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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I like people who can laugh at themselves, as Mega-Lo Mart spokesman, Chuck Mangione, likes to do…it Feels So Good!
That was great and informative, please don’t stop.
Great post, thanks! I wonder if Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass might also have been early “smooth jazz”.
The Smooth jazz genre in my opinion came from contemporary jazz. We used to listen to WJZZ in Detroit and about 90% of the music was instrumental with some vocals. The vocalist were artists like Anita Baker, Randy Crawford, Al Jarraeu, Michael Franks and others. The instrumentalists were Grover Washington,Jr., David Sanborn, George Benson, Kenny G, The Rippingtons, Najee, Gerald Albright, Bobby Lyle, Chuck Mangione, etc. This was truly the contemporary jazz sound and most of these artists were previously only receiving airplay on some R&B stations that had a contemporary jazz show for a few hours on a Sunday and if the songs were hot, they could find their way into the regular rotation from time to time. Kenny G of course hit it big with getting major pop radio airtime and carved out a huge audience for himself with Clive Davis at the helm of his record label, Arista Records that produced Whitney Houston and many other big pop artists. Of course Kenny’s success helped to put Smooth Jazz on the map. Then, someone decided to start adding pop vocalist to the Smooth Jazz format like Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and I even heard Bette Midler singing Love TKO that was originally recorded by Teddy Pendergrass. The idea was to catch pop radio listeners as they were scrolling through the dial and the pop song would grab their attention and then they would hear contemporary jazz artists that they probably never heard of. The Smooth Jazz listening audience started to decline around the late 90s. I actually had a recording contract with Atlantic Records in 1996. Shortly after that around 1999, many smooth jazz stations had gone off the air. There are only a few major markets right now that even have a smooth jazz radio station. Even the biggest market in the country, New York does not have a smooth jazz station like it used to be. The music just started to die kind of like what happened with straight ahead jazz which hasn’t been that popular in many years although there are still a few stations out there that play the music. However,these mostly college radio stations where students learn about the history of jazz. Now, only thanks to the internet are smooth jazz listeners able to get some of the music in their cars. Since most of the radio stations are gone, many stations are on the internet and people can listen through Bluetooth in their cars and other places. Fortunately there are still many smooth jazz fans who will come out to the concerts and festivals where the artists sell a bulk of their music on CD and of course now with the incredible popularity of cell phones, many people choose to download the songs which has helped the genre to survive. One thing for sure, if the younger generation does not pick up on the music, it too will eventually fade to a much smaller audience like the straight ahead genre. Thanks for sharing your story.
I miss smooth Jazz. The sound was great, the artist are real musicians.
The mood was Smooth. The internet and streaming have saved this lost art form and preserved it for so many to still appreciate.
Country is not my forte, And I will not listen to a lot of Pop.
What’s really left. Music Genres die. This one still has a place in the world.
Smooth Jazz, Great Scullers Jazz club,Allston/ Double Tree Suite Hotel,Had a good thing and blew it Great Entertainment,seen some great smooth Jazz musicians,it all. Started in 1972/ Big Business hurt this Thanks “Hilton ” WMJX radio,Boston, Thank You Miami too! Brutal”
Smooth Jazz is mostly what I listen too. Ive volunteered 15 yrs atJazz festivals& gone go many concerts they r full it is alive& well in my world u dnt mention Dave Koz,Boney, Al Jarreau G.Albright so many more
As a musician of 60 years, and having played all styles of music, I reject your position regarding “smooth jazz” as being too simplistic. The category got started when record sellers didn’t know where to stock certain “albums” that didn’t fit in the existing categories. There are rockers that play smooth jazz and straight-ahead players that do smooth jazz too. Using Kenny G as the poster child for smooth jazz is also simplistic. Even smooth jazz guys will knock the G as something else. I’ve been on stage when a smooth jazz tune is ripping it up. It happens often. I know it’s easy to pick on it, but it has a lot of musical merit and followers to go with it. So go pick on rap or something else!
My husband and I love smooth jazz it was so relaxing and I could listen to it allday long I hate they took off the jazz station.I wish it would come back.Their will be no other music like it.
Long live smooth jazz!!!
This garbage article is riddled with inaccuracies, not to mention a snide arrogance that undercuts any point the author has attempted to make. Smooth jazz is alive and well in many places, including many live venues but also including the Smooth Jazz channel on iHeartRadio, streamed from Ohio. The key reason smooth jazz decreased in visibility is the same reason nearly all music suffered a massive setback: the rise of iTunes and then the rise of streaming. It’s popular to unfairly ridicule smooth jazz (and especially Kenny G), but guess what: the public is sick and tired of it, and the so-called arguments are bogus.
If it’s a “dead genre” radio.com and amazon music must be necromancers, because they both have HUGE smooth jazz channels
Checkout amazon radio and radio.com I know that KIFM from San Diego is on radio.com, and I’m sure there are others
This article is dumb. I actually like smooth jazz. It’s better than the boring top 40 crap that radios play now.
Every generation has great music to them. Smooth/cool jazz is not terrible. Its beloved by many. Its sad when the type of music loved by many just disappeArs. What happened to all those artists? What are they doing for income? I say ‘bring it back’ and stop calling it muzak/elevator music..they are NOT the same!
Bring back smooth jazz on KKSF 103.7. Hate whats on there now…🥴😞
KAZI Sunday Evening Jazz your host Billy Williams Hello from Sunday evening jazz KAZI 88.7 fm or KAZI.org
Just ran across this, and interesting because lately I’ve been thinking about my late 80’s in Chicago listening to radio station WNUA, with DJ Danae Alexander playing smooth jazz on her “Lights Out” program! Let me tell you that she had a huge following, and no one knows why she, and the station, went away.
I like a lot of different jazz, but mostly straight ahead. Give me a little Cannonball any day. You can argue all night about jazz genre’s, but I’ll take smooth jazz over hard-bop any time; and let’s not even talk about 60’s experimental jazz that sounds like someone shooting glass shards out of a shotgun into a speaker! Yeah, I get the historic aspects of the “movement”, but geez, Ornette Coleman anyone. Virtually unlistenable!
People get to jazz all different ways, me through Joni Mitchell and the her jazz laced albums in my early 20’s. Listening to Tom Scott made me want to hear more, up and down the genre. I love the trip….
I fell in love with Smooth Jazz in the 90’s in Southern California. When I retired to rural Texas I was devastated that I could not find it anywhere. I have always preferred softer music. In fact I am sure that a lot of Highly Sensitive Persons, a real scientifically-validated physiological trait that around 20% of people have, also prefer softer music as we are too easily over-stimulated. . I do like many other kinds of jazz (dixieland, 40’s, 50’s, etc) but find that much improvisational type jazz is just too dissonant for me. I also don’t care for hard rock, metallica, rap etc. for the same reason. Imagine my delight now as I discover that Amazon Music has lots of Smooth Jazz. I did find it strange that most of the recordings are from artists that were recording in the 80’s – 90’s. Thanks to this article I now understand why and what happened to it. I think there will always be an audience for soft relaxing music – muzak too if you will. I just hope there are enough younger people to carry it on in the future,
Kenny G is up for debate…
Back in the 70’s Bob James and Earl Klugh were already going at it in the Smooth Jazz arena. LONG before Kenny became known.