by carl wilson

'No One Sets Out to Be a Smooth Jazz Musician'


"except maybe David Sanborn. But even he got to play some rock and free jazz earlier in his career and get it out of his system."

This piece has an unusual ring of detailed insider truth: So has The Onion got an embittered sessionman on its staff now, or just an ex-jazz-school student with a vivid paranoia for where he may end up? But even as I laughed at the satire, I had to remember this column written, if not exactly in defence of the Smoothies, at least with an ear to understanding what this music means to its listeners and players, and why it does in fact have a relationship to the jazz tradition (which like most genres has always had a "hardcore" and "softshell" rivalry, like most genres, to use the terms coined by Pete Peterson). When I was typing the title of this post, I accidentally wrote, "No one sets out to be a free jazz musician," and while that's no more empirically true than The Onion's headline (I imagine many more people set out to be smooth-jazz musicians, though more of them probably fail at it because the better musicians scoop up their jobs, as the piece documents), the Freudian point of my slip may be that one way or another, it's circumstance (of education, exposure, opportunity and other factors) that determine what a musician does, not some kind of innate primeval drive. Those influences shift what "taste world" a person lives in, and none of us are innocent of having a taste world, which is the thrust of my upcoming book.

And speaking of the book, I'm off work this week to bear down on the final phases of the manuscript, so not only posting but gig guide updates etc. have to be put on hold to minimize the distraction quotient. You're probably too sweaty for a lot of meta-musical debate yourself, no? See you on the August downslide.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 06 at 11:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



1st, this article cracked me up. I read the Onion almost everyday and loved this one.

2nd, no one sets out to be a free jazz/creative improv musician - you don't have any choice in the matter! The music makes you do it.

PS - I've also heard many stories of Kenny G's impressive jazz chops when not in his commercial mode. Apparently he can really play when he wants to. All second hand info to me though.

Posted by Rob P on August 16, 2007 3:16 PM



The words "funky" and "soul" certainly imply the presence of blues by any historical reading. The funny thing about people trying to use a blues metric these days is that there's actually very little popular music that isn't blues-influenced on the radio in the current era - whereas during the time jazz was defined there was still plenty of pop with very little blues influence. Rock changed that. There's at least as much blues in smooth jazz as there was in a lot of swing jazz in the big band era.

And similarly to the big-band era, smooth jazz musicians generally do improvise live but not on record. (And of course it's over changes. What do you think it's over? A drone?)

Same fight, really, different day.

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2007 11:48 AM



Au contraire, much of the smooth school certainly does improvise.

"How does a funky/soul vamp become jazz anyway?" Ask Cannonball Adderly. Ask Charles Mingus. It has to do with the confluence of gospel and jazz, the rejoining of two divergent streams that both originally were fed by the same mighty source. Oh, wait, you said, "bland." Ah well, diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.

Call it jazz, call it bland, call it smooth, call it what you will. I call it pop music.

Posted by john on August 13, 2007 11:21 PM



It doesn't swing. There is little to no improvising, certainly none over changes. In fact, most of the lines are rote. I don't hear any blues either. swing, no improv, no blues. How is this music connected to the jazz tradition? How does a bland funky/soul vamp become jazz anyway?

Posted by ospin on August 13, 2007 9:21 PM



"Identical nurturing" is an overstatement on my part, but not in Carl's context of "circumstance (of education, exposure, opportunity and other factors)." For all practical, cultural purposes, my friends with twins are raising them indentically enough.

Posted by john on August 8, 2007 9:26 AM



There's no such thing as identical nurturing.

If you consider the relative size of the softshell/hardcore audiences, the hardcore audience must, on balance, be empirically so much heavier.

Posted by Half on August 8, 2007 7:28 AM



p.p.s. I urge you not to over-downplay innate primeval drives. Only some of my high school friends and relatives like free jazz. Friends with twins will tell you: identical nurturing can have differing effects on different natures.

Posted by john on August 7, 2007 4:30 PM



The Onion's mention of George Benson ties the knot: Of course it's a species of jazz. Benson was hailed as the teen-age prodigy heir of Wes Montgomery when he emerged, playing a funky style of "soul" jazz not far removed from a lot of Cannonball Adderly. His Smoothness broke through when he softened the beats and hooked up with a German arranger named Claus Ogerman who had written easy-listening arrangements for Antonio Jobim in the '60s, including Jobim's collaboration with Sinatra. I just looked Ogerman up, and he arranged for Montgomery and Bill Evans too.

Smooth Jazz = Soul Jazz + Easy Listening

Will smooth jazz make an ironic hipster comeback, like easy listening has? It *may* have been conceivable, but Kenny G's hairstyle will prevent it from ever happening. Ironic hipsters will never line up behind that.

Blow, man, blow! (with your book.)

p.s. David Sanborn blew some fine solos in the Gil Evans band, on their trippy Hendrix-tribute album.

Posted by john on August 7, 2007 4:24 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson