The Roots Of Smooth

It’s been a little over a decade since I attended a Jazz Times convention in New York City.  I sat next to Dr. Billy Taylor during one of the panel sessions addressing the issue of Smooth Jazz, a topic that within the jazz community has nationwide has long carried controversy.  Dr. Taylor stood up during the question and answer portion of the session and addressed the room with a comment.  He said, “Any jazz radio station that doesn’t play Johnny Hodges next to George Benson…. Well that’s not too smooth.”  The comment literally brought the house down and gave me pause.

His incisive summation of the music programming that has come to be known as smooth has always stayed with me.  I’ve always wanted to answer his charge through the creation of music programming that would examine the music back to its roots.  To illustrate how we got from there to here in the first place.  With the recent developments of smooth jazz stations folding all over the country, it seems the time is right to retake, redefine and rededicate the moniker “smooth jazz” and present programming celebrates the music and the artists that have created the “real smooth jazz.” To create a platform that also welcomes back to the fold many of the artists who have fallen through the cracks of both smooth and straight ahead formats.  

The term smooth jazz is a moniker that over time has become the property of corporate suits and corporate bean counters.   In fact, Crusader keyboard legend Joe Sample once told me that a corporate suit once suggested to him that he should create music that conforms to a particular style because it would sell and be popular.  Of course, Sample was offended. 

The term Smooth Jazz became a cash cow moniker for businessmen who care little for the history and artistic aesthetics that endear casual as well as the most ardent of jazz fans to the music.   Fans who at one time might hear Stan Getz or Milt Jackson, or Wes Montgomery or even Grover Washington Jr. and not hesitate to say out loud in public or private how smooth that song was they just heard.  Smooth for most “jazz” fans became a bad word. 

I was invited to serve on a panel of industry peers from both the smooth and straight ahead camps at one of the countless jazz conventions I’ve attended over the years to talk about the smooth jazz format.  Bernie Kimble, a former smooth jazz program director from WNWV-FM “The Wave” in Cleveland, OH was one of the panelists.  I said to him, “You program music out of the pop world and you call it smooth jazz.”  Bernie replied, “We all know Smooth jazz is not jazz.”   I said, “If it’s not jazz, what is it?”  He replied,  “It is a life style choice.”  I responded, “If smooth jazz is a lifestyle choice, then what happens to children who don’t know what jazz is and listen to your programming?  Do they think you’re programming jazz?”

It’s obvious children can’t make those distinctions.   Smooth jazz became a moniker that has been shepherded by programmers worldwide who do the bidding of consultants that “suggest” songs that come out of the world of R&B, soft rock and pop to program because they “test well” in terms of likeability by listeners recruited to listen to songs and respond to what they heard.  Songs carefully selected by music consultants and listened to in large rooms by music lovers who are not programmers.  Average music lovers who know very little of the nuances that make jazz, jazz, let alone defining what is smooth jazz. By the way, Kimble’s station, The Wave, Cleveland, Ohio’s smooth jazz station, folded its tent in December of 2009  and reemerged as a  triple A format.  It is a story that continues to repeat itself nationwide as “a wave” of radio stations have abandoned the format looking for “greener” pastures.

It is no wonder that smooth jazz stations are dying all over.  The programming should have never been left in the hands of people who know very little about music and can only draw from the sounds of what they already knew.   It seems the cart is drawing the horse leaving no room for growth reflected in artists living, working and ‘creating’ new sounds for us to hear.  It leaves no room for us to get excited about and move forward as a collective culture. Ultimately, this putting of the cart before the horse has decimated what was once contemporary jazz stations.  It has hurt many of the musicians who come from real jazz roots; musicians who sought  to develop something different using their creative muse and blending the sounds of contemporary music played by today’s youth into their own musical palettes. Music that reflects not only how we live both past and present, but as art often does, gives vision to the future. 

I grew up in an era when the radio host told you what was hip, who introduced you to the new sounds and the artists that create them.  Professional hosts who brought the music and voices to the air because they had the inside track on the new.  Today, it is not unusual to hear radio hosts who are more concerned with getting to the next commercial break as opposed to engaging the music on a personal level or bringing on an artist to talk about their music.  Today’s public radio does a better job of this than commercial radio but there are not many public radio stations that are willing to touch smooth jazz with a ten-foot pole.

It is out of this environment that “The Roots of Smooth” program originates.  The notion of  “Smooth Jazz” originally comes out of the real jazz genre primarily but the tributaries to smooth jazz come out of most genres of music including R&B, European classical, Latin, Hip-Hop,  electronica, pop, rock etc.  Smooth jazz is not a life-style choice.  It is the texture of music played within a genre that conveys a certain feeling of calmness or of well-being in the listener.  There is a spiritual level that is not easily explained in words but felt in your heart and soul.  It is rich and can reach a listener in profound ways that require no explanation. 

Each week The Roots of Smooth is a show that provides a place for various music genres to co-exist on the same program and to be heard in a context that connects these genres in relation to a particular featured artist.  The commentary offered by the musicians often reaches beyond the music and addresses their own unique and individual humanity, creating a lens that at times examines their lives in intimate ways that you wouldn’t find in a music composition.  It is my hope and belief in hearing their stories you will be drawn closer to the music by perhaps seeing yourself through their creative lenses. 

In the initial weeks you’ll hear from Smooth Jazz founding fathers, Grover Washington Jr., Joe Sample, Bobby McFerrin, Roy Ayers, Lenny White and George Duke.  We’ll also hear from Tito Puente, Zachary Breaux, Ray Barretto, Tania Maria, Christian McBride and Jon Lucien among others.  It is only the beginning.  I hope you’ll join me.  They have much to say…. And so do I.