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 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”.

  • Tim Cunningham says:

    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.

  • Mike Check says:

    Great arti­cle.
    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.

  • Paul Kelly says:

    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”

  • michele quigley says:

    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

  • Jim Easton says:

    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!

  • Mary Carter says:

    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.

  • Daniel T Hulett says:

    Long live smooth jazz!!!

  • Honey Hale says:

    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.

  • Komplikator says:

    If it’s a “dead genre” and ama­zon music must be necro­mancers, because they both have HUGE smooth jazz chan­nels

  • Komplikator says:

    Check­out ama­zon radio and I know that KIFM from San Diego is on, and I’m sure there are oth­ers

  • Ann says:

    This arti­cle is dumb. I actu­al­ly like smooth jazz. It’s bet­ter than the bor­ing top 40 crap that radios play now.

  • April Ledgerwood Robinson says:

    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!

  • April Ledgerwood Robinson says:

    Bring back smooth jazz on KKSF 103.7. Hate whats on there now…🥴😞

  • Billy Williams says:

    KAZI Sun­day Evening Jazz your host Bil­ly Williams Hel­lo from Sun­day evening jazz KAZI 88.7 fm or

  • Andy Umbo says:

    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.…

  • Jan W. says:

    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,

  • Olga says:


    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.

  • Al Davis says:

    I grew up in a home where jazz was king. My Dad loved Stan Ken­ton and all the oth­er Big Bands of the day. Shaw, Miller, Rid­dle, James, etc. In fact when I was about 12 I saw Har­ry James, Woody Her­man and Bud­dy Rich at the Carousel The­ater in an obscure place called West Cov­ina, CA. The stage actu­al­ly turned as the bands played so every­one had a great seat. My mom played piano on a live local
    radio sta­tion accom­pa­ny­ing Andy Rus­sell. Look it up.
    My Dad worked for a com­pa­ny that sold all types of record play­ers (before and after stereo). We had every state of the art Hi-Fi/stereo equip­ment in our house con­tin­u­ous­ly. My Dad also played piano by ear but he could keep up with the greats. A Wurl­itzer stand up box. I think it cost about $800 in the ear­ly 50’s.
    As I am writ­ing, I am lis­ten­ing to jazz/smooth jazz at this very moment. Play on!!

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