by carl wilson

Smoove It On Over

kennygee.jpg
Kenny G.: The jazz that dares not speak its name.

In today's Globe and Mail, my colleague J.D. Considine (who's blogging a bit more now that he's the Globe's new jazzman) returns to a subject that I wrote about in my column at this time last year: "Smooth jazz."

Coincidentally the Daily Show had a smooth-jazz joke on its mock special on race last night: Jon Stewart said that despite the sharp racial inequalities surfaced by, for instance, Hurricane Katrina, "it's also a fact that no nation on earth is as integrated as ours. Let's look at the fruits of that effort, for instance, jazz - music created by black people, which they shared with everybody. And I mean" - flashing up a photo of Kenny G, like the one above - "everybody." (You can see the clip, for now, under "Afrospanicindioasianization" here, about halfway in.) That quip has thick cultural layers, because smooth jazz is very much a racial matter - though, as I'll get to at the end, not quite the way Stewart's jibe suggests.

I was bemused in J.D.'s piece to find guitarist Jeff Golub trying to claim that "All 'smooth jazz' is, really, is a moniker for contemporary jazz." What bugs non-smooth musicians and fans is the way the industry has turned "contemporary jazz" into a euphemism for smooth, an erasure of everything else current in jazz. But overall, in my queasy position of self-appointed champion of schmaltz (if smooth is schmaltz) (and just how did this happen again?), I say J.D.'s done the right thing by mounting the case for the defence much less ambivalently than I did.

However, Bob James - who is a huge smooth success and recipient of a lifetime achievement award at this year's Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards (oh, please, can't they be called the Smoothies?) - is being disingenuous when he blames commercial radio/record companies for editing out the solos, which he says gets "deep into the danger zone." Clearly he's chosen to go along with such choices, so if he really does believe that erodes the integrity of jazz, he has to share that blame.

James also missteps, I think, when he compares today's smooth to "the roots of jazz" in "dance music and popular music. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman - they played for dancing. It was the popular music of its time." All true, and a point I've often made in discussing hip-hop and techno crossovers with jazz. But smooth is by and large not at all a music for dancing. It is a music for relaxing and for dinner parties and for seduction. None of which is bad, but it's not a populist move in a class-based sense. It doesn't take jazz back to being the social music in which it had its roots. Rather it is an extension of the way jazz has been used by upper-middle-class people since the 1950s - but with the excision of all the intellectual content that was the justification for the move away from social dance music in the first place. A demand that jazz return to those roots doesn't lead to smooth jazz. It leads, maybe, to today's Cuban-jazz revival.

And that's where the case that "smooth jazz" is bastardizing the jazz legacy has force, because it hasn't got either the musical experimentalism or the social populism that are arguably the two legs on which the tradition stands. Which doesn't mean it's illegitimate, or that it isn't a part of the jazz family tree. But it's a tough knot to untie: Part of me thinks that it would be better just to call it Instrumental R&B.; (For more on these matters, see Christopher Washburne's essay, "Does Kenny G. Play Bad Jazz?: A Case Study" in the Bad Music collection, which I discovered after last year's column.) Another part thinks it helpful that there remains a commercially viable genre under the jazz rubric: If smooth/pop-jazz were reclassified, the bolder jazz might just find itself not the artsy margin of a larger genre but a defunct category, more like polka.

One sure thing - to get back to Jon Stewart's point - is that smooth jazz is fascinating sociologically: According to radio-station surveys, it has at once a more affluent audience and a more racially diverse one than practically any other genre. At this point in history, it seems to me almost like a "hopeful monster," a mutant survivor and reminder of the arrested 1960s to 1980s evolution of the U.S. black middle class, a perversely bland soundtrack for the wildest American dream of all, the process of integration strangled by Reaganism and its aftermath.

Note: I am willfully misusing the term "hopeful monster" here, since smooth was by no means a spontaneously generated phenomenon - it came right out of jazz fusion on one hand and 1970s R&B; on the other. But I'll swipe it in that scientifically sloppy way writers do, because Smooth does seem at once monstrous and, in some lingering way, hopeful.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 03:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

Oh, nonsense, Half: Duke Ellington was a businessman, and so was Hank Williams, the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, etc., etc., and certainly so is and was James Brown. If all the music made with money as one of its main motivations were wiped off the earth, there'd be no pop music.

But I'm not saying smooth jazz is soulful - just that it fills a niche in radio space that might not be so available if soul (as a genre, not as an abstract quality) had its righttful place in that spectrum.

Posted by zoilus on April 6, 2006 10:12 PM

 

 

No apologist for "smooth" jazz will change how I feel about it by trying to incorporate "soulful" into a definition of the genre. It was true with that CTI junk in the 70s. It's true now. Soul is never formulaic. Businessmen can't make music.


Posted by Half on April 6, 2006 07:25 PM

 

 

John was of course the prime mover behind my column on this last year. "Sweet" is an interesting category - that definitely has some overlap with "schmaltz," which I think smooth has, well, partly smoothed away. But I never meant to suggest it doesn't have a varied audience class-wise, because it definitely does. (Although I'm a little more sceptical about using "underclass" in this connection.) It's just interesting how much of the affluent black audience goes there: I always wonder if it has to do with the fact that there's not really a "classic soul/R&B;" radio genre - the stations that play that music generally are "hits of yesterday and today" stations that play some soul but more classic rock...

Posted by zoilus on April 6, 2006 05:29 PM

 

 

'50s "cool" skewed the old vocabulary. In the '20s & '30s, the dichotomy wasn't "hot" v. "cool," it was "hot" v. "sweet." Guy Lombardo (& His Royal Canadians) was king of sweet. Armstrong dug him. "Sweet" had a big influence on Duke too.

I think a case could be made that "smooth" is the heir of "sweet." But I don't feel like making it right now. You're right on smooth's roots. Jody Rosen wrote a good column on "chill" some months ago, which pertains to all this.

I will say that a lot of lower-middle-class to underclass African Americans of my acquaintance like Smooth. It's not just the well-to-do. The receptionist at my work is a 50-ish African American woman who used to work for the city government (in the office of our only-to-date African American mayor). She tells me: Smooth was the office music there, the only station that rich, poor, black & white could agree on.

"Smoothie" does underscore the cool sweetness of the genre -- I like it. Music is like cooking. "Hot," "sweet" -- and salty! (Funk = sweat = salt!) Timbre as "mouthfeel." Smooth! "Crunchy" guitars! The Velveeta-cheese synthesizers of (for instance) Phil Collins!

Posted by john on April 6, 2006 04:29 PM

 

 

Hm, this comment came up right after I accidentally hit "publish" before I'd finished editing the post. So now I can't tell if you're being sarcastic. I wasn't trying to condescend.

Posted by zoilus on April 6, 2006 03:16 PM

 

 

thank you. that was much more complex than i assumed.

Posted by vegetable fried rice on April 6, 2006 03:10 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson