by carl wilson

The Anatomy of Smooth


Groan. Overtones this week appeared with an all-wrong headline and an all-wrong photo (Diana Krall rather than, as it should have been, Andy Bey, pictured above). It makes a man kick walls, but then again: You have to think that if the editors didn't get what you were driving at - didn't see that a pic of Bey was demanded, were inspired to give you nothing but a wimp-ass headline - then maybe you didn't drive at it hard or head-on enough. See what y'all think: This week's essay is a sympathy-for-the-devil exercise, wriggling around to try to see what people see in Smooth Jazz. It's a direct edible-oil-byproduct of an earlier Zoilus post where I pissed all over this weekend's Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards event, and the subsequent spanking I got from John at Utopian Turtletop. And with that we return to our previously scheduled hiatus, which will last till midweek. [...]

Who was I to criticize John for his Smooth Jazz?

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 9, 2005

How do you tell a knee jerk from a goosestep? I had to wonder after I received a press release for the first annual Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, which take place in Oakville, Ont., tomorrow.

"The genre is new to Canada, but the music has been serenading the world for decades," the announcement read. "Kenny G., Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson are but a few icons to have led the way." America's most profitable radio format recently has gained stations in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. Now there are awards to match.

Diana Krall leads the nominations, but there also will be special honours for Benson. Other contenders include Eddie Bullen, Brian Hughes, Marc Jordan, the Clayton/Scott Group and Alexander Zonjic.

My gut reaction to most of these mellow, melodic artists is akin to eminent critic Gary Giddins's one-sentence review in 1998: If such "narcolepsy-inducing performers persist in calling this Muzak-lite 'jazz,' " wrote Giddins, "jazz should sue."

So when I heard about the awards (the Smoothies, perhaps?) I mused on the Internet about making a mock bomb threat. Just as tastefully, I came up with a Terri Schiavo joke: "Q. What do you get when you combine 'Canada' and 'Smooth Jazz'? A. I don't know, but its living will says to remove the feeding tube."

My friend John Shaw in Seattle, one of the most thoughtful music listeners I know, rightly upbraided me. He reminded me how I've railed in print against hierarchies of "high" and "low" art, a divide "prejudiced against audiences whose sensibilities differ from the critical consensus," using trumped-up criteria to judge music without really listening.

"A cry of 'death to that genre,' " John wrote, "shuts off discourse and attempts to shut ears. . . . All [it] says is, 'I can't relate to that at all; therefore those people must be chumps."

John added, on his blog (, that he enjoys some Smooth himself: "After a stressful day at work, flipping on the Smooth Jazz station gives me the deliciously absurd fantasy that my spouse's '82 Datsun (which I typically drive) is a sleek new sports car, and I have lots and lots of money and a much better clothes sense. It doesn't always cheer me up, but it often does. I like the bouncy post-disco rhythms. I like the slick-sound-sculptedness of it. . . . Smooth R&B; and Smooth Jazz are music of class aspiration."

He had me: In last week's column, I defended the materialism of mainstream hip-hop on similar grounds. A little research revealed that Smooth Jazz is the one genre that attracts equally high numbers of black and white American men and women, across classes and regions. (The Democratic Party should be so inclusive: Bill Clinton was, in so many ways, the Smooth Jazz president.)

Yet Smooth has given jazz fans fits since the 1980s, when it was created on various small U.S. radio stations that played soft pop such as Sade, "Quiet Storm" R&B;, light mainstream jazz standards and remnants of 1970s jazz-rock fusion, funk and disco. It was consolidated by a consulting group called Broadcast Architecture and taken up by stations whose "Easy Listening" audience was beginning to tune (or die) out. A successful format begets labels and musicians to cater to it: A mongrel genre was born.

Smooth's rise has come at a rough time in jazz, and as the one subgenre in which many players make a decent living, it easily invites resentment. Critics complain it's not jazz at all, just as swing-era purists decried the "sweet jazz" of Paul Whiteman's dance band. Similar charges were aimed at cool jazz, soul jazz, Brubeck, bossa nova, the tropical brass of Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione, and fusion itself -- most eventually accepted to the tradition, and all influences on Smooth Jazz.

Damning all music that happens to carry a certain label is like meeting one sibling and dismissing a whole family tree - or nation. Yet so-called wallpaper music even has its own intellectual pedigree. French composer Erik Satie advocated "furniture music," and producer-conceptualist Brian Eno championed "ambient music." Setting a background mood, they said, is at least as noble a function as setting a marching beat.

Detractors call Smooth soporific, simplistic, anesthetic. Fans simply flip the adjectives around - soothing, minimal, escapist - and they can (and do) enthuse about Smoothies such as Boney James and Dave Koz in exactly the superlatives any bop fan might use about Mingus or Monk. Taste is surreal that way.

I've long projected a fascist face onto Smooth's smoothness: The gleaming train glides along on perfect time to drop you off at the Playboy Mansion, where Chardonnay and plastic-surgery-sculpted models await. (Tune out! Tune out! Tune out!) But that's not how the music exists in real life. How much more oppressive it seems to mock John just for unwinding, even fantasizing, after a day of alienated office work. Why deprive people of their chosen cultural mellowers? "Edge" without purpose devolves into mere pissiness.

It isn't that knotty new forms should not be promoted. But might Smooth actually help? At least these listeners don't spurn the very idea of jazz. The gap is not infinite, for example, between Krall singing standards and real-jazz singer Andy Bey's latest album, American Song.

At 64, Bey is a five-decade jazz veteran, who in the 1950s toured in a trio with his sisters Geraldine and Salome (now a beloved pillar of Toronto's music scene). He would go on to belt out tunes for many greats, notably Horace Silver. John Coltrane called Bey his favourite vocalist. His own hero, though, is Smooth godfather Nat King Cole.

Bey vanished and taught in Europe through the 1980s. He resurfaced in New York in 1996 with a newly hushed sound, as well as the revelation that he is gay and HIV-positive. This reckoning with himself seems to widen within each song, making him perhaps the most arresting jazz singer today: His languorous lines curlicue through Duke Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss as if his voice floated through a garden, pausing over the scent of every syllable, riding the heat and breeze within each interval.

Personally, I still don't want to hear music so slick and oleaginous that it slips by, frictionless, leaving no trace, no mark. Bey is not yet radio's idea of Smooth Jazz. But his silky, viscous notes sink through your pores; his dark absorbent tones draw out feelings as salt does a stain. Abrasion, that 20th-century badge of musical nerve, can't achieve that. For such a seduction, you've got to be smooth.

Andy Bey appears April 13-15 at the Top o' The Senator in Toronto.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 09 at 2:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)



VTO5 is a smooth musique actuelle festival this time out, nels cline sitting in for jimi.

Posted by rg on April 19, 2005 9:22 AM



Smooth jazz has developed in large part as a concept music appropriate to its status as a radio format. It has also evolved as a music unto itself with identifiable sounds and stars. But if a smooth jazz station plays Diana Krall it doesn't de facto make her a smoothie. Also, musicians don't necessarily need to stretch out in order to improvise. Some of the greatest improvised solos in the history of recorded jazz are no more then 32 or 64 bars (see Coleman Hawkins 1929 recording of Body & Soul).

We must have flexible definitions and categories for music or we exist in a morass with no linguistic signifiers and no way to discuss or make sense of sounds. I do not presume to hold jazz accountable to 20th century language or expectations, but without history as a point-of-departure the music can not move forward in any meaningful way.

I have no need to be misanthropic toward people whose taste in music I find wanting, though it would be nice to smack a few smoothies around for some weekend fun. I derive far too much joy from music to waste time tearing it down. Its better for the music to promote something I love then to deride something I don't like. Having said that, I don't feel the need to reach out or extend myself to understand what drives people to listen to smooth jazz. Look, it's easy-listening, harmless and probably acts as a balm on a busy life. Not everyone has to be as obsessed with sound. I respect that.

As for Kenny G I am content to call him lousy whatever the genre. And I will continue to surreptitiously remove his cds from jazz sections around the world.

Posted by originalspin on April 15, 2005 7:49 AM



You're reciting the standard charges against Smooth, whose parameters (I wouldn't say it's actually a genre, it's a radio format) are wider than you assume - so Diana Krall actually does get played on those stations. As for lack of improvisation - well, commercially oriented jazz singles have always minimized improvisation. Radio don't play improv, unfortunately. But like other jazz musicians, the smoothies do (some of them) stretch out live, by reports I have read. There definitely is blues in the music, often derived from the R&B; end of the spectrum rather than the jazz part of its sources. I agree it doesn't swing, but plenty of jazz doesn't swing - these definitional points are too rigid for the diverse thing jazz is in the 21st century. As Pat Metheny said, it's better to accept that Kenny G. is a jazz musician, out of the jazz tradition, in order that you can specify that he's a lousy jazz musician. If you cast him out of jazz then he's just Kenny G. doing Kenny G. music, which q.e.d. he is okay at. (There are smoothies who play bad Kenny G. , though, which is a horrible thing to contemplate.) Smooth jazz definitely developed from its beginnings to get whiter and whiter and more and more nondescript - which is why it's about to die and be replaced by this thing called Chill, which is like smooth jazz plus Massive Attack and Portishead (uh, what is it we used to call that stuff again? oh yeah: trip-hop. what a stupid name) and ambient techno. And in Canada, Feist, apparently.

