by carl wilson

Smoove It On Over:
Notes on Schmaltz (2)

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 | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 06 at 3:02 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)

 

COMMENTS

I don't disagree that a lot of jam-bands abuse the very idea of improvisational music. That said, there are a lot of great jam-bands out there who serve as a vital point of entry for college kids to discover higher improv-music art forms, because these music audiences by nature tend to be very curious about lineage.

It's also important to remember that the good jam bands themselves have the same dynamic. Starting at the top of the jamband pantheon, Phish when they formed in the late 80s were aloosey-goosey jam-band known more for their traveling party caravan than musical brilliance; hence the horribly misguided label as "The New Dead". Today, they're known as much for the quality of their musicianship as the quality of the weed at their shows. Through side projects like Bad Hat, the Jazz Mandolin Project and many others, Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman and the boys can lay legit claims to being top-flight jazz players every bit as much as jam-band deities. It's also no coincidence that Phish's audience, generally speaking, got "older" over the years -- and it wasn't just aging Deadheads chasing Jerry's ghost. It was people who appreciated the organic, improv-driven and always-evolving sound for what it was -- some of the best American popular music of its time.

Soulive is a perhaps an even better and more currently relevant example. They got their start on the jamband circuit; today they fill rooms and festivals with hippies AND jazzheads, because their mission of "bringing jazz back to the dance floor" shines through. Sure enough, the composition of the band itself has gone in more of a jazz direction; from the foundational B3/drums/guitar trio, the band now has a full-on horn section that makes the Soulive show a much more dynamic experience. But it sure as hell ain't smooth jazz -- that s--t is 100% raw and funky.

Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood are the most obvious from what could be a VERY long list of other jazz-driven crews who play at extremely levels of musicianship AND appeal to the college kiddies.

Miles himself said, "Don't play what you feel. Play what you hear." I think that's true of listeners as well; younger music fans don't naturally "hear" classic improv jazz per se because their sensibilities aren't mature enough to fully appreciate its greatness unless they either play jazz or have unusual levels of exposure to it. But hearing top-notch "jam" music can be an important step towards getting them to that point.

Let the jamheads have their day, 'cuz eventually most of them find their way to a more enlightened place.

Posted by Sebastian Cook on April 11, 2006 3:59 PM

 

 

but jam band musicians are usually much better musician than punkers anyway!! just like KUSH!

but yes, I love the idea of jam bands as the smooth jazz of college kids. If only I'd been armed with that four years ago...

Posted by andrew on April 11, 2006 1:46 AM

 

 

True that: Some selves I suppose are affirmed by having their insecurities excited rather than their security?

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 5:15 PM

 

 

like Edmund Spenser's sonneteer, i draw all my lines in the sand, so the waves can come wash them away.

a few years ago, i turned a 22-year-old jam-band-lovin' co-worker onto '70s electric Miles. "pretty cool," she said, "yeah, it doesn't sound like music that's 30 years old!" i don't know how far the conversion went, though.

what music doesn't serve a self-affirmation role?

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 5:00 PM

 

 

Absofuckinglutely. Jam bands are the smooth jazz of college kids - as a result, a bit more adventurous but also more indulgent and with too much time on their hands - but serving the same kind of self-affirmation role.

I will not permit this to soften my heart toward jam bands, though. You gotta draw the line somewheres.

(Don't you?)

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 3:48 PM

 

 

why not satanic balm-nation?

all this dichotomizing!

no, i know you're joking. (i think.)

"noodly, blandly funky music" -- crossover potential from Smooth to jam bands?

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 2:53 PM

 

 

Just ask people such as Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Sonic Youth, Tortoise, the Chicago Underground Duo: That crossover from punk (and indie) to free jazz happens all the time - it's arguably where most of the younger audience for experimental jazz has been coming from in the past decade or so.

As for why Older Cousin doesn't burn you a CD or explain things to you: Maybe she doesn't care that much. Or maybe you're not that willing to listen. The bigger likelihood is of course that Older Cousin actually does listen to Smooth Jazz and just ends up confirming your prejudices. Anyway, maybe my scenario was flawed, but I still think there's no question many people are put off the whole idea of jazz by thinking it's this noodly, blandly funky music. Real fanatical music people will find out different, but many others will just be comfortable with their initial bias.

