and a little after, in it. The sounds of The Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, even early Artie Shaw. They all diverged after the war, and did play some pretty jazzy, uptempo stuff, but it seemed the war era called for something soothing. And yes, that was a while before the music business became an ‘industry’, music started to be sold in singles on ’45s’. But the original, pre-vinyl, somewhat fragile records, were more often heard on the radio, than to be played at home on a dedicated, console ‘record player’. We had one, a huge Packard-Bell, radio/player combo, which my father tended assiduously. And he had played sax and clarinet during his college years, even auditioned for Lawrence Welk, but didn’t get hired, so turned to other things. But he was an avid listener to almost anything, then, and often lamented the coming of rock, that seemed to him too simple, repetitive, and boring. He liked a tune/song that went somewhere, from A to B, or G, or maybe even Q; liked Glenn Miller, a lot, and Artie Shaw – would often hum along with them, and when he tinkered out in the garage, I’d hear him sometimes whistle along with them.But, he also enjoyed so-called ‘classical’ music, the more complex the better. He’d missed Prokofieff when in college, but when I brought in an album, in the mid-60s, he absolutely loved it. He’d stopped buying any music, but after that he got a new ‘player’, and actually went out, some weekends, and looked for things. In those days, at the larger stores, you could get a sample of an album played in the store, to hear if it was something you wanted. Not so rare, now, with digital samples abounding, repetitively, as the industry has recognized its marketing strength.
    Smooth jazz has a history … didn’t start with Kenny ‘G’, nor Grover Washington, but I’ll bet GW knew that.

  • Bill W. says:

    I like people who can laugh at themselves, as Mega-Lo Mart spokesman, Chuck Mangione, likes to do…it Feels So Good!

  • Michael McDade says:

    That was great and informative, please don’t stop.

  • Tim J says:

    Great post, thanks! I wonder if Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass might also have been early “smooth jazz”.

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