My point, though, was that just because you and I agree that Smooth Jazz is hugely inferior to traditional (as the smoothies call it) jazz, doesn't mean that we have to wipe it off the face of the earth and make unwarranted assumptions about the souls of everybody who listens to it. Like all genres, it has virtues, and if people are glomming on to it, it's worth discussing those virtues, what they signify, and how we might interact more productively to promote what we consider better music to the people who are seeking out those virtues. Anything else is just essentialism and misanthropy.

Posted by Zoilus on April 15, 2005 12:15 AM



One thing to add: Benson, of course, can actually play jazz, he just knows where the money is.

Posted by originalspin on April 13, 2005 10:01 PM



Krall is a jazz singer - she may be a nominee for a smooth jazz award but I believe that reflects the producer's desire to associate her name with the show more then anything innately smooth about her playing. She learned from Jimmy Rowles and it shows in her music. At her best, Diana swings in a casual laid back manner and drops some pretty hip phrasing too. Let's be honest here: yeah, Weather Report certainly influenced some of the music we call smooth jazz - but there is no real improvising in smooth jazz, no swing, no blues, and no imperative to arpeggiate on chord changes. It's not even really syncopated in any noticable way. In fact, in many ways what we call smooth jazz is antithetical to any commonly held understanding of what jazz music is can be or has been. You must be referring to sax player Bill Evans - and that confusion cost me a valuable sip of coffee which I now must clean up...

Posted by originalspin on April 13, 2005 9:51 PM



as much as i love weather report, they were definitely responsible for influencing the crimes of smooth jazz. but i guess you can't blame nietszche for hitler.

Posted by steve birek on April 13, 2005 12:03 AM



And I forgot to mention Fusion and Latin Jazz's substantial places in the mix. Surely Smooth is closer to watered down fusion than anything else?

Posted by zoilus on April 12, 2005 4:46 PM



That's both true and not true, originalspin - some part of the tradition is involved, between the standards singers (Krall etc.) and the instrumentalists such as Benson and Washington who are looked to as originators, as well as the ECM culprits (Oregon etc.) that presaged Windham Hill and so forth, or Courtney Pine in the UK. You've got this meeting of meditative Bill Evans-ish stuff, cool jazz, hot R&B; jazz slowed down to Quiet Storm, and jazz-pop standards. But of course disco and R&B; are there too, as is Montavani and Muzak. Maybe it would be better if it didn't include the word Jazz, or maybe at times it's been the only thing keeping that word even in public circulation. (Similarly the techno version of Acid Jazz has little to do with jazz, but it didn't hurt that audience to have some nod in that direction, influencing the appearance of the Verve remixes and other stuff going on now on Thirsty Ear that's more interesting.) And it also I think should provoke jazz audiences to look back at the history of pop-jazz, which has always annoyed the hardcore audience, and get some perspective that way.

Posted by zoilus on April 12, 2005 4:44 PM



The premise of your article relies on a misinformed conceit. The reason why a "jazz rearguard" defense for smooth jazz doesn't work is because the music is not in any substantive way a reaction to or a progression from any known form of jazz. It isn't watered down HOT like Whiteman, it isn't an artistic vanguard like bebop was to swing, it isn't what COOL was to bop, in fact it isn't related to jazz in anything but name. It's not as though we listeners of so-called real jazz are missing the boat on some new development of the music. If SMOOTH JAZZ was called SMOOTH R&B; or SMOOTH DISCO this discussion wouldn't be necessary.

Posted by originalspin on April 10, 2005 7:16 PM



As I mentioned last week, I don't have any guarantees how the column will be run - it's up to the editors. The national arts section is much smaller than the Toronto edition (because of advertising), so they have to decide what to run or not to run. If you want to make sure Overtones is there, my best advise is to write them. (The email addresses of section editors are on the Globe website - look for the "contact" or "staff" sections.)

Posted by Zoilus on April 10, 2005 12:05 AM



Carl, Overones hasn't been in the Atlantic edition of the G&M; for the last couple of weeks. What's up? Last week, I thought that maybe I just missed it, but it's definitely not there this weekend. (R6 is where the horoscope/crossword is.)

Posted by Sue on April 9, 2005 7:55 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson