In order to understand Smooth Jazz history you must first understand what Smooth Jazz is. Smooth Jazz seems to be an offshoot of Jazz Fusion and Contemporary Jazz which combines soothing seductive instrumental alto and tenor saxophone driven melodies over synthesizer driven tracks with a dash of bossa nova, some sultry 70s Quiet Storm and some easy listening music. To many people Smooth Jazz is more of a creation of marketing departments and programmers than it is a clearly defined musical genre. Smooth jazz features less improvisation than traditional jazz, but it attracts more listeners of all ages.
Smooth Jazz often has light, Funk-derived backbeats overlaid with sinuous crooning horns, silken electric bass, with keyboards and guitars rounding out the crowd-pleasing sound. Radio programmers coined the term 'Smooth Jazz' in the 1970s. It was designed to fill the void left by the gradual disappearance of saccharin-sweet Muzak for people looking for relaxing background music that they could listen to during dinner or when unwinding in the evening after work. Smooth Jazz is a little more upbeat than mellow Adult Contemporary music. Marketers and radio programmers felt the word smooth in its name had peaceful connotations and would attract listeners.
And they were right. Smooth Jazz became very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It quickly separated itself from the catch-all term 'Contemporary Jazz' and was embraced by mature listeners, couples and young adults in major markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Soon the number of radio stations featuring smooth jazz formats began to multiply exponentially and a growing number of established and new jazz artists began including smooth jazz pieces on their albums. Within about two decades Smooth Jazz became a global phenomenon that was personified by sax man Kenny G and the back-to-back-to-back hits he had in the 1990s.
Today there are a slew of talented, popular smooth jazz artists. They include major stars like George Benson, Boney James, Rick Braun, Steve Cole, Brian Culbertson, and Norman Brown. They tend to have more financial success than equally talented jazz artists and groups like Spyro Gyra, Eric Marienthal, Rippingtons, Yellowjackets, Dave Weckl and the Pat Metheny Group. A major difference between the two types of jazz seems to be the role of the drummers. From the 1920 to the 1970s, funk inspired jazz drummers rode the hi-hat and the cymbals. In smooth jazz rhythms, the drummers tend to use the bass drum and the snare a great deal more to build up the beat.
The genre of music called smooth jazz can be defined as a blend of traditional jazz, elements of easy listening music, mellow, soulful pop music and a touch of Latin jazz. It's usually characterized as being downtempo in the range of 90-105 beats per minute with tenor and soprano sax and guitars playing soothing melodies over preprogrammed tracks created using a synthesizer. The term 'smooth jazz' only came into popular use in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, putting an exact date on when the kind of music that can be classified as 'smooth jazz' first began to appear can be challenging.
For some jazz purists, saxophonist John Klemmer's album 'Touch' released in 1975 is the first true smooth jazz album. Guitarist George Benson's 1976 release 'Breezin', flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione's 1977 instrumental 'Feels So Good' and the instrumental 'Morning Dance' released by Spyro Gyra, the jazz fusion group, in 1979 are some of the earliest releases in what can truly be defined as smooth jazz. The hits produced in the 1980s by Grover Washington, Anita Baker, Al Jarreau and Sade and saxophonist Kenny G in the 1990s are all considered to be smooth jazz classics.
However, some jazz historians say smooth jazz was being played long before that. They say jazz will never be any smoother than when played by Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz. Others argue that guitarist Wes Montgomery's work with producer Creed Taylor at Verve and CTI Records that resulted in 'A Day in the Life' as well as 'Down Here on the Ground' in 1967 and 'Road Song' in 1968 were definitely smooth jazz tracks. They also point out that this so-called 'new genre' is just a slightly new take on the incredibly smooth music created by jazz artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.
Other early smooth jazz giants included Lee Ritenour and his album 'First Course' which was released in 1976. Ernie Watts Lee's 'Sheffield Labs' recording along with the work of Dave Grusin, Harvy Mason and Larry Carlton, who created the Hill Street Blues TV series theme song, are also important early contributors to the smooth jazz genre. CTI label mates Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker and Stanley Turrentine were also early influences on the emerging 'new' type of jazz that was gaining attention from people in the mainstream who had never paid attention to jazz before that smoother style began to dominate the airwaves.
The smooth jazz era gave mainstream audience access to and generated interest in artists like Bob James, David Sanborn and Herb Alpert. While these artists had long been creating great music, releasing a smooth jazz hit brought them into the consciousness of a new segment of the music buying public. Artists like Boney James, Rick Braun, Dave Sanborn and Tom Scott and excellent vocalists like Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Clare Teal have all gotten an opportunity to gain mass appeal because this new smoother jazz with its pop influences has been able to touch the soul of listeners young and old who had not been drawn to straight-ahead jazz.
Smooth jazz is less a distinct genre than an evolution in the sound, mood and feel of contemporary jazz. It is old and young artists like Joe Sample, Chuck Loeb, Eric Marienthal, Chick Corea, Chris Botti, Peter White, Art Porter, guitarist Zachary Breaux, soprano saxman George Howard, the group Acoustic Alchemy that are all helping to define and expand the bounderies of smooth jazz in their own way. They have all helped to make smooth jazz rich with new energy, styles and innovation while drawing inspiration and guidance from the jazz artists before them that gave birth to the cool jazz era.
Drawing the line of demarcation for this new genre is difficult when you listen to the music of soul-oriented saxophonists like Pamela Williams and Kim Waters and hear echoes of the past. Even the new kids like saxophonist Jimmy Reid and guitarist Tony Darren continue to draw ideas and inspiration from their predecessors in the continually evolving world of music. Can artists like Boney James, Peter White, Jeff Golub and Rick Braun with his flugelhorn and smoky muted trumpet and sharp grooves be separated from the grace and cool of the music of Miles Davis? It's all simply a gift for listeners to enjoy.
The smooth jazz era has seen artists like Richard Elliot take it in new directions and to new levels by adding their cool, simmering soul which has proven to be irresistible to a growing audience. Piano sensation Jim Brickman, funky electric guitarists like Evan Marks, Chris Standring and Grant Geissman with his Higher Octave debut are all adding nice new grooves to today's smooth jazz. While it's not a musical revolution, it does continue an evolution in the flavor of popular jazz that has been going on for almost 50 years. Jazz is a living thing that continues to grow, change and attract new listeners.
But not everyone loves smooth jazz. Some say it lacks creative value and derisively refer to it as 'yuppie jazz', 'jazz lite' and 'jacuzzi jazz'. They see the genre as being for upscale, condo-dwelling Baby Boomers to listen to as they luxuriate in their hot tubs for a steamy, seductive evening. Critics see smooth jazz as a lesser descendent of true jazz that lacks improvisation and is little more than elevator music. But nothing could be further from the truth. Many people have felt the spirit and seen the potential for improvisation in smooth jazz since it was defined in the 1970s.
Marketing people and radio programmers wanted music that would fit in with the relaxing lifestyle they envisioned their target audience living, so they promoted the music that became known as smooth jazz. That music is a sub-genre of contemporary jazz that has a highly refined sound which gives it mass market appeal. It emphasizes the tenor and mood the music creates rather than its individual parts. By the 1990s, smooth jazz had a cadre of hot selling stars like Rick Braun, Bob James, Marc Antoine, Peter White and Brian Culbertson and a large and growing following.
With the rise in popularity of smooth jazz many artists began to move away from the contemporary sound they had produced in the past and focus on the smooth sounds the public and the programmers were looking for, embracing and buying. Artists like Richard Elliot and Thom Rotella began creating one sub-genre within smooth jazz while 3rd Force and Craig Chaquico were adding new age elements to the contempo/smooth jazz mix and creating another sub-genre. They all have their roots in Jazz Fusion, but are also focused on giving the growing group of smooth jazz lovers music with the soothing vibe they seem to love.
The progression from jazz fusion to contemporary jazz to smooth jazz that took place between the late 1960s and the early 1990s was subtle yet powerful. It resulted in more airplay for jazz artists that were able to create smooth relaxing music. It also made smooth sounding R&B artists like Anita Baker and Sade part of the fold. The market for smooth jazz swept the world. The music has the soul of jazz that attracts many long-time jazz lovers, but it also has silky smooth romantic ballads for lovers and the airy feeling that makes it ideal in almost any social setting. By the mid-1990s, Kenny G was the poster child for smooth jazz and an international star.
While some jazz traditionalists consider smooth jazz a genre that's less 'authentic' than straight-ahead jazz, they have to admit it is widening the audience for jazz in general and it has benefitted artists that remained focused more traditional forms of jazz. This ambivalence towards smooth jazz as a genre has not limited its growth. Instead, a wide range of jazz artists have continued to add smooth jazz pieces to their albums. They understand that to be a success in the business of jazz, they not only have to broaden the minds of their audiences by experimenting with unique, mind-blowing improvisation, they also have to give music lovers what they want to increase sales.
The worst criticism of smooth jazz is that it represents artists giving up authenticity and selling their musical souls to make money. Still, even smooth jazz's harshest critics are forced to admit the genre has brought a growing audience under the jazz tent. While jazz traditionalists may wail that smooth jazz isn't 'real' jazz, there is no doubt the genre has helped to grow the art form by brining in new players and new audiences. Some argue that the commercial success of smooth jazz is causing a watering down of the purity of the music. Others contend there has always been room within jazz for different strains of the music.
The birth and growth of smooth jazz has not been linear. Some say its roots extend back to the earliest days of the art form and argue that smooth jazz has always existed even when straight-ahead jazz was at its peak. It is clear that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and thousands of other jazz artists before them created the foundation on which smooth jazz is based. There have long been jazz artists playing soothing jazz in fine restaurants and upscale nightclubs. Bringing jazz to the masses has also been a goal of jazz musicians for decades. While the term 'smooth jazz' is a modern creation, the music itself isn't.