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Smooth jazz

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Smooth jazz

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Smooth jazz is generally described as a genre of music that utilizes instruments (and, at times, improvisation) traditionally associated with jazz and stylistic influences drawn from, among other sources, funk, popular and R&B. Since the late 1980s, it has become highly successful as a radio format; one can tune in to a "smooth jazz"-themed station nearly everywhere in the United States. Despite its apparently large following, there has been something of a backlash against the genre, mostly from jazz purists who consider its recordings bland and overly commercial.



Smooth jazz as it is known today first emerged in the mid- to late-1970s, pioneered by such artists as Grover Washington, Jr., Spyro Gyra and Pieces of a Dream, stemming from a number of extant styles including jazz fusion. Unlike that form, however, smooth jazz tends to emphasize melody and deemphasize improvisation.

However, The genre's roots can be traced to some time earlier: in the late 1960s famed record producer Creed Taylor worked with guitarist Wes Montgomery to three widely popular records (1967's A Day in the Life and Down Here on the Ground and 1968's Road Song) consisting of instrumental versions of familiar pop songs such as "Eleanor Rigby", "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Scarborough Fair".

From this success, Taylor founded CTI Records. Many established jazz performers recorded for CTI (including Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine) though the records they recorded under Taylor's guidance were typically aimed as much at pop audiences as at jazz fans; critic Scott Yanow writes that "Taylor had great success in balancing the artistic with the commercial."[1]


The average smooth jazz track is on the "downtempo" (most widely-played tracks are in the 90-105 BPM range) side, layering a lead, melody-playing instrument (saxophones are the most popular, with guitars a close second) over a backdrop that tends to consist of programmed rhythms and various pads and/or samples. (Though much of what is played under the banner of the "smooth jazz" radio format contains vocals, this is not usually the case for music recorded with the intent of categorization as smooth jazz. Rather, the stations in question pull their vocal tracks from the work of artists like Simply Red or Luther Vandross, who are normally considered "soul" or "R&B".)


Smooth jazz as a radio format has its roots in the construction of what were once called "beautiful music" stations, which generally played fifteen-minute sets consisting of instrumentals bookending a vocal song or two.

The first jazz radio station to attempt to reach an audience beyond hardcore jazz fans was New York's WRVR-FM, which was acquired by Sonderling Broadcasting in 1976. Under its new management, WRVR more than tripled its audience by emphasizing artists like George Benson and Pat Metheny that were crossing over to more popular formats. After WRVR was switched to country format WKHK in 1980 (it is now Adult Contemporary station WLTW) it was just a short time before WPIX-FM was switched to WQCD, under the auspices of consultant George Burns, to take over the "mass-appeal" jazz mantle. In Detroit, traditional jazz station WJZZ (now WDMK) went through a similar transition to a more mainstream sound in the late 1980s and also saw its ratings improve.

"Smooth jazz" has gone on to be recognized as a successful radio format, first emerging in name in the mid- to late-1980s (often, they would be transitioned from existing "new age" stations) and subsequently spreading into most radio markets within the United States and many without. Currently prominent smooth jazz stations include Seattle's KWJZ, Denver's KJCD, Los Angeles' KTWV, Philadelphia's WJJZ, Chicago's WNUA, Detroit's WVMV (which has often been ranked as the top-rated music station in the market and routinely outperforms its mainstream Adult Contemporary competitors), Internet Radio) and New York's WQCD (which experimented with a Chill Music-based format for a time but soon returned to its focus on Smooth Jazz).

The majority of major-market smooth-jazz radio stations are heavy on soft R&B vocals from artists like Luther Vandross, Sade, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder, and crossover Adult Contemporary hits from pop artists like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. Many also feature classic soul music heavily, particularly softer Motown gold such as "My Girl" and "Just My Imagination" by the Temptations and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye. For the most part, today's smooth-jazz stations give little airplay to the vocalists originally featured as part of the "new age" format, such as Enya and Basia, although there are exceptions, such as [2], XM Satellite Radio's smooth-jazz channel, called "Watercolors," and the smooth-jazz format delivered to radio stations via satellite by the Jones Radio Network. Among the stations carrying programming from the Jones Radio Network include the simulcast duo WJSJ-FM/WSJF-FM in Jacksonville, Florida; KSKX-FM in Colorado Springs, Colorado; KMGK-FM in Glenwood, Minnesota; and WJZQ-FM in Traverse City, Michigan. Jones has also begun to integrate Chill material into its music mix, although not nearly as heavily as New York's WQCD did during its short-lived experimentation with Chill.

The popularity of smooth jazz in major American radio markets has led to a proliferation of station-sponsored music festivals around the country where a number of the genre's performers play shows on the same stage throughout a day. They are usually held at high-profile locations such as resort hotels or wineries.

Popular artists

The groups or recording artists that rise to the top of the smooth jazz charts tend to play their instruments in a distinctively melodic fashion such that they are recognizable within just a few measures; this category includes names like saxophonist David Sanborn and guitarists Craig Chaquico and Peter White. Some performers, such as Dave Koz, attain fame via their numerous collaborations with many other of the genre's big names.

While the world of smooth jazz has thus far been relatively male-dominated, the successful female performers -- Keiko Matsui, Joyce Cooling, Mindi Abair, Candy Dulfer, Sade, Brenda Russell, and Anita Baker, for example, tend to be very much so.


A popular recent development is urban jazz, which incorporates aspects of hip-hop. This style is aimed at audiences who would normally listen to urban contemporary radio stations that play a mix of hip-hop and R&B. Among the musicians who frequently perform urban jazz are Dave Koz, Boney James, Paul Jackson Jr., Urban Jazz Coalition and former NBA player-turned-bassist Wayman Tisdale.

Another nascent trend involves the fusion of smooth jazz and electronica, the results of which are similar to what has, among electronica enthusiasts, come to be called "chill." Radio stations such as New York's WQCD and DJs such as Rafe Gomez have pioneered the usage of playlists that blend tracks from both genres. Norman Brown is also popular.


"Smooth jazz" is a controversial term. Traditional jazz purists contend that smooth jazz is, in actuality, not jazz of any kind, regarding it as a misleading marketing buzzword that represents an attempt to hijack the ostensible prestige of jazz in order to sell what is really a form of "elevator music". They consider the smooth jazz genre uninspired, lacking the depth of expression, harmonic and rhythmic sophistication, and complex improvisation that are hallmarks of traditional jazz. Recurring accusations charge smooth jazz with offering a watered-down sound whose aim is to appeal to a larger, mainstream, middle class white audience, though, notably, radio demographics have indicated that middle- and upper-middle class African Americans constitute what may be a significant percentage of smooth jazz listenership.

Others contend that smooth jazz is indeed a viable jazz subgenre, positing that attempts to maintain jazz music as a kind of museum exhibit are narrowminded, presenting over a century's continued cross-pollination between jazz and R&B as evidence. Furthermore, they point out that the music of such widely respected musicians as Pat Metheny, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller and others are often classified as smooth jazz, and that many of these artists are capable of perfoming well in multiple styles.

Especially intense vitriol has been directed toward saxophonist Kenny G, whose hit singles dominated smooth jazz radio in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is one of the most successful artists in the field; however, his detractors claim that his music is uninspired and boring and often extrapolate these opinions to others in the smooth jazz sphere. Enthusiasts of the smooth jazz style however, argue that G's music is no longer representative. Pat Metheny has been long known as a hateful critic of Kenny G's music.

Smooth jazz albums generally considered to be genre-defining

Tourist in Paradise by The Rippingtons
Double Vision by Bob James and David Sanborn
Rise by Herb Alpert
Morning Dance by Spyro Gyra
Breezin' by George Benson
Collaboration' by George Benson and Earl Klugh
Feels So Good by Chuck Mangione
Festival by Lee Ritenour
Fourplay by Fourplay
Rapture by Anita Baker
Winelight by Grover Washington, Jr.

Major smooth jazz-producing record labels

Heads Up
Higher Octave
Narada Productions
Native Language
Windham Hill

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Acid jazz - Asian American jazz - Avant-garde jazz - Bebop - Dixieland - Calypso jazz - Chamber jazz - Cool jazz - Creative jazz - Free jazz - Gypsy jazz - Hard bop
Jazz blues - Jazz fusion - Jazz rap - Latin jazz - Mini-jazz - Modal jazz - M-Base - Nu jazz - Smooth jazz - Soul jazz - Swing - Trad jazz - West coast jazz
Other topics
Jazz standard - Jazz royalty

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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