But then again maybe some people who listen to smooth jazz stations will hear Diana Krall and George Benson and go off on their own to Ella Fitzgerald and Pat Metheny and from there maybe to Louis Armstrong and Keith Jarrett and then end up at Ornette.

So, as I say, I'm torn about whether the instrumental-pop-R&B; form's use of the term jazz helps or hurts - all of which is quite apart from whether smooth is a soothing balm or a satanic abomination in its own right.

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 2:19 PM

 

 

Carl, Why doesn't Older Cousin just burn a CD for younger anti-Smoothie? I'm sure you're right that a lot of people think Smooth is the Whole Story, but I'm not confident that they're latent un-Smooth Jazz fans. Maybe there's some cross-over potential for fans of hardcore punk to get into High Energy Free jazz.

(And where are the great free jazz vocalists? There probably are some . . . )

(Reminds me -- friends in a kickin' Zorn-influenced group were doing a Valentine show of love songs, and I learned "Love is a many splendored thing" to sing at the show while they wailed -- the conjoining of shmaltz and Noize [I was going to sing it as straight-up as I can manage], but I got sick and missed the show. Still a disappointment.)

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 1:36 PM

 

 

> John, you're imagining that the person in this scenario has any idea who Dave Douglas is. I'm imagining something more like, you're 15 and your older cousin says she's going to a jazz show and asks if you want to come, and you say, "Jazz? Ugh, I hate that shit." Because what you've heard is smooth jazz.

At which point your cousin presumably explains that "jazz" actually means a whole lot of things.

Imperfect, reductive, or even misleading labels are a fact of life hardly limited to "smooth jazz." But they don't exist in a vacuum, they're mitigated by all kinds of other discourse. People who are genuinely into music will always push past the labels eventually.

Attaching some added social responsibility to Jazz Nomenclature seems a mite over-protective. Should we worry that the same 15-year-old is going to avoid Patti Smith because he doesn't realize that her "rock" isn't the same as The Maroon 5's "rock"?

(And since I can never seem to refrain from undermining my own arguments, I will concede that the place & meaning of "jazz" in the general consciousness is much more embattled & vulnerable than that of "rock.")

Posted by DW. on April 7, 2006 1:33 PM

 

 

John, you're imagining that the person in this scenario has any idea who Dave Douglas is. I'm imagining something more like, you're 15 and your older cousin says she's going to a jazz show and asks if you want to come, and you say, "Jazz? Ugh, I hate that shit." Because what you've heard is smooth jazz. With luck you have a crush on your cousin, so you go anyway, but if not...

Sebastian, for a publicist spamming the comments box (I checked up on you and see you work for KUSH, as if it weren't obvious), at least you made your comments relevant to the discussion, so I won't delete them or ban you from commenting - FOR NOW. But please show more restraint: If you'd made your plug in half the space it would have been half as irritating.

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 1:02 PM

 

 

Carl, I didn't really answer your question.

I have no opinion about the effect of Smooth on the popularity of other jazz. It's hard for me to imagine that otherwise curious listeners would be put off the name "jazz" by the phenomenon of Smooth. "Ugh, Dave Douglas? Don't put him on! He plays the same stuff as Kenny G!" Maybe, but seems unlikely.

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 12:51 PM

 

 

Zoilus readers who wish to explore "smooth jazz" in the best sense of the genre should make a point of catching the outstanding Toronto band KUSH (www.kush-music.com), nominees for a Group of the Year "Smoothie" (yes, I'm e-mailing Mary Kirk at the Wave 94.7 FM to suggest that moniker be adopted) at tonight's Smooth Jazz Awards at the Livin Mississauga, the next time they're playing in Toronto.

The music of KUSH is certainly smooth, in that it's accessible to the ears and soothing to the soul. It's also 100% IMPROVISED and unrehearsed, going from downtempo to acid jazz to tribal house to Latin and numerous other flavours; no two shows are ever remotely alike. KUSH requires a tremendously high level of both musicianship and chemistry on the part of bandleader Etric Lyons (bass), Robert Sibony (drums), and others who may comprise the band including trumpeters Bryden Baird and Brownman and keyboardists Eddie Bullen & David "Fingers" Williams. Watching Lyons alternate between his rock-solid funky bass and directing the band while frenetically working his Kush 1.0 Time Machine sampling console is like seeing two musicians inhabit the same body. And every time out, they play at full throttle for 2 1/2 or 3 hours.

I hope many thousands of people discover the music of KUSH, both for its creative brilliance and unique contribution to dialogues such as this. www.kush-music.com

Posted by Sebastian Cook on April 7, 2006 10:35 AM

 

 

"Silk Stockings" is a largely dopey but also entertaining '50s Cold War movie musical (songs, not very memorable, by Cole Porter) in which Fred Astaire plays a crass American producer of musicals. His company is adapting the music of a (fictional) Soviet composer for a big show. He & the Soviet attache assigned to overseeing the production (Cyd Charisse) are falling in love. Complication ensues when Charisse actually hears the American pop-swingification of the "Great Russian Cultural Treasure's" music and she freaks out at the "assault" on Soviet culture. Fred is completely un-flapped. "It's only music. Why get upset?" And it's his music!

I personally like it that the marketers call Smooth Jazz "jazz" because it pisses the puritans off and it's an accurate reflection of the music's historical roots. My artistic morals may be looser than yours, Carl.

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 10:15 AM

 

 

Actually Carl, my quibble was with one word in Mr. Considine's definition of the genre. While it's probably true that "soulful" music can be created through formula, the odds are against it. I'm not out to eradicate smooth. I just think that when business sets the agenda, we all lose. The "sure thing" is anathema to creativity.

Posted by Half on April 7, 2006 7:35 AM

 

 

Great stories, John. But I do sympathize with people getting upset about it, without thinking it needs to be eradicated. Isn't the issue really whether it should be called jazz? As much as it's got historical links to the form, and arguably does the music commercial good, it also could be turning tons of other people off ever exploring the genre.

Posted by zoilus on April 7, 2006 12:28 AM

 

 

By "underclass" I mean more specifically homeless people. I first started paying attention to smooth jazz when I was working in homeless programs and noticing middle-aged homeless African American men listening to it and really enjoying it.

It reminded me of my first encounter with "mood music," specifically the Jackie Gleason Orchestra (which is a trip -- a million violins playing the shmaltz standards of Broadway and Hollywood, often with gorgeous lead cornet by legitimate jazzer Bobby Hackett). New Year's Day, 1983, 19 years old, a party at a friend's house, and his dad is waxing enthusiastic about the Jackie Gleason record he's playing. Hackett is gorgeous; I know him from the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We chat. 4 and a half months later, hitch-hiking across the country, picked up by a trucker for late-night "stay awake" conversation, he tunes in an "easy listening" station (as they were still called then) and I recognized the Jackie Gleason Orchestra with Bobby Hackett! I wax enthusiastic, show off what I know, the trucker looks at me like the arty freak I am and says, "That's music I like to listen to when I want to feel good, not when I'm trying to stay awake," and tunes in a country station, and we dig Dolly Parton.

Smooth Jazz, "when I want to feel good."

Half, I think you're wrong to impute un-musical motivations to the Smoothers. "That ain't music" is an awfully familiar refrain to anybody familiar with pop music history. You don't like it, fine. Other people do. Why get upset about it?

A scene I hadn't seen before: the other day, a huge SUV-style pick-up truck, windows rolled down, big bass blasting, but it's not hip hop pounding out, it's smooth jazz! A middle-aged African American man at the wheel, cruising down the avenue. Wanting to feel good.

Posted by john on April 7, 2006 12:12 AM

 

 

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 7:25 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 5:29 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 4:29 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 3:16 PM

 

 

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

Posted by vegetable fried rice on April 6, 2006 3:10 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson