Jazz is a genre of music, originally from the African American, which became popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Jazz was influenced by the African rhythms and the structure of the European harmonic. The view that jazz is solely of the African-American origin has elicited a lot of criticism. Critics like Wheaton believe that it “can be defined as a combination of improvisatory styles with European form and harmony” (Wheaton 90). Maybe a clearer picture can be painted by the story of New Orleans – the cradle of jazz. The three major social groups that lived in New Orleans during the rule of the Catholic French were; Creoles, Whites, and Blacks. Initially, the Creoles and the whites had an equal status, and so they were allowed to study European music. However, a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, the Creoles were pushed into the black quarters. The Creoles with their knowledge of European music and the Blacks with their rhythmic music provided the ingredients for jazz music.
Smooth jazz developed around the 1980s. It was influenced by jazz, pop music, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. According to Nicholson, smooth jazz is ‘airplay-friendly instrumental pop-jazz with slick production values and musical hooks from contemporary popular music.’ (Nicholson 222). This pop-influenced jazz was made for a specific target audience – 25-30-year-old ‘affluent’ adult professionals, something that the radio industry has exploited for a long time. Simon Barber writes that it is ‘instrumental music, led by saxophones or guitars, which combine some jazz improvisation with the harmonic and rhythmic conventions of pop rock and R&B’ (Barber 51).
Smooth jazz is produced either through recordings or live performances. In recordings, the music is made and distributed through radio stations or record labels to the target audience. Live performances are similar to the original jazz music festivals. They employ the traditional live performance features such as improvisations, string instrumentations, virtuosity and musical interactions. Unlike mainstream jazz, smooth jazz recordings have limited improvisations, the short length of songs (like pop songs), simple, catchy melody and sophisticated orchestrations. All these features are combined to appeal to the target audience and achieve high commercial success.
Smooth jazz contains many individual sub-styles. It features a saxophone, keyboard, guitar, electronic instruments, tuneful melodies and R&B like rhythms. Noteworthy, most smooth jazz musicians record and perform cover versions of popular rhythm and blues tunes. The ultimate goal of a smooth jazz musician is to meet the listeners’ expectations. The audience expects to hear all the features of a song that make it smooth jazz. Any deviation from these expectations results in disapproval and low commercial success.
Smooth jazz has received a lot of criticism with many describing it as ‘explicitly commercial’ ‘soulless’ or ‘slickly produced’. One smooth jazz musician who has elicited much anger from jazz musicians and critics is Kenny G. Ironically; he has at times commanded about 50% of the 3% of jazz record sales. One Stanley Crouch commented;
“…because of the title (smooth jazz) some people are led to believe that jazz is anything with a pop rhythm section and instrumental improvisation…when people finally hear the real jazz, they always say, ‘Why did I spend so much time listening to garbage?'” (Washburne and Derno 125).
Smooth jazz is considered an explosion of popular culture and is excluded from most jazz historical narratives. Part of the reason for this is because it is more commercial – radio format, dictated by companies that make playlists depending on the patterns of mass reception of a song (Washburne and Derno 133). For this reason, it rarely receives scholarly reviews.
Barber, Simon. “Smooth jazz: a case study in the relationships between commercial radio formats, audience research and music production.” The Radio Journal – International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media 8.1 (2010): 51-70.
Nicholson, Stuart. Jazz-Rock: A History. Maryland: Omnibus, 1998.
Washburne, Christopher J. and Maiken Derno. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Wheaton, Jack. All that Jazz! Yorkshire: Ardsley House, 1994.